Peter Filichia's weekly column ...
Home  |  News  |  Shop by Category  |  Filichia on Friday  |  Fun  |  Links  |  International  |  Contact
 January 13, 2012

It’s The Merm’s (What?) Birthday

To celebrate Ethel Merman’s birthday on January 16 – her 105th, 104th or 103rd depending on which Merman scholar you choose to believe -- see her live.

You can, at least in a manner of speaking: by getting a copy of the Anything Goes kinescope that was broadcast on Sunday, Feb. 28, 1954. The quality is excellent.

That’s not live, you say. Well, it was live TV, which means you’re experiencing The Merm “more live” than you would by watching the films of Call Me Madam, There’s No Business Like Show Business or, for that matter, the 1936 Anything Goes. For what you see in those movies could have been Take 5 or Take 1776. Here you know that what you’re seeing is what the nation saw live on that cold winter night. In fact, after Merman herself introduces the show and expects it to start, the camera stays on her for six torturously long seconds while absolutely nothing happens. That’s live TV in its infancy for you.

The cynical would say that never starting the show would have been a better option. Jule Styne and Leland Hayward’s production isn’t like any Anything Goes you’ve ever seen. Truth to tell, it’s a terrible representation of the show – and not just because it’s been castrated by Herbert Baker to 50 minutes. To have Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s names on it is virtually sacrilege. Maybe that’s why they spelled Russel with two “l’s” -- to protect his identity.

The curtains open (yes, open) onto the Roaring ‘20s and to music that has nothing to do with Cole Porter. “Charleston” and “Black Bottom” are played while the chorus dances, punctuating the music with “Oh, you kid!” and “So’s your old man!” as well as the de rigueur “23 Skidoo!” It’s all very Runyonland-esque in feel.

Then The Merm comes on in the shiniest of dresses with fur going from feet to knees. She insists that “Reno Sweeney is a lady, and I’ll rap the first guy who says I ain’t.” She then sings “Anything Goes” with a surprising number of new lyrics. (“So even out in high society, who can forget propriety?”) as well as a coda that goes (to notes we don’t know from the song), “The world is topsy-turvy unconventional, Technicolor hypertensional. Love! Love! Love is here to stay!” Porter was still working at the time (on Silk Stockings, in fact) so he may well have provided these new lines.

No question from The Merm’s performance that she’s throwing a ball tonight on the S.S. Luxembourg (a veiled reference to Call Me Madam? That is the country in which Perle Mesta served). For all Sondheim’s talk that Merman was “a trained dog,” here she shows herself to be an accomplished actress. While Harry Dane (the new name for the theatrical agent that Frank Sinatra plays) is singing that she does something to him – the first of his two interpolations -- you can see the whole troubled history of their relationship in her face.

But, alas, knowing Sinatra’s bed-‘em-all, ring-a-ding-ding persona, one has a difficult time believing that the Merm “has the power to hypnotize” Old Blue Eyes. Or should we say Young Blue Eyes? Frank was then 39; Ethel was 45, 46 or 47 -- again depending on which Merman scholar you choose to believe. Whatever her age, one could argue that he looked much younger and she matronly. In fact, when Moonface (Bert Lahr) must hide from the authorities, he decides to hide behind Merman’s behind; it’s a very good place to avoid discovery.

More than once, Sinatra will express interest in Bonnie (Sheree North), the type of bubble-head that would seem to be his type. But here he is, pouring his heart out to The Merm. When he finishes the song with a penultimate, “That nobody else can do – my baby,” you may flinch a little. “Baby?” A more accurate assumption is that The Merm may have been national television’s first official cougar. In fact, in that aforementioned introduction, when Merman brought on Lahr and Sinatra, the latter called her “ma’am” and not in tribute to Call Me Madam.

And yet, Merman acts as if Sinatra’s term of endearment is a natural one to describe her. But she nevertheless spurns Harry (at least at this point in the script) in favor of Sir Evelyn. And yet, the way she pleads for understanding from Sinatra with her plaintive “Wish me luck?” -- with a definite question mark at the end – Merman shows that Reno hopes and prays that she’s doing the right thing.

North then does an irrelevant dance number with traces of “Anything Goes” in it. The Merm returns with an encore of the title song. A chorus then takes the melody as she – you knew this was coming – holds a note for seven seconds.

Angel-Face Nelson didn’t make the boat, so Moonface gives Harry his ticket. Now Harry has more time to win back Reno, and when he reminds her of the good times they’d had, she mourns, “What a sucker I was.” Suddenly the screen gets wavy and a harp plays us into a flashback. Harry tells her that there’s going to be “none of that ball and chain for me” and after he leaves, Reno sings a great song that isn’t quite right for the moment: “I Get a Kick out of You.” (Merman’s voice does break when she gets to the word “case,” but she’s otherwise fine.)

