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Remembering Night and Day

Only Cole Porter could have produced these lines.

Portrait of Cole Porter
Cole Porter, song writer and playwright, shown in his cabin aboard the Santa Paula, December 16th, as he sailed for a combined vacation and business cruise to the Caribbean. (Getty)

What is the greatest love song produced by a Broadway show? “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific? “Make Believe” from Showboat? “If I Loved You" from Carousel? Perhaps “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady? All have a solid claim to that title. But to me one stands out, an unconventional classic that appeared ninety years ago in Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce, “Night and Day.”

Nineteen thirty-two was a tough time for Broadway, America, and the world. The Depression had about hit the bottom. Franklin Roosevelt had been elected, but no one knew what to expect from him. The Bonus Army had been disbanded brutally by the Hoover administration, and the nation was horrified by the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. When Gay Divorce premiered on November 29, the big international story was Hitler’s Nazi party gaining the largest number of seats in the Reichstag.

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Cole Porter was born to a wealthy family in Indiana in 1893. He attended Yale to study law, but a fascination with popular music drew him to Broadway. While his first show, the 1916 See America First, was a flop, he had his first hit, "Old Fashioned Garden," after serving in World War I.

Throughout the 1920s, he drifted back and forth between New York and Paris, studying music with talented composers such as Vincent d’Indy and writing songs that were considered smart and witty but a little too sophisticated for Tin Pan Alley and the public’s taste. He gained a reputation as a talented amateur, someone who liked to project the image that it was bad form to be seen working hard. He sought success in the Big Apple but on his terms. As one of his biographers Brendan Gill wrote, he wanted to be pursued by Broadway.

He broke through in the late 1920s with minor hit shows, but more importantly produced the first song that showed the clever word play and memorable tune that would typify his music, the polished and slightly risqué, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” with its catchy opening: “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, Let’s fall in Love.” The “educated fleas” was the kind of Porter touch that would characterize his lyrics.

Between 1928 and 1930, hits such as “What is This Thing Called Love,” “You Do Something to Me,” and “Love for Sale” helped make him a Broadway pet. But he was still regarded as something of a clever amateur. “Night and Day” changed that.

Porter’s earlier shows, Paris and Fifty Million Frenchmen had been reviews, like most Broadway musicals then. Showboat would be an exception. Gay Divorce would have a slightly believable story behind it: something about a man pursuing a woman seeking a divorce and being confused as the co-respondent. Given his reputation, Porter did not have too much trouble finding backers.

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For the male lead, he approached Fred Astaire, the kind of debonair character who reflected Porter’s own urban sophistication. The dancer Claire Luce would be the female lead. Astaire was attempting a show for the first time without his longtime partner, his sister Adele, and he wanted to be sure he wasn’t making a mistake. He liked some of the songs, particularly an undistinguished ballad, “After You, Who,” but had doubts about “Night and Day.” Porter had written it with Astaire in mind and tailored it to his vocal range, which was limited. Astaire wasn’t the only one who disliked the number. When Porter’s old friend, Monty Wooley, heard “Night and Day” the first time, he said it was terrible and that he should drop it from the show. Porter knew better.

The song is longer than the traditional Tin Pan Alley number. It is 48 bars instead of the traditional 32 of the average ballad. Porter began “Night and Day” with the then traditional introduction:

            Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom

            When the jungle shadows fall

            Like the tick, tick, tock of the stately clock

            As it stands against the wall

            Like the drip drip of the raindrops

            When the summer’s shower is through

            So a voice within me

            Keeps repeating

            You, You, You

The romantic exoticism of the song is maintained throughout.

            Day and Night

            Why is it so?

            That the longing for you follows wherever I go

            In the roaring traffic’s boom

            In the silence of my lonely room

            I think of you

            Night and Day

The contrast of “roaring traffic’s boom” and “silence of my lonely room” is pure Porter.

            Night and Day under the hide of me

            There’s an oh, such a hungry yearning, burning inside of me.

Only Porter could produce the line about one’s “hide of me” in a love song.

The Gay Divorcee was a huge hit. It ran for 248 performances in New York and then went to London, where it scored a great success and ran for 180 performances. “Night and Day,” as sung by Astaire in his inimical soft way and danced beautifully with Luce, was the hit of the show. It was the first but not the last classic song that Astaire would introduce. He was the first to perform “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “They all Laughed,” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day,” among others.

After the show, Astaire left for Hollywood where RKO made a film version of the musical. The title was changed to Gay Divorcee because Hays Office, Hollywood’s censoring bureau, and the studio believed a divorce couldn’t be gay, but a divorcee could. The film was a great success—it earned $1.8 million, a lot of money in those depression years—and was the second in which Astaire danced with his longtime partner, Ginger Rogers. It established them as America’s premier dance team.

“Night and Day” is Porter’s best-known song ("Begin the Beguine” is a close second). The first recordings of it as a single appeared in January 1933 with Bing Crosby, then beginning his reign as America’s top vocalist. Since then, the song has been recorded by everyone, including Frank Sinatra, who did numerous versions, often changing the words, something Porter disliked. Ella Fitzgerald had a hit version and various jazz musicians have toyed with it, among them Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday. It may have been the single most recorded popular song until the Beatles came along.

When Hollywood made a musical biography of Porter’s life in 1946, they naturally titled it Night and Day. Porter was pleased to have Cary Grant portray him, but thought the film silly. It certainly took liberties with Porter’s story and of course, given the time, hid his homosexuality. The film does have most of Porter’s songs performed well, including a droll version of “Miss Otis Regrets” by a charming Monty Wooley. The film was a big hit, although we would have to wait for almost a half century with De-Lovely to get a more accurate portrait of Porter’s life.

After The Gay Divorcee, Porter would have an even greater success with Anything Goes, which included a string of standards: “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-lovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and the title song itself. Porter’s other shows in the late 30s and early 40s were mildly successful, and he continued to write many popular songs including “Begin the Beguine,” “Easy to Love,” and “In the Still of the Night,” which reduced the gross Lewis B. Mayer to tears. He didn’t reach the heights of Broadway success again until Kiss Me Kate in 1948, which was by far his greatest triumph.

Porter loved “Night and Day," although he noted that at times people thought it was the only song he wrote. Had it been, it wouldn’t have been a bad epitaph.

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