Monday, August 27, 2012

"I Like America" By Noël Coward

I had never heard this song before tonight... somehow it cheered me up from all talk of hurricanes and politics and rumors of wars and such.

The United States is a big nation, and what our government or some big company did or didn't do can have a negative effect on people now and then and, yeah, I get that.

But, as the video shows, Americans got some things right about civilization here and there. And we kept some nice scenery about despite our desire to build too many things.

Yeah, I like America, with all her faults. Tonight especially. And I'll write something negative on something about America I'm sure... but not tonight.

Call me biased. :-)

From the Songfacts website: "According to the Noël Coward Society, this song originated in 1949, and went into Ace Of Clubs the following year.

"Quintessential English gentleman Coward was no stranger to the United States, having set sail for New York aboard the SS Aquatania in May 1921, but his fascination with the country predates this; "The Baseball Rag" which he co-wrote with Doris Joel was published in 1919. This love affair was mutual, his plays were as familiar to Broadway audiences as to those in the West End of London. This song though is a slightly frivolous take on the love habits of Americans; in at least one recording where he plays or is accompanied on the piano, the closing strains of the song include a few bars of "Yankee Doodle"; he used a similar musical joke in "Mad Dogs And Englishmen"."


  1. An interesting bit of memorabilia there Doug from Mr Coward who by the time this song was written in 1949 had a lengthy track record as an asset of the British Secret Service. This is a classic bit of sung propaganda and is an excellent exhibit to add to any PSYOP collectors stock, Noel Coward was a spy, he was employed by the Intelligence service to target America

    Wikipedia as ever puts the case succinctly thus:-

    "With the outbreak of World War II, Coward abandoned the theatre and sought official war work. After running the British propaganda office in Paris, where he concluded that "if the policy of His Majesty's Government is to bore the Germans to death I don't think we have time", he worked on behalf of British intelligence. His task was to use his celebrity to influence American public and political opinion in favour of helping Britain. He was frustrated by British press criticism of his foreign travel while his countrymen suffered at home, but he was unable to reveal that he was acting on behalf of the Secret Service."

    In the light of the war-time antics of this vehemently anti-nazi gay performer and secret British agent, times for Noel were always interesting. However, while his fellow countrymen existed on meagre rations... he was swilling pink champagne, enjoying a full if then a somewhat unlawful private life and dining with royalty.

    He also took time out of this busy schedule of singing and socialising to write, star-in, compose the score for and co-direct (alongside David Lean) a blatant war propaganda film In Which We Serve. he was a patriot and a half was Mr Coward.

    "As Wikipedia points out the film was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was awarded an honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony.
    Coward played a naval captain, basing the character on his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. Lean went on to direct and adapt film versions of several Coward plays." [ibid]

    So there was a bit more to Mr Coward than the effete fop, an image that served as both his excuse for extravagance in the face of national privation and his disguise as the singing spy. This song seems to belong to Coward's day job in MI6 and obviously relates to the Cold War and the development of NATO....So as much as I hate being the bearer of bad news here Doug ..... this delightful little ditty is as bound up with propaganda, geopolitics and wars as any of the things we are taking respite from while listening to it here. What a bugger it all is ....sorry old bean :-)

  2. It is interesting that American public would view Noel Coward as this English stereotype toff. extravagant lifestyles and a servile press doth not an Englishman make. Coward was not viewed as uncritically in Britain during and after the war.

    Mad Dogs and Englishmen belongs in the same category as Mary Poppins really and as far as Noel Coward is concerned it was at least in part a front for his role in British espionage, nurturing the 'special relationship' mythology that cements the whole Anglosphere everywhere.
    The UK has a special relationship with all anglophonic former colonies in which each are encouraged to believe the relationship is more special with them than with all the others.

    A fun song all the same hole!

  3. You could classify "I Like America" as propaganda, AA, but like the best propaganda it always has a dollop of spoofing to make it go down as clever and not condescending--in this case, the American obsession both with sex and upholding the puritanical virtues.

    The best propaganda I think should always be a little too knowing of its subject and just a bit insulting, in other words.

    Thanks for including that interesting review from the Times and the Wikipedia piece, AA. I did know that Coward was involved in some espionage from other articles and his mentions in the 1974 book "A Man Called Intrepid" about William Stephenson, and that he was a friend of the naval intelligence officer/pop author Ian Fleming.

    But I was not aware of was how "all-in" Coward was in the spy game early on, to the point that George VI wanted to offer him a knighthood in 1942(!)

    A premature move that might have blown his cover since as you say a good part of the British and American public was quite taken with his casual persona as one of those "gone with the wind up" celebrities like Alfred Hitchcock and, at first, Lawrence Olivier, whose Hollywood careers beckoned just as the false peace of Munich came unraveled.

