♫ Hear the song that links Groucho to Kermit to Breaking Bad...

It has turned up in Breaking Bad, M*A*S*H and The Muppet Show. Earlier it was in The Philadelphia Story and a Marx Brothers classic. Read the intriguing story behind the song now covered exclusively for the BFI by best-selling indie-folkers Stornoway.

Jon Spira

One of the most gratifying aspects of poking around film history for a living are the moments you find an oblique connection that runs a course through era and genre. Oftentimes, this will be an unheralded character actor or a piece of library footage, but recently I stumbled upon a little-known song which has had such a journey.

Bridging the gap between January’s Best of the Marx Brothers season and February’s Katharine Hepburn retrospective at BFI Southbank is this curious little ditty called ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’. Best known as Groucho Marx’s signature song, it premiered in 1939’s At the Circus as Harpo swung overhead from a light fitting. A year later, the song was performed in Hepburn’s classic The Philadelphia Story by Virginia Weidler playing the precocious little sister to Katharine’s Tracy Lord.

The song itself is an anomaly. Written in a vaudeville style, it sounds like a classic of an earlier era which the Marx Brothers might have picked up in their many years on the theatre circuit. Rambunctious and bawdy, laced with innuendo and witty rhymes. It doesn’t exactly tell Lydia’s story so much as espouse the educational benefits held in the exploration of her body, a valuable resource for the study of world history with its illustrations of such incidents as the battle of Waterloo, the wreck of the Hesperus, George Washington crossing the Delaware, and Lady Godiva’s famous journey through Coventry. But this merry romp through history and anatomy never was a vaudeville classic. It was written specifically for Groucho by one of the great film musical lyricists.

Edgar ‘Yip’ Harburg was shepherded towards songwriting by his lifelong friend Ira Gershwin following the collapse and bankruptcy of his electrical appliance company. Gershwin had introduced Yip to Jay Gorney and together, through a time spent providing songs for various theatrical revues, the pair graduated to Hollywood when their song ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ became an unofficial anthem of the Great Depression.

Virginia Weidler sings ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Virginia Weidler sings ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

In 1939 Yip had a golden year: ‘Lydia’ met the world and he wrote lyrics for The Wizard of Oz, from which ‘Over the Rainbow’ would win the Oscar for best song. In fact, Yip’s contribution went further than song lyrics, as the final script editor on this project with 11 screenwriters making various contributions, he is attributed as the man who actually pulled that screenplay together.

Through the 40s, Yip worked between Hollywood and Broadway, his work becoming increasingly political and socially aware. A keen socialist, although never a communist, Yip inevitably found himself answerable to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities and, passport revoked, was blacklisted. Unable to work in film, television or radio for 12 years from 1950 to 1962, Harburg’s career never fully recovered. He died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car on Sunset Boulevard in 1981.

Lydia the tattooed lady, however, took on a life of her own. Stubby Kaye (Nicely-Nicely Johnson from Guys and Dolls) recorded a version in 1961. Jamie Farr, playing Klinger in the M*A*S*H TV show sang a few lines from it. In the beautifully loopy Chinese restaurant date scene from Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King in 1991, Robin Williams’ Parry uses the song to sweetly serenade Amanda Plummer’s Lydia.

Perhaps the most famous reincarnation of the song was by Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show in 1976. If any other one person, or frog, could lay claim to the song it would be him. It was one of Jim Henson’s favourite songs. During the uncompromisingly emotional memorial service after Henson’s death, his fellow Muppeteer Kevin Clash performed the song in tribute using the voice of Elmo.

Kermit the Frog sings ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ in The Muppet Show (1977)

Most recently, the sharp-eared might have heard Lydia’s appearance in the final ever episode of Breaking Bad, as the ringtone on recently-killed Todd Alquist’s mobile phone.

Despite rarely being recognised as a classic, the song has survived for nine decades and Lydia refuses to die. She always belonged to Groucho, though. He performed it throughout his career; legendarily, he brought trading at the New York Stock Exchange to a standstill when he grabbed the mic and performed it to delighted traders. He was still giving a spirited performance of it at 78 years old on Dick Cavett’s TV chat show in 1969.

Groucho Marx sings ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ on The Dick Cavett Show

Stornoway

Stornoway

To celebrate this hidden gem and highlight our Marx Brothers and Katharine Hepburn seasons, I decided it was time this song had another reinvention.

Stornoway are one of the finest and most creative bands currently working in the UK’s indie-folk scene. Their debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill entered the UK album chart at number 14, went on to receive a silver certificate for sales in the UK and saw sold-out gigs at the Shepherds Bush Empire and Barbican Centre. They combine folk, indie and pop and have amassed a devoted international following.

Taking time out from finishing off their third album, Stornoway have recorded their own version of ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ exclusively for the BFI. In a warm alt-folk/shanty style with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of drone, exotic instruments and soaring vocals, the band have paid tribute to the song’s heritage and humour while very much making it their own.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.