Thursday, January 24, 2013

Anything Goes - The Cole Porter Song Decoded

Like many people who yearn for a simpler and less wasteful life, I've long had a love affair with all things 1930's. Somehow, my older relatives who actually lived through the depression had an amazing ability to not only get by, but to thrive and be happy with much less than most people consider necessary these days.


But my depression era addiction goes way beyond thriftiness. I also love the music and art of the era.

Recently CatMan and I have developed an affinity for this song from the 1934 Cole Porter musical, Anything Goes.



The song is packed full of social references that fly WAY over the head of most of us modern day listeners, so I thought it might be fun to research a few of them.

So here goes....


Anything Goes by Cole Porter 1934

Times have changed and we've often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock when they landed on Plymouth Rock. 
If today any shock they should try to stem
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them. 

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now, God knows, Anything goes. 

So, this is clearly a reference to the fact that in the early 1900's (the so-called Edwardian era) it was considered grossly improper for a woman to show her ankle. I'm not sure if there was something about ankles specifically, or if it was just that women were supposed to cover up as much flesh as possible. Anyhow, think Downton Abbey fashion - which really wasn't that long ago from the perspective of a person living in 1934!




Good authors too who once knew better words Now only use four-letter words Writing prose. Anything goes. 

If driving fast cars you like, If low bars you like, 
If old hymns you like, If bare limbs you like, 
If Mae West you like, Or me undressed you like, 
Why, nobody will oppose. 


Most people are probably familiar with Mae West, but in case you aren't, she was an actress and an early sex symbol, known for her provocative style, and the famous line "Why don't you come up and see me sometime."

Here's a fabulous compilation of some of her most characteristic film moments:



When every night the set that's smart is intruding in nudist parties in Studios, Anything goes. 

Now, when I think of the 1930's my brain conjures up images of bread lines and hungry children dressed in clothing made from flour sacks... nudist parties aren't exactly the first thing that comes to mind! But apparently the nudist or naturist movement as it was then called began in Germany during the early 20th century as a "get back to nature" sort of thing, and by the 1930's it had made its way across the Atlantic. Who knew?



When Missus Ned McLean (God bless her) Can get Russian reds to "yes" her, Then I suppose Anything goes. 

Mrs. Ned McLean is Evalyn Walsh McLean, who was a wealthy mining heiress born in Leadville, CO around the same time that my great grandfather owned a saloon in that town! She was married to Edward Beale McLean, a publishing mogul, and was the last private owner of the Hope diamond. They must have been quite the couple as he was a notorious alcoholic and womanizer and she a morphine addict



She apparently took a much publicized trip to communist Russia shortly after the Russian revolution. I'm not exactly sure of the reason for the trip, except that the exploration of Marxism was popular among American intellectuals of the era. Hard to see a person of such wealth and extravagance embracing communism though... and maybe that's why Cole Porter was poking fun at her in the song.

When Rockefeller still can hoard enough money to let Max Gordon Produce his shows, Anything goes. 

Max Gordon was a successful Broadway producer, best known for producing The Jazz Singer in the mid 1920's which was made into the first real Hollywood musical in 1927. 


This photo from the movie opening in 1927
I assume from this reference that Rockefeller was a patron of his or somehow funded his work, but I can't find any more information than that. 

The world has gone mad today, and good's bad today, 
And black's white today, and day's night today, 
And that gent today you gave a cent today 
Once had several chateaux. 

When folks who still can ride in jitneys find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys lack baby clothes, Anything goes. 


First of all, a jitney is any sort of a bus or unlicensed shared taxi, the kind that generally carry "the great unwashed." And the Vanderbilts and Whitneys were two of the most famous wealthy families of the era. 


Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York
So I suppose the message of this line is that when folks discover that even the wealthiest of the wealthy are struggling it sort of lifts the pressure of "keeping up with the Joneses."  I guess in my mind that's one of the most endearing qualities of the depression era.

If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction Instruct Anna Sten in diction, then Nana shows Anything goes. 

OK, this is one of my favorites. Sam Goldwyn was a famous movie producer (think Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM.) Anna Sten was born Annel Stenskaya Sudakevych in the Ukraine. She had been a silent film star in Russia and Germany, and Goldwyn brought her to the US to compete with Greta Garbo who was the blonde bombshell du jour. 


Anyhow, her much anticipated US debut was a movie called Nana, which was a complete and utter flop because her accent was so think that American audiences couldn't understand a word she said! Here's a clip of her singing from the movie Nana... I do admit it's a tad bit difficult to understand the lyrics:



When you hear that Lady Mendl standing up now turns a handspring landing up on her toes, Anything goes.

Lady Mendl refers to Elsie de Wolfe, who is widely considered to be the first lady of modern interior decorating. She reportedly had a lengthy lesbian romance with Bessie Marbury, one of New York's most prominent citizens. The name Mendl comes from Sir Charles Mendl whom she married at the age of 60 for his name and title since she reportedly continued her relationship with Marbury after the marriage.


