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The Most Beautiful Girls in the World

Hats off to Bacall, Garbo, Loren, and all of the other ''beautiful girls'' invoked by musical theater lyricists. logo

Lauren Bacall
Saw Summer of '42 at the Variety Arts. Decent little show. Eminently professional. I wish it all the luck in the world. And how I smiled when I heard a line in the song "I Think I Like Her"--when the teens say that Dorothy, the fetching, twenty-something woman who's moved into their neighborhood, is "Greta Garbo and Lana Turner combined."

I'm always amused when musical theater songs tell us who was considered beautiful in the eras in which their shows are set. This Summer of '42 song certainly does not mark the first time that Garbo and Turner were named in musicals. Larry Hart, of course, paired Garbo with Dietrich in "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" in 1935's Jumbo, and those two long-deceased ladies were still being mentioned in two 1990s period musicals: In Ain't Broadway Grand, Mike Todd said that looking at his wife Joan Blondell was like "watching Crawford, Dietrich, and Garbo." Then, in Victor/Victoria, Toddy told Victoria during the song "Trust Me" that, should she become Victor, "You'll be bigger than Garbo and Dietrich by far."

Over the years, Garbo got a couple of other mentions that I know of. "Glamorous as Garbo" goes the lyric in "Sounds While Shopping" in She Loves Me. And in "When I'm Drunk, I'm Beautiful"--Angela Lansbury's stunning 11 o'clock number in Prettybelle--Mrs. Prettybelle Sweet compared her inebriated self to "Garbo, Harlow, Miss Lucy Ball." (Listen, I love Lucy as much as the next person, but I do think lyricist Bob Merrill was stretching when he used her in the lyric. Lucy was a number of wonderful things, but I never heard anyone else call her "beautiful." And who ever thought of her as "Miss Lucy Ball?")

As for Lana Turner: In the early '50s, Top Banana featured a nifty song called "You're So Beautiful That." How beautiful is she, you ask? According to Johnny Mercer's lyric, "Lana Turner turns green." He went on to cite "Liz, Ava, Greer, and Arlene." I knew that Liz was Liz Taylor, Ava was Ava Gardner, and Greer was Greer Garson--but I wasn't as sure about Arlene. I asked my Thursday night group at J.R.'s and six men immediately stated "Dahl" in unison. (Frankly, I had suspected it was she.) As for Liz and Ava, Ms. Taylor was mentioned in the title song of Here's Love, and Ms. Gardner was still beautiful enough in 1955 for Cole Porter to include her in "Stereophonic Sound" in Silk Stockings. Before that, Porter was doing his part to keep Mae West before the public eye: "If Mae West you like" is part of a lyric in the title song of Anything Goes and the phrase "gay Mae West" (who knew?) may be heard in "They Couldn't Compare to You" in Out of This World.

If Ava Gardner was ever mentioned in a musical theater song after 1955, it's news to me. That was the year that Gina Lollobrigida apparently assumed the mantle, being mentioned in "Italy" in Ankles Aweigh (a cast album that has to be heard to be believed). Even in 1967, Ms. Lollobrigida was still being remembered in "They Don't Make' Em Like That Anymore" in How Now, Dow Jones--though she shared the lyric with Sophia Loren. A year before, Ms. Loren herself split a lyric with a French sex symbol in The Apple Tree, as Passionella's fans told her: "I don't love Sophia; I don't love Bardot; I love Passionella." (Barbara Harris delivered a most delicious reading of Passionella's response, "I know.")

By then, Sandra Dee had come on (and gone from) the scene but was mentioned in "I'm Blue, Too" in Henry, Sweet Henry. Dee's lasting fame was cemented five years later, when Rizzo in Grease mocked Sandy with "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee." (The actual Sandra Dee eventually made this the title of her autobiography.) Also referenced in that song was Doris Day, whom Sondheim had mentioned seven years earlier in "What Do We Do? We Fly!" in Do I Hear a Waltz? (It wasn't the first time Sondheim had cited former beauties; he included Vilma Banky and Theda Bara in Saturday Night). "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" also referenced Annette (as in Funicello) of TV's The Mickey Mouse Club, where she became the first girl to win my heart.

Jane Fonda got a nod in Applause (1970) when Lauren Bacall made a quip about her in "But Alive." Bacall herself rated a mention in Evita, when Mrs. Peron demanded that her staff "Lauren Bacall me"--and she is also mentioned in Baby as the women sing "I Want it All." During the '70s, when porno suddenly became mainstream, quite a different set of beauties showed up in Let My People Comes's "Linda, Georgina, Marilyn, and Me." The woman singing this ditty wanted to emulate porn stars Linda Lovelace (of Deep Throat), Georgina Spelvin (of The Devil and Miss Jones), and Marilyn Chambers (of Behind the Green Door). She predicted, "We'll go down on history." Think of this as a more freewheeling update of Larry Hart's 1940 lyric for "Zip," in which he drops the names of strippers--sorry, ecdysiasts--Margie Hart, Sally Rand, and Lily St. Cyr, the last of whom millions of people know from her mention in The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show.

In 1986, the beauty contestants in Smile stated, "I wish I looked like Teri Garr." but they also made a point of mentioning the recent vice-presidential candidate: "Like Gerry Ferraro, we girls of tomorrow..." In the '90s, Madonna got a mention as Bernadette Peters compared herself unfavorably to her in "A Beat Behind" in The Goodbye Girl. And before we say goodbye to the girls cited in all of these songs, let's remember two "Beautiful Girls" from an entirely different era--Delilah and Lorelei--who inspired some of Stephen Sondheim's most felicitous lyrics in Follies.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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