I love when old movies–that are not musicals per se–spotlight the performance of a song, because it’s symptomatic of a sincere desire to entertain that today seems almost achingly quaint. As opposed to modern mainstream films, which are typically designed to take your ten bucks in exchange for a focus group certified apportionment of stock spectacle, these films were striving to give you something extra: not just rousing action or compelling drama, but also a song, a dance, a comic relief drunk, and maybe even a chimp doing tricks while dressed like a small child.
Probably the example of this that most easily springs to mind is Film Noir’s practice of introducing the femme fatale by way of a steamy nightclub number, as with Rita Hayworth’s show-stopping rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda. Of course, in 40s and 50s cinema, the image of the nightclub was inextricable from that of the demimonde; a nocturnal haunt for those denied the sleep of the just. However, come the 60s and the advent of cocktail culture, hitting the club for an evening of entertainment and libations came to be represented as something of a default pastime for people of all moral stripes. So ubiquitous was this image, in fact, that for children of the era like me, the idea of the crisp-suited, finger-popping, highball-sipping man on the town was inseparable from our dawning conception of adulthood.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Ishiro Honda’s War of the Gargantuas, a fixture of the UHF band during my youth, has proven to be a childhood entertainment that has in later years demonstrated a particularly adhesive quality. And that’s not true just for me. Gargantuas seems to have left its imprint on a lot of us, and its most universally relived moment, perhaps unsurprisingly, is its lone pop musical interlude. This, of course, takes place in a swanky roof top lounge, at which an assortment of nice Japanese ladies and gentlemen in their evening going-out clothes spectate a Caucasian lady singing a song in front of a live band. The song — as, for some reason, anyone who has ever even casually glanced at this sequence can tell you — is called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat”.
Granted, “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” is a dead catchy song, probably much more so than its throwaway nature warranted. (On close listen you can hear one of the horn players flub the intro, which is just one of a number of indications that it wasn’t recorded with the hit parade in mind.) Mimed onscreen by actress Kipp Hamilton (who, Wikipedia tells me, was the sister-in-law of Carol Burnett), the song is a cheddar-y bit of bargain Bacharach fitted out with odd space age lyrics presumably intended to make it genre appropriate. Those allusions to modernity, along with the song’s sophisticated cocktail vibe and slick setting, also make the sequence much more than a musical respite from the giant monster horror bookending it. It’s really a “fiddling while Rome burns” moment, depicting a contemporary world whose reassuring fantasies of technological hegemony are about to be torn away by the intrusion of something primordial and savage. And, sure enough, as soon as Kipp Hamilton has finished trilling her happy little tune, she finds herself staring into the hungry maw of one of War of the Gargantuas’ giant, sasquatch-like antiheroes. (Who does not, it should be mentioned, eat her, despite half of the people who recount this scene remembering it that way. The disappointed should take heart, however, that there is another lady who gets eaten.)
Anyway, whether “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” was catchy or not, I was doomed to remember it, because that’s just the way I’m built. I’ve always had a compulsive tendency to commit songs to heart, and the more ephemeral or resistant to memory they were, the more diligent my efforts to do so. In short, I was that kid on the playground who could always be counted on to recite the theme song to Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero or some such verbatim. So basically I was fulfilling a function that the internet, and YouTube in particular, would later fulfill for me.
Of course, such exercises in mnemonics would later prove unnecessary, for, as I mentioned earlier, I was far from the only soul whom “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” would haunt into adulthood. While at a DEVO show during my high school years, I was surprised to hear them perform a deconstructed cover version of the song — an appropriation that today accounts for Mark Mothersbaugh being frequently and erroneously credited with authoring it. (I once heard Russ Tamblyn tell of meeting Mothersbaugh, who told him that he was the star of his favorite movie; Tamblyn assumed that the DEVO front man was referring to West Side Story.) On a much more personal note, when my wife and I first met, both of us were delighted to find that, in addition to our fondness for Elvis Costello and Nick Cave, we also shared an enduring memory of loving War of the Gargantuas as kids, which we expressed through our gleeful recall of “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” and the sequence featuring it.
I should probably say here that, by all of this is, I don’t mean to imply that “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” — or the spectacle of a lounge singer’s act being cut short by a handsy behemoth — is solely responsible for War of the Gargantuas’ enduring appeal. The film is a classic of the Kaiju Eiga genre, containing some of the best work by director Honda, effects man Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube, and is remembered for that first and foremost. But I think that its inclusion of the song provides it with a musical signature that makes it all the more accessible to memory, hitching it to a pop song’s unique power to colonize our brains whether we want it to or not. And it is perhaps for that reason that I made a decision that would, from that point on, make “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” an even more inextricable part of my personal history.
Serenading my wife with “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” at our wedding was one of those ideas that, once hatched, instantly go from seeming ridiculous to being perfectly obvious. It would not only delight her, but handily put her friends and family on full notice that she was marrying a first class nerd. After having the song waft through my consciousness for so many years, it was interesting to actually go through the process of breaking it down into its musical components. The woozy seesaw of jazzy 7th chords, the warm samba rhythms, the melodic bass part, the sticky vocal melody, all pointed to a song that had been lovingly and carefully crafted, if somewhat diminished by its too obvious debt to Bacharach. My friend Mike, who used to play in an indie pop band called The Sneetches, joined me on bass for the song, and having never heard it before — and furthermore not having his opinion of it colored by any kind of youthful attachment to War of the Gargantuas — enthused about its composition.
Few of the people at our wedding were familiar with War of the Gargantuas either, but the song seemed to go over well nonetheless. And among those who were in the know, those who weren’t shaking their heads were nodding them all the more appreciatively. But perhaps more to the point was the fact that here were all of our friends and family, dressed in their fancy going out clothes, sitting politely at their tables around me as I regaled them with “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat”, just like those nice Japanese people in the movie. While it feels more natural to see one’s elders in such a setting, no amount of time will prevent me from seeing my friends all cleaned up and formally attired like that without thinking of us all as children who are playing at being adults. And our model for adulthood is the one we saw in the movies all those years back: one populated by natty sophisticates who, highballs in hand, sit in a plush nightspot and nod along appreciatively as someone entertains them with a catchy tune.
Todd Stadtman has a different favorite pop song every week, and you can hear those and read his thoughts on a variety of world genre cinema over at his blog Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! He is also a regular contributor to Teleport City.
Categories: Guest Star