COLE PORTER: THE GREAT SOPHISTICATE

This article was originally published in The Story of America's Musical Theater. David Ewen. New York: Chilton Company, 1961. pp. 134-139.

WHILE the 1920's ended on December 30, 1929--and a far different political, social, and sociological climate prevailed during the ensuing decade--a number of highly gifted writers managed to keep alive in the musical theater of the 1930's some of the feverish spirit and the unconventional attitudes of the "roaring Twenties." The most significant of these was Cole Porter. In his lyrics and melodies--for like Irving Berlin he wrote both--he fixed the smartness and cynicism, the freedom in sex attitudes, the lack of inhibitions in speech and behavior, and the outright iconoclasm that had characterized the 1920's. He is the arch cynic to whom a crushing love affair was "just one of those things" and who could be true to his girl "only in my fashion." He is the dilettante who sprinkles throughout his lyrics cultural, literary, and geographical allusions of a well-read, well-educated, and well-traveled person. He is the nonconformist unafraid of the erotic, the exotic, or the esoteric. He is the sensualist who brings to his melodies throbbing excitement, purple moods, irresistible climaxes.

Most of all he himself is like a character from a novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald. All his life Cole Porter was the avid hunter of excitement, adventure, and gaiety; all his life he traveled under the banner of "anything goes". He was the sybarite to whom the good things of life was almost a religion. Provocative in his attitudes, unpredictable in mood and action, irresponsible in behavior, he was truly a living symbol of the decade in which he first achieved maturity as a song writer.

His background was unique among American popular composers in that he was born to wealth, and that his apprenticeship took place not in Tin Pan Alley but in the playgrounds of Europe. He was born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891, to a family that had accumulated vast wealth through speculations in coal and timber. A comprehensive academic education carried him through Yale, from which he was graduated in 1913. His musical training had also been all-inclusive, beginning with the violin and piano in boyhood, continuing at the Harvard School of Music after he left Yale, and ending some years after that at the Schola Cantorum in Paris with Vincent d'Indy. He had written a complete operetta (words as well as music) when he was only ten; a year later he had a piano piece published; at seventeen he had his first popular song issued in Tin Pan Alley, "Bridget"; by nineteen he had written two famous college songs, "Bingo Eli Yale" and "Yale Bulldog Song"; and in 1916 he completed his first score for a full-length Broadway musical comedy, America First, described in the program as "a patriotic comic opera," in which Clifton Webb starred as a titled Englishman. America First was produced by Elizabeth Marbury, the same person who had just then scored such a decisive success as a co-producer of the first Princess Theater Show. She could hardly have realized then that in young Cole Porter she had another gilt-edge investment, since America First lasted only 2 weeks.

Possibly because of his disappointment in America First--more probably because the spirit of adventure and restlessness was already stirring within him--Cole Porter now enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, with whom he served in North Africa. Some say he carried a portable piano on his back with which he used to entertain his friends with improvised songs. In any event, it is a fact that he received the Croix de guerre decoration from the French Government for keeping high the morale of his regiment. When America entered World War I, he was transferred to a French officer's training school in Fontainbleau, after which he was assigned to teach French gunnery to American troops. He now rented a luxurious apartment in Paris, there to become the gracious host of the élite of the social, political, and artistic worlds. All the while he kept on writing smart, and often risqué, songs that delighted his guests to no end. Immediately after the war, a few of those numbers appeared in the Broadway revue, Hitchy-Koo of 1919, without attracting notice; one of these, "When I Had a Uniform On", helped to launch the New York stage career of an outstanding Broadway comic, Joe Cook.

After the war, Porter married Linda Lee Thomas of the Social Register, and they set up a palatial home on Rue Monsieur in Paris. The garish furnishings (wallpaper platinum in color, mirrors extending from the floor to ceiling, upholstery made from zebra skins, and so forth) were matched only by the splendor of the festivities taking place there. On one occasion, the Porters hired the entire Monte Carlo Ballet to entertain their guests; another time, on a moment's whim they transferred their guests by motor cavalcade from Paris to the Riviera for a gay weekend. In 1923, the Porters rented the palace in Venice where the great English poet, Robert Browning, had died. Fifty gondoliers served as footmen, and a special night club was built outside the palace to accommodate 100 guests, whose various needs were attended by a French chef, a Negro jazz band, and Elsa Maxwell devising for them all kinds of stunts and games. The 1920's were at hand, and the Porters were doing their best to set the tone for this high-living era.

