125 Years ago: a song propels Charles Wells to lasting fame

The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo Charles Coborn Fred Gilbert
Sheet music for The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, written by songwriter Fred Gilbert. The photograph (inset) is of Charles Coborn.

According to popular legend, songwriter Fred Gilbert was walking along The Strand one day when he spotted a news vendor’s placard bearing the immortal phrase:

THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO

After Charles Deville Wells had won further large sums of money at Monte Carlo, lengthy articles had appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, based on an interview with Wells (see blog post for 7 November).  If the legend is true, it was probably at the time of this conspicuous press coverage that Gilbert might have seen a poster such as this.

Gilbert immediately turned the headline into a song, and sold it to the famous music-hall singer Charles Coborn.  It was published in late 1891 and was probably first performed in February 1892 when Coborn sang it as part of his act at a London music-hall.  It subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring songs of all time, and undoubtedly turned Wells into a lasting legend.  Coborn later said that he must have sung it at least a quarter of a million times, and as his career lasted almost until his death in 1945, this is perhaps not such an exaggeration as it might seem.

Click here to see and hear a Youtube clip of Coborn performing this number in the 1934 film Say it with Flowers.  This appears to capture the atmosphere of a Victorian music-hall to perfection.  (In fact the era of the music-hall had not yet ended at this date, and Coborn was still performing the song on stage – probably on a daily basis).  An alternative Youtube video can be seen here.  In my opinion, however, this performance lacks the atmosphere of the previous one, having been filmed without an audience present.  Watch them both and see which you prefer!

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