This wasn’t supposed to be the first entry. When I started tossing around the idea of linking this series to Year of the Month, I thought next month, one of the earliest appearances of the Best Song category, would be ideal: why not start off early so we can see the category evolve over time? Only… next month’s “year” was an exceptional one, a rare case when the critical consensus then and now are fully aligned: the Oscar went to the best song of the year. That’s no way to launch a series like this! This month’s year, however, is more typical for the category, a bunch of mediocrities, a genuinely great song, a categorical injustice. I’ll still save the introductory remarks I planned for next month. Let’s consider this entry a warm-up…
The 27th Academy Award ceremony, on March 23, 1955, found itself with a Best Original Song category that had recently entered a transitional period. Though the category has evolved in many ways over the years, we can point definitively to the 1953 ceremony two years earlier as a major turning point: it was the first time that a non-diegetic song had won the award (as would two of the next three winners), which blew open the doors for a whole category of nominees while leaving less room for the “traditional” picks. In fact, the two frontrunning nominees this year were non-diegetic songs, including the winner.
That doesn’t mean traditional musicals were fully unrepresented. Let’s start with the most disappointing entry in the group, Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” from White Christmas. Before we get to the song itself, a little bit of history: despite his status as one of the great American songwriters, the Oscars were never particularly kind to Berlin. His four nominations in the 1930s, at the peak of his powers, went unrewarded, though even this was less embarrassing than what happened when he did win his sole Oscar, in 1942: he was also the presenter and was embarrassed at having to read out his own name, though he took it in good humor. He’d have to settle for having the alleged best-selling single of all time.
But by 1954, he was mostly putting out film-length career revues: the title White Christmas already tells us what to expect, a new cover of his most famous (and only Oscar-winning) song, a few works from other musicals shuffled in, and a new piece to keep things fresh. As a pop-culture strategy it was successful: White Christmas was the 2nd-highest grossing film of the year. Unfortunately the new piece, and a nominee in the next year’s Academy Awards ceremony, does not represent Berlin at the peak of his powers.
Being Berlin, it is never less than pleasant and professional (and Bing Crosby’s performance here is pleasant and professional), but I can’t help but wonder what a younger Berlin would think of that unimaginative melodic line: the modal cadence (1-6-1-2-1) is an echo of the kind of hymnal endings that politely yawn their way through an all-white church at 8am with Gladys leading the congregation and Gladys’s nephew at the keyboard. The first half of the phrase is markedly better, vintage Berlin, with its gently cascading line and and mostly minor harmonic progression that dances around the tonic key without actually stating it, but not enough to save this piece, though I suppose a lullaby is something of a success if it puts you to sleep.
Still, naming the picture White Christmas was an astute way to lure folks into seeing a movie on the basis of its title song, and if that sounds like a ridiculous strategy to you, hold on to your hats, because the 50s were all about parallel marketing of songs and their movies, and often in that order. This year was especially heavy on the radio hits, and “Hold My Hand” from Susan Slept Here was one of the year’s biggest. A Tashlin joint that lured Debbie Reynolds over to MGM for a one-picture deal, then cycled through studios and leading men (hard to imagine many roles that would have both Mickey Rooney and Robert Mitchum attached at some point, but here we are!), it was a modest hit at the theater with a monster hit on the radio.
As for the song itself… Well, there are worst things that could have been (and were) nominated. The piece itself, by one-time nominees Jack Lawrence and Richard Myers, is somewhat paint-by-number in form and structure, even the welcome sudden key shift in the B section, though I do like the way the music underscores the tentativeness of that opening “So…” by beginning with a diminished chord that resolves into ii7. The song has a bouncy charm that quickly dissipates like cotton candy: even after a dozen listens I keep forgetting how it goes. I might like it a bit better without Don Cornell’s sleazy red-velvet-suit performance,1 the kind of voice that runs a used-car lot by day, and that you don’t leave with an unattended drink at night.
