Oh, the Songs!
As the 20th century recedes into some kind of perspective, I think we are beginning to understand that it was, from the point of view of creative achievement, pretty much a waste of time. I was not at all surprised to see that Charles Murray's recent book Human Accomplishment offers statistical confirmation of this melancholy fact. For reasons we can only guess at, civilizations go through sudden periods of brilliant flowering. Sometimes the flowering is in just one branch of creativity, as with Dutch painting in the 17th century, or Chinese poetry in the 8th and 9th. Once in a long while, everything takes off together and you get a dazzling supernova effect, as in the golden age of ancient Greece, or the Italian Renaissance.
Well, the 19th century, which lasted from 1815 to 1914, was one of those periods in Western culture. I'm not sure it was up to Athenian or Renaissance standards, certainly not in the visual arts; but in literature, philosophy, music, mathematics and science, the 19th century was a tremendous starburst of creativity. The 20th century — 1915 to 1989 — was lived in the fading afterglow of all that, and my guess is that 500 years from now our descendants will look back on the 20th century as a dead zone when human beings did not accomplish much of value.
The popular arts have a life of their own, though; and in some minor art forms, the 20th century excelled, especially in the U.S.A. Principal among those art forms were song-writing and the cinema. I doubt any of the products of this excellence will last out of their age — more than a few decades, I mean. I am confident that my great-great-grandchildren will still be listening to Verdi and reading Keats; but they will have no clue who the Beatles were, or Humphrey Bogart. That's all right; in culture, you take what you can get.
One of the best things we got in the twentieth century was Cole Porter, whose dates were 1891 to 1964. The trust-funded grandson of an Indiana millionaire, at the age of 28 Porter married a wealthy divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas. With two large fortunes to sink back into, there was no need for him to work at all. Yet he worked prodigiously, turning out hundreds of songs. Charles Schwartz's biography lists 873, though Schwartz's list includes some juvenilia, tunes without lyrics, and songs sharing the same tune. Porter had his first hit, "Old-Fashioned Garden," in 1919; his last, "True Love," in 1956.
Porter wrote words and music both, and knitted the two together with such dexterity that the whole is usually greater than the sum of the parts. To get the full effect of a Porter song, you need to listen to it well sung. He had had a good training in classical music — he actually composed a ballet, performed in Paris in 1923 — and was well read in English literature. The composer David Schiff wrote a very good appreciation of Porter's musical talent in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
So far as Porter's literary skills are concerned, I have an anecdote. Some years ago I was teaching a class on poetry to college students. Now, among the poet's bag of tricks are two called alliteration and assonance. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds; assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. Alliteration is all over the place in English poetry: e.g. "Softly the civilized / Centuries fall …" Good examples of assonance are not so easy to come up with, and I needed an example that was particularly clear, as I was teaching foreign students. After pondering the matter for a while, and hunting through some collections of English poems, I could find nothing as good as the following lines:
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do.
They are from Cole Porter's 1934 song "I Get a Kick Out of You." Look at that assonance! — the [ai] diphthong, English "long 'i'," repeated six times in the space of nineteen syllables (and with four different spellings). Now that is virtuosity.
Irwin Winkler's new movie De-Lovely is a "musical biography" of Porter — really, just of Porter's marriage. I enjoyed the movie, and will be watching it again when it comes out on DVD. That should be pretty soon, as De-Lovely has been getting mostly poor reviews. I can see why. Taken as a movie — an illustrated story — it is unsatisfactory in all sorts of ways.
The central problem is that Porter's marriage was very peculiar. It needs explaining, and the movie really doesn't do that. Porter was a promiscuous homosexual, who seems to have had no physical interest in women. His wife Linda was not just a "beard," though. In the circles Porter moved in, and with the wealth he had, he didn't need a "beard." Nor was Linda a "fag hag" of any type I can recognize. It is clear from the biographies that Cole just adored Linda, and she him. Why? What on earth was this all about? Schwartz notes that the money in Porter's family was on his mother's side. Porter's mother was also a vigorous and assertive woman; his father was something of a failure. Meeting Linda, who in addition to being rich was eight years older than himself, put Cole Porter in familiar territory. Well, that will do for ignition, but what kept them going?
For her own part, Linda had had all the masculinity she wanted from her first husband, a violent and philandering boor.* Porter's wit, sophistication, and (from her point of view) asexuality were balm to her soul. Still it seems hard to see how this kind of temperamental agreement could survive 35 years in high society. What was it all about? Or, as Porter wrote: "What is this thing called love?" A mystery, that's what. At any rate, the movie sheds no light on this particular instantiation of the mystery.
I have other issues with De-Lovely, too. It is, of course, an early 21st century creation, so that the men are all bulked up from working out at the gym, the women all tanned and toned and botoxed. People just didn't look like that in 1930. Irving Berlin was, in life, a weedy ectomorph, liable to blow away in a strong breeze. In the movie he looks like a Bulgarian power lifter.
Other things, too. Much is made of Porter's friendship with the painter Gerald Murphy, yet it is not clear how that friendship originated, or what sustained it. The dialogue often sinks to soap-opera level. The songs appear in nothing like chronological order, "True Love" near the beginning. The "framing" conceit — we are supposed to be with Porter at the end of his life, or after it, watching it all as the rehearsal for a stage production — seems contrived and intrusive. (I kept thinking of that silly 1950s TV show "This is Your Life," in which celebrities were tricked into entering a TV studio, to be confronted with their long-lost friends, grade-school teachers, sports coaches, etc.)
