A LITTLE SONG, A LITTLE DANCE: Musical Revues of the Early ’30s (III)

Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the start of a new week here on That’s Entertainment! Today’s post continues our month long series on musical revues of the early ’30s. This blog has already covered The Band Wagon (1931), As Thousands Cheer (1933), and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. This month we’ll be highlighting just a few revues from 1930-1935. So far, we’ve covered Three’s A Crowd (1930) and George White’s Scandals Of 1931. Today, we’re in 1934…


III. Life Begins At 8:40 (08/27/34 – 03/16/35)


Considered the missing link between the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and 1936, this jaunty and satirical musical revue marked the first full score collaboration of composer Harold Arlen with lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who was also assisted in this show by Ira Gershwin. While the sparkling score remains a testament to the show’s high entertainment value, Life Begins At 8:40‘s real prize was its radiantly eclectic cast, which included Ray Bolger, Brian Donlevy, Luella Gear, Frances Williams, Dixie Dunbar, Esther Junger, and the highlight of the proceedings, Bert Lahr. This ‘Cowardly Lion in training’ shone in sketches parodying the sophisticated English drawing room comedies (“Chin Up”), send ups of Noel Coward’s wonderfully shocking Design For Living (“C’est La Vie”), and specialty bits lambasting society recitalists (“Things“).


We are blessed to have an exhaustive 2010 recording that brilliantly captures the witty and literate essence of the score. I highly recommend it. However, with no original cast recordings available, we are missing the single most important ingredient in bringing the show to life. This material was designed for Lahr, Bolger, et al., and without the opportunity to hear them performing the numbers, it is impossible for us to truly understand the show. That said, the catchiness of the score transcends performers, so let’s use the rest of the post to take in Arlen, Harburg, and Gershwin at their best. Below is the only existing record of the original cast — a 1935 radio broadcast of Frances Williams singing “Spring Fever.” (I featured this in a Wildcard Wednesday post back in March.)

The biggest hit from the score is probably “You’re A Builder Upper,” which was performed originally Ray Bolger and Dixie Dunbar. The recording below is by composer Harold Arlen with the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (This is one of my favorite Arlen songs ever!)

Also a big song hit was Williams’ wistful “Fun To Be Fooled.” This particular rendition is from 1942 by the soothing Lee Wiley.

An example of the score’s sophistication can be found in “Quartet Erotica,” in which Lahr, Bolger, Brian Donlevy, and James McColl play Balzac, Boccaccio, de Maupassant, and Rabelais, respectively. Take a listen to the lyrics in this 2010 recording.

I wish that I were able to share all the great numbers from this score with you. There are many, like “Let’s Take A Walk Around The Block,” another one of the show’s hits, “What Can You Say In A Love Song (That Hasn’t Been Said Before)?,” a satirical romantic duet, “Shoein’ The Mare,” a Latin flavored dance number, and “I’m Not Myself,” Bolger’s delightfully manic solo. But I think I’ll end today’s post with Luella Gear’s mock torch song, “I Couldn’t Hold My Man.” This is Faith Prince from the 2010 recording.



Come back next Monday for another early ’30s revue! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of The Mothers-In-Law!

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