Friends! Soluters! Countrymen! We have reached the first anniversary of “The best original songs according to…” Thanks to all of you who’ve so far participated, enjoyed, and left feedback over the last twelve months. Who’d have thunk, when started this series (what seems like) a million years ago, when we wished on “Three Coins in a Fountain,” that the year 2020 would bring us so much unexpected … stuff! Rather than dwell on the rapidly crumbling hellscape around us, let’s jump right in:
Famously, the 23rd Academy Awards may have had the most stacked set of nominees ever. It was the year of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard and The Third Man, of Born Yesterday and Harvey and a pretty darn good Cyrano, all six of which went home with at least one major award, along with a slew of classic films — The Asphalt Jungle, Father of the Bride, Disney’s Cinderella — that went home empty-handed.
Hollywood has rarely produced, much less rewarded, such an embarrassment of riches in the same year, so it’s even more the pity that the Best Original Song category was in the middle of an extended slump. Outside of a handful of Arthur Freed productions, the movie musical was having trouble transitioning out of the old-fashioned 30s and 40s style into something more current, and we were still two years away from the Oscar victory that would change the overall course of the category, when Dimitri Tiomkin’s High Noon ballad opened up the award to non-diegetic songs. That’s not to say all the nominees this year were awful — two of them are still very well known! — but even the best of them can’t help but look like a pale reflection of an otherwise blazing year in American film.
If there’s a theme to this crop of nominations — and this is something we’ve seen in previous installments, too — it’s that the surest way to Academy gold during this particular slog of years is to have a song from your film find runaway success on the radio. The “film” part is almost secondary, if not a liability. Take the winner from 1950, “Mona Lisa,” a song that practically everyone can hum the first few bars to even though the movie it’s in, the WWII-noir Captain Carey, U.S.A., has mostly faded from public consciousness. Its use in the film is brief but bracing, a lookout’s signal (“the warning song!”) to a sleepy Italian neighborhood when Nazi soldiers pass through. You may notice a few things in the clip below: the song is barely there, most of it is talked over, and it’s in Italian. Not usually a winning combination, but here we are:
How did a brief little ditty that’s over and forgotten in the first two minutes of the film win the industry’s top award? Having the songwriting team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingston didn’t hurt, since they were a known quantity by 1950, with two nominations and one win already under their belts. And hey, that aching little appoggiatura on the words “Mona Lisa” is hard to resist, I get it. But more than anything, we can chalk up its victory to its many, many successful covers, from Nat King Cole’s immortal version that spent eight weeks at the top of the charts to at least half a dozen other big sellers (like Charlie Spivak, Art Lund, and even country-music versions) all in 1950 alone.1 It was a bona fide cultural phenomenon before the Academy Awards ceremony rolled around, and well… By that point, all the voters could hum it, too.
Chart success was also the driver of two of the other nominees, as well. At the one end of the chart-busting spectrum, we have a song that, though there were a number of covers that got radio play, is associated almost exclusively with a single performer: “Be My Love,” the operatic ballad that’d become Mario Lanza’s literal theme song. In the film, a pretty darn sexy Lanza plays a Louisiana fisherman (looking like no Louisiana fisherman I ever seen, and I seen plenty) with the voice of a… well, of a Mario Lanza. The whole purpose of the film was to get him singing on camera again (though there’s something perverse about the fact that the film is about why grooming Mario Lanza to be an opera singer is bad?), which he does here in a duet with Kathryn Grayson:
“Be My Love” was written by composer and first-time nominee “Slug” Brodszky and much-nominated lyricist Sammy Cahn, who continued his losing streak of mediocrities with loss number eight here (he’d finally break through with — O, serendipity! — “Three Coins in the Fountain”). Brodszky fills the melody with wide and difficult leaps to show off Lanza’s unmatched vocal apparatus and thick harmonies in the accompaniment to make the piece seem more high-art respectable than it is, but the song is pure schmaltz, and Lanza himself would grow to hate his own theme song: according to one biographer, the singer would privately spoof it as “Be My Lunch.” But it’s easy to see why Lanza hitting those high notes launched the single recording to over a million sales in 1950.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the hokey novelty song “Mule Train” from the musical oater Singing Guns.2 This is a tough sell under the best of circumstances, and Vaughn Monroe performs it like he just rolled out of bed with a terrible case of constipation. I don’t know what to say other than that I am emphatically not the audience for this, but I am not the radio listener of 1950, who propelled multiple versions to the charts, including one by a trying-too-hard Bing Crosby.
If the original recording of “Mule Train” by Frankie Lane sounds like a (very) rough draft for the Rawhide theme, there’s a good reason: Laine sang that one, too, and must have had a thing for whips. I can’t get over the fact that it took four people to write this song (“Seems as how they never stop, clippety clop, clippety clop / Clippety, clippety, clippety, clippety, clippety cloppin’ along”). About the best I can say is that it seems like harmless fun, and I’m happy it apparently made other people happy.