Still, you have to take musical biographies with a grain of salt. The main point of a movie like this is to give us some nice songs while offering a sketch of the person who created them. Even if the story fails completely, you can always just sit back and wait for the next song. And De-Lovely doesn't actually fail that badly. Good actors can make up for a lot, and Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd are both very good actors indeed. It's true that Kline doesn't have much of a singing voice; but then, neither did Porter, so that is at least authentic.**
And when all is said and done, there are the songs. What songs! "Begin the Beguine," "Just One of Those Things," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (for my money, one of the half-dozen most beautiful love songs ever written), "Love for Sale," "Night and Day," "Anything Goes," "In the Still of the Night" … The songs are performed here by present-day artists like Natalie Cole, Alanis Morrissette and Elvis Costello, for the most part very capably. (Though Ms. Cole needs to master lateral plosion — "little" should not be pronounced as "lit-ul" by anyone older than four.)
The world those songs conjure up is the one encompassed by the word "sophistication," now a term with no referent. They are songs for adults who know all about love and sex, but who live in a society in which those things are hedged about closely with conventions, prohibitions, and understood necessary hypocrisies. For adults, too, who know something about literature, who have studied some actual poetry and actual history in their schooldays. Listen to the intro to "Just One of Those Things":
As Dorothy Parker once said
To her boyfriend: "fare thee well."
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced:
"It was swell, Isabel, swell."
As Abelard said to Eloise:
"Don't forget to drop a line to me, please."
As Juliet cried in her Romeo's ear:
"Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear"…
How many Americans under fifty would get all those allusions?
The recitativo intros to Porter's songs are often as memorable as the songs themselves, and contain some of his funniest word-play. To the movie's credit, it includes a couple of these intros. This feature has pretty much disappeared from pop music, to our loss. Lorenz Hart was the grandmaster:
I've wined and dined on Mulligan stew
And never wished for turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted, too,
From Maine to Albuquerque.
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball,
And what is twice as sad,
I was never at a party
Where they honored Noël Ca-ad …
— "The Lady is a Tramp"
Noël Coward, by the way, was a friend of the Porters. In fact, Porter "borrowed" Coward's lover, the dashing Jack Wilson, though Coward seems not to have known about this. There was also some mutual appreciation of each other's lyrics. Coward, with Porter's permission, wrote several alternate versions of "Let's Do It" for his wartime concert tours:
Our leading writers in swarms do it
Somerset and all the Maughams do it
My kith and kin, more or less, do it,
Every uncle and aunt,
But — I confess to it —
I've one cousin who can't …
As Coward noted: "It happens to have a rhyming scheme that can be utilized indefinitely without destroying the basic meter." You can say this of many Porter lyrics. The urge to rewrite them is often irresistible. "You're the Top" is a prime example — perhaps there never was a song that so invited imitation and parody. Songwriter Kerry Prep produced a counter-version titled "You're a flop":
You're a flop;
You're unsalted pretzels.
You're a flop;
You're a Ford named Edsel.
You're the sink, I think, that cannot be unclogged.
You are weak and puny,
You're Gerry Cooney,
You're L. A. smog!
(A little dated now: Cooney was a Great White Hopeless of Heavyweight boxing in the mid-1980's.)
The temptation to parody "You're the Top" was so irresistible, in fact, that Porter himself succumbed to it, producing smutty versions that he performed privately for friends:
You're the top;
You're a vodka tonic.
You're the top;
You're a high colonic.
You're the steaming heat of a bridal suite in use.
You're the tits of Venus,
You're King Kong's penis,
This kind of smoky, jazzy, grown-up sophistication seems a world away now. Our own popular culture is targeted mostly at illiterate teenagers; and nobody sings for fun anymore.
On the evening following the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Winston Churchill hosted a dinner party in honor of President Roosevelt on board H.M.S. Prince of Wales. At one point in the proceedings, the two men fell into heated argument — not about the future shape of the world or the intentions of Stalin, but over whether the line
In Bangkok at twelve o'clock they foam at the mouth and run
comes at the end of the first refrain in Noël Cowards song or the second.*** Hard to imagine any such exchange between present-day politicians. And those of the next generation will presumably have spent their formative years listening to gangsta rap:
It's a small world, so you better guard your secrets
And it's easy to get money, but it's hard to keep it
Never was the one that like to hound no bitch
All I do is try to keep niggaz around me rich
— Jadakiss, "Kiss of Death"
To remind yourself of, or discover, a popular culture that did not insult its consumers, go to see De-Lovely. And if the stagey conceits, gym-rat physiques, feeble dialogue, and unexplored subtleties irritate you, just relax and listen to the songs, the songs, the beautiful clever songs of Cole Porter.
* In her divorce proceedings, Linda named one Teddie Gerrard as co-respondent. Cole Porter later met this woman at a party. She introduced herself with: "Hello. I was your wife's ex-husband's mistress."
** In fact Kevin Kline has an excellent singing voice, on display here. I did not know this when I wrote the article. Numerous readers enlightened me. Kline's poor singing in De-Lovely is therefore, in fact, conscientious acting — truly authentic!
*** Roosevelt said the second, and he was right. When Churchill was told this, he muttered: "Britain can take it."