Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Redux: Birthday Goddess, After and Before

It's a big day at the Café, kids - the 105th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest showpeople who ever lived, the brass-lunged, foul-mouthed, great-hearted self-creation that was - deep breath - Ethel Merman. Let's give it up.

The stage was her medium and the movies didn't ever do her justice, but thank heaven we do have a record of what she was like in action. Here are two clips, separated by something just shy of half-a-century, both of which in very different ways give me goosebumps.

First up, the Great Lady herself, in full flight on the Tony Awards, reprising one of her numbers from Annie Get Your Gun:

That's the diva we all know and love.

It's easy, in watching her make it look so easy, to forget the incredible craft that she puts into a song she's sung a thousand times before. She's an old lady, never a subtle presence, pushing a voice that while still titanic is worn around the edges, and yet she brings a genuine pathos to the song; that little break between the last two words speaks volumes about a life that knew heartbreak as well as triumph.

Once upon a time, of course, even she was young, attractive if not drop-dead beautiful, and, from the moment she first stepped on stage, incomparable at putting across a song.

To prove it, here's "An Earful of Music", from the 1934 Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Millions. Cantor shows, stage or screen, were all about Cantor, but the audience must have sat up and taken notice of this young sensation, just four years away from having been Queens stenographer Ethel Agnes Zimmerman:
Except for the dress, which definitively proves that Goldwyn's Omar Kiam was no Adrian, she's pretty believable as a girl song plugger in a sheet music store.*

Young or old, she's amazing, irreplaceable, and a very great artist. Merman had a career like no other, and while she suffered the occasional misstep and, especially toward the end, made herself a shade too easy to parody, few performers have ever had a greater hit-to-flop ratio in their favor, had such a hold on their audience for so long, or did more to spread the word about the genius of America's greatest mid-century songwriters. Like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Jules Styne, we're in her debt. Happy Birthday, Merm!

* Now there's a line of work that's dead as the dodo.

First posted four years ago today, and amended only to update the year.  How time flies!


  1. It's sad that she's best known among many for her disco album...

  2. While it is certainly true that the movies did not serve her well, her special brand of magic was just too big for the intimacy of film, there are a couple of winners in the bunch. I'm not a huge fan of Call Me Madam but she fits the part perfectly. Best of all is There's No Business Like Show Business. Indeed it is mostly a string of superior Irving Berlin songs trotted out one after another in overproduced numbers but it's a glitzy overbright dream for those so inclined. She and Dan Dailey actually have a few touching scenes together when dealing with troubled son Donald O'Connor which the Merm handles well.

    What is the real pity even though I dearly love Rosalind Russell and like what she did with the character is that Ethel was robbed of committing Mama Rose to celluloid in Gypsy.

    1. I so agree - The Merm wuz robbed (and she never forgave Roz nor the movie industry to her dying day; apparently among her personal effects was a treasured recording of Miss Russell's attempts at singing, before she had to be overdubbed in the final movie, which Ethel brought out and played regularly for a laugh!). Jx