What started out as a song to get party guests to leave is now a Christmas favorite that has come under some scrutiny in recent years.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has evolved into a song that is never left off a Christmas album. The catch? When it was written in 1944, songwriter Frank Loesser wasn’t thinking of the holidays.
Loesser originally wrote the song to only be performed at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. The duet — labeling the parts wolf and mouse — involves a man trying to convince a woman that she should stay, because it’s snowing outside. She says no until she relents at the end.
The couple was invited to parties on the basis of the song and were asked to perform when the party was about to end. They eventually recorded their version, according to “A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life. A Portrait by His Daughter” by Loesser and Garland’s daughter, Susan Loesser.
After holding on to the song for years, Loesser made the decision to sell the song to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1948, and it first appeared nationally in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949) starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skeleton, Betty Garrett and Keenan Wynn. This move caused Loesser to win his only Academy Award.
Garland was upset that Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams were the ones performing the song that belonged to her and her husband for so long.
“I felt betrayed, as if I had caught him in bed with another woman,” Susan Loesser quotes her mother in the book. “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.’”
In “Neptune’s Daughter,” Esther Williams plays a champion swimmer who designs swimwear, a plot that mirrored her real-life. Her man-crazy sister, played by Betty Garrett, is determined to find a new boyfriend in the South American polo team that has come to town. A case of mistaken identity ensues when Garrett thinks Red Skelton is a polo player. The real athlete, Ricardo Montalban, pursues Williams.
Williams and Montalban first perform “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the film — with him pursuing her. In case you’re wondering, the song ends and fades with the two sitting on the couch. The scene then immediately turns to Betty Garrett and Red Skelton performing the song.
In a comedic switch, Garrett this time is doing the pursuing and Skelton escapes.
“Neptune’s Daughter” is not a Christmas film and is set during summer, really making the placement of this song bizarre. Obviously, in the film, he’s trying to make a joke. For example, Ricardo points at the window saying to look out there at the snow, there is no snow, and he closes the curtains.
While the song fits oddly into the film, I enjoy watching the four actors perform the song in the film because their body language is amusing. Esther is more annoyed and isn’t going to let Ricardo get his way. I was also a little surprised when I rewatched this at how graceful Esther moved in a choreographed way, as she admits in her autobiography that singing and dancing weren’t her forte. This is also a rare moment of Esther Williams performing as a singer. Betty and Red are also amusing because of their comedic roles.
The song went on to win the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song in 1950, beating out songs written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, Alfred Newman, and Eliot Young. It reached the top of the charts in 1949 when it was performed by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whitting, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, and Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark.
In recent years, the song has faced scrutiny; sparking date rape discussions because of the male’s persistence and the woman questioning what is in her drink.
At the time it was written, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was originally thought to be a rather progressive woman’s song, according to a 2014 Washington Post article.
In the era of the late-1940s and early-1950s, when this song gained popularity, it wasn’t proper for an unmarried woman to stay the night with a man. If she did so, it would most likely cause a scandal. The songwriter’s intent was to show that the female wants to stay, but she is also concerned about her reputation, gossip and scandal. She lists worries about her sister, brother and aunt as some of those concerns.
The reason it was viewed as progressive was that she throws caution to the wind, does what she wants, forgets about what people will say and stays anyways.
As far as becoming a holiday tune, there is no real explanation of why or how this has become a Christmas pop standard, so one can assume it evolved because of its mere mention of cold weather. Comet Over Hollywood’s friend Doug Grieve said Dean Martin was the first one to release “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on a Christmas album, so that could be how it started. Despite recent criticism, the song still reached No. 10 on the Billboard Top 200 in 2014 when Idina Menzel and Michael Buble recorded the song.
Whenever this song comes on the radio, I think of the scenes from “Neptune’s Daughter” — where it’s summer outside — and can’t help being irritated like Ebenezer Scrooge that it wasn’t meant to be a Christmas song. However, I know my curmudgeon ways will never get this — or “Once Upon a December” and “My Favorite Things” — taken off of the Christmas playlists.
This post was updated in Dec. 2019 remove editorializing from the writer and making this purely a historical, research article.