Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)

Reviewed by mojo

I'm always a little sad when I hear this version of this song, though not for the obvious reasons. It's a good, slow wronged-woman ballad saved from boredom by cleverly subversive lyrics. You don't really expect the line "When the mob came and got her and dragged her from the jail" when you are listening to someone's polite declination of a lunch date. (One must admit it sure beats the lame "awww, so sorry, I'm busy then" that Mojo likes to use.) I've always thought poor Miss Otis should hook up with the Gershwins' Delilah in a Thelma and Louise sort of buddy chick flick, only instead of doing something stupid like drive off a cliff (I read the liner notes before I watched the movie and to this day I have borne a Terrible Grudge and sometimes shout "HOW ON EARTH IS THIS MOVIE 'LIFE-AFFIRMING'?!?" at random intervals) they would ... oh, I dunno. Anything but drive off a cliff. Which was stupid. But once again I digress.

The reason why *I* am sad when I hear this song is, one morning I get up and I'm all ready for work, blah blah blah typical day, and Life suddenly handed me something I was Not Prepared For, and instead of going to work I found myself driving to the vet's to have my poor dog, whose name was Patches, put to sleep. Which is not a good place, and I know, EllaGeek is a happy place and here comes Mojo Buzzkill to not only bring everyone down, but bring up one of the most Unpleasant Things Imaginable. Anyway, my Favorite Brother came with me for moral support, and I'm driving to the hospital with poor suffering Patches in the back seat, and if there was ever a time for the balmy distraction of Ella, it's this one. So I put on the tape player, and it's my Cole Porter CD, and of course the third song in is THIS one.

And YOU know how hard it is, in pre-car CD days, to skip a song on a tape deck. It really couldn't have been worse timing. So my Favorite Brother and I are sitting in the car in stony silence listening, and all of a sudden I start singing along, and substituting "Miss Patches" for "Miss Otis". That rather broke the ice and my Favorite Brother started this nervous awkward laughing, which got me laughing, and here we are on our way to do this terrible upsetting thing, and we're laughing our butts off. It really was this awful moment and Cole Porter's mix of tragedy and--dare I say it--comedy has forever fixed it in my memory.

So there ya go. In case I've brought you down TOO much, I'll offer you this link to Bette Midler's take on Miss Otis. Be forewarned it is a VIOLENTLY DIFFERENT imagining from Ella's version, as some complaints in the YouTube comments from well-meaning Ella fans ("AHHH! It's not like Ella's! SACRILEGE!") indicate. Very upbeat and Las Vegas revue-y and Bette Midler-y. Mojo likes it as well, but then again Mojo is a Bette Midler fan as well as an Ella fangirl, ever since I saw Divine Madness in high school. Which means, essentially, I've been a Bette Midler fan even BEFORE Ella. Sorry, but that's the way life goes sometimes. Mojo's one rule of music is this: If you don't like it, DON'T LISTEN TO IT. There's still plenty of good music for everyone!

Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today) (1956)

Click below to hear a sample--or scroll down for associated media: 
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Cole Porter
Cole Porter

"Miss Otis Regrets" is a song by Cole Porter from 1934. It was first performed on stage by Douglas Byng in Hi Diddle Diddle, which opened October 3, 1934 at the Savoy Theatre, London. However, the song was originally written for Ada "Bricktop" Smith to perform.

"Miss Otis Regrets" is a song in the blues style, and Porter's wry take on some common lyrical subject matter of the genre, telling the tale of a woman who comes to a bad end after an encounter with a man. But Porter's peculiar twist is that Miss Otis is a polite society lady, and the story of her last evening is told by her servant after Miss Otis has met her demise. In a few compact lines, the servant reveals how, after being seduced and then abandoned, Miss Otis hunted down and shot her seducer, was arrested, taken from the jail by a mob, and hanged. The servant conveys Miss Otis's final, polite, apologetic words to her friends: "Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today."

The song has been recorded by Nat King Cole, Ethel Waters, Edith Piaf, Nancy Wilson, Jose Feliciano, Linda Ronstadt, Ella Fitzgerald, Kirsty MacColl with The Pogues, The Mills Brothers, Labelle, Bette Midler, John Barrowman, Josh White, Bryan Ferry, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Shani Rigsbee, Richard Manuel, The Lemonheads, Patricia Barber, Joan Morris,Lonnie Donegan and others. The title of the Cheers episode "Mr. Otis Regrets" is also, presumably, a reference to the song.

The television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, Marple Mystery: At Bertram's Hotel, opens with the hotel desk clerk repeating the full "Miss Otis Regrets" line to someone on the telephone.

Hungarian author Jenő Rejtő also refers to the song in his novel Vesztegzár a Grand Hotelben.

The song is also referenced in the number "I Hate Musicals" from Ruthless! the musical.

The song closes the first act in John Penzotti's 2001 play Five Blue Haired Ladies Sitting on a Green Park Bench sung by Lala Carmichael a 'returning legend of the music industry'. The song is also played in the 2008 South African film noir Black; sung by Marley Cooper in a night club.