    "In Which We Serve" is rather blatant propaganda in parts, that is true, AA. Hitchcock and Michael Powell did a good deal better in their efforts in those times than Lean and Coward.

    I first gauged "In Which We Serve" forty-odd years on from the time it was made. No doubt the film script is conceived in a dark time. (A propaganda movie about a Royal Navy ship that gets sunk?) But one could see the appeal for American audiences since Noel Coward's RN captain is the very model of how Yanks would imagine a British officer should be. It has failures, though not in the film-making itself which is top notch, but in not being what "I like America", for example, is--art which both knows too much about the society it lionizes and insults that society--the better to seem less fawning.

    His own real-life experiences as a young man in the Great War were more prosaic. From his autobiography in the 30's, "Present Indictative" he frankly talks about being in a domestic work squad in World War I for those young men "lacking in common moral fiber". So you could say he had a bad war--not as bad as those at the Western Front, but a better one the second time around.

    Coincidentally, Coward made his debut in pictures in a small role as a lad pining over Lillian Gish in a 1918 propaganda film called "Hearts of the World", an American-made film about hating the "evil Hun" shot in England by the premiere American film-propagandist and virulent black-hater of his time, DW Griffith. Another case of cinematic synchronicity.

    I'm always intrigued at people from lower middle-class backgrounds who become so conservative when they attain a measure of success. We have a lot of that over here.

    I don't know enough about Coward's early politics to know if this Toryism as well was one of the many fronts this incredibly talented popular artist put up before both his agog fans and the general public.

    I have a little more to say on this--to me--important historical topic, AA. Please look back in later to this corner for more.
    Thanks as always for adding so much to my brief post.

  4. To me it's about not biting the hand that feeds you Doug. There is also something of the zeal of the newly converted whose uncertainties about their choseness completely evaporate when they can demonstrate socially validated 'success'. At that point destiny usually creeps in and all reason is lost. Aping ones "betters" is often the preoccupation of the worried well I think. I agree with you entirely it is intriguing, thanks for spotlighting this phenomenon Doug, situating Noel Coward in the modernist social pecking order that is institutionalised here in the class system....but not much different there it seems too Doug.

  5. Well said, AA. The liberal Ronald Reagan's failing film career in the 1950's, and his rising political career as an anti-union conservative and voice-for-hire of General Electric and enabler of the powerful (and mob-connected) Music Corporation of Ameirica (MCA) is a prime example of a desperate man "aping" to suit those who can further elevate his parveneu status. So, in a more subtle way, were many others.

  6. I gather from the Wikipedia entry he had a few critics in America as well, AA--- thanks to some rather insensetive remarks written about US soldiers in his wartime "Middle East Diary."

    But I think that must have blown over quickly. To the Amerians media I've witnessed, Noel Coward is the erudite carictature of the witty upper-class Brit.

    I'm betting he was "given a pass" I think by most American critics from any real political critiques. The very real charge that he was a tax-dodger in Switzerland or Jamiaca had little traction over here I think. IN Coward's time, the USA had it's own "Swiss-Americans" like the actor William Holden and the "wandering celeb director" John Huston in Ireland to draw fire from the pundit class.

    His famous concerts in Las Vegas in the 1950's made him a mint of money, for instance, and many of the Broadway set found even his later musicals popular, even when they mocked Americans abroad. (Mark Twain did much the same in his "Innocents Abroad" books in the 1870s,and other travel books. He may have hurt some feelings and got a few jingoists riled up, but he also laughed all the way to the bank from poking fun.)

    Coward's plays are revived quite a lot in local theater companies. He is a fading but still powerful image of the time when it would be hard to swing a dead cat in much of the world without hitting a British soldier, policeman, civil servant, journalist of questionable credentials, et al. :-)

    There is a good deal of truth I think in the theory that the U.K. is the fount by which many in the Anglo-dominated nations draw a special bond with.


  7. Wishing you a very happy birthday my dear , early but I may not get online on your special day so enjoy your special day now with love from me Rosiex

  8. Thanks very much, Rosie. I appreciate my birthdate being in your thoughts.

  9. Some things are not working here tonight, and I could not listen to this. I'll come back another time. I do love Noel Coward, though!! I saw a very enjoyable movie about him and Gertrude Lawrence not long ago.

  10. I hope the fouls-ups clear so you can hear this, Christy. I have an album of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence singing--they must have been quite a tandem on stage. Do you recall the name of the movie by chance? I remember a film about Gertrude Lawrence with Julie Andrews but I can;t remmeber who played Noel Coward

  11. It was called Star! And yes, it was Julie Andrews with Daniel Massey as Noel Coward. I really enjoyed it.

  12. Yes, this definitely was a delightful song... I could listen to it today.

  13. Thanks for the info Christy.

    Glad you enjoyed the song.