Greetings, fellow Soluters and music lovers! It’s been a while, eh? We had a few months’ break in there, but I hope you haven’t forgotten that we have a regular installment of Academy-approved songs to suffer through, and this month… suffer we will!
It’s clear from the very beginning that the Best Song category was invented to serve the Hollywood musical. And why not? The first year the category was introduced, musicals made up more than half of the highest-grossing films of the year, alongside lush historical dramas and Clark Gable vehicles. That first decade or so gave us classics by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and (my eternal fave) Harold Arlen. But the Golden Age was winding down by the early 50s, and it wasn’t exactly clear what, in terms of “best songs,” would be there to replace it. The first strictly non-musical to film to win was in 1950, when a WWII thriller took the statue over four musical offerings for what amounted to a brief, stray performance by a street serenade, though you could also make a case for the 1948 Bob Hope comedy The Paleface, which only has a couple of novelty-ish songs and is somewhat widely considered one of the worst winners in the category’s history. Incidentally, both of these examples, “Mona Lisa” and “Buttons and Bows,” were written by the same team of Ray Evans & Jay Livingston. Go figure.
Thing is, novelty-ish songs were the most immediately at-hand to fill the void created by an increasingly exhausted genre (and were in fact a sign of that very exhaustion), so much so that the producers behind Bob Hope’s ’48 win came back in ’53 to try it again with Son of Paleface and the worst song nominated this year, not so much “bad” as utterly forgettable:
Nothing against Bob Hope — I’ll happily talk up his performance of ’38 Oscar winner “Thanks for the Memories” as one of the greats — but this is the Platonic ideal of a nothingburger. Evans & Livingstone have been replaced by songwriter Jack Brooks, probably best known for the lyrics to “That’s Amore,” which is not a happy endorsement. Worse still, the performances are going for a comic narrative that has nothing to do with the lyrics they’re singing, as if even they can’t be bothered to care.
If you’re going to write novelty pieces, at least give them to people who do that sort of thing well (or about as well as that low ceiling can accommodate). Take, for example, the team behind Just for You, composer Harry Warren and lyricist Leo Robin. Warren’s career extends from big ol’ Busby Berkeley showpieces to big-band earworms like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”; Robin was behind some of the best nominees in this category (the aforementioned “Thanks for the Memories”, “For Every Man There’s a Woman”) and also possibly the worst ever (“Faithful Forever,” my god). I was ready to grit my teeth at the title of this collaboration — “Zing a Little Zong” — and even ready to switch it off in the first thirty seconds, but once the initial discomfort passes and the song blooms into a harmonically goofy and mildly contrapuntal celebration, it’s hard not to smile:
Of course, this is an exception: most novelty-ish pieces are short and to the point. Frank Loesser is another old hand at this thing (it’s a surprise his name isn’t better known, since we can’t get through a holiday season without re-adjudicating his Oscar-winning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), and it’s hard to get more novelty-ish than the brief “Thumbelina” ditty he wrote for the Danny Kaye Hans Christian Anderson musical, which is just long enough and just earwormy enough to make perfect music-box material. It’s enough to make you want to put on your clogs and eat a Danish … which would be about as authentic as the movie, a “free fantasy” about the life of a real person that makes no effort whatsoever towards history or reality of any sort. A fairy tale about a fairy-tale maker, so to speak.
And you know? I’d take it over the most ostentatious offering this year, yet another attempt at making Mario Lanza a big movie star. We’ve come across one of the first such attempts in this series already, and it’s easy to see why producers thought they could make this A Thing: Lanza had an amazing voice, was — at the time — devastatingly handsome, and didn’t seem entirely incompetent in front of a camera. And that first movie song was a huge hit! Alas, the production itself was a catastrophe, Lanza was struggling with health issues, and even though Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn’s song sold well, this was the year that Lanza’s life started spinning out of control before his tragic (and avoidable) death at the end of the decade, another victim of classic Hollywood’s dangerous weight-loss demands.
But it was the winner of this year’s Academy Award that signaled a sea change in the category’s history. For the first time, it wasn’t just a non-musical that won the Oscar, but a non-musical that won for a non-diegetic song. In an era of barely memorable credit-music wins, this has been the norm for so long that it’s hard to remember when this wasn’t the case, but there was no surer sign that the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical was running on fumes.
It also helps that it’s a pretty good song, and the theme to a pretty good (if politically muddled) movie, High Noon. First time song nominee (and already five-time score nominee) Dimitri Tiomkin teamed with former winner (for Pinocchio!) and already five-time song nominee Ned Washington on the dusty Western “Ballad of High Noon,” perhaps better known by its refrain, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’.” It was a curious case of the song saving the movie: while the producers were still playing various cuts of the film to dissatisfied audiences, the song found its own independent legs with two charting versions (Frankie Lane and Tex Ritter, the latter singing the version used in the film). The film’s version, allegedly based on a Ukrainian folk song (per Tiomkin) is gorgeous and spare, with only a guitar, an accordion, and an organ’s percussion mechanism.
As I mentioned in the comments to the linked article, the ballad plays an unusual role in the film as god’s-eye narrator, commenting on (and in a real sense, directing our attitude towards) the action. This song is not merely paratextual or interpretative aid, but I’d go so far as to say that it’s an unacknowledged character, a true third-person narrator, boiling the movie’s political percolations down to a folk-mythical struggle between cowardice and bravery, “twixt love and duty,” as the singer explicitly argues. Whenever you think, well, the townspeople may have a point here?, the song returns to remind us that our hero “made a vow,” and that’s that.
At any rate, its win opens the floodgates… at least for a few years. Two of the next three winners would also be non-diegetic theme songs, and with even less of a connection to the meaning-generating mechanisms of their respective films. But the Hollywood musical doesn’t so much wither on the vine as find new ways to reinvent itself, and it’d be back with more wins in the future. Still, we all know where this eventually leads: even in the face of today’s Disney/Pixar machine, non-diegetic songs now make up about half of the category’s winners.
What else could have been nominated?
It may seem daft to discuss the decline of the musical the same year Singing in the Rain was released, but isn’t that the problem in a nutshell? SITR is a nostalgia piece, a throwback to an era when those classic songs were written — and as a jukebox musical, its songs were ineligible for consideration (even its two “original” pieces, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes”, were both… ahem, “based” on existing material.) Most of the film musicals released this year were either adaptations, remakes, or jukebox musicals, leaving us with slim pickings for alternatives.
Instead, I’ll climb on my usual hobby horse and say: a song doesn’t have to have lyrics to be a song, and the two best songs of the year were indeed that. The first is “Love Is For the Very Young,” David Raskin’s theme song for The Bad and the Beautiful. It’s since become a frequently performed jazz standard:
The second is Victor and Edward Heyman’s immortal “When I Fall in Love,” originally an instrumental piece for Robert Mitchum/Ann Blythe WWII romance One Minute to Zero. A version with lyrics was released before the film, and it sounds far more modern, more forward-looking, than anything else in the category this year. Small wonder it’s been much covered, most famously by Doris Day (in her time) and Natalie Cole (in ours). Here’s the original single recording, with Jeri Southern:
But if you absolutely require that your song have lyrics, if it’s that’s one criterion you can’t shake, then by all means, here’s Rita Hayworth (dubbed by Jo An Greer… thanks ozduck!) in Affair in Trinidad singing Lester Lee and Bob Russell’s “I’ve Never Been Kissed Before” and doing something that other people have described as dancing. Enjoy?
Next month: a sleepy James Bond versus two forgettable Walt Disneys? Time to grab some coffee…