I can't find any actual references to her doing handsprings, but she was apparently famous for her morning exercise routine which included yoga, standing on her head and walking on her hands.

Just think of those shocks you've got and those knocks you've got
And those blues you've got from that news you've got
And those pains you've got (If any brains you've got)
From those little radios.

OK... now the reference to "little radios" is still a bit puzzling to me. Since transistor radios weren't invented until the 1950's the only thing I can figure is that this is a reference to the crystal radio, sometimes called a crystal set.  These are simple radios that do not require electricity to run and were very popular in the 1920's.


On one forum someone suggested that instead of "if any brains you've got" the lyric actually is "if any range you got" which would make sense since crystal radios are not very powerful devices and can only pull in a very strong signal.

So Missus R., with all her trimmin's, can broadcast a bed from Simmons 'Cause Franklin knows Anything goes.

OK, Mrs. R is Eleanor Roosevelt. She apparently had a weekly radio show which was sponsored by the Simmons Mattress Company. This was quite a scandal at the time as many people felt she was "cashing in" on the presidency.



So there you have it! I must say it's been great fun digging into all this. It sort of gives me a glimpse into, if not the day to day life of the average person, at least a sense of what was "talked about" back in that era.


Sorta makes me wonder what people seventy years from now will think about the popular culture of today. I shudder to think....

37 comments :

  1. This was fun! Next you'll have to do "We Didn't Start the Fire," LOL!

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    1. Ha! OK, I had to go look that one up... can't believe I didn't know it since my college roommate was a die hard Billy Joel fan!

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    2. I can't believe that you didn't know that song either. They use it in classrooms now to study history.

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    3. I think I sort of tried to tune out Billy Joel after having been pelted with him for the entirety of my Freshman year. Oh wait... the song wasn't written until 1989 and that roommate and I parted ways in 1987! Mystery solved.

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  2. Thanks. That was a fun post. I'll try to keep my ankles covered from now on. Don't want to get some guy's hopes up.

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    1. Good call... you wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong idea! :-)

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  3. Fascinating. I never really knew anything except the tag line--"Anything goes." If I had heard the lyrics, I wouldn't have had a clue about them until I read this. Now, I'm going to try to find someone old enough that was a contemporary with this song to see what they remember. That's going be kind of hard though.

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    1. Oooooo... that would be really fun! My dad was born in 1934 and he gets a few of the references but not many. I think you'd have to find a centenarian in order to get someone who could actually remember that far back.

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  4. I just watched on Turner Classic the movie about Cole Porter. I was over at my folk's house checking on them and they were watching it. They are true 30's folk. Dad was born in 29 and mom in 34.
    I love the music of the late 30's and love the 40's music, and war era music. I love swing and the big band era. A few years ago, we had the big band of Count Basey here, and that was just wonderful to atually hear a true big band sound, I was just thrilled as I knew how my folks love big bands and danced to them when they came here to my little community many years ago when the bands were very young and not known too well and they traveled all over this area.
    Its funny, you talk to any kid anymore about any music under their age, and they look at you with that deer in the headlight look.
    Take care CatLady

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  5. What fun!

    I think Anna Sten must have been taught English by a Brit. I had little trouble understanding her and a few of her syllables were exactly as you'd hear them on British radio at the time (which is not at all what you'd have heard in the streets of Britain, either then or now).

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    1. Well that would make sense since I can't understand most Brits to save my life! :-)

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  6. Now I find out about the nudist movement, would have been helpful when trying to negotiate with my grandfather over clothing issues when I was a teen, any clothes would have been better than nudity so maybe it would have given me some leverage with him. This was interesting, I didn't know quite a bit of the history I thought I knew, such as Eleanor Roosevelt having her own radio show.

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  7. Great post. Anything that turns people on to Cole Porter's music works for me. He was such an incredible songwriter. I think I fell in love with his music when I saw Night & Day on TV when I was a kid. It didn't hurt that Porter was portrayed by Cary Grant, with Alexis Smith as co-star (she was so lovely). Imagine my shock when I found out many years later that Porter was gay - and I thought the fictional story in the film was such a marvelous love story. But it introduced me to his music & that was well worth it. Thanks for all the details to Anything Goes.

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    1. Ooooo I don't know Night & Day... I see an appointment with Netflix in my future... :-)

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    2. Cary Grant never fails to cure whatever is ailing me. Swoon.

      Speaking of Night & Day, it is of course one of Porter's most famous songs. I've been listening to CDs today & Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 has a great version of that song. Their Greatest Hits CD is a constant go to CD for me when I'm "working" around the house. It gets me moving. They have some other great covers on it as well.

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  8. Hi, this is Francis from the UK. I'm getting very upset. First you are rude about jumpers and lovely digestive biscuits, now you knock our accents! Waah - not nice! But I forgive you for such a great post. I love Cole Porter songs but certainly didn't know all the lyrics to this one. Thanks for all the hard work (and let's hear it for Anglo-American relationships....!)

