They All Laughed

As nobody else seems to celebrate Columbus Day, we might as well. So herewith some authentic Columbian music. This essay is adapted from my book A Song For The Season:

For a 15th century Italian explorer long out of favor with America’s cultural elite, Christopher Columbus sure has a hammerlock on the standard repertoire. Cole Porter put him in the verse to a famous song:

As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend
‘Fare thee well’
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced
‘It was swell, Isabelle, swell…’

In those days (1935) Dorothy Parker was famous for leaving boyfriends. She was also a celebrated wit, so Porter is making a sly dig in attributing to her such a shopworn bon mot as “Fare thee well”. On the other hand, he gives Christopher Columbus, bidding adieu to the Queen of Spain, a line of terrific if somewhat anachronistic cool, which brilliantly sets up the chorus:

It was Just One Of Those Things
Just one of those fabulous flings…

If not Queen Isabella, what was Columbus’ real turn-on? Ira Gershwin identified it in “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

Oh, I feel that I could melt
Into heaven I’m hurled
I know how Columbus felt
Finding another world…

“Hurled”/”world” is quite an unusual rhyme but it feels very natural here – “hurled” captures perfectly the idea of being suddenly catapulted into love. Of course, Columbus wasn’t exactly hurled from Italy to the New World: It took a little longer, but it was worth the wait. In “You Fascinate Me So”, decades after the Gershwins, Carolyn Leigh, to a sinuously sensuous tune by Cy Coleman, explored further the sexiness of uncharted territory:

I feel like Christopher Columbus
When I’m near enough to contemplate
The sweet geography descending
From your eyebrow to your toe…

“You’re like the finish of a novel that I’ll finally have to take to bed” is a quintessentially Carolyn Leigh line.

There are many more Columbian songs out there, including one called simply “Christopher Columbus”, with a terrific lyric by Andy Razaf. The author of “Ain’t Misbehavin‘”, “Honeysuckle Rose” and many other hits, Razaf was an African aristocrat, a nephew of the Queen of Madagascar who, following her dethronement by the French, found himself through the vicissitudes of fate growing up in a racially divided America. You’d have thought he had more cause than most to be skeptical of Columbus’ place in the pantheon, but his lyric is one big party from the opening lines:

Mr Christopher Columbus
Sailed the sea without a compass
When his men kicked up a rumpus
Up spoke Christopher Columbus…

The poor fellow is something of an unsung hero in much of America these days (where across the map Columbus Day is being supplanted in the calendar by “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”). But in the American Songbook he remains a very sung hero, and seems likely to do so for some years yet, on the strength of one opening couplet alone. Of all the lyrics to reference the great explorer, this is by far the best known:

They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round…

It’s the Gershwins again. Columbus finding another world in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” comes from the score for Funny Face, written in 1927. “They All Laughed” belongs to the last flourish of the brothers’ partnership a decade later – the movie songs they wrote after Porgy and Bess failed on Broadway in 1935, when George was anxious to demonstrate that he hadn’t gone all highbrow and still knew how to crank out hits. He barely had a year to prove the point, before his sudden death in 1937. Yet his score for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Shall We Dance? is indisputably one of his finest – “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, “Beginner’s Luck”, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” …and Ira Gershwin’s tip of the hat to Christopher Columbus. (Actually, he never stopped tipping his hat to Columbus: After George’s death he wrote with Kurt Weill a song called “The Nina, The Pinta and The Santa Maria”.)

Alas, the glorious Gershwin score for Shall We Dance? is embedded in an idiotic plot. All the Fred-&-Ginger plots are idiotic, of course, but this one isn’t giddy frothy musical-comedy idiocy but a leadweighted clunker that seems to grind down Astaire & Rogers and hobble their usual chemistry. Fred plays a Russian ballet star who is in reality an American: this obliges him to spend much of the film wooing Miss Rogers in a pseudo-Slav accent. Ginger plays an all-American tap-dancer who dislikes ballet: this sets up the film’s principal theme – the contrast between show dancing and the more hifalutin’ kind. Unfortunately, the picture has nothing to say about ballet other than that it’s foreign and pretentious, and as a running joke this one barely gets on its toes. At any rate, at some point in the film, following rumors that the protagonists are secretly married and expecting a baby, and then Ginger’s subsequent retirement from show business to marry a chinless wonder from Park Avenue, and a few more complications on top of all that, the two of them find themselves inveigled before the band at a Manhattan nightclub and obliged to perform a duet together. And so Ginger sings:

The odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned
For from hist’ry I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned…

For example:

They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They All Laughed when Edison recorded
Sound…

Ira Gershwin got the idea from those self-improvement advertisements of the 1920s: “They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano.” While visiting Paris, he’d mailed a postcard to the drama critic Gilbert Gabriel with the words: “They all laughed at the Tour d’Argent last night when I said I would order in French.” The phrase, as he put it, “hibernated and estivated in the back of my mind for a dozen years until the right climate and tune popped it out as a title.”