It took Porter 6 years after Hitchy-Koo to get more of his songs performed on Broadway, and this happened in The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924. It took him all that time to develop that suave, provocative manner that would henceforth identify his best songs. But once that manner was established, he stood so sharply apart from most of his colleagues on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley that he could not fail any longer to arouse enthusiasm. His identity first became crystallized in the sparkling musical comedy Paris (1928) which starred Irene Bordoni; and that identity revealed itself in such a slick, smart, and slightly suggestive song as "Let's Do It" which gained a new lease on life in 1960 as a beer commercial over radio and television. The Parisian setting of this musical suited Porter's temperament and background neatly. So did that of Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) for which he wrote "You Do Something to Me," "You've Got That Thing," and "Find Me a Primitive Man," all three of which bear the Porter hallmark of culture and sophistication. (Fifty Million Frenchmen was the first of seven Cole Porter musicals for which Herbert Fields was either the sole librettist or a collaborator.) Porter's first unqualified song masterpieces came soon after that in two lesser Broadway productions: "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in Wake Up and Dream (1929) and "Love for Sale" in The New Yorkers (1930).

In the 1930's there were seven Cole Porter musicals on Broadway. Four were among the best of the period, and all four carried the mood and temper of the 1920's into the new decade. The Gay Divorce (1932) starred Fred Astaire as a hired co-respondent in a divorce action, a job he assumes almost willingly since it means he can thereby woo and win the divorcee, the girl he loves. In this role, Astaire introduced one of Porter's greatest ballads, "Night and Day," a title later expropriated for the Cole Porter screen biography released in 1946. Porter's stimulus in writing this classic was said to have come from a hearing of rhythms of distant tom-toms while he was cruising down the Nile in Egypt.

Anything Goes (1934) teamed up Ethel Merman and Victor Moore aboard a transatlantic liner. Ethel appeared as a one-time evangelist become night-club singer, and in this capacity she introduced such Cole Porter delights as "Blow, Gabriel Blow," "You're the Top," and "I Get a Kick Out of You". Victor Moore was cast as Public Enemy No. 13 who, in flight from the police, is disguised as a Reverend. When he learns to his horror that the police are not really after him because he is as harmless as a cream puff, he whines in a broken voice: "I can't understand this Administration!"

Victor Moore was also one of several stars in Leave it to Me (1938), a satire on the Soviet Union which Bella and Sam Spewack adapted from their own stage comedy, Clear All Wires. Here Victor Moore appeared as an American ambassador to the Soviet Union continually homesick for Topeka, Kansas, and continually longing for such American delights as a double banana split. In his efforts to get recalled he becomes embroiled in all kinds of serious international episodes of his own contrivance--only to discover that from each incident he emerges as a hero. When he finally decides to take his job seriously and try to promote peace and better relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, he only manages to antagonize both countries and to bring his hapless diplomatic career to an end.

There were other stars besides Victor Moore in Leave It to Me. William Gaxton played an aggressive newspaperman. Tamara was the French girl who attracts him, and Sophie Tucker was the Ambassador's conniving, overambitious and overbearing wife. But the performer who stole the limelight was a little girl from Texas who--before Leave It to Me opened--had been none too impressive as a night-club entertainer or radio singer. Not much, then, had been expected from her Broadway debut. In one of the scenes she appeared at a wayside Siberian railway station, performing a mock strip tease while removing her ermine wraps, and all the while chanting in a baby voice, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." The house went into an uproar, thereby proclaiming a new queen of musical comedy, whose reign would continue with ever increasing luster for many a year. She was Mary Martin. (Five young men, in fur jackets, were grouped around her in that scene. One of them was also making his New York stage debut here, but went unnoticed. But he, too, would soon see his name in lights: Gene Kelly.)

In Du Barry Was a Lady (1939) Bert Lahr was a washroom attendant in a night club, whose star entertainer was portrayed by Ethel Merman. In his dreams, Lahr becomes the lecherous monarch of France, Louis XIV; and Merman--a girl whom he had always doted upon secretly--becomes a lusty Madame Du Barry. The rowdy humor resulting from the king's indefatigable efforts to get Madame Du Barry into a rendezvous were made to order for Bert Lahr's rambunctious comic gifts. He played his part, as Richard Watts, Jr., said, "with the sort of spluttering indignant violence and leering impudence that makes him one of the best comedians in the world."

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FURTHER STUDIES:

  • Anything Goes - A synopsis and brief history of the musical by Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
  • Kiss Me, Kate - A synopsis of the musical by Cole Porter and Bella & Sam Spewack.

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