Popularized by the 1930
film of the same name, where Harry Richman
sent the song to the top of the pop charts. The song would appear again several times in the movies, with Clark Gable
singing it in Idiot's Delight
(1939), although most folks will recall Fred Astaire
's version in Blue Skies
(1946). It is Fred Astaire's version that Gene Wilder
and Peter Boyle
are spoofing in Young Frankenstein
. Both films have the singers in tuxedos, see, but while Astaire is debonair
, Boyle, as Frankenstein's monster, is quite the opposite. Hilarity ensues.
Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland also covered the song, so I suppose who you think popularized the song depends on how far back you follow American musical history.
The lyrics that appear in both Blue Skies
and Young Frankenstein
are not the original ones that Irving Berlin
wrote, however. In the 1920's
, the phrase "puttin' on the ritz" was not a compliment
. It connoted "putting on airs," aspiring to the grandeur
of the Ritz
hotels, when you really did not have the social status to pull it off.
"If you mention some really worth while novel like, say, ‘Black Oxen’, they think you're trying to put on the Ritz." --Ring Lardner, 1926.
Berlin's original lyrics were not poking fun at the nouveaux riche
or upwardly mobile middle class in the Manhattan
of the 1940's, but at the cultural explosion of the 1920's Harlem Renaissance
. In these lyrics, the singer invites others (presumably whites) to go slumming
and head up to Harlem, ostensibly not to visit the Savoy
or Cotton Club
(on Lenox Avenue), but to amuse themselves by watching the blacks "put on the ritz."
Have you seen the well-to-do
up on Lenox Avenue?
On that famous thoroughfare,
with their noses in the air?
High hats and colored collars,
white spats and fifteen dollars;
spending every dime
for a wonderful time.
If you're blue and you don't know where to go to,
Why don't you go where Harlem sits
Puttin' on the Ritz.
upon the bevy
of high browns
from down the levee,
all misfits -
Puttin' on the Ritz!
That's where each and every Lulu Belle goes,
ev'ry Thursday evening with her swell beaux –
Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
and see them spend their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz!
While not strictly a coon song
(which Berlin had been writing for vaudeville
as early as 1909
), the song is another example of Berlin's borrowing from both the minstrel show
tradition and the syncopation
of the Black jazz bands of the 1930s.
Ammer, Christine. "Put on the dog." The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms. 1997. Quoted in Xrefer. http://www.xrefer.com/entry.jsp?xrefid=635948. (15 April 2002)
Beck, Sanderson. Film review of "Puttin’ on the Ritz." Movie Mirrors. 31 January 2002. <http://www.san.beck.org/MM/1930/PuttinontheRitz.html> (15 April 2002)
Corliss, Richard. "That Old Feeling: a Berlin Bio-pic." 30 December 2001. TIME.com.<http://www.time.com/time/sampler/article/0,8599,190220,00.html> (15 April 2002)
----. "That Old Christmas Feeling: Irving America." 24 December 2001. TIME.com.<http://www.time.com/time/sampler/article/0,8599,189846,00.html> (15 April 2002)
"Re: REQ : Puttin' on the Ritz lyrics." 9 January 1998. <alt.music.lyrics.> (15 April 2002)
"Ritz." Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00207393> (15 April 2002)
Schiff, David. "For Everyman, by Everyman." The Atlantic Monthly. March 1996. Volume 277, No. 3; pages 108-112.
< http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/96mar/everyman/everyman.htm> (15 April 2002)