Hyping your hit song isn’t the most shameless way to play this game: you could do like the producers of The High and the Mighty and finagle your way into a nomination for a song that isn’t even in the film. In an unusual turn of events, Dimitri Tiomkin’s earworm of a score — three versions of it, in fact — became ubiquitous on the radio, and this meant producing a song proper (“The High and the Mighty”) in time for the Oscars, with a quick set of lyrics cobbled together by Ned Washington.
A fight ensued behind the scenes. Even in his version of events, Tiomkin tries to have it both ways: the whistled version from the movie is a song on its own merits, he argues, because there’s nothing inherent to the concept of “song” that requires words… but also there was a version with lyrics that just happened to be cut from the final print, honest! The Academy rejected this argument, so the producers issued exactly one print of the film with the song intact for a one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles. Craven politicking on their part, but it worked: the Academy accepted the gambit, and the song was nominated for the award, despite the fact that few voters ever heard it used in the movie. Tiomkin and Washington had already revolutionized the category with their Oscar-winning song for High Noon (that non-diegetic winner back in 1953), so what’s a little more rule-bending?
One reason the melody is such an earworm is that it’s so basic, as subsequent events would bear out: Tiomkin was sued for plagiarism by a composer who’d worked with Ned Washington in the past, arguing that the melody somehow made it from Washington back to Tiomkin. Tiomkin’s legal team hired an “expert” to show that the structure was practically archetypal in classical music, and though his team would never put it so crassly, Tiomkin won the lawsuit on the basis that his piece was so generic that it was impossible to plagiarize.2 For this, he took home the Oscar for Best Original Score (Dramatic).
But genericism was the mood of the day. For all the talk of modern remake culture as a new and unwelcome phenomenon, the 1954 charts were a wasteland of simultaneous duplicates. Among film songs alone, the biggest hits of the year included three “The High and the Mighty”s, two “Hold My Hand”s, two “Count Your Blessings,” and three “Three Coins in the Fountain,” though the Oscar-winning version was a bigger hit in the U.K., while a different recording (by the Four Aces) topped the U.S. charts. There’s nothing the Academy loves so much as a hit.
If the Tiomkin affair highlights the cynicism of its composer, “Three Coins” is all about the unscrupulousness of Hollywood studios. When terminally mediocre composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn were rushed into writing and recording (with Frank Sinatra) an opening credits song for the nearly finished film, which they did in an hour (and it shows). In the hubbub they forgot to sign their contract, and the producers took this opportunity to immediately assert their rights by booking the Four Aces to record another version with no need to pay the writer and composer. (Note: the vid below is half the movie, but we’re just here for the opening credits.)
The harps and fluttering flutes and occasional switch between a major and minor tonic are the only thing keeping this from sounding like the opening-credits theme to a middling daytime soap (the proof: check out the strings-heavy official release with Sinatra, which sounds exactly like that). Strip away the admittedly solid accompaniment, and we have less a melody than a jingle. No orchestral filigree can disguise the fact that the music is characterless, and the lyrics a lifelessly prosaic description of the film’s setup, though the lifelessness may have something to do with the fact that Styne and Cahn were barred from seeing any footage or reading the screenplay for inspiration (Marvel Studios didn’t invent this particular wheel, sadly). I’d like to think this won because Academy voters finally took pity on Styne (nine nominations, zero wins) and Cahn (ten nominations, zero wins) or because of the way they were screwed over on the production end, but the song was indeed a big hit, and the trades expected it to win that year, so…
Finally, there’s the award that got away. Oscar-watchers tend to remember 1954 as the year that Judy Garland was robbed of her rightful Academy Award, which is hogwash (Grace Kelly had swept the entire awards circuit for an all-time great year of movies). There was a huge robbery that year, and for the same movie, but it was in the song category. Maybe it seemed too old fashioned among the new radio hits, but “The Man that Got Away” is a giant among Lilliputians here, indisputably the best song of the five. It was also the last nomination ever for a Gershwin,3 neither of whom ever won an Oscar, and it had Harold Arlen on the music side. If there’s a theme that’ll emerge over the course of this retrospective, it’s this: Harold Arlen is the best song composer in American film (he at least was rewarded for it… once.) You’ll be hearing me sing his praises a lot in this series.
