Betty Garrett and Red Skelton, reversing roles in the song’s 1948 Hollywood premiere.
This Christmastime, last Christmastime and for many holiday seasons past, writers and commenters of the Internet have gathered to argue over the holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The conversations and accusations are rarely about the song’s merits as a Tin Pan Alley jazz-pop composition. Instead, we wonder if the playful exchange of the man and woman is actually the loaded conversation before a sinister date rape. Or is the whole song just a harmless relic of a bygone time when “The answer is No” meant not “No,” but “maybe just a half a drink more,” and then, later, “lend me your comb.”
We will not talk about that. Go to Salon or the Atlantic for such debates. We are going to talk about the song itself, while we listen to various interpretations, and we will assume the lyric is about a couple doing what couples have often done, which is to overthink everything and worry about what neighbors and relatives will say, and then eventually just blame the eventual deed on the timeworn suspects of drink, lack of cabs and bad weather.
A songwriter named Frank Loesser created the words and music, and for years he and his wife Lynn performed the duet at private parties. It became their own holiday tradition, this secular Christmas song about seduction, written by a Jew. And then Frank sold the song to Hollywood, where it was used twice in the same otherwise forgettable Esther Williams swimming-pool musical. But the song stood out, and won the 1948 Academy Award for best original song in a motion picture.
Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán bring interracial love to white America, 1948.
Today, in our enlightened era when we only send robots to war, one feminist response to the lyrics has been to reverse them, with the female vocalist taking the role of the “wolf” and the male singing the “mouse”—Loesser named the parts “wolf” and “mouse” on his original lyric sheet. While this may right an ancient wrong, it does nothing for the cause of gay marriage, and also this was done in 1948, in the movie where the song first appeared: Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sing the duet with the traditional male and female parts reversed, meaning the tradition is actually to reverse the genders in the song. (There are two renditions in the movie, Neptune’s Daughter, with Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams taking the male-wolf/female-mouse approach.)
What does advance the cause of gay marriage is the Bing Crosby/Jimmy Stewart live radio version from 1949, sadly not captured on film but available here as Track 10 of this podcast collection. “Very romantic,” Bing says to applause as they finish the duet. “I’m sure that lovers around the world will find inspiration in our offering.” And he was right.
Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, 2009.
The song charted five times as an American single, with Ray Charles and Betty Carter hitting the Top 100 with maybe the sexiest version, or the creepiest version, depending. But by the early 1980s it had lost its erection. Barry Manilow put it on a Christmas album for old people repulsed by the disco and the soul. The song vanished from modern radio, even during the holidays. New wave, roots rock, hair metal, hip hop, grunge, industrial, Madonna, just about every musical style and fad passed it by, until the mid 1990s revival of all things swing and Sinatra and Swingers. The charmingly loungey duo of Marty & Elayne, the house entertainment at the Dresden Room in Los Feliz, played it for the Generation X’rs who had colonized the run-down neighborhood east of East Hollywood. It was on the jukebox at Ye Rustic Inn and the karaoke holiday list at the Drawing Room. In the U.K., a revved-up version by ageless belter Tom Jones made the charts in 1999.
Christmas of 2001, I remember hearing it three times—three different versions including a Dean Martin slurred take and the one by Al Hirt and Ann Margret—while walking through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power holiday lights at Griffith Park. It was back.
Ann Margret and Al Hirt, 1964.
In 2003, a blonde actress named Zooey Deschanel sang the song in the shower, while Will Ferrell’s elf character innocently stalked the lady’s restroom. Deschanel did the duet with Leon Redbone on the Elf soundtrack, and again with M. Ward on their 2011 holiday album, A Very She & Him Christmas. Their version, both retro and modern, reverses the male and female lyrics just as was first done in 1948. The animated video of the song was released this week:
She & Him, 2011.
Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell from the movie Elf, 2003.
From Elf to Glee, the song has become America’s secular holiday anthem, having made the rare journey from Tin Pan Alley standard to hipster holiday playlist to mainstream pop success all over again: Have you heard the new CeeLo and Christina version? It’s suitable for playing around people of whatever vague religious or non-religious background, and it fuels another round of “Is it about date rape?” online arguments every December. How many 1944 songs are reliable page-view generators today?
Like Bing and Jimmy all over again, the Glee cast in 2012.
How many 1944 pop songs inspire Islamist jihad? “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has done that, too. Sayyid Qutb became radicalized during his time in America, and he was especially hot and bothered after attending a church dance in Colorado, in 1951. As the sexy song played, Qutb watched in outrage as everyone else got cozy: “The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs,” he later wrote. “Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.” Well, it’s a sexy song! We would all go to church for dances and making out on the dance floor, if such things were still available at our nation’s churches.
Qutb returned to Egypt and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966. His disciple’s nephew is the current head of Al-Qaeda.
Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton, live on stage. They first recorded the song just a year after it won the Oscar.
And finally, listen to the original, as recorded by songwriter Frank Loesser and his wife, Lynn Loesser. Her vocal is a revelation, rich with meaning and barely suppressed laughter. It’s no wonder the song was an immediate hit at the New York and Hollywood holiday parties where the Loessers performed the song to Frank’s piano accompaniment, and no wonder that he feared he would never write another song so good:
Loesser wrote the words and music to many Broadway hits and misses during his career, including the songs for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Guys and Dolls. Everybody who ever fools around on a piano will play a bit of “Heart and Soul.” But “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is the one that is still accumulating airplay and digital play and new recorded versions a dozen years into the next century.