Illustration by Justin Newhouse
One in a series of essays exploring the history of a favorite Christmas song.
Although it made its public debut in the 1948 film “Neptune’s Daughter”, the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” had actually been written four years earlier. Susan Loesser, in her 1993 memoir, “A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter“, explains that, upon moving to the Navarro Hotel in New York, Frank and Lynn Loesser decided to give themselves a housewarming party. Frank, a stage and screen composer, was no stranger to throwing parties, which typically included Hollywood personalities, each of whom was expected to perform some skit or musical number. The entire evening would be scripted, the order of the performances being known in advance. Frank and his wife Lynn would typically sing a duet.
It was at this party in 1944 that Frank and Lynn debuted what would eventually be one of Frank’s best known songs: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, with Frank at the piano. Lynn Loesser would later recall for her daughter, “Well, the room just fell apart… I don’t think either of us realized the impact of what we’d sung. We had to do it over and over again and we became instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of “Baby.” It was our ticket
to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act.”
The female voice in the song is called “The Mouse” and the male voice is called “The Wolf”, although sometimes, as in “Neptune’s Daughter”, the roles are reversed for comedic effect. The lyrics to the song are rich with innuendos and humor as The Wolf does his best to convince The Mouse that she faces peril – even death by pneumonia! – if she leaves instead of staying with him, where he will ostensibly keep her nice and warm. Like another contemporary holiday song, “Let it Snow” (1945), “Baby” has a sexual subtext. Whereas “Let it Snow” contained only a hint of this subtext in the verse “But as long as you love me so / Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”, The Wolf earns his title in Loesser’s song with such lines as “Gosh, your lips look delicious”. The Wolf uses every device in his repertoire, from rationalization (“Baby, it’s bad out there”) to distraction (“Listen to the fireplace roar”) to guilt (“How can you do this thing to me?”) to exaggeration (“Think of my lifelong sorrow / if you caught pneumonia and died”).
Even though Frank Loesser never formally studied music, he came from a musically-oriented family. Both his father and his half-brother Arthur were talented pianists and teachers, and Arthur would become highly acclaimed in both areas. But despite the fact that Frank taught himself how to play the harmonica and the piano when he was young, and in fact wrote his first song, “The May Party” at age six, he would go on to work in the newspaper business after college. In the early 1930s, however, Frank started writing songs and sketches for radio, and published his first song, “In Love with the Memory of You”.
It was in the mid-1930s that Loesser’s work on the otherwise unsuccessful (it ran only five performances) Broadway show “The Illustrator’s Show” caught the attention of Hollywood. Hired first by Universal in 1936 to write songs for its musical pictures, he would spend the remainder of the World War II period writing music for Universal and then Paramount, scoring a huge hit with his song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition“.
It was around the time when the Broadway musical “Where’s Charley” was to open that Loesser began working on the music for “Neptune’s Daughter“, starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, and Betty Garrett. Loesser decided it was time to sell the rights to the tune he had performed for years with his wife, Lynn. Lynn would later explain to her daughter, “I felt as betrayed as if I’d caught him in bed with another woman. I kept saying ‘Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban!!!’ He finally sat me down and said, ‘If I don’t let go of “Baby” I’ll begin to think I can never write another song as good as I think this one is.’ He had to let go of it.”
Let go of it Loesser did. In the film, it is performed first by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban, and later reprised for comedic effect by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton. The song earned Loesser his fourth Academy Award nomination for Original Song (he had previously been nominated for “Dolores” from Las Vegas Nights, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” from Thank Your Lucky Stars, and “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” from The Perils of Pauline). But this time, he would take home the Oscar.
The song quickly became a holiday standard, after being recorded by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting (which hit #3 on the Billboard charts), Buddy Clark and Dinah Shore, Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald, Don Cornell and Laura Leslie, and Homer & Jethro with June Carter – all just in the year 1949! It has since been recorded numerous times, most notably by Dean Martin.
Loesser would earn one more Academy Award nomination in 1952, for “Thumbelina” from Hans Christian Andersen, but the Oscar would go to “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’)” from High Noon. Surprisingly, Loesser treated the Oscar he won for “Baby” as sort of a joke, giving it to his daughter Susan to play with. Susan kept it in her room for several years, but after her parents divorced in 1956, Frank again claimed it, joking to Susan once that he would use it as a doorstop. “I knew I’d find a use for this thing,” Susan remembers him saying.
Here is a collection of 14 different versions of this classic song, mostly made available by generous members of falalalala.com.