Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thanks for the Memory

This clip is nothing less than a piece of film history: Bob Hope and Shirley Ross singing "Thanks for the Memory" (NOT "memories!") in a movie called The Big Broadcast of 1938.

I first saw this movie while sleeping in the den (a special privilege granted only on a non-school night) in about 1964. The pullout bed was excruciating, but that was all part of the experience: I'd watch a Cleveland creature-feature show called Hoolihan and Big Chuck (and, incredibly, the same Big Chuck still hosts that show after all these years), re-re-re-reruns of shows like Topper and Love That Bob, and, sometimes, a gem like this one.

There was something of a W. C. Fields revival going on at that time. Before I'd even seen one of his movies, my Dad would boom on and on in his gusty, Bushmills-inspired way about Fields, and even quote from some of his monologues: the "Ethiopian in the fuel supply," "where will you be at noon tonight?" and "I cut a path through a solid wall of human flesh" (from another Fields gem, Mississipi, with a startlingly young, almost effeminate Bing Crosby).

I can't say as we really believed what my Dad was saying until this Fields festival began. We saw Mississipi, The Bank Dick, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, and My Little Chickadee (where Fields and Mae West basically cancelled each other out).

But then came The Big Broadcast, probably at about 2 a.m. At some point my older brother stumbled in from a dance, likely tanked, and we began to record the sound track of the movie on an old Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder with a fan-shaped microphone that weighed 47 pounds.

The movie was about a race between two ocean liners, the Colossal and the Gigantic. Fields is supposed to be in charge but ends up on the wrong boat (after his golf cart becomes airborne and lands on the deck), wreaking havoc throughout. To see him perform both his golf routine and his pool routine in one movie makes it worth the price of admission.

But the movie is also pretty excruciating. Bob Hope is the emcee (with the running gag that he can't get a laugh from the audience)for a dreary assortment of yesterday's performers: Shep Fields and his Rippling Rhythm Orchestra (a kind of clumsy forerunner of Lawrence Welk), the very gay-looking Latin lover Tito Guizarre, and (shudder) the infamous Nazi sympathizer Kirsten Flagstad, who sings Brunhilde's Battle Cry from (Lohengrin? Whatever.)

Then comes this song, fairly near the end. Obviously, the two of them have had a tempestuous marriage that finally blew apart. But watch Shirley Ross as she registers each tart, tender line (Hope basically just sits there, his eyes like the dots on dice). There are many extra verses here that you will never find if you look up the lyrics anywhere. The song is evocative and never corny. It took me forever to figure out the subtle code of these lines:

"Letters with sweet little secrets
That couldn't be put in a daywire
Too bad it all had to go haywire
That's life, I guess
I love. . . your dress."

The song ends with the haunting lines:

"Strictly entre-nous, darling, how are you
And how are all those little dreams that never did come true. . . "

"Little dreams." "Sweet little secrets." In spite of trying, they never did have a child. He went on to get married three or four more times. He's a cad, and she knows it. He has a sort of surface charm, a slickness. But he's a great straight man for Ross' brilliance, and he does not try to out-react or out-shine her. Perhaps he made the right decision after all.

The song stuck to him for the rest of his life (well over 100 years), always misquoted as "Thanks for the Memories". But here is where it started, and, as far as I am concerned, ended too.