By Peter Filichia —
Many of us spent last week looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day cards to give to our beloveds.
Some of us bought cards with puffy embossed hearts in the middle. Inside were such sentiments as “To my love, to whom I give my heart and soul” or “You make every day, and not just Valentine’s Day, worth living.”
Others chose Valentines that stressed the humorous side of love. “You’re the man my mother warned me about – and I’m so glad that I found you” or “Honey, I hope you know that all your hard work has not gone unnoticed; I’ve been watching you from the couch during commercials.”
So while I could detail all the lush and romantic songs that you could play during Valentine’s Day – and Lord knows that musical theater offers a peck of them – I’m going to concentrate on my funny Valentine’s Day favorite.
You’re assuming I’m going to say Frank Loesser’s “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls, aren’t you? It is hilarious, as a not-too-lettered night club chanteuse tries to make sense of a medical diagnosis — and decides that her unmarried state is responsible for her ever-lingering cold.
There can’t be many songs where the words “psychosomatic,” “streptococci” and “fish-eye” are used. Loesser also delivered two different meanings of the same word in “If she’s getting a kind of a name for herself, and the name ain’t his,” en route to writing what was then the funniest song Broadway had ever heard.
For my money, however, “Adelaide’s Lament’s” reign lasted all of 146 days – until A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened and Shirley Booth sang the showstopper that composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Dorothy Fields wrote for her: “He Had Refinement.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the project that Booth did between her Tony-winning stint in Come Back, Little Sheba and filming that role for Hollywood. The result was that Booth became one of the comparatively few performers to win a Tony and an Oscar for the same role. In the William Inge drama, she was Lola, but hardly the Lola that Gwen Verdon would play in Damn Yankees. Booth instead portrayed the housewife married to a so-far-so-good reformed alcoholic. The look on Booth’s face when she opens a cabinet and finds a bottle of liquor missing is utterly heartbreaking.
And yet, Booth (1898-1992) was a terrific comedienne, too. In the ‘60s, most of the population knew the star from her role as the title character in Hazel, a five-year hit sitcom that got Booth two Emmys. This is even more astonishing when one considers the series. Try to finish this sentence: “My favorite episode of Hazel was the one in which …” Can’t do it, can you? All 154 episodes were undistinguished, and not worthy of Booth.
At least once every decade from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, Booth would saunter onto the musical stage. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she played Cissy, a turn-of-the-century woman who’s been repeatedly married, but one who has never forgot her first love, Harry. As a result, Cissy has called all her subsequent husbands Harry in his honor — and to her new husbands’ fury.
“He Had Refinement” has Cissy reminiscing on their time together. “In the water at Coney Island was our first embrace when my water wings flew off and hit him in the face” sets up a promising scenario. Fields delivers on it: “He introduced himself before he put them back in place.”
However, the more Cissy divulges about Harry, the more we realize that he had little refinement. “With a pillow he’d kill mosquitoes, so I shouldn’t get bit” isn’t the most delicate image. The line “He’d pass me the ev’ning paper when his soup was fanned,” is paired with “He’d only use four-letter words I didn’t understand.” And how deftly Booth delivers the line, “He undressed with all the lights off,” pausing just long enough before the kicker: “until we was wed.”
Any male lyricist who wrote a certain B-section of the song might have been merely criticized back then, but he certainly would be excoriated now. Thank the Lord that a woman (and what a woman — Dorothy Fields) wrote it. For she had Cissy recall what Harry often said: “May I suggest you call a lady’s chest a chest instead of her ‘points of interest’?” The joke is so good that I even forgive the false accent on “in-ter-EST.”
How does Cissy regard Harry’s coarse wordplay? She rhetorically asks, “Dainty, ain’t he?” Yes, Cissy is guilty of tense shift, for she’d been singing in the past tense and now she’s suddenly shifting to the present; “Dainty, wasn’t he?” would be correct, but Fields needed the rhyme. One can make a case for the grammatical mistake, however, considering that Cissy has experienced a lower-middle class upbringing. What remains hilarious, however, is that Cissy regards Harry’s vulgarism as a euphemism.
Never mind refinement: where were Harry’s ethics? That’s the question we ask after Cissy admits, “He never mentioned that he had another wife.” But she still insists that “He had refinement. A gentleman to his fingernails was he!”
By the way, Harry does show up later in the musical, causing Booth to sing “Is That My Prince?” The shlub that Cissy had idealized for decades now looks nothing like the man for whom she once lusted. “Where is his hair?” she wonders. “He looks like Whistler’s father.” That he’s deaf in one ear makes communication difficult, and Cissy soon loses her patience with him: “You’ve got nothin’ left.” He, on the other hand, feels that Cissy has “too much left.”
No wonder John Chapman in the Daily News opined that “Shirley Booth is truly something … she had me weeping with laughter.” William Hawkins of the World Telegram & Sun called her “the jewel of the evening” while Otis Guernsey of the Herald Tribune thought it “a grand performance” and Richard Watts of the Post flat-out raved that Booth was “one of the wonders of the American stage, a superb actress, a magnificent comedienne, and an all-around performer of seemingly endless versatility.”
Granted, Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times was more impressed with another song that the star delivered: “To hear Miss Booth sing ‘Love Is the Reason’ in a sort of comic fugue arrangement is to enjoy musical comedy at its best.” And that song certainly has its funny charm, too, when Cissy sings, “People suddenly meet, people suddenly fit, people suddenly hit, and brother – that’s it!”
Beatles’ fans often proclaim, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Musical theater enthusiasts, however, instead insist, “Dorothy Fields Forever.” And given that the powers-that-be at the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp in her honor in 1996, let’s have them now reissue it as a Forever stamp.