Why does “The Man That Got Away” work so well? Even if Garland didn’t perform the hell out of it (I think it’s the best film-musical performance of her career, frankly — the way she seems perched uncertainly between performing it and living it creates some intense emotional friction), the construction itself is just aces from beginning to end. There’s the sinisterly pulsating opening line, climbing and sinking in little chromatic increments until it takes its more extended emotional breath at the title line, closing in on that gorgeous blue note.4 Then it continues to climb, reaching peaks, tumbling down, only to rebound to even higher peaks, a melodic rollercoaster fit for an emotional one. Listen, too, as Garland so expertly controls the volume in her performance, from soft to loud (when she spins around and throws her whole body into “it’s all a crazy gaaaaame”, my god!) and from loud to soft (that precipitous drop between “where’s he gone to?” and “the road gets rougher,” phew). Nothing nominated this year comes within spitting range of this, one of the very great songs to be nominated for an Academy Award, going home empty-handed, like everyone else associated with the film, which racked up a 0-7 record that night.5
What else could have been nominated?
If we had to overload this category with ballads, it’s too bad there wasn’t room for Peggy Lee’s aching, mysterious “Johnny Guitar,” from the film of that name. The hostile contemporary reviews surely sunk any chance of that, but Lee’s work here is stellar, suggestively toeing the line between melancholy and seductive as her voice floats above a sinister bass line. Lee herself wrote the lyrics to Victor Young’s music,6 and it happens to make a great accompaniment when you’re all alone out on the Mojave Wasteland. If it weren’t for “The Man That Got Away,” this would be my easy pick for best original film song of the year, Academy be damned. (SPOILERS for the scene below, btw)
More surprising to me is the lack of any song nominations for one of the year’s biggest hits, the hetero camp-fest Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, whose music was otherwise rewarded in the Best Score (musical) category. Granted, the songs are probably the least interesting thing about the movie, often clunky and painfully faux-naive (that’s why people like the movie, right?) and far outshone by the legendary dance productions, but all those qualities work like gangbusters in the movie’s best song, the mock-lament “Lonesome Polecat.” Yes, it’s a gimmicky song (it’s an extended “farmers might just be fucking their livestock” joke while one brother does pirouettes with his axe, okay), but it’s also nicely constructed, from the memorable staccato phrase endings that match the axe strokes to the lovely parallel wavers once the other brothers join in. A surprisingly beautiful exercise in tonic harmonization for such a silly song.
1. This is a fact in the Wikipedia entry for Don Cornell that I thought you should know:
His 1952 hit “I” was the only single-character pop chart entry until Prince’s No. 7 Billboard Hot 100 hit “7” from 1992 and the only single-letter hit until Xzibit’s No. 76 Hot 100 hit “X” from 2000.
2. Heck, flip it to a minor key, and you have Francis Lai’s theme from Love Story.
3. Arlen originally had his frequent collaborator Johnny Mercer write the lyrics, and they are terrible. Mercer’s talents were more wildly uneven than Gershwin’s; maybe it’s no surprise he holds the record (tied) for most wins in this category.
4. In fact, Arlen pulls a neat little trick here, for those of you who like the technical details. The note isn’t actually blue in its melodic function: it’s just a regular ol’ fourth degree of the scale. But Arlen unexpectedly shifts the harmony to a secondary dominant at VI7, which turns that little melodic fourth degree into a flat sixth (a note rarely used like this, but very effective here). In short: she’s not bending the note; the music is bending around her.
5. A little extra salt for the wound here: “The Man that Got Away” remains the only of the three musical A Star is Born iterations not to go home with the Song Oscar.
6. Another set of stats working against Lee here: only once had a Best Song Oscar gone to a woman (to Dorothy Fields way back in 1937, and not another until the late 60s) and never to someone who performed their own song in the film (though two were nominated: Gene Autry in 1942 and Hoagy Carmichael in 1948; I think Issac Hayes is the first to pull this off, in 1972).
Next month: The Oscars get it right! Savor this moment…