Twenty-two years after “Anything Goes” premiered on Broadway, the first film remake of Kingsley Amis’s comic novel “Lucky Jim” limped into damp cinemas up and down the length of this little island we call home. He wrote about it to Philip Larkin:
In public, I am all smiles about this, but in private, ah ha sir, a very different kettle of fish, I assure you. Horse of a different colour altogether, what? They play for laughs all the time, you see. This wouldn’t matter so much if they were certain to get them. Atkinson is a major, 4-star disaster, Bertrand is Terry-Thomas, Margaret is a minor, dimly-glimpsed irritation, about as important to Dixon as a touch of indigestion. There is an awful DOG they have brought in from nowhere, he’s BERTRAND’S DOG, you see, but he DOESN’T LIKE Bertrand, no, he LIKES DIXON, and he GETS IN THE WAY A LOT, and helps to MUCK UP THE LECTURE, and when Dixon gets pissed HE GETS PISSED TOO, and he COMES IN at the END, and in general he CONTRIBUTES A GOOD DEAL to the general ATMOSPHERE OF CRAZINESS and the general KNOCK ABOUT FARCE kind of ATMOSPHERE.
In short, Lucky Jim had fallen victim to that most deadly of Dunning-Krugers, humour at the hands of people who are unaware that they have no sense of humour, and humour put in places where it’s only ever placed by people who couldn’t see where the humour was in the first place.
Or what that humour consisted of, and this was often to be Cole Porter’s fate in the years immediately either side of World War II. And not just Porter: in an age of great songwriters and endless cover versions, every member of the pantheon from Kern through to Gershwin saw their best numbers utterly traduced by artists and for audiences who just didn’t get the point.
Here’s Cole Porter himself, alone at the piano with You’re the Top. In his hands, it’s a lonely, witty little tune: there’s that self-consciousness around the absurd contrast between the claims to poetic ineptitude and the line after dazzling line, and the rainy sense one gets that the person sung to is somewhere else with someone else:
Anything Goes was written for Ethel Merman, of course, and we’ll come to her in a moment. Paul Whiteman, the great bandleader, released many of the musical’s best numbers in and around the 1934 debut, and the most successful of these tended to feature his frequent collaborators Ramona and Bob Lawrence. For You’re the Top he turned, inexplicably, to Peggy Healy and John Hauser. The result is danceable, but you can dance to a metronome. Both the joke and the rueful melancholy are lost on a pair who sing it like self-congratulatory rich kids performing at a wedding:
Usually, the first version of something – a song, a book, a picture – is the one you want. So when I learned that Anything Goes had been written for Ethel Merman, I couldn’t wait to hear her. It was among the greatest artistic disappointments of my life.
You see, I’d heard Ruthie Henshall first..
Ruthie’s the only performer of my twenties that I ever seriously contemplated meeting with flowers at the stage door, a woman born into the wrong time who has laid down definitive version after definitive version of the masterpieces from the Great American Songbook. Ethel Merman was a bawler.
And worse. Remember what Kingsley Amis had to say about the general KNOCK ABOUT FARCE KIND OF ATMOSPHERE? Just so, and this is almost unbearable from Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby, a farrago of embarrassment: