Last month the Ploughman made a smart observation about the pattern of nominees in this series so far, that it’s been surprisingly “insular”, with “lots of nominations for a handful of people.” To test his statement, let’s take a quick look at the stats for the year at hand. Of the nine composers and lyricists nominated for Best Original Song in 1961, seven were already veterans of the category, with a total of thirteen wins behind them and a whopping sixty-three nominations. (For comparison, that’s an average of 1.6 noms for every year the category had existed!) To be fair, this disparity was weighted more heavily towards lyricists: this year’s crop included Ned Washington (10 noms, 2 wins), Johnny Mercer (12 noms, 2 wins), and the man who may as well have the category named after him, Sammy Cahn (18 noms, 3 wins). All that’s to say, if you’re getting the impression that this series keeps circling back over the same few names, you’re not wrong.
Even the two “newbies” from 1961 were veterans of the Academy Awards, just not of its Best Song category. Composer Miklós Rózsa already had fifteen nominations (and three wins) under his belt as a composer of film scores, while the closest thing this year had to an upstart, Henry Mancini, arrived with a sole nomination for “Scoring” that he shared with Joseph Gershenson for 1953’s The Glenn Miller Story. That makes him our de-facto underdog.
To say that this year was Mancini’s big film breakthrough would be an understatement: not only was he a double nominee in this category (thus only nine names instead of ten), and not only was he double winner this year (for this and Best Score), but he’d win this year’s statue and the next’s, becoming the first person with consecutive Oscars for songwriting. Quite a way to burst into a scene where you’ve been doing largely yeoman’s work for a decade. And of course, the song Mancini contributed to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “Moon River,” is one of the most beloved we’ll cover in this entire series. I have to admit something here: I’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I’ve never gotten why this song was such a big deal… until I watched the clip of Hepburn performing it.
Okay, I get it now: the fragility and inexactness of Hepburn’s voice sell this song far better than the more polished, professional takes I’m used to hearing, and the simple guitar accompaniment that starts the piece off is far less saccharine. The well-known story that Mancini wrote the song for Hepburn’s limited range may be true, but *range is not the only yardstick of difficulty*, and Mancini’s use of wide leaps and neighboring tones is especially hard on amateur singers. The melody is constantly approached from one step above where it “should” be, harmony-wise, which makes it harder to use the music around you to orient yourself. Whenever Hepburn has to leap to or hold one of those notes, you can hear her voice waver with uncertainty, and it creates a feeling of emotional transparency that’s hard to resist. I don’t feel quite the same warmth towards Mercer’s lyrics (apart from “there’s such a lot of world out there,” a great line), but at least they don’t embarrass the whole: the one line that’s always grated on me, “my huckleberry friend,” sounds so much more natural in this context.
I wish I could say Mancini staved off embarrassment with his other song nomination this year, but the opening credits to Bachelor in Paradise veer pretty hard from a promising instrumental opening to the kind of mushy, easy-listening jazz that formed the bulk of his output in the 1960s.
I don’t really know what to say about this. It’s corny for sure. I suppose the choral writing’s upward soar is appropriately Edenic, though there’s something somewhat counterintuitive in the way it rises from its major tonic key into a minor key, peaking on a diminished chord to underscore the threat of paradise lost. Still, I appreciate that more in theory than actually enjoy the finished product. Then you have the limp 60s sex comedy of Mack David’s lyrics warning fancy-free Adams (enjoying “Frankie’s records and cocktails on the floor”) about the machinations of predatory Eves: “What the lady wants / is your closet space.” Heavens to Murgatroyd!
Choral pieces were the thing this year. Three of the five nominees used choirs instead of soloists, and none to particularly memorable effect. Take the end of El Cid, which involved pasting some lyrics onto Rózsa’s instrumental love theme and cramming it onto an exit-music card, so at the end of the endless movie, you can finally hear “The Falcon and the Dove” as you walk out the theater. And what lyrics! “A falcon in love / can be tamed by a dove / only in Spain.” (I have so many questions.) This was Paul Francis Webster’s eighth nomination as a lyricist.
Eh, well. It worked for Academy voters, who were already well inclined enough towards Rózsa’s score to nominate it in that category, too: Rózsa landed two of the massive production’s only three Oscar nominations, along with its art direction. None of them won. The music is very stereotypical exoticism, leaning hard into that Neapolitan harmony, a minor-chord piece with a major-chord tonic to evoke Iberian sultriness, etc. etc. At least it’s tied explicitly to the film’s score and not an unrelated closing-credits song commissioned just to court Oscar gold.
