. . . Lorenz Hart

. . .

Speaking of Turner Classic Movies.... College football may not seem tailor-made for the Rodgers-and-Hart treatment, but 1940's Too Many Girls is the best available record of the team's work. Unlike earlier translations (in which rights to the musicals were bought by moguls who then stripped out the songs because musicals are box-office poison) and later ones (which suffocated under tons of papier-mâché production values), "Too Many Girls" cakewalked directly from Broadway to Hollywood with score, arrangements, jitterbugging, newspaper headlines ("Pottawottomie U. Defeats Texas Gentiles"), and cast mostly intact. Desi Arnez is cute as a sweaty button singing "Spick-and-Span-ish," Ann Miller pounds her legs like Cassandra predicting Pearl Harbor, Lucille Ball is dubbed, Eddie Bracken enjoys being a sex object ("There are ten girls to every guy here. Go find your own ten girls."), and there's a formal experiment worthy of Hitchcock when, halfway through the big romantic duet, the film jumps forward to an eavesdropper's description of the duet: "And THEN he said, [crooning] 'I didn't know what year it was....' [shouting] HE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT YEAR IT WAS!" Essential viewing for the producers of America's Funniest Celluloid Closets.

. . .

Beyond any doubt, Stephin Merritt is this year's star pupil of the Lorenz Hart School of Miserable Short Ugly Love Song Lyricists, but when I encounter the following "lyric by Lorenz Hart; no music survives," this miserable old ugly chronicler can't help but recall my generation's pretender, Croonin' Costello:


I do men's nails for seventy-five cents
And I guess I earn my pay.
Kindly realize that a heel or two
Get a manicure plus a feel or two.
God, how I hate their hands!

Brokers, clerks and singers,
Arthur, John and Bill,
Each time you touch their fingers
They think you get a thrill.

God, how I hate their hands!
Hands can tear one asunder.
I go through torture nobody understands.
Stop it! My life is a nightmare!
Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands!

Hands can hold you and hurt you,
Hands can grip;
Hands can laugh at your virtue,
Hands can slip;
Hands can tear your heart out,
Hands can make you dream.
What a fool you seem.
You could scream.

Hands can beg for mercy,
I'm afraid of you.
I am black and blue.
This won't do.

My God, they're driving me crazy
With their goddamn hands.

. . .

Remembrance Day

I'd always assumed that Mr. Natural's "Is dis a system?" was R. Crumb's own addition to our national store of catch phrases, but given Crumb's scholarly turn of mind, it of course turns out to be a revival. While flipping through Lorenz Hart's lyrics to the dreadful musical-New-York-immigrant-comedy Betsy (because I [heart] NY immigrants), I found in the dreadful opening number, "The Kitzel Engagement," the following couplet:

[Winnie kisses Levi]
CHORUS: She kissed him!
  LEVI: Is dis a system?

(Followed by rhyming "change your name to Kitzel" with "wet my whitzle," "care a bitzel," "time that flits'll," and "Wiener schnitzel." Oy.)

Hart's use is clearly also only a reference to an already well-established catchphrase, presumably from some ancient joke or novelty song. Unfortunately, neither Hart nor Crumb is available for consultation, and an Internet search leaves me none the wiser (what are the odds!?). Can any of you fine people out there -- I hear you breathing! -- help me?

If not, I may be forced to post more quotes from the show. And I can do it, too:

We've a race that's het'rogeneous
With folks from all the earth.
A moving picture Metro genius
Can come from foreign birth.
And the race that used to be gypped
By the Pharaohs down in Egypt
By the gross appear,
And we're mighty glad they're here.
All were different when they came,
But jazz has made them all the same!


They take their places upon the dance floor,
And then races all blend somehow!
Go and show the drum how!
Each one croons just American tunes,
The ones that they recall are jazz.
We all are jazz relations!
We're all good Americans now!

. . .

