Irish-American Standards at a Glance: It’s a Great Day for the Irish

It's a great day for Judy Garland.

It’s a great day for Judy Garland.

“It’s a Great Day for the Irish” is Judy Garland’s song. The song was specifically written for her, and she debuted it in 1940 in the film “Little Nellie Kelly.”

Little Nelly Kelly.

Little Nelly Kelly.

Although Garland had already made 16 films, including “The Wizard of Oz,” she was most often in supporting roles. “Little Nellie Kelly” was intended to test whether she could she could sustain a lead career. The film was based on George M. Cohan’s 1922 Broadway show and capitalized on Garland’s Irish-American identity. (She was 1/4 Irish, and had a maternal grandmother from Ireland.)

“Little Nellie Kelly” tells the story of two generations of romantic struggle, starting in Ireland, when the title character marries a man her father objects to and he promises never to speak to her husband again. She dies in America, and her daughter likewise grows up to fall in love with a man her father objects to. Both mother and daughter were played by Judy Garland.

“It’s a Great Day for the Irish” was written for a scene taking place in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, during which Garland marches with her family and points out the various Irish-Americans also in the parade. As a result, the song has become a St. Patrick’s Day favorite.

Roger Edens and Judy Garland.

Roger Edens and Judy Garland.

The song was authored by Scots Irish composer Roger Edens, one of the great arrangers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was Judy Garland’s original vocal trainer and worked with her over her entire career.

Leavenworth Bulletin, March 16, 1870

Leavenworth Bulletin, March 16, 1870

The use of the phrase “great day for the Irish” is older than the song. It dates back to at least 1870, when The Leavenworth Bulletin of Leavenworth, KS, used the phrase in reference to St. Patrick’s Day that year. In fact, there were earlier songs with the same title, although there is little documentation about them.

The 1940 song has been extensively covered; according to Wikipedia, singers include Bing Crosby, Ruby Murray, Daniel O’Donnell, and The Clancy Brothers.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra

Just a simple ditty.

Just a simple ditty.

“Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” was composed in 1913 for a Tin Pan Alley musical called “Shameen Dhu.” The show was scripted by Rida Johnson Young, herself an accomplished songwriter, and wrote the lyrics and book to “Naughty Marietta,” one of the great successes for composer Victor Herbert. The comedy told of an anonymous poet in Kincannon, Ireland, who goes by the pen name Shameen Dhu, meaning “Black Jamie”

The star of the show was Chauncey Olcott, the American Broadway star who specialized in Irish characters and who introduced the world to (and got writing credit for) “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Olcott made a recording of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” in 1914, released through Columbia, and it became a number one hit. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” have strikingly similar melodies, but Olcott’s recording of the former went mostly unnoticed.

“Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra’s” composer was J.R. Shannon, whose real name was James Royce, an Irish-American composer from Michigan who also wrote “The Missouri Waltz,” which later became the state song of Missouri. Shannon spent much of his life in Detroit, where he was a drama critic and managed several music businesses, before he died in 1946 by stepping in front of an oncoming train.

It's actually an Irish-American lullaby.

It’s actually an Irish-American lullaby.

The song found new popularity in 1944 when Bing Crosby performed it in the popular film “Going My Way.” Crosby released the song as a single, selling a million copies and spending 100 weeks on Billboard’s charts, reaching the #4 slot. In the late 60s, when Crosby was a guest on the Joey Bishop show. Bishop asked Crosby to sing the song for his sidekick, who was a fan of Crosby’s. The sidekick was a very young Regis Philbin, who is half Irish-American, and who performed one of Crosby’s own songs back to him. The following day Crosby helped Philbin get a recording contract at Mercury Records.

When Crosby was buried at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles in 1977, “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” was one of the songs played at the church service.

Even if the song was not originally Irish, many Irish musicians have either covered the song or borrowed from it. Van Morrison performed a version of the song with The Band, captured on the documentary “The Last Waltz.”

Dexys Midnight Runners: Too-Rye-Ay.

Dexys Midnight Runners: Too-Rye-Ay.

Dexys Midnight Runners, led by English songwriter Kevin Rowland (whose parents came from County Mayo), not only used the song as part of the chorus for their 1982 hit “Come On Eileen,” but named the album that featured it “Too-Rye-Ay.”

Shane McGowan, formerly of the Pogues, borrowed the song’s chorus for his song “A Christmas Lullaby,” recorded with his band The Popes.

Irish-American Film: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

He is that Yankee Doodle Boy: James Cagney as George M. Cohan.

