Steyn’s song of the week: ‘Buttons and Bows’

Steyn’s song of the week: ‘Buttons and Bows’ February 27, 2007


Growing up, my favorite Bob Hope movie by far was Son of Paleface (1952) — which, as I discovered years later, was directed by Frank Tashlin, a former animator at Looney Toons.

I wasn’t too surprised when I found out about that. The film is sort of a sequel to The Paleface (1948), but it’s also something of a lampoon of the earlier film, and of westerns in general. The first film was a straightforward comedy that happens to be set in the wild wild west, but the second film is an out-and-out spoof of the genre, and indeed of the very nature of filmmaking itself, with animated and pseudo-animated sight gags, star turns by Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger, a cameo by Cecil B. DeMille, various gimmicks that break the fourth wall, and — in the scene depicted above — a parody of the song that made the first film famous.

The song in question won the Oscar for Best Song in 1948, and one of its composers — lyricist Ray Evans — died recently, so the combination of obituary and the past weekend’s Oscars prompted Mark Steyn to devote this week’s ‘Song of the Week‘ column to ‘Buttons and Bows’, and I love some of his insights, e.g.:

So instead of pondering the thin gruel of this year’s nominees let’s turn, as promised a few days ago, to a multi-Oscared songwriter who died just a week and a half before this year’s show. Ray Evans and his partner Jay Livingston wrote three Academy Award winners (and another four nominees). “Que Sera, Sera” (Song Of The Week #17), and before that “Mona Lisa”, and before that their very first Oscar-winning song:

East is east
And west is west
And the wrong one I have chose
Let’s go where
They keep on wearin’
Those frills and flowers and Buttons And Bows
Rings and things and Buttons And Bows
. . .

The clippetty-cloppy rhythm was just right for the movie – Hope sings it in a covered wagon, and the song alludes directly to his predicament:

My bones denounce
The buckboard bounce…

You can hear the buckboard in the tune. It’s a simple song, but written in the jaunty buckboard bounce of a wagon rumbling westward across a bumpy trail and strung around an Americanized take on “East is east, and west is west, and ne’er the twain…” Hope likes his gals citified and refined, not in chaps and buckskin. “Buttons And Bows” is a “bouncy lament” (in Stanley Green’s phrase), which is perfect for a western number that’s anti-western. There used to be a whole bunch of those – “Way Out West,” wrote Rodgers and Hart, “where seldom is heard an intelligent word”. But “Buttons And Bows” isn’t about snobbery. It’s a man pining for femininity. If you pick up the CD he made with Michael Feinstein right at the end of his life, you can hear Jay Livingston giving a marvelously heartfelt rendition of the verse:

A western ranch
Is just a branch
Of Nowhere Junction to me
Give me the city
Where living’s pretty
And the gals wear fi-ne-reee
. . .

It was so big they reprised it in Son Of Paleface, with Hope as Painless Potter’s son and Jane Russell squeezed into the kind of get-up he wanted her in all along. When she descends the staircase of the saloon shoehorned into a scarlet bodice, steam begins to rise from Bob’s pipe. Standing alongside, Roy Rogers is completely unmoved. “What’s the matter?” asks Hope. “Don’t you like girls?”

“I’ll stick to horses, mister,” says Rogers – which more or less confirms Hope’s general view of the neighborhood:

Don’t bury me
In this prairie
Take me where the cement grows…

The song put in a third appearance at Paramount – in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. William Holden sneaks out of Gloria Swanson’s mausoleum and heads off to a party with all the young movie crowd. Livingston and Evans are in there, seated at the piano and playing “Buttons And Bows”. They’d written another number for the scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”, but Paramount thought it was too in. . . .

The close of the lyric has one of my all-time favorite couplets from the entire American songbook:

Gimme eastern trimmin’
Where women are women
In high silk hose
And peek-a-boo clothes
And French perfume
That rocks the room
And I’m all yours in Buttons And Bows…

“French perfume that rocks the room”: lovely example of how one word (“rocks”) can freshen up even the most familiar image. Ray Evans did that in his songs for half a century. Rest in peace.

It’s funny, BTW, that this song should have popped up in both Son of Paleface and Sunset Boulevard (1950), since both films have cameos by Cecil B. DeMille in common, too!

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