Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 3 : Baby It’s Cold Outside
More than any other song, Baby It’s Cold Outside deserves the moniker “Most Accidental Holiday Classic.”
Like Happy Xmas (War Is Over), Baby It’s Cold Outside was never intended to be a Christmas song — more than that, it was never intended to be a holiday song, a seasonal song, or even a song about cold weather. Unlike Happy Xmas, it was a huge and instant hit of the like not seen these days. But it would be over a decade and scores of different recordings before someone first thought to attach it to Holiday festivities.
The famed Broadway and Hollywood writer Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1944 on a lark. Loesser, who would later write Guys & Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and the family classic movie Hans Christian Anderson, thought a witty duet about an attempted tony Manhattanite seduction would be just the thing to trot out at tony Manhattanite parties. In the original score, the parts aren’t written out for “Male Singer” and “Female Singer,” but rather for “Wolf” and “Mouse.” He wrote it as a duet to be sung by himself and his younger wife, the singer Lynn Garland, describing it to party guests throughout New York as “our song.” Garland was somewhat miffed, then, when Loesser sold it without her permission or knowledge to MGM studios.
The thought that a song entitled Baby It’s Cold Outside might bring to mind snowstorms or a politically incorrect corporate Christmas party was missed by MGM as well. The studio used the song as the musical centerpiece in their 1948 film Neptune’s Daughter, a romantic farce set in a summery beach resort. The song is actually perfomed twice in the film, by two different couples. In the version sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán (yes, that Ricardo Montalbán), it is Montalbán who plays the wolf to Williams’ mouse. Later, the genders are reversed, as it is Betty Garret who attempts to seduce a reluctant Red Skelton.
To say that the song was a smash hit is something of an understatement; songs today simply don’t become smash hits the way Baby It’s Cold Outside was a smash hit. Within twelve months the song hit the top of Billboard five times by five different artists, including the now-classic rendition by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan. Think about that for a minute. Imagine Katy Perry having a hit so huge that five other top-tier recording artists instantly re-recorded it, and each of those five different versions also became hits. Even by today’s overhyped mega-star standards, Baby It’s Cold Outside’s success was surreal.
Still, it wouldn’t be until 1959 that anyone would record the song in an attempt to attach it to the modern Christmas & Holiday canon. Not surprisingly, the first to make the leap was Dean Martin, who was looking for Rat-Pack-esque content for his own Holiday Album, A Winter Romance. (Also not surprising for those old enough to remember him: Martin chose to have the song’s Mouse role performed by an entire chorus of breathy chorus girls.) After that, recordings of the song began to be released largely in two forms: Vegas-Torchlight and Artist’s Obligatory Christmas Album.
The list of those who have given Baby It’s Cold Outside is legion: Tom Jones, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Harry Connick Jr., Lyle Lovett, the Barenaked Ladies, Robert Plant, Dionne Warwick, Ben Folds, Cee Lo Green, any major star who was once a Mouskateer or a Rat-Packer, rapper Mac Miller, Kelly Clarkson, Rita Coolidge, the list literally goes on and on. Zooey Deschanel has recorded it thrice: twice as the Mouse to Will Ferrell and Leon Redbone’s Wolves for the movie Elf, and once as the Wolf with M. Ward. Rainn Wilson played the Mouse to Selma Blaire’s wolf in a Gap commercial; Joseph Gordan-Levvit has done the same with Lady Gaga. It’s almost easier to compile a list of crooners and vocalists since 1960 who haven’t recorded Baby It’s Cold Outside at one time or another.
There’s even a kind of Baby It’s Cold Outside Hall of Shame. Sometimes these are simply odd and ill-conceived pairings that never quite worked as planned. The recordings of Bette Midler and James Caan, Barry Manilow and KT Olsin, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, and Buster Poindexter and Sigourney Weaver all fall into this category. Still others have been placed in the Hall of Shame entries for being abominations against nature and good taste. These include Washed-Up Era John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, Petula Clark and — I swear I am not making this up — Rod McKuen, the cast of Blossom, Barry Manilow and Debra Byrd, and The Simpsons. (No, not them — the other Simpsons).
Now that it has entered the canon, Baby It’s Cold Outside has one additional thing going for it that no other seasonal staple can claim: It’s the only classic Holiday song that demands to be experienced with a high-end cocktail in hand.
 In retrospect, Loesser’s cavalier ease with both the ownership and the subject matter of Baby It’s Cold Outside should probably have been something of a tipoff to Garland. Her own marriage was itself a product of her husband’s love of both seduction and younger women; he would eventually divorce her to marry Jo Sullivan, the younger star of Loesser’s The World’s Most Happy Fella.
 With all of that said, let me end this post with a little secret — but you have to promise to never repeat this to anyone.
When I’m alone in my car and Baby It’s Cold Outside comes up on shuffle, I belt out both parts. When singing the Mouse lines, I sing with Tom Waits’ voice; when singing the Wolf, I sing with the voice of Fred Schneider of the b-52s. It is, I am sure, a sight and sound too terrible to behold.
Remember, that last bit’s just between the two of us.