He never became an A-list movie star, but if you want to see him at his best, check out a cute Columbia B musical from 1940 called Music in My Heart, in which he stars with Rita Hayworth and a first-rate cast of character actors. It’s an utterly formulaic and inconsequential film, but fun to watch, and Martin is effortlessly charming. Bob Wright and Chet Forrest wrote the tuneful score, and one of the songs that Martin introduced, “It’s a Blue World,” earned an Academy Award nomination that year.
And if you want to hear some of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat melodies done to perfection, check out the condensed version of their classic work as MGM incorporated it into the Kern biography Till the Clouds Roll By. Martin makes an ideal Gaylord Ravenal opposite Kathryn Grayson.
His best overall film is the one he produced, with his agent Nat Goldstone, Casbah (1948). It took nerve to take on the role of the daring French rogue Pépé le Moko, created by Jean Gabin and immortalized for American audiences by Charles Boyer in Algiers…but he pulled it off quite well, especially with actors like Peter Lorre and Thomas Gomez to play against, and two beautiful leading ladies (Yvonne De Carlo and Marta Toren). But he was proudest of the fact that Harold Arlen and Leo Robin provided four exceptionally good songs (“For Every Man There’s a Woman,” “Hooray for Love,” “It Was Written in the Stars,” and “What’s Good About Goodbye”), the first of which was nominated for an Oscar. He continued to sing them for the rest of his life. (In The Two Of Us, the autobiography he co-authored with his wife Cyd Charisse, and Dick Kleiner, he ruefully tells the story of how Casbah came about and how he lost every cent he put into it. Sorry to say, this first-rate film directed by John Berry is not available on DVD in the U.S.)
Typecast as a straight man to such comics as The Ritz Brothers and The Marx Brothers, Martin rarely got to show his own sense of humor. But there is a famous unused take from a 1940 recording session with Harry Sosnik and his Orchestra. Martin is smoothly singing the ballad but when he flubs a lyric, instead of stopping cold he continues, mimicking one of his heroes, the ultra-hammy Harry Richman, right to the end of the track. It’s wonderful.
In 2004, my wife and I were delighted to see him perform, at age 90, at the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which was then under the supervision of a major Martin fan and booster, Michael Feinstein (who later booked him at his nightclub in Manhattan). He still wore a tuxedo better than anyone I know; he even had a signature line of tux apparel with After Six years ago. His voice wasn’t what it was decades ago—whose is?—but he still sang quite well, and more important, he knew how to sell a song. After going for the high note at the end of “All the Things You Are,” he said with a smile, “That’s the last time you’re ever going to hear that note from me.”He was unflappable, even when he forgot some lyrics (the only time it happened all night) to “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” Instead of trying to pretend there was nothing wrong, he joked about sometimes making up better words when he forgets the real ones.
When he played Catalina Jazz Club five years later I went back, and while his voice had diminished, his warmth and ability to put over a song (at age 95!) had not.
He was devoted to his wife of sixty years, Cyd Charisse, and when I spoke with him a few years ago he was still devastated by her passing in 2008. He endured another tragedy when their only son, Tony Martin, Jr., died in 2011. Tony Jr.’s face used to light up when he spoke about his parents, especially when he described them casually rehearsing in the kitchen for an appearance together as recently as the year 2000.
I feel privileged to have spent just a little time with Tony Martin, and I know I will continue to enjoy his voice—and his presence on screen—for many years to come. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a good CD (or download), I suggest you avoid the RCA compilation, which has too many mediocre songs, and go for this import instead: Tony Martin: Marching Along With Time.