Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Sometime in the 1950s, Ethel Merman was talking show business with Russell Nype, who had played the jeune premier with her in Call Me Madam and remained a close friend long after. Looking back on a stage career that had given her a more or less unbroken string of hits; Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin standards that "belonged" to her; and the longest-running star turn in the history of the musical, over two-and-a-half years in Annie Get Your Gun with just one six-week vacation, Merman lamented her failure to crack Hollywood in a truly important way. If she had been Big, she reasoned, they would have cast her in the Annie movie.

"Russell," she asked, "what do I have to do to get hot?"

Most of the stage musical's stars failed to punch out in Hollywood. Merman's only rival in her era, Mary Martin, had been a glamor sweetheart at Paramount early on, but she didn't achieve true renown till she reinvented herself as a tomboy madcap in South Pacific. Everyone says Broadway's women stars had a camera problem: their auditorium-filling charisma banzaied the screen. But that's only part of it. The elementally eccentric personalities of the stage--the heroines especially--were too offbeat for Hollywood. The movies liked their sweethearts neat, while Broadway relished a fizzy cocktail. Elsie Janis, Adele Astaire, Louise Groody, Gertrude Lawrence, and even Marilyn Miller (to a degree) exploited a rich blend of qualities from zany to flirty. The movies' ideal heroine was Judy Garland, humorous rather than zany and less flirty than direct and lovable. And it was Garland who was cast as Annie instead of Merman, though during production the role was recast with Betty Hutton, a kind of sleeker unit of the zany model.

Ethel Merman wasn't zany or flirty, but she was eccentric. She played not sweethearts but broads, distinctly urban after the middle-American honeys the musical had been preferring. They came from Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska; Merman was a birthright New Yorker. She was brusque and fearless, and librettists wrote her I.D. into her scripts. Here's her entrance in Du Barry Was a Lady, as nightclub queen May Daly. The lovestruck Bert Lahr has directed the chorus to shower Merman with roses when she appears:

           GIRLS: Here she comes!
                        (Merman enters, girls throw roses)
           AUDIENCE: (clapping, murmurs of welcome, thrilled mooing)
           MERMAN: (holds pose, waits for applause to die down from 7 to 3, then:) What
                         the hell is this?

Never did Marilyn Miller and her kind make the scene so belligerently; but that's Ethel. She also had the odd habit of freezing her opening-night performance for the run of a show. Earlier, the presentation of musical comedy accommodated bits of improvisation from night to night, and the star-comic vehicles were outright free-for-alls: it was live theatre, and audiences were used to--even expected--some goofing around. Then, in the 1930s, Merman's first decade on Broadway, directors like Hassard Short began to impose a sense of discipline on the ensemble, and stage managers policed the stage, insisting on identical repetitions.

Twenties operetta contributed to this new consistency, this (we might say) decorum of presentation, because operetta, the forerunner of the "musical play" (e.g., Oklahoma!, Fanny, West Side Story), treated its characters to more sociological narratives than musical comedy did. Class, politics, and even race played roles. Musical comedy was "The Varsity Drag." Operetta was "Your Land and My Land (will be our land one day)," a Civil War anthem on the promise of national brotherhood. And along with these weighty concerns came a need to tame the musical's disorderly side.

Merman fit right into that practice, but all the same her performing style was governed by a quixotic vivacity that had an extemporized feel. No musical star was more professional in sustaining a precision of execution yet more personal in drawing an audience into the fun she was having. She really commanded the stage. What other star had song genres all her own--the high-energy establishing number ("The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," "[Gee, but] It's Good To Be Here"), the saucy set piece ("Katie Went To Haiti," "A Lady Needs a Change"), the Cole Porter torch song with a Latin beat ("He's a Right Guy")? In Panama Hattie, Merman's torch number, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," ends with a coda stripping the glass of its festive d├ęcor: "Leave out the cherry, leave out the orange..." On her Decca album of four Panama Hattie cuts, Merman sang the coda straight. But there is a bootleg of a live performance that seems to have been taken down right in the theatre. (You hear the audience at some distance from the mike, whereas on a radio check they would be prominent.) And here Merman deliberately flats the note on each "Leave," getting a laugh--and this is musical comedy in its essence, keeping the fun in trim even at a sentimental moment. That is really why they called it "musical comedy" for so long. The rise of the musical play forced a change in nomenclature to the unadorned "musical": because they weren't going to be quite so zany any more. Carousel is never zany, and most recent musical plays aren't even funny. Interestingly, when Merman did her musical play, Gypsy, she got more laughs than any Madame Rose since (as another bootleg proves). Her career really lasted through the evolution of the sheer-fun musical into the musical with subject matter: from Good News!, say, to Company.

So now it's time for The Classic Ethel Merman Story, which brings us to her famous brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine, when she was in her fifties. How she ever fell in love with that urban moose is a mystery, but those who knew her say she was utterly smitten--till the honeymoon, when all joy fled more or less overnight. The pair stayed together for a few weeks more, then split. And if this tale be true, it would have taken place in Beverly Hills in July of 1964. Keep in mind that Merman, though neither cultured nor sophisticated, was sharp and fast: intelligent in her own way.

In most versions of the story, Merman returns to the house after taping a television show. It went well, and after a glance at her happy countenance, Borgnine immediately starts snarling:

                  BORGNINE: What are you so pleased about?
                  MERMAN: Well, they just loved my thirty-five-year-old voice, and my
                               thirty-five-year-old face, and my thirty-five-year-old figure.
                  BORGNINE: And what about your sixty-five-year-old cunt?
                  MERMAN: Nobody mentioned you at all.