Otto Harbach Articles

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Otto Harbach, for their musical Roberta (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 31, 1934.  Decca F-5289 mx. TB-1696-1.

Elsie Carlisle – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

Elsie Carlisle, so often the torch singer, beautifully conveys the pathos of the lyrics of the show tune “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” As a veteran of light musical stage drama, Elsie had a voice suited to the song, with its memorable full-octave melodic ascension at the beginning (more reminiscent of European operetta than of popular song). It was perhaps in consideration of this perfect match between her vocal capabilities and the already popular song that Decca had Elsie record “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” twice in two days, first as a “solo” record, and again the next day with Ambrose and His Orchestra, in an arrangement that is perhaps somewhat less of a tear-jerker and more suited to dancing:

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on November 1, 1934. Decca F-5293.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Ambrose & His Orchestra

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It seems hard to believe, but the perennial favorite “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was twice discarded from shows before it actually got used in the Broadway musical Roberta. Jerome Kern originally composed it as a tap dance number to be performed during a scene change in his 1927 hit Showboat, but for one reason or another, it was cut. In 1932 Kern retooled it as a march to be used as the theme song for an NBC radio series which never aired. It was in the light, romantic 1933 drama Roberta that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was finally introduced to the public, this time retooled as a sentimental ballad, either at the suggestion of the producer or of lyricist Otto Harbach. Harbach’s lyrics borrow their tag line “When you’re heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes” from a Russian proverb. The original Broadway production of Roberta starred, amongst others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Fay Templeton, Ray Middleton, and Sydney Greenstreet, but it was Ukrainian actress Tamara Drasin, playing a Russian princess, who first sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Notable American recordings in 1933 and 1934 include ones by Gertrude Niesen (with orchestral accompaniment directed by Ray Sinatra), Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Bob Lawrence), Emil Coleman and His Riviera Orchestra (with vocalist Jerry Cooper), Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Tamara Drasin, from the original Broadway production), Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers, Dick Robertson, and Ruth Etting. Film audiences would hear the song performed by Irene Dunne in a 1935 movie of Roberta.

In 1934 there were other British recordings of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Jay Wilbur and His Band (Sam Browne, vocalist), Charlie Kunz’s Casani Club Orchestra (with vocals by Harry Bentley), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), Jack Payne and His Band (Billy Scott-Coomber, vocalist), Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra (with vocals by Dan Donovan, in a Bert Read arrangement), Lew Stone and His Band (with Alan Kane as vocalist, in a Stanley Black arrangement), and Joe Loss and His Kit-Cat Band.

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