It’s certainly the right tune – one of the last terrific rhythm numbers from a composer who excelled at them. Sometimes, when George is really jumpin’, it’s all Ira can do to hang on to the tune at all. Many Gershwin songs seem, in Wilfrid Sheed’s words, “like moving targets for Ira to throw lyrics at if he could (‘I got rhythm …music …my man’ …time’s up).” But, in “They All Laughed”, the tune is matched to a lyrical concept worthy of it – right down to the repeated Ds under the “ho-ho-ho” of the penultimate line. It’s what they call a catalogue song, a laundry list, an accumulation of examples that all go to prove a particular point. In this case, Ira runs through a veritable semester’s worth of history lessons:

They All Laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his choc’late bar
Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That’s how people are…

The playwright George S Kaufman was out in Hollywood while the Gershwins were working on Shall We Dance?, and round the piano one day the brothers chose to give him a sneak preview. Kaufman sat there through Christopher Columbus, Edison recording sound, Wilbur and his brother being scorned for suggesting man could fly, but, after the lines “They told Marconi/Wireless was a phony”, he interrupted and said, “Don’t tell me this is going to be a love song!” He was somewhat antipathetic to the genre. Assuring him that it was, indeed, a profession of amorous affection, the brothers pressed on, and got to the release:

They laughed at me wanting you

– at which point Kaufman (as Ira described it) “shook his head resignedly” and sighed, “Oh, well.”

“They All Laughed” is an example of what Ira called “the left-field or circuitous approach to the subject preponderant in Songdom”. Required to approach said subject less circuitously, the lyricist fell back on the lamest of lame clichés. “There have,” wrote Wilfrid Sheed, “seldom been dumber words to anything than those of the young Ira Gershwin’s ‘Lady Be Good’ and ‘The Man I Love’.” Very true:

Someday he’ll come along
The Man I Love
And he’ll be big and strong
The Man I Love…
We’ll build a little home
Just made for two
From which I’ll never roam
Who would? Would you?

That’s it? How could anyone do that to that music? Who would? Would you? But Ira, unlike Cole Porter, eschewed passion, no matter what George had going on in the music. Not until his last great lyric, “The Man That Got Away“, written with Harold Arlen in 1954, does he really tackle “the subject preponderant” head on and with real feeling. I was once asked to help put together a Gershwin revue and, after a while, I noticed it was proving more of a slog than I’d ever expected. “You know what the problem is?” the director said to me. “Ira Gershwin is a lousy lyricist.” I spit coffee all over her and said, “Come off it. He’s one of the greats. Everybody knows that.” Yet, after drying off her cleavage and picking my jaw off the floor, I reckoned she was on to something: a lot of Gershwin lyrics are very pedestrian, at least when compared with relatively lesser known names such as Dorothy Fields (“The Way You Look Tonight“) or Gus Kahn (“It Had To Be You“). In the fullness of time’s inevitable winnowing of the repertoire, it seems likely that more than a few Gershwin songs will fall by the wayside, simply because, compared to Hart’s lyrics for Rodgers or Porter’s for his own tunes, Ira too often appended childish words to George’s grown-up music. Even the inspired premise of “They All Laughed” is not without a closing blemish:

Ho, ho, ho
Who’s got the last laugh?
He, he, he
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha
Who’s got the last laugh now?

I’d known the song for years, through various recordings, without ever quite catching that penultimate couplet. No wonder. “Let’s at the past laugh”? What language is that? The inverted word order of fusty Mitteleuropean operetta awkwardly affixed to the most effervescent all-American tune. But it’s something Ira fell back on throughout his career:

And so all else above
I’m waiting for The Man I Love.

But let’s not carp. With the right lyrical premise, the author could rise to the occasion, and this song’s tremendous pile-up of Columbus, Edison, the Wright brothers, Marconi, Rockefeller, Whitney, Fulton, Hershey and Ford is quintessential Ira Gershwin – a kind of literate goofiness in service of “the subject preponderant”:

They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be hello, goodbye
But oh, you came through
Now they’re eating humble pie…

Which is probably what they were serving back in Queen Isabella’s court. Columbus came through, and so did the Gershwins.

~adapted from Mark’s book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore – and, if you’re a Mark Steyn Club member, don’t forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy special Steyn Club member pricing.

Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn’s Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we’d do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you’ll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman’s Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark’s interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse’s songs, John Barry’s Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We’ll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you’ll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.

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