“Crankshaft” and Bunny Berigan – musings on the lyric of “I Can’t Get Started”

The story: I am often amazed at the appearances today of Bunny Berigan’s name and music in unexpected places. This is not a new phenomenon.

In 1967, Bunny Berigan’s classic Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started” was used in a film short called The Big Shave, directed by Martin Scorsese.

In the 1970s, two notable Hollywood feature films included the music of Bunny Berigan. Save the Tiger (Paramount, 1973), starring Jack Lemmon and Jack Gilford, set in the early 1970s, begins with a lonesome sounding trumpet (not Berigan) playing “I Can’t Get Started,” and ends with most of Bunny’s classic Victor recording of that tune being played behind the closing credits. In one scene in this film, “I Can’t Get Started” (again not played by Berigan), is playing on Lemmon’s car stereo while he drives through a desolate section of downtown Los Angeles. Later, in a marijuana-induced stream-of-consciousness recitation of the names of “famous people” with a young woman less than half his age, Lemmon includes the name Bunny Berigan.

The classic film Chinatown  (Paramount, 1974), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is set in Los Angeles in 1937. The exquisite music behind the main title at the opening of the film, immediately evokes that time. It includes a Beriganesque trumpet solo expertly played by Hollywood studio veteran Uan Rasey. This “Love Theme from Chinatown,” reappears throughout the film. A few bars of Berigan’s Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started” is heard during a scene where Nicholson is trying to figure out why precious Los Angeles water is being pumped into the Pacific Ocean.

It was not mere coincidence that the music of Bunny Berigan was heard in these two A-level Paramount films from the 1970s. Robert Evans, the producer of Chinatown and a major player at Paramount then, loved Bunny Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started.”(1)

One of many poses from the June 1937 photo shoot set up for Bunny Berigan by his booking agency, Music Corporation of America.

Berigan’s music can also be heard on the soundtrack to the TV movie Tales from the Hollywood Hills: Natica Jackson (1987), and the film Brick (2005). In the fall of 2010, Berigan’s recording of “Heigh-Ho” was used that the background  music on a television ad for Levi’s jeans.

It can be said with assurance that Bunny Berigan’s music, especially “I Can’t Get Started,” has become interwoven into the fabric of American popular culture.

Berigan also was mentioned on numerous occasions and sometimes figured in the story line of the eponymous comic strip Crankshaft, which debuted in 1987. I thought the Crankshaft-Berigan connection had ended long ago. But very recently, a friend of mine brought me three new Crankshaft comic strips. Here they are:

Crankshaft  comic strips – July 2018.

I am inept when it comes to interpreting any hidden meaning in comic strips. So I will let you figure out what the message is in these panels.

But I must comment on the reference to various lyrics for “I Can’t Get Started” that are used in each of the three Crankshaft comic strips above, which are supposedly a part of Bunny Berigan’s music coming out of Ralph’s car stereo speaker. In the first cartoon, these words appear:  “I’ve got a house and a showplace.” In both the lyric Ira Gershwin wrote, and the lyric Bunny Berigan sang for the Victor recording, the words used were: I’ve got a house, a showplace…”  In the second drawing of that first panel are these words: “But I can’t get no place with you.”  Ira Gershwin’s lyric contains those words; but Berigan sang on the recording: “still I can’t get no place with you…”  which is slightly different from the original lyric.

Berigan sings at the Famous Door, a jazz club on Manhattan’s 52nd St.- early 1936, where/when he first encountered “I Can’t Get Started.”

In the second panel, Crankshaft sings: “In nineteen twenty-nine I sold short…” ; “In England I’m presented at court…”; and “But you’ve got me downhearted.”  Berigan, hipster that he was and an expert in using the rhythms of swing, sang instead: “I’ve been consulted by Franklin D…; “Greta Garbo has had me to tea…”; and “Still I’m broken hearted…”  The words: “Cause I can’t get started with you…”  were used by both Ira Gershwin and Bunny Berigan.

In the third panel, we find: “I do a hundred yards in ten flat”…;  “The prince of Wales has copied my hat.” Those words are not in the most familiar Ira Gershwin lyric, and probably are in a secondary set of lyrics written by him for “I Can’t Get Started.” But they were not sung by Bunny Berigan on his Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started.”

One wonders if the creators of the Crankshaft comic strip actually listened to the classic Berigan-Victor recording when preparing these comic strips. Even if they didn’t, their hearts are in the right place.

NOTE: It appears that Ira Gershwin wrote additional lyrics for “I Can’t Get Started” after the Berigan-Victor recording became a hit.

Ira Gershwin (left) and Vernon Duke – 1936.

“I Can’t Get Started” got its start from a melody written by Vernon Duke that literally couldn’t get started. Duke had written the melody for a song called “Face the Music with Me,” but, in his words, “since nothing had happened to that version” he told Ira Gershwin “the tune was free” and he “could write it up.” Gershwin took the tune, added lyrics, and made it into “I Can’t Get Started.” Bob Hope introduced the song in the Broadway revue Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, singing it to Eve Arden. Although by 1936 Florenz Ziegfeld had been dead for three years, the producers of the revue, Lee and J.J. Schubert, had purchased the right to use his name. The revue opened in January of 1936, and was remarkable for being Fanny Brice’s last appearance on Broadway, and legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s first work on Broadway. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 starred Bob Hope, Fanny Brice, and Eve Arden.

Ira Gershwin’s lyric  for “I Can’t Get Started” is in the style of a “list” song, where the words the performer sings itemize his lofty accomplishments and attributes in an attempt to win the heart of a reluctant suitor.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. L-R: Nicholas Brothers, Bob Hope, Eve Arden.

“The the various Ziegfeld Follies were not only popular for their music; these revues were also well known for featuring beautiful topless ladies who stood stock-still in observance of a New York City ordinance that allowed nudity but not nude dancing, and madcap sketch comedy. In fact, Tom Moon describes these shows as “the Saturday Night Live of their day, full of wry topical references and songs that winked an eye (or derided) current events and celebrities.” (2)

(1) Liner notes for the original motion picture soundtrack for Chinatown, Varese Sarabande VSD-5677 (1995, MCA Records), by Kevin Mulhall. This soundtrack was originally issued in 1974 by ABC Records, Inc. Jerry Goldsmith composed the score, which was superbly arranged by Arthur Morton.

(2) Matt Micucci – Jazziz.com  8-22-2017 – a short history of “I Can’t Get Started.”

*****

For those who would like to hear ALL of the lyrics Ira Gershwin wrote for “I Can’t Get Started,” including those for the delightful verse, here is a wonderful performance of them by Peter Mintun:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EIADbvexe4

For those who want to hear Bunny Berigan’s classic recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” here is a link to the post I made on it here at bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com:

https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2017/12/26/i-cant-get-started-1937-2/

And for yet more information on Bunny Berigan’s relationship with “I Can’t Get Started,” check out this link:

https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2017/07/18/swing-street/

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