Last night without any intention on my part, the 1938 Howard Hawks film Bringing Up Baby settled into the television set. It was meant to be a brief stop on the way from this signal to that one, but somehow it stuck. The rapid-fire non-stop dialogue never left a pause, not a single moment, for me to consider moving on. And then there was the song: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant wandering through the woods singing this song at the top of their voices, looking for a fox terrier, a leopard and a dinosaur bone. When the speed of change hits a certain velocity, nothing makes as much sense as a screwball comedy.
“There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways…”
We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films
The song was written in 1927 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, and finally broke through in 1928. It’s been an enduring classic of American popular song. Looking back at the list of songs Fields provided lyrics for, you can hardly believe your eyes: The Way You Look Tonight, I’m In The Mood For Love, On The Sunny Side of the Street, A Fine Romance, Big Spender and more.
The stock market crash of 1929 occurred in October of that year, which means that I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby was written in the middle of a market bubble. In the midst of a surging material world, the song stakes a claim for love and romance. Fields tells the story of overhearing the conversation of a poor black couple gazing at the stylish and expensive jewelry on offer in Tiffany’s display window. Apparently the man said “Gee honey, I can’t give you anything but love.” What might have turned into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead became a standard in the American songbook. Love seems to need a medium to pass from one person to another. While it might pass through diamond jewelry, wall street millions, real estate or a family crest—McHugh and Fields make the case for the impossible thing that we’ve all got plenty of, baby.
Through the cultural history DVR provided by YouTube, we can get a sense of how this song has resonated with artists and audiences over the years.
Cab Calloway’s Band
Ukulele Ike (Cliff Edwards)
Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Jack Jones
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby
Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid.
It’s not a joke, kid–it’s a curse.
My luck is changing–it’s gotten
from simply rotten to something worse.
Who knows someday I will win too
I’ll begin to reach my prime.
Now that I see what our end is
All can spend is just my time.
I can’t give you anything but love, baby.
That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.
Dream a while, scheme a while,
You’re sure to find
Happiness and, I guess,
All those things you’ve always pined for.
Gee, it’s great to see you looking swell, baby.
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby.
Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby,
I can’t give you anything but love.