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Song & Dance: “Puttin’ on the Ritz”

[1]1,600 words

In 1946 Hollywood produced a not-very-memorable musical called Blue Skies, starring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Joan Caulfield, about two show business partners and subsequent rivals vying for Caulfield’s affections.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures, Blue Skies was produced by Sol Siegel. The original director, Mark Sandrich, died of a heart attack during pre-production and was replaced by Stuart Heisler. The movie was written by Arthur Sheekman from a story by Irving Berlin, who produced the music and lyrics. All of these men were Jewish, with the possible exception of Heisler, a mediocre director whose ethnic background I have no knowledge about.

As an aside, Heisler directed several anti-white motion pictures during his career, including one starring Ronald Reagan, and a landmark documentary for the US Army and its Sicilian-born film propagandist Frank Capra entitled The Negro Soldier (1944).

The highlight of Blue Skies is an elaborate song and dance number by Fred Astaire called “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Astaire, 47 years old, had announced his retirement from movies, and this was to be his final performance. His tap dance solo with cane was therefore billed as “Astaire’s last dance.” (He subsequently changed his mind and continued his career in motion pictures and TV.) The routine was produced after the rest of the film was completed and, according to Astaire, demanded “five weeks of back-breaking physical work.”

The words and music for “Puttin’ on the Ritz” were written by Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline, the son of a cantor in Russia), who supposedly composed 1,500 songs during his lifetime, many hugely popular, including “God Bless America.” Jewish writer Philip Roth crowed that Berlin’s “Easter Parade”

is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet! He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely! Nicely! So nicely the goyim don’t even know what hit ’em. They love it. (Operation Shylock: A Confession, 1993)

While certainly expressive of Roth’s prejudice, it’s hard to say whether the statement is an accurate depiction of Berlin’s real motivations.

Director Heisler provided little or no creative input to the scene. The movie’s choreography was credited to Hermes Pan and David Robel. Pan, a half-Greek, half-Irish dancer and choreographer, was Astaire’s principal collaborator through the years, partnering with him in half of Astaire’s movie musicals.

Astaire nearly always collaborated with others in devising his dance numbers, and it was the partners who received screen credit for choreography. Moreover, it is impossible to isolate the contributions of Astaire from those of his collaborators. Even so, it is not true that he simply performed the choreography of others. Astaire always acted as lead choreographer in all of his numbers.

What set me to thinking about “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was not choreography, but the song’s lyrics. They popped into my head when I was turning over in my mind the question of whether WASPs truly existed as a self-conscious, cohesive, cooperative ethnic group, or whether the concept of “WASP” is primarily an externally imposed social construct.

My view is that whites never self-conceptualized as WASPs until outsiders created the category. But even afterward they did not behave as a closed, cohesive, self-interested group, despite sharing a set of conventional liberal prejudices.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1946)

“Puttin’on the Ritz” was a hit song published in 1929 by Irving Berlin and first performed the following year by Jewish entertainer Harry Richman in the early talkie Puttin’ on the Ritz.

The noun ritz (small r), from the luxurious Ritz hotels, employed in the phrase put on the ritz, is slang for ostentatious display. (César Ritz, the “king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings,” was Swiss.)

Here’s Fred Astaire’s rendition of the tune in Blue Skies:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFabjc6mFk4&feature=related [2] 4:50

In case you’re wondering whether the nine chorus dancers in the background are anonymous extras or Astaire himself via special effects, they are all Astaire. The complex illusion was created by filming two separate versions of the star, repeating them, and interchanging them.

Do the song’s lyrics conjure up the image of a WASP elite?

“Puttin’ on the Ritz”

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 lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

If you’re blue and you don’t know
Where to go to, why don’t you go
Where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the ritz

Different types, who wear a day coat
Pants with stripes, and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper

Come, let’s mix where Rockerfellers
Walk with sticks, or umber-ellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the ritz

The lyrics do seem to evoke WASP imagery: well-to-do, Park Avenue, noses in the air, high hats, Arrow collars, spats, lots of dollars, spending, fashion, ritz, day coat, pants with stripes, cutaway coat, Rockefellers, walking sticks, umbrellas.

It can be seen, too, that the songwriter and performer are observing well-to-do whites from the outside, patronizingly speaking in slang and confidentially sidling up to their audience, whose members are embraced as fellow outsiders: “If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where fashion sits . . .” and voyeuristically gaze upon the clique of wealthy, socially elite New Yorkers?

But while conveying a vivid upper class image, it is not a realistic one. High hats? Wide spats? Pants with stripes? Cutaway coats? In a sort of informal parade on Park Avenue in 1946? Gary Cooper, the son of English-immigrant parents whose father was a justice of the Montana State Supreme Court, evokes a halting, rough-hewn frontiersman. When he played a rich man in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), his persona was an idiosyncratic, naïve eccentric, not a sophisticated WASP. The song thus contains a mélange of jarring and discordant elements.

In a sense the lyrics are analogous to the movie set upon which Astaire executes his routine: sharp and real and resembling  the real world, yet at the same time utterly illusional.

Nor does Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz)—half-Jewish (his Catholic convert father was a native of Linz, Austria, where Der Boss grew up) and half-German American—resemble a WASP in appearance or attire—attire selected to match the song’s lyrics.

Nevertheless, on balance, Berlin’s 1946 lyrics for “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and Astaire’s presentation of the number in song and dance form probably constitute pieces in the mosaic we think of as “WASP.”

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1930)

I say “Berlin’s 1946 lyrics for ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz'” because it was preceded by a different, 1930 Negro version. The original was about the then-popular fad of slumming whites (Jews?) visiting Harlem, where they observed flashily-dressed but poor Negroes parading up and down Lenox Avenue in ostentatious finery on Thursday nights (the black maids’ night off).

The best way to hear these lyrics is by listening to the following good-quality audio rendition by Fred Astaire, who became more closely associated with both versions of the song than any other entertainer who performed it. It is probably taken from his 1930 recording for Columbia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lN0cR0vMZV4&feature=related [3] 2:47

“Puttin’ on the Ritz”
[Original 1930 version as sung by Fred Astaire]

Have you seen the well-to-do
Upon Lenox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and colored collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

[Refrain—twice at end of song:]
If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits[?]
Puttin’ on the ritz

Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns
From down the levee, all misfits
Puttin’ on the ritz

That’s where each and ev’ry Lulu Belle goes
Ev’ry Thursday ev’ning with her swell beaus
Rubbing elbows

[Refrain—three times at end:]

Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin’ on the ritz

For the record, here’s a clip of Harry Richman’s performance from the movie Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930)—unfortunately blurry and lacking good audio. It generated a hit record for him. The black dancers appear very late in the piece. White dancers predominate, and the individuals in the two groups do not mix.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQxLMWhb_Ww [4] 4:22

You can see how remarkably little Berlin changed from the original version to create the second, “white” version.

It was not until Blue Skies in 1946 that the lyrics were reverse engineered by Berlin to apply to WASPs strutting up and down Park Avenue rather than to grandiloquent Negroes parading on Lennox Avenue. Various excuses have been offered for the change, all pertaining to race. There is no doubt this was the reason—intentional manipulation of racial images via the motion picture medium.

The 1930 version is often called “racist.” If so, the 1946 re-write is also racist, though, of course, it is never criticized as such. I can’t say that either version strikes me as particularly “racist.” Rather, both seem written by the perennial outsider and master manipulator who has as little in common with WASPs—or, for that matter, the white Americans he slyly, slangily addresses—as he does with Negroes.

He is equidistant from both, and this song shows it.