“Take Your Girlie to the Movies,” as recorded by Billy Murray, 1919.
Popular songs often speak to issues of the period in which they are written, providing commentary on political, social, and cultural issues. Most of the songs in the early twentieth century focused on themes in the zeitgeist: the Great War (World War I), Hawaii, Egypt, communication, transportation, entertainment, and even suffrage. Some combined these topics, often in humorous ways.
In the summer of 1919, people had much to celebrate. The Great War had finally ended on November 11, 1918 and the world was slowly adjusting to a hard fought peace. After more than a year, the Great Influenza Epidemic had run its course after killing more people worldwide than all those lost in battle over the previous four years. On June 4, 1919, the United States Senate passed the Suffrage Act, better known as the Anthony Amendment following the House of Representatives’ action a few weeks earlier. The Amendment passed on to state legislatures, finally ratified a year later.
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Movies saw huge crowds return to theaters after many were shut down during the Flu Epidemic. Many people finally felt free and relaxed enough to laugh after struggling through years of war and health scares. At the same time, vast numbers of couples saw moving picture theatres as a popular courting site, free of family and friend interference.
Before the War, courtship was strictly managed by families. Men called at a girl’s home to spend an evening visiting her, while her family remained to chaperone activities. Until just a few years before, even social events outside the home featured supervision to ensure girls remained chaste and pure. Possibly walking to or from an event might be the only time a young couple could steal a few quiet moments alone to enjoy a quick kiss or embrace. With more young women gaining independence after the war, attending movies often became a way to enjoy a little physical romance of the petting persuasion.
Composers Edgar Leslie and Bert Kalmar combined romance and movies in their hit comedic song, “Take Your Girlie to the Movies” in the summer of 1919. Leslie, a writer-for-hire, worked with many other musicians to create songs such as “For Me and My Gal” and “California and You.” Vaudevillian Bert Kalmar drifted into composing in 1911 to help write songs for his comedic act, long before he began his long, fruitful association with Harry Ruby.
Popular illustrator Albert Barbelle designed a catchy and ironic sheet music cover, showing two romantic couples eying a loving pair onscreen at a local movie palace. While the onscreen Romeo puckered up for a kiss, the two sheiks in the audience tightly embraced their red hot mamas in preparation for a little loving.
The humorous lyrics play up the film theatre’s darkness as the perfect petting opportunity.
Take your girlie to the movies,
If you can’t make love at home;
There’s no little brother there who always squeals;
You can say an awful lot in seven reels;
Take your lessons at the movies,
And have love scenes of your own,
When the picture’s over and it’s time to leave,
Don’t forget to brush the powder off your sleeve;
Take your girlie to the movies,
If you can’t make love at home.
The problem of “petting,” as explored in the New Castle News of New Castle, Pa., Nov. 5, 1925.
To help set the mood, Leslie and Kalmar introduce popular cultural elements throughout the piece that play up movies as well as newspapers. Their patter begins with the name of Beatrice Fairfax, one of the first advice columnists of her day, a hook employed by the Wharton Brothers in 1916 in their episodic moving picture serial entitled “Beatrice Fairfax.” Near the end, they mention attractive young actress Billie Burke, who we now know as the Glenda the Good Witch in “the Wizard of Oz.” They also feel free to joke about the flu, writing the line “Don’t catch influenza kissing in the park.”
“Take Your Girlie to the Movies” quickly caught on with the American public rising to the top of the charts, both in sheet music and in records, through September. Columbia Records’ advertisements in a wide variety of newspapers note its availability at music stores and department stores, with promotions running through the fall of 1920.
Vaudeville performers quickly began performing it, liking its catchy lyrics and melody. Edna Goodrich and Harry Watson Jr. performed it in a revue at the Palace Theatre June 19, 1919 in a section called “Topics of the Day.” The act consisted of a few popular songs followed by a film monologue and then the song, “Take Your Girlie to the Movies.” The Avon Comedy Four employed it as part of their act in 1920 as part of a skit called “At the Movies.” Muriel Hudson and Wilson & Larson performed the song as well.
The New York Evening World quoted the title in a November 27, 1920 story about the housing shortage, describing families and others cooped up in residences and boarding houses, thanks to more working girls heading off on their own. Because of this, the most private place for a makeup session was often a dark motion picture theatre.
In 1922, Syracuse, New York banned the song when the Syracuse Theatrical Management Association “decreed local picture houses as a lovers’ retreat is taboo and forbidden.” Exhibitors issued instructions to managers and ushers “to put the lid on mush.” Some suggested creating signs or making announcements before screenings about not practicing what you see on screen simultaneously.
“Take Your Girlie to the Movies,” recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $12.49.
The November 5, 1925 Newcastle News mentioned the song in a ironic take on petting and romance among young couples, noting how film theaters were sometimes the only place where a couple could find a little privacy for romance, describing how standards were loosening and changing. “The youth of today are an experimental lot. They are eager to discover the things they should have been told. Petting parties are experiments, delving deeper and deeper into the realms of the senses until caution hangs out the danger sign.”
Over the years, more problems with couples petting and making out arose, with the December 4, 1937 Showman’s Trade Review reporting a problem of necking in film theatres, something many surrounding patrons found annoying. They suggested ushers inform their managers, who would then approach the offending couples to suggest they dial down their actions.
Some people quickly realized the great publicity bent of the song in attracting audiences to the movies. Hyman Potts in a February 7, 1926 letter to Variety called it “a singing commercial for the movies,” noting how many radio stations were employing it in catching jingles promoting moviegoing.
Variety reported in a December 2, 1930 story that Detroit’s Fisher Theatre created a pre-show ad featuring performing Lou Kosloff describing bringing a girl to the movies by singing the song, followed by large production number featuring a chorus performing to the song. Kay Kyser’s band recorded “Take Your Girlie to the Movies” in 1935 in what Variety called “his ultra-modern jazz style,” leading several theatres to use a short clip in radio ads promoting their upcoming shows. In the 1940s, some claimed the song had stimulated more business than any song ever written.
While a few more groups recorded “Take Your Girlie to the Movies” in the 1940s and 1950s, the song was virtually forgotten by the 1960s. A piece of nostalgia for some, the tune happily joins movies and romance, something that carries on to this day.