He is that Yankee Doodle Boy: James Cagney as George M. Cohan.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Written by: Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston
Summary: James Cagney is typically electric, this time playing Broadway impresario George M. Cohan instead of a hoodlum; the film gloriously duplicates scenes from Cohan’s plays and embraces the man’s essential corniness.

There are two stories about Broadway impresario George M. Cohan’s response to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the 1942 biopic of his life. I don’t know which is true. Perhaps both are; both make sense. The first is that Cohan, surprised by the liberties taken with his biography, said “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”

In the second, Cohan is awed by the actor that he helped to select to play him, Jimmy Cagney, and declared “My God, what an act to follow!” Cagney wasn’t the first choice for the role — that was Fred Astaire, and Astaire wouldn’t have been a bad choice. He shared with Cohan long features and a sort of Broadway foppishness. But history has not remembered Cohan for having Astaire’s fussy elegance or wry sense of humor. It remembers Cohan for bombast.

Cagney was an inspired casting choice, and not just because he was an exceptionally skilled song-and-dance-man whose wild tap skills had rarely gotten a showcase, nor because Cagney was the definitive Irish New Yorker of the screen at the time. It’s also because Cagney’s bulldog persona, which most often found its screen expression in gangster roles, works just as well in a story about theater. His version of Cohan is cocky, brassy, and no-nonsense, although Cagney trades in his usual hair-trigger temper for an unexpected wistfulness. You get the sense that if any Hell’s Kitchen hoodlum had learned to dance and to respond to life’s frustrations and insults with a serene, devil-may-care smile, they all might have owned Broadway.

Cagney especially favors unexpected physical contact in this film, such as a secret kiss to the top of the hat of a producer who accepts his work.
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who was perhaps the best jobbing director in Hollywood, a living rebuke to the auteur theory of filmmaking. Curtiz managed at once to be exceptionally skilled as a filmmaker and almost totally anonymous, never superimposing his own authorial vision on the film he was making. As a result, Curtiz was equally comfortable — and skilled — at lensing pirate films, noir, and musicals. What other director might boast “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Casablanca,” and “White Christmas” on their resume, and who else would handle all three so deftly?

So, as he always did, Curtiz mostly got out of the way of the story, providing occasional director flourishes only when it serves the need of the story, such as a brilliant montage sequence in which a camera glides along Broadway, from theater to theater, each playing a Cohan production, each representing the passage of time. Curtiz also got out of the way of Cagney, who always liked to add comic flourishes to his performance, and they abound here — Cagney especially favors unexpected physical contact in this film, such as a secret kiss to the top of the hat of a producer who accepts his work, and a series of small jabs to his producing partner’s chest and nose that Cohan makes when he has had an idea. Cagney owns this movie, not just because he mimics Cohan performance style so well, including his speak-singing and his stiff-legged tapping that explodes into near gymnastics. Cagney also owns the movie because he seems to be having so much fun with it, as though the greatest prank a man might enjoy is to become the toast of Broadway.

It is in the musical numbers that director Curtiz’s combination of anonymity and supercompetence shows itself best, as the various scenes from Cohan plays are, reportedly, exceptionally accurate reproductions of the original performances. Curtiz’s camera moves around the stage unobtrusively, letting stage theatrics do the heavy lifting, and indulging in the overblown, artificial pleasures of early Broadway. Cohan’s stage was crowded with actors (and sometimes horses), and they would pile onto massive moving sets, including boats and trains, where they would sing his signature songs, which rank among history’s greatest earworms. His stage productions were overblown and absurd, indulging in such broadly sentimental values as patriotism and mother-love, and if Cohan were just a purveyor of pablum, a dishonorable dealer in cheap theatrics and emotion, they would be unbearable. But there never seemed to be any dishonesty in Cohan’s writing — he really seemed to view these subjects as important and worth theatrical exploration, as though the whole world had waited for an extended musical number, performed by hundreds of showpeople, about how grand the American flag is.

As it turned out, he was right, and it’s still rather stunning to see. The film, like Cohan, is often hokey, especially in its framing device, in which Cohan is summoned to the White House and finds himself spilling his life story to the President. But this scene culminates in Cagney, as Cohan, launching into an impromptu, joyous tap dance down the White House steps, and suddenly its no longer an awkward framing device, but an opportunity to express real, spontaneous joy.

Cohan knew, and Cagney knew, that there is nothing more theatrical, and all the tools of theater should be put in the service of explosive displays of real human sentiment.