I doubt that many J.K. Rowling fans watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would recognize the voice of Ruth Etting…yet it’s that once-popular vocalist singing “You’re the Cream in my Coffee” who helps set the scene for this 1920s story. Filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan uses classical pieces, and Lesley Barber’s beautiful music, to underscore the intense emotions of Manchester by the Sea–but when a lighter moment finally comes along he cues the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald singing “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Their joyful rendition of this Duke Ellington hit perfectly suits the montage it underscores.
Old songs, and the singers who made them famous, have often served as short-cuts to identify a time period; they can also pinpoint a mood or shift of tone better than pages of dialogue. They make me especially happy because I love pop music and jazz of the early-to-mid 20th century. The proselytizer in me hopes that someone in the vast movie audience might want to listen to more of the same. (I can dream, can’t I?)
Ruth Etting had a voice like honey and sold millions of records. Known as “America’s Sweetheart of Song,” she appeared in a handful of Hollywood movies and headlined her own series of short-subjects. She stars in one of the first talkie shorts Paramount ever made, Favorite Melodies, and commands the screen with two songs (one sentimental, one upbeat) performed in a single, unbroken take. There are no backup singers or dancers, no pyrotechnics, just Etting looking straight into the camera. Her simple sincerity still “sells” this material today; I show the short to my students at USC every year.
When moviegoers get to see Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women with Annette Bening later this year they may not recognize the lyrics that Rudy Vallee sings on the soundtrack. These are the words to the seldom-heard verse of Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.” The song was not a great hit when Vallee introduced it in 1931; it wasn’t until Casablanca made memorable use of it that it became a standard. Hardly anybody sings the words that Hupfeld wrote about being “a little weary of Mr. Einstein’s theory” but you’ll hear them, purposefully chosen by Mills to underscore his interesting film.
Rudy Vallee became the first singing heart-throb in the late 1920s and while his understated, nasal delivery (and megaphone) soon put him out of fashion, I still enjoy his performances. A continual presence on radio, he reinvigorated his career in the early 1940s when filmmaker Preston Sturges cast him in The Palm Beach Story and transformed him into a comedic character actor who wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself. What’s more, when Casablanca became a smash hit, there was a recording ban imposed by the musicians’ union. The only one to benefit from the song’s sudden popularity was Vallee, whose decade-old rendition was promptly reissued.
Other vintage pop songs are making the rounds in a number of current movies. When Denzel Washington retreats to a neighborhood bar in Fences, opening later this year and set in the 1950s, it will come as no surprise to hear Dinah Washington singing one of the great all-time great torch songs, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Oddly enough, Robert Zemeckis’ World War Two romance Allied makes relatively little use of music to evoke its 1940s milieu. Voices in an English pub, offscreen, sing “There’ll be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover,” and at a party that night Brad Pitt plays American swing records like “Sing Sing Sing” and “Flying Home.”
But I’m not fussy: for me, these evergreens are the equivalent of comfort food. There’s a reason so many directors and music supervisors turn to them as often as they do: they never fail.