Monday, June 28, 2004

Ethel Merman

Romy asks, in response to a post about Cole Porter's Something For the Boys, what Ethel Merman's best film performances are. Truth to tell, apart from Call Me Madam, there isn't a lot of Merman on film. She was too much of an outsize personality for film, and she couldn't really learn to tone her performances down for the camera; in Call Me Madam she's clearly still playing to the back of a theatre, rather than to the camera. But Fox is releasing a DVD of Alexander's Ragtime Band, from 1938; she has a supporting role, but it shows her off in her prime as a singer. By the time of Call Me Madam, or even her stage performance in Annie Get Your Gun, Merman's singing had gotten more unstintingly loud and more reliant on little much-parodied tricks like "scooping" instead of hitting a note dead-on ("But a little thing like that couldn't stop me NO-OW"). Some of this was simply a shrewd method of hiding the fact that her voice wasn't everything it had been, and it worked -- Merman kept on singing well for many years. But in the '30s, she was a more straightforward singer, more willing to sing softly, and generally less like a Merman parodists. Some examples of her best singing can be found on old recordings from the '30s and early '40s -- CDs with a selection of these include this excellent collection of Cole Porter original cast recordings, including Merman's recordings of songs from Panama Hattie.

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