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Remembering Tony Martin

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by Leonard Maltin
August 1, 2012 4:20 PM
7 Comments
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Tony Martin had a golden voice, and even in his 90s exuded charm and class. I was thrilled when I first got to meet him and got an even bigger kick when I saw him and his wife at my synagogue’s High Holy Days services! “This,” I thought, “could only happen in Hollywood.” Yes, Tony Martin was born Alvin Morris, or “Haim Avruch,” as he once told me. It was 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck who renamed him, and even went so far as to bill him as “Anthony Martin” a couple of times early in his screen career.

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.

Tony with George Tobias, Edith Fellows, and Rita Hayworth in 'Music In My Heart' (1940).

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.

Newlyweds Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin in 1948. What a beautiful couple.

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.
 

Tony Martin

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    Tony Martin

    A collegiate Tony Martin with Jack Haley in 'Pigskin Parade' (1936).
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    Tony and Rita Hayworth in ‘Music In My Heart’ (1940).
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    Tony Martin had more than his share of hit records; this 1947 publicity still shows him playing discs at home on his console phonograph. Anyone remember those?
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    Tony, fellow crooner Vic Damone, and Russ Tamblyn in rehearsal clothes for the MGM musical 'Hit the Deck' (1955).
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    Tony with George Tobias, Edith Fellows, and Rita Hayworth in 'Music In My Heart' (1940).
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7 Comments

  • holly wendland | August 16, 2012 4:39 AMReply

    thank you for your kind words about this great singer-today underrated,but in the forties and fifties one of the big names in las vegas and everywhere.he was always one of my favourites,and his version of stranger in paradise is still the best.i wish more people would remember those times when singers had class and style.

  • Anne Lethaby | August 8, 2012 8:05 AMReply

    Just read your euology on Tony Martin, and in my estimation a much under rated singer. My sisters and I started buying his 78s in the 1940s - we were just school girls then - and the first one we bought he was singing White Sails and All I remember is You with the Victor Young Orchestra and I still have that record, wonderful songs and beautifully sung and these have never found their way onto CD, however owing to new technology I have been able to do this myself along with other 78s that I have hung on to. I was able to copy CASBAH from the BBC so I have a first class copy alaong with all his other films, the most recent I bought was Easy to Love - what a Dish! Although I am now 78 I have never lost my admiration for him. Very interesting article you have written which I will add to my collection. Anne Lethaby

  • Byron Argiri | August 2, 2012 4:40 AMReply

    To Leonard Maltin
    From Byron Argiri

    Dear Mr. Maltin -- Greetings from Athens, Greece. Re your article "Remembering Tony Martin", the film "Casbah", contrary to what you say, has indeed been released on DVD. Casbah had been released on DVD (region 2) in Spain several years ago and is currently still available for purchase through Amazon in the UK at £45.00 .

    Another of Tony Martin's charming films is "Two Tickets to Broadway" -- a lighthearted musical with Janet Leigh, Gloria De Haven and Eddie Bracken --- that is not mentioned in your above article.

    I am an ardent collector of films (I own over 10,000 titles) and have been religiously purchasing your Movie Guide books for the past 35+ years, as well as some of your other publications.

    Byron Argiri byron@conceptours.gr
    Athens, Greece

  • Bobby J. Sulecki | August 2, 2012 12:35 AMReply

    Leonard,
    Nice tribute to Tony Martin. Too bad you couldn't do the same for Ann Rutherford, who always spoke highly of you.

  • Keith Payne | August 1, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    Tony used to come to St. Louis and always visited us at Gibbons penthouse at 300 South Grand. I would usually cook but we ordered in sometimes. Last time I saw him was when I was golf pro at Mission Hills CC. We went to Jack London's for dinner and Dominque put a huge table together for our two parties.....first time I had met Cyd, and Kirk Douglas was with him, also. Kirk ended up buying all his golf clothes from my shop after that day. Funny thing is I was young and never realized Tony was a singer, LOL! He just came for my seafood dinners and we all talked Hollywood, (I hadn't been out there at that time). I knew who Cyd was though.....one of my father's "heart throbs!" Keith Payne

  • Dick may | August 1, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    Around 20 years ago the Frair's Club in Beverly Hills did a tribute to Cyd Charisse. They needed video clips to illustrate her career. At the time, I was in charge of the Turner Entertainment film library, and Cyd and Tony came to our office to review sections of LaserDiscs for the clips. They were delightful to work with. Cyd was rather quiet, but knew exactly what she wanted, and working with a film editor, made the selections. Tony sang along with a lot of the music, as well as requesting that we pull tapes of a few of his movies for a fresh look.
    It was one of the encounters with performers that has stuck in my memory.

  • Lou Valentino | August 1, 2012 7:27 PMReply

    Len - how could you not mention Tony's rendition of "You Steppped Out of a Dream" in ZIEGFELD GIRL (1941) which even the N.Y. Times in their obit said was one of the high points of his career????

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