Harold Arlen wrote the soundtrack to long nighttime walks on wet streets, to the staring contests we hold with memory out of the windows of our lonely room, to the melancholy poets of heartache who compose their verse around impatient shouts of “last call.” Anyone who dares to love or dream receives an invitation to Arlen’s world. But the invitation remains written in invisible ink, its words emerging only on the evening when The Someone in your life slams the door for the final time, or during that stormy afternoon when you gaze past the sepia-soaked Kansas plains and half-ask, half-plead, “Why can’t I?” and get no answer.
Dylan called Arlen’s pocket universe a “bittersweet, lonely world.” On the nights when one of us sits in Lonelyville (Population: You), Arlen’s songs make us feel better by making us feel even worse.
In The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen, Walter Rimler tells the story behind Judy Garland’s interpretation of an Arlen/Ira Gershwin collaboration that may have gotten you through a tough time or two:
Hours passed before Ira had its opening lines, “The night is bitter / The stars have lost their glitter / The winds grow colder / And suddenly you’re older.” Half a day was spent on “Good riddance, goodbye”—the first three words and five notes of the bridge. For Arlen, bridges were occasions to explore unusual musical territory, and this time he was particularly adventurous. At “fools will be fools,” the melody and harmony seem to lose each other, making it necessary for the singer to thread her way through a sequence of unfriendly, almost atonal chords.
At the end of the song, in the coda, Arlen returns—we don’t know if it was intentionally—to Leonore’s “It sounds like Gershwin” remark and goes ahead and writes like George, pitting the edgy “the night is bitter” music against a fresh and expansive setting of the title phrase—just as Gershwin had joined a nervous countermelody to the famous slow theme of the Rhapsody in Blue.
Arlen knew it was a powerhouse song and thought Ira’s lyric “glorious.” But Ira wanted to wait a while before letting Judy hear it. It isn’t clear why he felt this way. Maybe he was worried that her judgment would be clouded by their close friendship. He was godfather to her and Vincente Minnelli’s daughter Liza, and it was to the Gershwin home that she repaired during the fights that led to the breakup of that marriage. But Harold had no doubt about the song and was eager to play it for her. He told Ira he was going to take a few days off and relax in Palm Springs—knowing that Judy was there with Sid Luft and scriptwriter Moss Hart. Ira knew this, too, and asked Harold not to go there to play them the song. Harold said he had no such intention, that he just needed rest, and drove the hundred miles to the Tamarisk Country Club, found Judy and Sid on the golf course, and walked it with them.
“About the middle of the round,” he recalled, “I started to whistle very softly. I don’t know what tempted me. She was about twenty yards away—it was kind of a tease and I couldn’t stand it. I love Ira and I love Judy, and well, I whistled the main phrase of ‘The Man That Got Away.’” That was all it took. Judy asked him what he was whistling, he gave her a coy “I don’t know,” and she, certain it was a song for the movie, stopped the golf game and took him to the piano in the clubhouse, where he got what he’d come for: a happy moment. Judy loved the song, as did Sid Luft, Moss Hart, and Hart’s wife Kitty Carlisle. They all went “went wild with joy,” as Arlen later recalled.