Of course Reno ruminates about perfume from Spain rather a kick from cocaine. But as far as romance is concerned, Merman feels the lyric. Performers are told to summon up past experiences to create the emotion their characters are feeling; Merman might well have been dwelling on the heartbreak of her first two marriages, her on-again, off-again romance with Sherman Billingsley or even the knowledge that her year-long marriage to Husband #3 wasn’t working out as well as she’d hoped.

Much as Merman does the job, it can’t compare to Sinatra’s quintessential recording of “I Get a Kick out of You” that he’d made with Nelson Riddle the previous November. And while we don’t quite get that, Sinatra does reprise the song. Notice the big smile he gives before he starts it; you can tell that he’s glad to get to do something that he really likes to do. Finally, he can truly enjoy himself – even if the rendition only does last 32 seconds.

Sinatra kisses Merman, and she responds by slapping his face (not too hard, however). But Harry has bigger problems, because the authorities are looking for Angel-Face Nelson. Says Lahr, in the same voice he’d used with “Put ‘em uppppp. Put ‘em uppppp” 15 years earlier, “You gotta hyddddd. You gotta hyddddd.”

Well, yes, but for some reason Harry must first do “You’re the Top” with Reno -- although it follows Reno’s scalding dialogue that suggests that he’s hardly the top. Ah, these TV “spectaculars” were often hastily thrown together, weren’t they?

As further evidence: Sinatra’s rhyme line with “You’re Napoleon brandy” is “You’re some candy ribbon.” What he apparently meant to say was “You’re some ribbon candy.” The lyric, as we all know, originally cited Mahatma Gandhi, but his 1948 assassination was probably judged still too recent. The reason for the lyric change to “Crosby’s sal’ry” was topicality; that’s what you get, Ms. Garbo, for wanting to be alone.

After the song, Harry realizes that he’d better get into disguise, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Sinatra in drag, you almost get your wish here. He shows up in a woman’s silk robe and wears a hat that sports artificial flowers that ladies of fashion wear. The robe is open so we can see that he’s got his regular men’s clothes underneath; even in this outfit, Sinatra wants us to know that he still wears the pants.

That Sinatra even agreed to do this show is surprising. He clearly has far less to the do than The Merm, and while his career had experienced a perilous free fall, his renaissance was in full force: From Here to Eternity, the picture that had rescued him, had opened to great reviews the previous October, and a month before this broadcast, he’d won the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor. His Oscar was only 25 days away.

But here he is, running around as a sailor, a cook and then with a beard that could pass for Georges Seurat’s. As in the original show (Wow! Something from that!) he’s unmasked as Public Enemy Number One and is suddenly a celebrity.

Not for long. Because Reno is the real celebrity on board, what she says goes, and she demands that Harry be thrown in the brig. (Huh?) At least that gives Sinatra the chance to sing “All through the Night.” Actually, he’s already told Moonface that he’s decided to give up Reno so that she can have a better life with Sir Evelyn. Moonface later tells that to Reno – but not until he’s made one of the most amusing live-on-the-air slips of all time: “You deserve to be,” he tells her, “Annie Oakley” – before immediately realizing his mistake and saying, “Lady Oakleigh.” Merman, pro that she is, doesn’t react as if he’s said anything irregular.

Reno’s thrilled to know that Harry was sacrificing his love for her, and shows her gratitude for Moonface’s “Friendship.” In Stephen Cole’s excellent 14-page booklet, he teaches us that Merman requested that the broadcast include “Friendship” (from DuBarry Is a Lady, in which she had co-starred with Lahr 15 years earlier). It’s pretty much been in every edition of Anything Goes ever since – so you have Merman to blame or thank for the insertion.

So Reno and Harry play cat ‘n’ mouse. He sings “It Was Just One of Those Things” before Anything Goes goes out after 50 minutes. At the end, Merman calls her co-stars on-stage. Lahr kisses her, but Sinatra doesn’t. Show’s over; he’s not Harry Dane any longer and doesn’t have to pretend.

But this being live TV, Sinatra unabashedly mentions that “we still have some time left over” and encourages Merman to sing some more. Well, you never had to ask The Merm twice. Off she goes with “Anything Goes.” The announcer soon says that “Anything Goes has been selected to be shown to our armed forces overseas.” Do you think that after soldiers saw it, that late that night they had lusty dreams in which they sang “You Do Something to Me” to Ethel Merman?

                                                                                                                                                — Peter Filichia



You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available at

Filichia on Friday archived columns


Home  |  News  |  Shop by Category  |  Filichia on Friday  |  Fun  |  Links  |  International  |  Contact