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    1. Ha! I actually LOVE the way British accents sound... I just can't understand them! I used to know a girl who was from Manchester and I practically needed a translator in order to have a conversation with her!

      CatMan and I read all of the Harry Potter books in Spanish (studying Spanish is one of our hobbies.) Anyhow, after we'd finish each book we'd go rent the movie. Problem was, I couldn't understand the dialog! Finally I decided to watch them dubbed in Spanish and I had a much easier time! How crazy is that?!?

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    2. Oh well, Manchester..... Say no more! but lots of us sound lovely! And you dont need a translator!

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    3. I actually have difficulty telling the accents apart. I suppose I can understand Hugh Grant OK... but only if he tones it down and doesn't talk fast.

      When I was a kid I went on concert tour to New Zealand with an orchestra that I played in. The thing was set up by the local rotary club so we stayed with host families and honestly people might as well have been speaking Swahili! And it wasn't just me who was lost. One of my friends was sitting at the dinner table when the girl in her host family turned to her and said something unintelligible. Too tired to try to figure out what she was saying, my friend simply smiled and nodded. Then the girl repeated it again, and again... and my friend smiled and nodded again and again. Finally the girl reached over her and grabbed the salt shaker. Oh my!

      What's that they say about people separated by a common language?

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    4. I think accents are fascinating. I used to have relatives who lived in Georgia and the accent fascinated me - the whole Southern drawl thing but apart from that I assumed an American accent was fairly homogenous. I now know this is not the case and I try to have a stab at telling where an American comes from when I hear them. I think our accents are very different depending which part of our relatively small country you are in. I am a southerner born and bred and I love country accents. Fairly sure I would find it very difficult to live in Birmingham or Liverpool though! We were in Glasgow,Scotland last year and that was a whole different ballgame I can tell you. We made it through unscathed....

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    5. I think accents are fascinating too. But I've noticed even in my lifetime how much more homogeneous the accent has become here in America. When I grew up, the word "Colorado" rhymed with "shadow." But now so many people from other parts of the country have moved here that most people have adopted a softer "a" sound so it now rhymes with "aficionado" - it makes me sad, but at least I can still tell a "true" Colorado native by how they pronounce the name of our great state!

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    6. Well it's nice to hear an example of British pronunciation infiltrating America when so often it seems to be the other way around.

      Mostly I'm pretty useless at identifying accents, but there was a time when I could tell the difference between a Rothwell and a Desborough accent. These two towns are both in Northamptonshire, in the middle of England, about a mile and a half apart!

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    7. When I lived in Norway, they sort of took the accent thing to extremes. Like you'd drive to a town 50 miles away and they would have entirely different words, not just pronunciations - like different words for very basic concepts like "how" and "what."

      But I'm willing to bet that too is going away with mass media reaching all corners of the globe. It sorta makes me sad. I can see one day in the not too distant future when everybody on the planet will be speaking the same bland language.

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    8. As a non-native speaker (and huge Beatles fan), I find it easier to understand most British accents than some strong American ones (if I ever go to Texas I'll need a translator, seriously). I guess we get used to infer the words we don't know. But Australians speak a whole different language to me.

      I get sad with this language globalization as well. It seems disrespectful; some people won't even have the trouble to learn the basics of the language of the country they're visiting, because they just assume people will speak English there. My boyfriend recently witnessed some "gringos" insulting the cashier on a Subway, calling her "stupid monkey" and "brain damaged", because she didn't speak English. The nerve! I wish I was there to give them a piece of my mind.

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    9. Ha! Well, I think Texas needs a translation just in general! And don't EVEN get me started on "gringo" behavior!

      It's interesting that you find British accents easier to understand than American. For me it's less about the pronunciation per se than it is about the rhythm. I'm not even sure what I mean by that, it's just that when I listen to a Brit or an Aussie speak I have a hard time telling where one word ends and the next begins!

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  9. What a fantastic post! I've always been fascinated by the 1930s and thought that we have so much we can learn from that decade. And of course I'm going to think that any post that talks about Eleanor Roosevelt will be awesome!

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    1. I'll never be able to think of the Simmons Mattress company the same way again, that's for sure!

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  10. Thank you very much for this. I've been looking for a lot of these references and had little to no luck. So again, thank you. :)

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    1. You are most welcome. I'm glad there are other people out there with a fondness for this song!

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  11. Aha! Now I know who they're making fun of with that blonde woman with the terrible accent in "Blazing Saddles"!

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    1. OK... I haven't seen Blazing Saddles for many many years... but I'm assuming you mean Mae West. She was one of a kind, that's for sure!

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  12. In one word loved it!!!! Ps if my great grand parents could see us now and the social conditions that are aceptable in this day and age they wouldn't bother procreating!!! But Hey Anything Goes!!!

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    1. Not sure how I missed responding to this until now - but on the off chance that you're out there listening - yes... I'm picturing my great grand parents rolling over in their graves!

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  13. This is really great! Thanks for all the information in regards to the references. I was totally lost each time I heard the song and now I feel like I can appreciate it. Awesome post.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I had great fun researching it. :-)

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