Greetings, everyone! Last month was rough, and while I’d love to say that this month is better — we do have a couple of good songs this time around! — it also comes with a significant caveat: the Academy was in the middle of its glut years, nominating anything they could throw a stone at, i.e, we also have more than a few bad songs to wade through in this daunting, nine-nominee installment.
Could be worse: Best Original Score had seventeen nominees.
With that excess number comes excess chaff, and quite a lot of it, so the commentaries below will be a little shorter than usual. Deep in Hollywood’s golden era, studios were looking for ways to capitalize on stars, singers, and bands under contract, so no few of the films we’ll be discussing are less “films” and more “thinly conceived vehicles to get hot properties in front of a camera and sing a few bars,” no matter how ridiculous the motivation (see: You’ll Find Out). One reason I like wading around in these shallow waters from time to time is that it serves a pointed reminder that the “good ol’ days” is a carefully curated lie, that the bulk of studio productions in the golden era was dross. So let’s put on our wading boots and start splashing around in that dross, shall we?
We have a lot of ballads and slow-tempo shuffles to slog through this time around. Many of these aren’t so much “bad” as dull and forgettable, and half a dozen dull or forgettable songs in a row is a chore. I don’t know which is the worst of the bunch, but I’ve had the hardest time getting through snoozefests like “Only Forever”, a soporific Bing Crosby joint by James Monaco and Johnny Burke from Rhythm on the River. The writing, the harmonies, have some bits of interest (the chorus slips briefly into the minor subdominant for color), but the overall construction just doesn’t do it for me. Like lots of songs on this list, “Only Forever” has been covered oodles of times, but it’s hard for me to understand why: this is music that would put an elevator to sleep. Bing’s warm molasses voice has had better vehicles, including the same film’s jazzy title song.
Likewise, I wish I understood the love for Jule Styne and Walter Bullock’s “Who Am I?” from Hit Parade of 1941 (coming to us… from the future!). The best idea here is not the rhythmically inert song itself but its context in the film, performed by a “real” singer (Frances Langford) dubbing for an on-camera actress (Ann Miller!) who can’t sang. Outside of the immediate irony (“Who Am I?,” get it?!), it’s hard for me to generate much enthusiasm or analysis: the song builds to a strong climax, but it’s otherwise awfully sleepy and generic for my taste. The song is also performed in the film as a piano duet by Langford and Kenny Baker. Again, I struggle to find much to say about this. They harmonize well at the end, I guess.
I really do wish I had anything nice to say about “Our Love Affair,” since it was the first Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney duet to score an Oscar nod, but it boggles my mind that this was their first, given the legendary “Good Morning” that went unnoticed the previous year. I love Garland and I generally love her duets with Rooney, but this piece by Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll doesn’t do much to build on either of their strengths (Garland’s preternatural maturity, Rooney’s juvenile puckishness). Every single time I’ve gone to click on this song, the literally dozens of times I’ve listened to it to write up these recaps, I’ve struggled to remember how it goes. Much more interesting is the fantasy animatronic sequence that follows. At least the pair had the much more deserving nominee “How About You” on the near horizon.
I do, on the other hand, have some good things to say about “I’d Know You Anywhere,” a nifty little piece by Jimmy McHugh and John Mercer. From the instrumental choices (that toy piano!) and the unusual metrical shift in the intro to the heavy blue note that defines its refrain, this is way more interesting a piece than we might expect from the largely forgotten movie it appears in.
That movie, You’ll Find Out, is truly the oddball genre mashup in this category: say what you will about today’s overhyped crossover events, but in 1940, someone at RKO decided that the Kay Kyser band’s best bet for a comedy vehicle was to round up a bunch of classic horror actors like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre and have the band intervene in a murder plot, for yuks. Imagine if Mystery Incorporated took regular breaks from solving mysteries to do quasi-slapstick big-band pieces. Eh, at least this song’s good.
There’s also some worthwhile material in “It’s a Blue World” by Chet Forrest and Bob Wright, from Music in My Heart. This vehicle for Tony Martin’s soaring voice scores some points for its chorus, with wide leaps followed by languorous chromatic descents, teetering precariously along a tightrope of unstable 9ths. That said, I’m not sure if it’s as fun to listen to as it is to analyze, especially with the overly conventional structure and its lyrics beating its only metaphor into the dirt (What’s blue? “The sea, the sky, my heart, and I.” Fine, okay, whatever.) Given how difficult it is to sing despite its deceptive simplicity, as well as the richness of the complex chords underneath, I can see why it became such a standard: in fact, the Four Freshmen cover was recently used as the backbone of a Mac Miller song.
