Friday, April 30, 2010

Music: Puttin' On The Ritz

This item may be hazardous to your mental health.  Exposure to the song may cause you to keep humming it for a week and drive you nuts.

I’m a sucker for the old black and white musicals… 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of.. (insert a year), Anything Goes, Top Hat, Meet Me in St Louis, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, any Busby Berkeley musical…

The other day I picked up a DVD double in the cheapo barrel at Blockbuster, Bing Crosby in Birth of the Blues and in Blue Skies. The latter has Fred Astaire dancing to Puttin' on the Ritz, a wonderful sequence that can be viewed and listened to by clicking on the following link:
(How does he get that cane to rise like that?)

Having watched it, the song kept going round and round in my head and I just kept humming it as I worked.

Even my young teenage son was singing it. When I asked him how he knew it, he said that Shiny Toy Guns do it.

Eventually I did some research into the song.

Some points of interest:

-  Inspired by the elegant and expensive Ritz Hotel, the old time expression “putting on the ritz” meant to put on one’s fancy clothes and behave appropriate to that. It was not a compliment, the phrase having a meaning of putting on airs, of aspiring to the grandeur of the Ritz Hotels without having the social standing or financial wherewithal to do so.

-  The song was written in 1929 by Irving Berlin and was introduced by Harry Richman in the 1930 movie Puttin’ On The Ritz.

-  In 1939, Glark Gable of all people performed the number in Idiot’s Delight. That was the same year as Gone With The Wind.

-  In 1946 Fred Astaire sang and danced to the number in Blue Skies.

-  Another memorable version, a version that once seen will change your perception of the number forever, is featured in the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, where the doctor shows his created monster to the world.

-  In 1982 Dutch singer Taco had a hit with a synthpop version of the song. The video clip that accompanied the song caused controversy by showing some of the performers in black face, causing a censored version without blackface to be quickly released.

-  A good version, techno, has been released by Shiny Toy Guns.

-The most interesting thing is that there are two sets of lyrics. The original lyrics are featured in the Harry Richman and Clark Gable movies, the revised lyrics in the Fred Astaire movie.

At the time when the song was written, there was a popular fad for whites to go “slumming” by travelling to Harlem to watch their servants and other Harlemites dress up and blow their pay on Thursdays. The original lyrics feature the singer inviting others, presumably whites, to go with him to Lennox Avenue and amuse themselves watching the blacks “putting on the ritz”.

When Irving Berlin changed the lyrics he referred instead to white people “putting on the ritz” on Park Avenue.
Original lyrics:

Have you seen the well to do
Up on Lennox Avenue?
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and arrow collar
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending ev'ry dime for a wonderful time

If you're blue and you don't know
Where to go to, why don't you go,
Where Harlem sits
Putting on the Ritz

Spangled gowns upon the levee
Of high browns* from down the levee,
All misfits
Putting on the Ritz.

That's where each and ev'ry Lulu-belle** goes,
Ev'ry Thursday*** evening with her swell beaus
Rubbing elbows
Come with me and we'll attend the jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Putting on the Ritz.

*  High browns - a variation of the phrase high yellow, referring to someone of mixed racial background, usually with the inference that they're putting on airs beyond their social station.

** Lulu-belle: a generic name for black maids

*** Thursday: traditionally the maid’s day off

Revised lyrics:

Have you seen the well to do ?
Up and down Park Avenue ?
On that famous thoroughfare,
With their noses in the air ?
High hats and arrow collars,
Wide spats and fifteen dollars.
Spending every dime for a wonderful time !

If you're blue and you don' know,
Where to go to, why don't you go,
Where fashion sits
Putting On The Ritz.

Different types, who wear a day coat
Pants with stripes, and cut away coat,
Perfect fits
Putting On The Ritz.

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper,
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper,
Super-duper !

Come, let's mix where Rockefellers,
Walk with sticks, or umbrellas In their mitts.
Putting On The Ritz.

Spangled gowns upon a beauty of hand-me-downs, on clown and cutie,
All misfits.
Putting On The Ritz.

Tips his hat just like an English chappie,
To a lady with the wealthy happy.
Very Snappy !

You'll declare it's simply topping,
To be there, and hear them swapping,
Smart titbits.
Putting On the Ritz.
Following are the links for the clips of the various versions and performances described above:

Harry Richman (1930)

Clark Gable (1939)
(Watch the wardrobe malfunction as the  strap break on the outfit on the woman second from the left at the 0.55 mark and that she loses the steps as she tries to protect her modesty).

Fred Astaire (1946)

Fred Astaire (1930)
(In this version Astaire sings the original lyrics. The clip is illustrated with pics and prints of the period).

Judy Garland (1960)

Young Frankenstein (1976)
(Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle)

Taco (1982)
(Uncensored blackface version)

Shiny Toy Guns

Well, there it is and now the bloody thing is going around in my head again.


  1. We should neither try to whitewash (unfortunate term) our musical history nor condemn people for acting as most did in their time; it is my sincere hope that a century hence people will see many of _my_ attitudes and tolerances (e.g., for so many starving on a rich world) as barbaric, and I hope they also understand a little why I was so.

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