Many fine recordings come with an interesting booklet. This time it is the other way around. A fabulous booklet featuring a fascinating thirteen page essay is accompanied by an interesting recording.
Oh, sure – it is the DVD which is listed for sale. But it is the booklet that makes the purchase more than just a lark.
For starters, however, let’s look at what is on the disc, and then we’ll get to the booklet. The disc is a digital copy of a black and white kinescope of a 1954 “Colgate Comedy Hour” adaptation of the Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes. Now, I’m a sucker for practically any release of a television musical from the past, but this one is a definite must see …. once. Repeated viewing? Not likely.
You see, the stars are (drum roll, please) Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr. You can’t get much more iconic than that!
In 1954 you didn’t get a full production of a Broadway musical on the Colgate Comedy Hour. As the title suggests, you got an abbreviation of under an hour. (They had to leave time for commercials. One assumes for Colgate products. Too bad they didn’t keep the commercials in when they made the digital copy for this disc.)
Still … Merman! Sinatra! Lahr!
It is an unlikely pairing in the leads. Can you really see super-cool Frank Sinatra wooing matronly Merman? In 1934, she originated the role of sexy belter who could lead a chorus of the title song, blow the roof off the theater with “Blow, Gabriel Blow” and pal around with co-stars in both “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top.” But she was twenty-five then. Twenty years later, her persona as captured by the terribly unforgiving television cameras was decidedly devoid of the kind of sex appeal one expects in Sinatra’s sights.
Sinatra may have been hard to believe in this hard to believe plot of a stowaway suitor pursuing a lover on board an ocean liner, but the changes to the script made it even harder. That’s because the love interest in the story was shifted from a lovely ingenue, as it was in the Broadway original, to Merman. Sinatra head over heals for matronly Merman? Not in this or any century!
There are glimpses of how Merman could command a scene and also of how Sinatra could turn on the personal charm. But in the early days of television, not everyone had figured out how to play to a camera. Director Sid Smith went on to a long and successful career as a director of television programs but it doesn’t seem he knew how his cast should focus their eyes at this point. Should they try to make eye contact with the audience the way they might in person? Or should they try to ignore the presence of the camera? Either way might have been OK, but both Merman and Sinatra seem to alternate between the two extremes. Bert Lahr, as “Public Enemy #13,” gets away with mugging for the camera much better than the other leads. That is because he’d made a career of outrageous mugging. (Did you really believe the Cowardly Lion was a lion?)
There are a number of almost excruciatingly embarrassing moments in this live performance from the opening to the closing. The telecast opens with Merman, ostensibly at her dressing room door, introducing the night’s bill and bringing Bert Lahr and Frank Sinatra on for a “good luck” kiss. She ends her little spiel about six seconds before the director cuts away from her. Six seconds never seemed so long as they do in this interminable delay as Merman holds her smile.
Once you’ve seen her stand stock still for six seconds you won’t believe what she had to go through at the end. It seems that the performance pace was much quicker during the live telecast than it had been in rehearsal, and as a result it ended some three whole minutes before the program was supposed to end. Now, they could, of course, roll the credits slowly. But not that slowly. So Sinatra suggested that Merman sing the title song again. She agreed, but asked both Sinatra and Lahr to join with her. It’s pretty strange watching Sinatra hum along because he doesn’t know the words, or Lahr not even try to sing while he just snaps his fingers. Somehow they get through it to the end.
Ah, but let’s get to the booklet and its wonderful essay by Stephen Cole. Cole is the librettist and lyricist of such musicals as The Night of the Hunter, After the Fair, and the first American style musical written for an Arabian premiere, Aspire, and the off-Broadway musical about its creation, The Road to Qatar (not to mention the credited ghost writer for Marni Nixon’s memoir “I Could Have Sung All Night”).
Late in Merman’s life, she and Cole struck up a friendship that included sharing many an evening watching items from his extensive collection of bootlegs, clips and films of her performances over the years. On one of those nights – May 19, 1982 to be precise – he shared with her a poor quality video tape of this program and she shared many of the stories of the telecast that he includes in his essay.
What is more, she told him she thought she had an original kinescope somewhere. Nearly two years later Merman died of a brain tumor and the issue of a kinescope of Anything Goes seemed closed. But later, Cole got a call from a friend of Merman’s saying they found some film cans and, they knew that “Ethel wanted you to have them … She always said that you were the keeper of her ‘veeedeo.'”
One of the cans contained that fresh kinescope, now available to us all in a quality digital transfer with a very clear soundtrack … embarrassments and all. It is a black and white version of a show that was in color. But it isn’t the tint of the picture that makes this worth watching.