Sunday, November 8, 2009

Too marvelous for words

The title of this post can be interpreted in two ways; first, I want to thank everyone who bestowed good wishes and tidings to myself and this ‘umble little blog on its sixth anniversary. As the Great One himself used to say: “Oooooh, you’re a good group.”

The second interpretation can be directed to my pal Vince Paterno of Carole & Co. fame, who asked me in those comments if I caught TCM’s documentary Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me this past Wednesday. The answer to this is a resounding yes, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding experience than watching this first-rate look at the man who is, hands down, my favorite songwriter of all time. Fans of TDOY probably know that I was a resident in the city of Mercer’s birth for many years (finally moving away in May 2008) and while I’ve often joked that there is a city ordinance stating that individuals must genuflect at the mention of Mercer’s name, I wouldn’t put it past the good people in the State of Chatham to try and get something like this on the books. There have been a great many personalities from the world of show bidness to hail from Savannah—Miriam Hopkins, Charles Coburn, Connie Haines, etc.—but Johnny Mercer stands head and shoulders above the rest. (To my knowledge, neither Miriam, Chuck nor Connie has had a major thoroughfare named after them—but everybody in Savannah knows how to get to Johnny Mercer Boulevard.)

I can’t honestly remember when I wasn’t listening to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, but my first familiarity with the man’s extraordinary talent was when I was in junior high and had landed the role of Marryin’ Sam in a high school production of Li’l Abner (based on the successful comic strip created by Al Capp). (I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, and I would like to reiterate that I’m positive Stubby Kaye spent nary a sleepless night when I took on this part.) The songs in the musical were provided by Mercer, and though the play never brought forth what anyone would call a “hit” the tunes all contained that trademark Mercer wordplay and fascinating rhyme schemes: Jubilation T. Cornpone, If I Had My Druthers, The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands, etc. (My personal favorite is the duet between Sam and Daisy Mae, Past My Prime: “Who’d think of marryin’/An octogenarian/Eighty-seven year old hag…”) And what I really enjoyed in watching Dream’s On Me is seeing performers sing Mercer hit after Mercer hit and saying to myself (shades of Vince Keenan): “I forgot he wrote that!” All of my favorites were featured: P.S. I Love You, Hooray for Hollywood, I Wanna Be Around, Fools Rush In, Blues in the Night, That Old Black Magic, Come Rain or Come Shine, Something’s Gotta Give…and what’s probably my all-time favorite, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive. I was especially tickled to see a vintage television clip of Mercer warbling one of his lesser-known hits…but one that has a special resonance for a born-and-bred West Virginian:

I'll begin the story

Out in West Virginia

Is a little college

All the student body

Only cared for football

Never mind the knowledge

Never mind the sheepskin

They preferred the pigskin

Seemed to have it in their bones

Yeah, they knew all about it

Couldn't do without it

All except a certain Mr. Jamboree Jones

To this day, Jamboree Jones always starts running through my head whenever there’s a West Virginia University game on. The Dream’s on Me, as Vince has pointed out, will be repeated on November 18 at 6:00pm on Turner Classic Movies, the official date of Mercer’s centennial.

Each Wednesday of this month is being devoted to featuring films containing songs composed by Mercer, and I’m very anxious to try and catch Old Man Rhythm (1935) this week (it’s scheduled on TCM at 11:45pm) because it’s one of Johnny’s few forays in front of the camera (he plays one of the college students); I saw his other film appearance in To Beat the Band (1935) many moons ago back before TNT knew drama (it’s a shame TCM couldn’t have scheduled this one as well). Also scheduled that same night are Hollywood Hotel (1937, 8pm), which I wrote about sometime back, and Ready, Willing and Able (1937, 2:45am), which has that eye-popping number featuring the title of the post performed on a giant typewriter.

I did manage to catch The Fleet's In (1942), a cotton-candy musical whose plot is so thin it only has one side but is so infectiously entertaining it matters very little in the big picture. William Holden (or “Hubba Hubba,” as my friend Pam has tagged him) plays a bashful gob named Casey Kirby who, through circumstances beyond his control, develops a reputation as a ladies’ man. His buddy Barney Waters (Eddie Bracken) boasts about Casey’s prowess as a chick magnet, which prompts his fellow sailors to introduce a wager that Casey hasn’t got the stuff to romance “The Countess of Swingland,” a nightclub performer (Dorothy Lamour) who has a “no sailors” dating policy. Again, things seem to fall into place for the hapless Casey and the Countess starts to fall for him in a big way—but when her pal Bessie (Betty Hutton) clues her in on the fleet’s bet it’s Katy bar the door. I’m sure I won’t be spoiling anything by revealing that everything comes out in the wash at the end—after all, how many of you were expecting an unhappy ending?

There’s not a great deal of substance in this musical—the plot comes to a screeching halt at one point in order to present novelty numbers and routines by the likes of Gil Lamb (the famous rubber-limbed second banana who made some top-notch two-reelers for R-K-O in the late 40s/early 50s), Cass Daley (“I said it and I’m glaaaaad!!!”), Jean Lorraine and Roy Rognan, and Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra (with vocalists Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who do two Mercer standards—Tangerine and (with Lamour) I Remember You.). Dorothy warbles a tune or two, as does the delightful Betty in her feature film debut (two of my favorite “non-hit” Mercer efforts, If You Build a Better Mousetrap and Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry). Hutton has energy to spare in this flick, and she and Bracken are simply wonderful together (Fleet led to a number of future Bracken-Hutton collaborations, including Star Spangled Rhythm [1942] and my favorite Preston Sturges-directed comedy, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek [1944].) While I was amused to see Holden in this kind of fluff (he looks like he’s about twelve years old in this one) I found his bashful act a bit hard to swallow. Fortunately the rest of the cast is able to carry the picture along—along with those already named Fleet also features Leif Erickson, Betty Jane Rhodes, Dave Willock (I knew he was in this picture before seeing him because of that distinctive voice), a young and attractive Barbara Britton and Jack Norton playing—this will kill you—a sober nightclub owner. (Honest to my grandma, he has a line in this film in which he says to some tuxedo-wearing goons: “Throw that drunk off the floor!”) Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Roy Atwell, Rod Cameron, Chester Clute, Barbara Kent, Rebel Randall and Robert Warwick are just among the many that can be spotted in brief cameos.

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VP81955 said...

Thanks for the compliment; I'm a Mercer fan, too, with my favorite compositions of his being "Laura" and "If You Were Mine" (Frankie Laine does a fine version of the latter on his "Jazz Spectacular" album, which thankfully was issued on CD several years back).

Funny, though -- when I hear that "Jamboree Jones" song, I don't think of WVU at all, but one of the smaller schools in the state, such as Shepherd, West Liberty or Davis & Elkins.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Funny, though -- when I hear that "Jamboree Jones" song, I don't think of WVU at all, but one of the smaller schools in the state, such as Shepherd, West Liberty or Davis & Elkins.

I'll agree it fits more with these smaller schools -- it's just that the lyric "All the student body/Only cared for football/Never mind the knowledge" is more in keeping with WVU's "academic" program. (I'm gonna catch hell for that one, mark my words...)

Pam said...

I'm very much looking forward to seeing this. Bob was at the house this week and I know he would want to see it. I recorded it -- and it keeps tempting me.