I Can’t Begin to Tell You is a beautiful ballad written by James Vincent Monaco and Mack Gordon. The song was published in 1945 and was introduced by John Payne and reprised by Betty Grable in the film The Dolly Sisters.
Since the song was first heard in the film, The Dolly Sisters perhaps that is the place to begin. The real-life Dolly Sisters were identical twins named Roszika (Rosie) and Yansci (Jenny) Deutsch and were vaudeville performers in the early years of the twentieth century. They were born October 25, 1892 in Budapest, Hungary, and emigrated to the United States in 1905. They perfected a single-sex “tandem” dance act – practicing in front of mirrors – and performed under the name of “The Dolly Sisters.”
Born to Julius and Margarethe Deutsch, Yansci (Jenny) and Roszika (Rosie) were immediately issued with pink and blue ribbons to differentiate them. So perfect was their resemblance that when the ribbons slipped off, their own mother could not tell them apart.
It was the girls’ nursemaid who inspired their love of dancing with trips to the theatre and, before long, Jenny and Rosie were copying the dancers’ routines during performances at home. By the age of eight, they were charging friends to watch them dance.
When these identical twins, now eighteen years old, danced onto the Broadway stage in 1911, they caused quite a sensation. Theatres swelled to bursting as people swarmed to see the girls who were a perfect mirror image of each other. Once viewed, their thrilling double act was never forgotten. Dancers came and went during the early twentieth century, but the twins’ novelty appeal, combined with their exotic good looks, majestic costumes and faultless footwork, ensured that they would become international superstars.
To modern tastes, their most spectacular routines, such as “The Dollies and their Collies” (in which they danced with performing pooches) and “The Pony Trot” (where they pranced around like sleek black fillies), sound tacky, but audiences in 1920s Paris, London and New York were enthralled by it all.
The Dolly Sisters created a stir off-stage, as well. From Noël Coward to Tallulah Bankhead, everyone wanted to meet the twin sisters, but it was their association with a succession of rich suitors that was most fascinating. Considered by some to be simply gold-diggers, legend has it that the sisters would remove their jewelry when a wealthy man approached them in the hopes that he would take pity on them and furnish them with more. Altogether, the sisters took five husbands between them, but they were constantly pursued by male admirers, including Harry Gordon Selfridge, the famous London department store owner – who reputedly blew the bulk of his fortune bankrolling their extravagant lifestyle – and King Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales. Famous, too, for their love of casinos, they earned a reputation as the most incurable gamblers in Europe, regularly winning – and losing – millions without batting an eyelid.
But for all the glitz and glamour, both women would come to experience great heartache and tragedy. After retiring early from the stage, their luck changed. In a series of events worthy of any soap opera, the sisters endured crushing debt, business failure and broken marriages.
Jenny was involved in a serious car crash near Bordeaux with her former lover Max Constant. It took six weeks, fifteen painful surgical procedures and the sale of most her jewelry to restore Jenny to some semblance of her former beauty. Jenny died on May 1, 1941, having committed suicide by hanging herself in the shower of her apartment in the Shelton Hotel.
Rosie lived long enough to see a biopic made in 1945 of their lives called, inevitably The Dolly Sisters, starring June Haver and Betty Grable, but in 1962 she attempted to follow her sister in suicide. The attempt failed. She died on February 1, 1970, succumbing to congestive heart failure.
The above referenced film, The Dolly Sisters was produced in a 1945, and purported to be a biographical film about the two sisters. It was hardly that. It starred Betty Grable as Jenny, June Haver as Rosie and John Payne as Harry Fox. The plot is pure Hollywood fluff: In 1904, Uncle Latsie (a nickname for László, played by S. Z. Sakall) comes to New York from Hungary with two young nieces, who immediately take to cafe dancing. In 1912, they are still at it, but to pay Uncle Latsie’s card debts, they decide to go into vaudeville. Singer Harry Fox, whom they meet en route, schemes to get them an audition with the great Hammerstein, but their resulting success takes them far out of Harry’s league. As one of the critics said of the film, “It contained lots of songs with a little story.” One of the pluses of the film, however, was the introduction of the song, I Can’t Begin To Tell You. Sung in the film by John Payne during a scene of a rehearsal at the Elmira Theater and then later performed by John Payne, Betty Grable and June Haver, the song was almost a centerpiece of the film. It was also played often in the film as background.
The song concerns a lover who has trouble telling the one he loves of his true feelings:
I can’t begin to tell you
How much you mean to me
My world would end
If ever we were through
I can’t begin to tell you
How happy I would be
If I could speak my mind
Like others do
I make such pretty speeches
Whenever we’re apart
But when you’re near
The words I choose
Refuse to leave my heart
So take the sweetest phrases
The world has ever known
And make believe
I’ve said them all to you
Portraying Jenny was Betty Grable (Elizabeth Ruth “Betty” Grable) a popular Hollywood actress, dancer, and singer. She was perhaps best known for having the most beautiful legs in Hollywood and studio publicity widely dispersed photos featuring them. Her iconic bathing suit poster made her the number-one pin-up girl of the World War II era. She was known by several nicknames during her heyday in the 1940s, including “the girl with the million dollar legs,” “the quick-silver blonde,’ “the queen of the Hollywood musical,” and “the darling of the forties.” Grable’s legs were supposedly insured by her studio for $1,000,000 with Lloyds of London. Grable appeared in several smash-hit musical films in the 1940s, most notable: Mother Wore Tights in 1947, with frequent co-star Dan Dailey and, of course, in the aforementioned, The Dolly Sisters.
A version of the song by Bing Crosby was the best-known recording, reaching its peak of popularity in 1945. The recording by Bing Crosby (with Carmen Cavallaro And His Piano) reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on November 15, 1945, and lasted seventeen weeks on the chart, peaking at #1. Crosby’s version is the only recording that charted in 1945. All the other versions entered the Billboard charts later in the year and peaked in 1946.
A recording by the Harry James Orchestra, with Betty Grable singing vocals, was released by Columbia Records and reached the Billboard Best Seller charts on December 27, 1945, and lasted three weeks on the chart, peaking at #9. I Can’t Begin To Tell You became the only commercial recording Betty Grable ever released. Her studio, Twentieth Century-Fox discouraged its stars working for recording companies, but Grable was able to make the recording by using the pseudo name Ruth Haag as a vocalist on the Harry James recording. (Ruth was her middle name and Haag was Harry James’ mother’s maiden name.) The name, Ruth Hagg, was a joke, of course. Betty Grable was anything but a hag as evidence by her most famous bathing suit photograph (see below) that made her the number-one pin-up girl of the World War II era.
A third recording by Andy Russell reached the Billboard Best Seller charts on December 27, 1945, and lasted two weeks on the chart, peaking at #8.
Sammy Kaye’s recording rounds out the versions that charted. The song came on the Billboard charts on December 8, 1945 and lasted some nine weeks, peaking at #9.
To listen to the song, click on the song title.
Bing Crosby with Carmen Cavallaro At The Piano (1945 #1) I Can’t Begin To Tell You
Harry James and his Orchestra, vocals by Betty Grable (under the pseudonym “Ruth Hagg”) (1946 #5) I Can’t Begin To Tell You
Andy Russell, Paul Weston Orchestra (1946 #7) I Can’t Begin To Tell You
Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye, vocals by Nancy Norman (1946 #9) I Can’t Begin To Tell You
Next charted song: Chickery Chick