Still, as far as novelty pieces go, I’d rather listen to “Mule Train” on repeat than sit through one more round of “Wilhelmina,” from the burlesque-lite musical Wabash Avenue. The bald recycling of this era puts us our own remake culture to shame: the Betty Grable-starring Wabash is a remake of the Betty Grable-starring Coney Island, made less than a decade earlier. Its biggest innovation was shifting the story from New York to Chicago. Meh? Anyway, here’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever had the displeasure of sharing in the series:
Composer Josef Myrow is less to blame here: a two-time nominee, he delivers exactly what the scene purports to deliver, a music-hall show tune. It’s fine. The guilty party is nine-time nominated lyricist Mack Gordon, whose collected works are littered with these strained bits of musical comedy and “wordplay,” from “Down Argentine Way” (which we discussed recently) and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” to “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo.” That his sole win was for the gorgeous non-novelty ballad “You’ll Never Know” seems like a cosmic joke of some sort.
That leaves us with the fifth and final nominee, and easily the best-known song nominated this year, the Disney standard “Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo” from Cinderella. As we’ve discussed before, there was a time when Disney songs were far from a sure bet. While the company must have been feeling optimistic after taking home the Best Song award in 1947 for “Zip-a-Dee-Doh-Dah,” the fact is, not a single fully animated film won this Oscar between 1940 (Pinocchio) and 1989 (The Little Mermaid). Even Disney’s live action and hybrid films were fully shut out during this decade and until the mid-60s.
I’m going to risk some internet wrath by noting that this is far from my favorite Disney song. While there’s something to be said for simplicity in fairy-tale pieces, the formal structure of “BBB” feels awfully extreme in that regard: the entire phrase is over and done in less than ten seconds, the kind of thing you could fit on a thimble-sized music box cylinder, and a middling B section only highlights how little is there to begin with. One of the strongest qualities of classic Disney is its songbook, where even similarly simple pieces (say, “Heigh-Ho”) come with unexpected layers and creative touches. “BBB” is a polka-novelty song, and it’s not the kind of thing that rewards repeat listens. For contrast, take any other song from the same movie, like the classic “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes“: lush harmonies, woozy melody… this is giving me fantasy.3 “BBB” could never.
What else could have been nominated?
Oof, this one’s rough. I’ve already said my piece on Cinderella, but I’d note that its other two major songs, “So This is Love” and “The Work Song,” are also very good and would have been worthy contenders here. You could make a good case that the best “song” of the year was Duke Ellington’s theme for The Asphalt Jungle, but the Academy refuses to categorize songs without words as songs for their purposes. Meanwhile, the year’s highest-grossing musical, Annie Get Your Gun, introduced no new and therefore no eligible songs. The Cagney vehicle The West Point Story had original songs, but they’re all pretty meh; they still sound better than anything in the disposable Martin and Lewis vehicle At War with the Army. Do you really want to see Jerry Lewis in drag serenading a drunk soldier? Trust me, you don’t.
There were a few bright spots. I’ve been very vocal here about my love of Harold Arlen, and he produced some very strange pieces for the strange Betty Grable vehicle My Blue Heaven, a lighthearted romp about a radio star who suffers a miscarriage and transitions to television. Alrighty, then. The songs are all self-consciously goofy pieces for film actors playing radio personalities doing exaggerated versions of themselves: what’s not to love in a song about tax deductions, or a commercial break, or a showcase for Arlen’s lyricist, Ralph Blane, to find as many synonyms for “boat” as he could. It’s all in good fun. But man oh man do I love Arlen’s writing in “Live Hard, Work Hard, Love Hard,” which draws from his deep knowledge of jazz idioms (Arlen was once the house composer for the Cotton Club).
Here’s another pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t call “Sunshine Cake” a brilliant piece of writing any more than the movie it’s from, Riding High, was a brilliant film, but there’s something to be said for everyone involved having fun, and all three performers — Bing Crosby, Coleen Gray, and Clarence Muse — are clearly enjoying the hell out of themselves (extra points: a number that doesn’t treat its black performer like … a lot of films from this era did). No surprise that the song comes from the team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, who also gave Bing one of his most memorable hits with the Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star.” Let’s call this the cherry on our series’ anniversary cake. Enjoy, and here’s to another year!
1. The dominance of “Mona Lisa”‘s many covers has outright eclipsed the song as it appears in the movie. It’s a curious thing that nearly every guide to the Oscars lists the first non-English song to win the statue arriving only twenty years later, in 1960 (Wikipedia has the curious locution “originally written in a language other than English,” which I suppose is technically true…) But the film’s “Mona Lisa” is very clearly sung in Italian, a fact entirely drowned out by its monster success in English-language covers.
2. To be honest, I’m not sure how “Mule Train” sneaked into this category, since the song was first recorded two years before, and in no relation to, the film.
3. I have no idea why the superior-in-all-ways “Dream” wasn’t the nominee. The always reliable Wikipedia suggests its main melody was taken from one of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, but let’s be generous and say that the evidence there is slim. You can compare the measure-and-a-half of alleged inspiration here. This is a far cry from, say, the Tchaikovsky interpolations of Sleeping Beauty.
Previous installments: 1934, 1936, 1940, 1954, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1982, 1990, 2004, 2007
Next month: Audrey Hepburn wasn’t much of a singer, but that wasn’t gonna stop Henry Mancini from making her one…