As much as I’m taking the piss out of the slower stuff here, the jaunty novelty pieces aren’t exactly better, just easier to sit through. That’s certainly the case with the title song from Down Argentine Way, a nightmare of culturally insensitive pastiche that was so offensive to the people it ostensibly represented that it was banned in that country. It also introduced American audiences to noted non-Argentine singer Carmen Miranda! The song itself is total cornball exoticism, buoyed a bit by some effervescent orchestration (and then those drums at 4:05 below!) with vocals by Betty Grable and Carlos Albert, the latter dubbing a never-sexier Don Ameche. Continuing the earlier tradition of endless musical numbers, we also get the legendary Nicholas Brothers cutting a rug to another round of verses, so it has that going for it. (Listen carefully and you can hear the same basic structure that Roy Orbison used in “Blue Bayou.”)
The more earwormy of the jaunty novelty pieces is “Waltzing in the Clouds,” from the Viennese fantasy Spring Parade. Riding a fine line between homage and outright plagiarism, this piece of Straussian cheese by Robert Stoltz and Gus Kahn has some real bounce at first, but its one or two musical ideas eventually wear thin with repetition — both within the song and in its repeated use in the movie — and my usual bias against Deanna Durbin’s affected performances doesn’t really endear me to the piece, either. (Not-so-fun fact: Spring Parade was a remake by the same producer and writer of a 1934 version that nearly collapsed because of the Nazi Party’s policies towards Jews.)
Seven songs in, and nothing I’d feel safe calling an all-timer: so much for the expanded category! At least the final two give us something to cheer about, though you’d never know it from the on paper description of the next one, which brings together some elements I’m ambivalent about (lingering Fred Astaire fatigue from the last time we encountered him) with some big honking red flags (this was Astaire’s self-described worst film, Second Chorus). And yet…
And yet! Artie Shaw and Johnny Mercer’s “Would You Like to Be the Love of My Life” is a more than pleasant surprise. Allegedly written over a single lunch (and then withheld for weeks to “earn” their paycheck, so to speak), the song is a cool, bouncy tune that Astaire delivers with such offhand grace that it fizzles like champagne (his delivery of the “I hope in your horoscope…” line is *chef’s kiss*). I love the way the melody does its little stepwise shuffle into the hypertonic before its breaks into larger leaps: nothing especially radical, but a well-constructed arc throughout. I’m frankly surprised it isn’t a bigger hit in Astaire’s catalogue, as one of the very best of this particular genre… but skip the reprise, with Fred in Cossack drag singing it in pseudo-Russian gibberish. For reals.
Finally, we have the winner, a deserved winner, if not the single most well-known melody out of the many hundreds that have passed through this category, though it helps to have been adopted as the theme song of a multi-billion-dollar megacorporation that controls all of your entertainment and probably owns your children by contract.
For all that, it’s funny that the composer of Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Leigh Harline, is practically unknown to all but aficionados. His work here is exquisite, leaning hard on secondary dominants and diminished chords to build a fantasy-scape out of an otherwise straightforward lullaby, rendered even more magical by Cliff Edwards’ gentle but gravelly tenor. Given how thoroughly animated films (and especially Disney films) have come to dominate the Best Original Song category, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when this kind of film winning the statue was considered an anomaly… but no fully animated film would pull it off again until The Little Mermaid a half-century later.
What else could have been nominated?
(Do… do we really have to do this? Are you not sated?)
Fine, look, there’s Broadway Melody of 1940 and a couple of Cole Porter standards. There’s a bunch of Jule Styne stuff for the singing cowboy movie Melody Ranch (impossible to take seriously in a post-Hail, Caesar! world). There’s Road to Singapore, the first Crosby-Hope “road” pairing, and its radio hits. But I can’t do this anymore. Disney owns my kids and “Waltzing in the Clouds” has taken over my brain. I need a nap. See y’all next month.
Next month: a salvo in the culture wars, as Che Guevara battles Shrek for the Academy’s hearts!