Although my usually beloved readers were of no help in tracing the origins of "Is dis a system?" and therefore are, per threat, to be smote again with the jawbone of a Betsy lyric:

  I'm just the mother type,
  You want no other type,
    And I'll be very chummy with the stork.
  All babies charm me, dear,
  You'll have an army, dear,
    And we'll make London smaller than New York.

de Fox witt de Crow witt de Chizze

and another (SMACK) for luck (SMACK!!):

  At the Saskatchewan,
  We will not scratch you on
    Your race
    Or on your face;
  We'd let Lon Chaney in.


and, what the heck, I'm starting to enjoy this:

  If you don't understand my language
    You must be a big dumb Dora.
  My people make the Bronx and Brooklyn
    Look like Sodom and Gomorrah!
  We are here two million strong,
    Not counting the Assyrians
  And many Christian Scientists
    And several Presbyterians.

Ho K.

...anyhow, never mind, it doesn't matter, 'cause the mysterious unseen (and probably unwashed) hand of the American muse has already hooked my snoot in the right direction. While trying to use up some trade at Moe's, I found a copy of Nize Baby, prose mitt illustrations from Milt Gross yet. What I really wanted was a pure collection of comics from Milt Gross, but I never get what I really want, so I brought the book home anyway: at least it was Milt Gross, and for a high-low-brow waggler the pages' surface resemblance to contemporaneous work by John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams was irresistable:

     First Floor —So it was a socksess de hoperation?
     Second Floor A whole night long I couldn't slip.
     First Floor —Wos boddering you maybe de — efter-defects, ha?
     Second Floor —No was cerrying on in de next bat from me a patient someting tarrible. So I made a complain to de head sturgeon from de hospital. So he explained wot he was soffering from attaletic fits!
     First Floor —So you came home.
     Second Floor —Hm. I went for a copple of wicks to rest in a cemetarium so den I came home.
     Third Floor —So, Isidor! (SMACK) Wid a paddler you ronning arond to paddle de hepples, ha? (SMACK) De huss from de paddler you got to fid yet, he should bite you off maybe a feenger, ha? (SMACK) To de dalicatassen store you wouldn't go, when she esks you de momma, ha? (SMACK) De lassons wot you got to stoddy you don't do it, ha? (SMACK) Benenas you should paddle better, ha? (SMACK) A hockster you should grow opp maybe yet, ha? ( SMACK.)
     Fourth Floor —Oohoo nize baby, itt opp all de mosh witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale about De Dug in de Manager. Wance oppon a time was seeting a dug in a manager. So de manager was full from hay wit hoats. So it came along a cow so he said, "I'm filling a leedle hongry —I tink wot I'll goin' in de manager und have a leedle bite hay maybe." (Nize baby take anodder spoon mosh witt milk.) So it came in de cow but dot doidy dug was sotch a crenk witt a minn ting wot you wouldn't billive it could exeest. So he stodded in to bok —"Gr-r-r-rrr! Gerraderhere, you cow!!" So de cow went away like a gantleman so de naxt day he came beck so dot doidy dug sad. "Grrr-rr-rrr! Gerradahere, you cow!!" So de cow sad, "Wot's de metter? You don't want me I should itt it opp de hay??" So de dug sad, "NO!!" So de cow sad, "You want maybe you should itt it opp yourself de hay?" So de dug sad, "NO! I don't want I should itt it und I don't want you should itt it." So de cow sad, "Hm, you don't want you should itt it und you don't want I should itt it. Is diss a system???" (Oohoo, sotch a dollink baby ate opp all de mosh witt milk!)

The undoubtedly perspiring reader who made it to the end of Fourth Floor's Ferry Tale will have noticed our prey at bay. (The more reasonable reader who gave up early on is directed to the next-to-last sentence.) In fact, our prey is all over the dang place! So here's why, failing counterargument from R. Crumb or someone like him, I think Milt Gross is the ultimate source:
  1. You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)
  2. It fits for Hart to be making a topical reference: the original "Gross Exaggerations" columns were running in the New York World in 1925, the Nize Baby collection was a 1926 bestseller, and Betsy flopped onto the Broadway boards like a suicidal inedible fish on December 28, 1926.
  3. Internet research at its finest: two guys on Usenet credited it to Gross in passing.
Hm! See, is de law from gratification!

. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.