Frances Langford

Forces sweetheart for whom Cole Porter wrote 'I've Got You Under My Skin'
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The Independent Online

The warm contralto and likeable personality of Frances Langford made her one of the most popular entertainers of the Thirties and Forties, her caressing vocal talent being displayed on radio, in films, with dance bands and on stage. Few entertainers did more for the troops in the Second World War, her worldwide touring of American service camps earning her the title "Sweetheart of the Fighting Fronts".

On screen, she introduced "I'm in the Mood for Love", which became her trademark tune, and she made countless recordings. She was a regular on Bing Crosby's radio show, and also was part of Bob Hope's radio team for several years. When Hope broadcast from an army camp in 1941, it was such a hit that he decided to form a unit to travel to service camps and he asked Langford to be part of it. "It was the greatest thing in my life," said Langford.

Langford was one of the few stars willing to sing to the badly wounded in service hospitals at battle fronts in Italy, North America and the South Pacific, and she won many fans while touring Europe, sometimes singing with Glenn Miller's orchestra. This period was potently reproduced in Anthony Mann's enduring film The Glenn Miller Story (1953), in which Miller's band performs in an aircraft hangar and Langford, as herself, sings with the Modernaires a rousing version of "Chattanooga Choo Choo".

Born Frances Newbern in Florida in 1913, she studied music at Southern College. Though she planned to be an opera singer, a bout of tonsillitis left her with the mellow tones that were ideal for popular song. She gave her first public show over a local radio station in 1930 and was heard by Rudy Vallee, who took her to New York to sing with his band on radio and in clubs. She won a small role in a Broadway musical, Here Goes the Bride (1931), produced by the cartoonist Peter Arno, whose witty sets won praise. Little else did, and the show closed after one week, but Langford continued to have success in clubs and particularly on radio. For four years (1935-38) she headlined (initially with Dick Powell) the radio hit Hollywood Hotel.

Langford later recounted how the composer Cole Porter was responsible for her movie career. Porter, who admired her melodious voice and smooth phrasing, persuaded her to perform at a party they both attended. The producer Walter Wanger was a guest, and offered her a screen test which led to a contract and a prominent role as part of a three-girl singing act with Alice Faye and Patsy Kelly in Every Night at Eight (1935). Its score, by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, included "I Feel a Song Coming On" and "Speaking Confidentially", plus the ballad "I'm in the Mood for Love", which became a best-selling record for Langford.

In the lavish movie Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), she introduced "You Are My Lucky Star" and "Broadway Rhythm", and she came close to introducing another great standard when she was cast by MGM in Born to Dance (1936). Langford was to play a glamorous socialite in the film, and Cole Porter wrote "I've Got You Under My Skin" for her. In his diary, his account of a producers' audition concluded, "as for 'I've Got You Under My Skin', as sung by Miss Langford, it was what is called in Hollywood 'colossal' ". Ultimately the role, and song, went to Virginia Bruce while Langford was moved to the role of Buddy Ebsen's girlfriend, originally scheduled for Judy Garland. Nevertheless, she recorded both her lost song and the film's other hit ballad, "Easy to Love".

Her other films included Collegiate (1936), in which she and Jack Oakie introduced "You Hit the Spot", The Hit Parade (1937) with Duke Ellington's orchestra, Dreaming Out Loud (1940), Hit Parade of 1941 (1940), Too Many Girls (1940), in which she sang Rodgers and Hart's "Love Never Went to College", and Swing It, Soldier (1941). In the Oscar-winning biography of George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), she and James Cagney (as Cohan) were shown introducing his patriotic hit "Over There" at an army camp in 1917. In another morale-booster, Michael Curtiz's now rarely seen Irving Berlin musical This is the Army (1943) she had a cameo role and one song. Despite the general opinion that in her first film she had outshone its star, Alice Faye, Langford never achieved film stardom to equal her radio fame.

After appearing on the Bob Hope show for several years, she became a frequent guest on Bing Crosby's show, Kraft Music Hall. Earlier, in 1936, Crosby had such an enormous hit with the song "Pennies from Heaven" that he recorded a second version, with Louis Armstrong and Langford plus Jimmy Dorsey's band, that was so long it was put on a 12in disc, which is now a rare item.

In the early Forties, Langford changed from brunette to blonde, giving herself a more vivacious image, which had particular appeal for the servicemen who often formed her audience. On screen, her starring vehicles were mainly "B" musicals, generally welcomed by audiences since they were short, light and melodious fare to accompany the "big picture". They included Follow the Band (1943), Career Girl (1944), Dixie Jamboree (1945), Radio Stars on Parade (1945) and The Bamboo Blonde (1946), in which a bomber crew paints a picture of a night-club singer (Langford) on their plane.

In 1948, Langford's dulcet tones were heard on the soundtrack of Disney's musical pot-pourri Melody Time, singing the opening number, "Once Upon a Wintertime". The following year she starred opposite her husband, Jon Hall, in Deputy Marshal. She had married the muscular Hall, remembered for his exotic roles in such fare as The Hurricane, Aloma of the South Seas and White Savage, in 1938, and the union had survived a rocky period in 1944. Langford, while entertaining troops in Australia, read a newpaper report that, during a party at the bandleader Tommy Dorsey's house, Dorsey had objected to his wife, the actress Patricia Dane, flirting with Hall, and during the ensuing fight had tried to bite off Hall's nose.

The pair finally divorced in 1953, and two years later Langford married Ralph Evinrude. Settled on Langford's 400-acre beach estate 100 miles from Miami, they opened a Polynesian restaurant and marina where they would entertain celebrity guests including Langford's old chum Bob Hope. Evinrude died in 1986, and in 1994 Langford married Harry Stuart, a former air force aide to Harry Truman.

Langford had a hit comedy series on radio when she and Don Ameche played a constantly brawling couple inThe Bickersons (1946-47), which the creator-writer Phil Rapp wrote as "an antidote to the saccharine couples in most television shows". In 1951 Langford made her penultimate film, Purple Heart Diary, which took its title from the newspaper column she used to write during the Second World War.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars she entertained the troops, and she appeared in two television specials in 1959 and 1960, but after the Fifties she virtually abandoned her show-business career to pursue other interests, notably fishing and yachting.

Tom Vallance