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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Memorable Melodies: The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

“The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” the song with which George Amberson Minafer loudly serenades his family in The Magnificent Ambersons, was written in 1892 and remained popular for a number of decades afterward, so it was most likely familiar to the readers of Booth Tarkington’s novel in 1918, and perhaps to moviegoers who heard it sung in the 1942 film adaptation as well. There’s a colorful story behind the song, which is believed to be inspired by a real-life gambler who succeeded in spectacularly breaking the bank at the famous Casino Monte Carlo in Monaco. (In roulette, “breaking the bank” means winning more chips than are available at the table.) Here's a clip from the 1942 film:

The man in question was Charles Deville Wells (1841 – 1922), a gambler and confidence trickster who arrived in Monte Carlo in 1891 supplied with money he had swindled from investors in a bogus invention scheme. Wells broke the bank twelve times in one day, converting £4,000 into winnings of 1 million francs. In 1892, songwriter Fred Gilbert wrote “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” which was most likely inspired by Wells and which helped to make him an even bigger celebrity—it’s been said that whenever he entered a nightclub the band would begin playing the song. It was popularized by English music-hall singer and comedian Charles Coborn (not to be confused with American character actor Charles Coburn), for whom it became a signature number. Here’s an old recording of Coborn performing the complete song:

Charles Wells’s fame and fortune did not last. He returned to Monte Carlo twice more—the first time he made another million francs in three days, but on the second his luck ran out and he lost all of his money—or rather, the money belonging to more investors in another one of his schemes. He was arrested at Le Havre and extradited to England, where he served eight years in prison for fraud. After serving two more sentences in England and France, he eventually died penniless in Paris. The song that he inspired proved much more fortunate for Charles Coborn, who estimated that he performed it 250,000 times in the course of his career, in fourteen different languages! In 1934, at age 82, he sang it in English and French in the British film Say it With Flowers. There was also an American musical comedy titled The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo filmed in 1935, but the plot bore little relation to the song or to the story of Charles Wells. To many modern-day readers and film fans, its use in The Magnificent Ambersons may well be the most memorable.

POSTED BY:  Elisabeth Grace Foley

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
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