Saturday, June 9, 2018

Born Today June 9 (Not So Silent Edition): Cole Porter


Master American songster of the 1920's & 30's, Cole Porter was born on this day in Indiana.  Cole Albert Porter (his first name being his mother's maiden surname) was born to a wealthy family in Peru--his mother an heiress of sorts (the daughter of a coal baron) and a pharmacist father (who was also a "lay poet").  His mother was "over-attentive" and saw to it that her only surviving child got music training very early.  He reportedly had mastered the violin by the age of six.  His mastery of the instrument that became his life's companion and key to success--the piano--was said to have been more or less complete by the age of 8.  He was also said to have composed his first song by the age of 10.  [Note: all of this is a bit hard to pin down, because he mother would tell people that Cole was actually born in 1893--his small stature allowing easily for this--to make his talent seem...shall we say more Mozart like?] His rather loud, nouveau riche grandfather insisted that he study the law and become a lawyer, but he was a genuine talent, even genius lay in music; and his early exposure to it only heightened his love for it.  Though sent back east to study in a private high school with that career in mind, he took an upright piano (read "portable piano") with him to school, and soon found himself entertaining fellow students with the instrument.  Despite all of this, he did manage to graduate Valedictorian--he eventually wound up at Yale with, amongst other things, a minor in music.  This is where things began to take shape for him as a career path as a successful song writer and musical author became clearer.  He reportedly wrote something close to 300 songs while at the university.  It was also during this time that he became very enamored with the night life of busy New York City and it's vibrant theaters.  After obtaining his B.A. from Yale, he promptly enrolled in Harvard Law school; the year by this time was 1913 and he had already composed several musical comedy fancies that would become amongst his first recognizable works.  He was not, of course, cut out to be a lawyer and it was suggested to him that he enroll at the Music school instead.  He studied at Harvard in these two disciplines from 1913 through 1916.  In 1915 he made his Broadway debut; or rather one of his songs did: the tune being "Esmeralda."  He then piled head-long into his first full Broadway musical in 1916 See America First, modeled after Gilbert & Sullivan (sounds fun!), but the production was a complete failure.  Of course, the very next year, the U.S. entered World War I and this would ultimately provide Porter with the opportunity to spread his musical wings abroad and escape from family pressures at home.  I'm not going to try to untangle what might be his service during the war, I'll leave to historians, but he did wind up moving to Paris and after the war, the move afforded him the opportunity to study music in Paris.  He then began to find the success in Europe that would mark his passage through the 1920's.  He married a divorcee 8 years his senior who was aware that he was actually gay.  With the marriage came extravagance that is hard to comprehend, even from detailed description!  Throughout the 1920's the couple through wild parties and lived in palaces from France to Venice, and his success in popular song writing flourished, despite his wife attempting to steer him toward "classical music." Turns out, many of Porter's compositions dating from this time are actually early forms of symphonic jazz, so he does get compositional credit being an one it's inventors.  By the late 1920's, he was ready to return to Broadway.  And so he did in 1928 with a big success in Paris (read up on it here).  This brings me to the movies.  The following year, a film of the musical was produced by First National Picture and distributed by parent company Warner Brothers.  Paris the film starred Irène Bordoni, who was both the star of the Broadway production and married to E. Ray Goetz who commissioned the thing for her to begin with.  The film sported Vitaphone sound and two sequences in "two-strip" technicolor; despite all of this, it did not do well and didn't get particularly good reviews.  The two color sequences were set aside for the strongest criticism in several publications who complained (independent of each other) that they detracted from the story, were too long, and the color used was inferior to other musicals from the same year that had the same process applied to scenes (my, my (!) people do get spoiled quickly). [It is unfortunate that the film is lost to us (as of this writing); as it would provide at least entertaining quench for curiosity, not least which because it the first sound film of Bordoni's and her first film appearance since the teens.]  Also in 1929, the film Battle of Paris was produced by Paramount and directed by Robert Florey, and used several of his songs in the production; it marks the first time that a film used just his songs in featured sections of the film.  The next time his songs were used in such a capacity came in 1931 in 50 Million Frenchmen.  Porter continued to have wild success in the theater throughout all of the 1930's, right up to the start of World War II. However, a horrific horse riding accident in 1937 would leave him in life-long pain and effectively crippled.  This would go, along with the war, a long way toward contributing to his lack of productivity personally and his waning popularity publicly.  During the war, he spent time writing some absolutely brilliant film music directly for film productions, but the songs did not become individually popular the way his earlier works had. However in 1946, a dressed up and smart (but highly fictionalized) biopic of his life Night and Day starring Cary Grant and directed by Michael Curtiz was a big success, despite Grant's towering height next to Porter's. He also had a big hit with Kiss Me Kate in 1948The 1950's were not kind to Porter, who lost his mother and wife two years apart in 1952 and 1954 (neverminding his sexual orientation, he had been devoted to his wife throughout their marriage).  He then lost one of his legs in 1958 and despite his good friend Noël Coward's prediction that the amputation would relieve his extreme pain and thus facilitate his return to song writing, it was not meant to be.  He lived the rest of his life as a recluse in his three residences, seeing only the closest of friends.  Porter eventually succumbed to kidney failure at the age of 73 on the 15th of October in Santa Monica, California.  He was buried in Peru, Indiana in the family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery (his wife, parents and grandfather are all buried there as well).  He remains one of the 20th century's most prolific "near-classical" song writers; and to date some 800+ films and series have featured his music.  The most recent credit comes from the Brazilian series Apocalipse (with announced title Darker Than You Think slated to featured two of his songs, one of which is "Night and Day").  

An interesting bit from NPR Music

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