And it’s waaaay less saccharine than the child chorus that opens up Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. The song launches seamlessly out of a medley of Christmas carols (“Deck the Halls,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” “Good King Wenceslas,” etc.), as if there’s any doubt what kind of vibe they’re going for here. That childlike jazzy bounce, though, is all Van Heusen: the composer had already won Oscars for (among others) “Swinging on a Star” and “High Hopes,” and this is in the same vein. In tone, in content, in placement, this could easily have served as the theme song to one of Disney’s live-action films from the era; whether that’s a demerit or not may depend on how warmly you feel about Disney’s live-action films of the 60s (I’d listen to this a million times before subjecting myself to “Fortuosity” ever again.)
That leaves the strangest of this year’s nominees, Dimitri Tiomkin’s theme song for the cynical Kirk Douglas crime drama Town Without Pity. Tiomkin won three Academy Awards for scores but was never able to repeat his win (on first nomination) for the theme song to High Noon, despite being commissioned repeatedly to do just that. “The Ballad of High Noon” had broken Oscar tradition by being the first non-diegetic winner of the statue, but the scene with “Town Without Pity” splits the difference: it’s first a diegetic song on the jukebox, then a non-diegetic accompaniment to the opening credits (and finally, ambiguously, as a background echo in the final scene). It’s also quite a stretch for Tiomkin, one of the first early rock-adjacent songs nominated in this category, and but for a more complicated harmonic structure than the usual radio hits, he pulls it off this almost-but-not-quite-doo-wop song pretty darn well (though I find Gene Pitney’s rubbery note-bending obnoxious to the point of caricature, esp. on “baAaAad” in the second lyric, yikes).
It’s a strange song used in a strange way, but the lyrics are nonetheless the most baffling part. For some context here, Town Without Pity is about a group of American GIs stationed in Germany who gang rape a local woman, and their lawyer (Douglas), obligated to provide the most robust defense possible, smears the victim to the point that she commits suicide. I’m not sure if Ned Washington (whose first nomination — and win — was for Pinocchio!) knew anything about the movie or was pointedly writing from the perspective of the GIs, but the words describe misunderstood youth unfairly painted as “baAaAad” who really just want hugs and encouragement. “How can we keep love alive?” asks the song, in the least appropriate juxtaposition with movie material imaginable.
Tiomkin wouldn’t get a second Oscar for his songwriting, but he would accomplish another first: “Town Without Pity” was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Song, the first they ever gave out, and the last for another couple of years. The category wasn’t institutionalized until 1965, when it went to… Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, again.
What else could have been nominated?
One reason we keep seeing the same merry-go-round of names is that there weren’t exactly a lot of options out there. The major movie musicals of 1961 were Broadway adaptations with no new original music (West Side Story, Flower Drum Song). A lot of what we’re left with involves second-rate theme songs, including, yes, Dimitri Tiomkin, who had yet another one in 1961 (The Guns of Navaronne, and Paul Francis Webster’s lyrics are very bad.) If we have to work with animated opening-title songs for romantic comedy, I’d happily ditch Mancini’s “Bachelor in Paradise” for Doris Day’s peppy theme to Lover Come Back, a movie about Rock Hudson’s beard. The song, by Alan Spilton and Frank De Vol, is not any more sophisticated, but it’s catchier and much more fun:
Despite my digs at Disney above, they too got into the animated opening-title song sequence with The Parent Trap, a movie I like with a bunch of songs I don’t (Gillianren, that’s your cue!) There’s the inoffensive Cliff Richards ballad “When the Girl in Your Arms is the Girl in Your Heart,” from The Young Ones, and a really grating Bobby Darin song (“Multiplication”) from his acting debut, Come September. There’s also a lot of material that’s perched just on the other side of eligibility. In addition to barrels of chaff released by Elvis’ production team, he also introduced us to “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in Blue Hawaii, one of his multiple vehicles that year. Is it really an English-language version of the classic French song “Plaisir d’amour“, as so many have argued? There are a few beats in the chorus that map perfectly, but I dunno: they have far less in common than, say, Zeppelin’s “Stairway” and Taurus’ “Spirit.” At any rate, Elvis’ songwriting team (Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss) would not be winning any Oscars, so there’s no harm in indulging here.
Instead, we should go further afield. Miller has already written on Johnny Cash’s theme song for Five
Seconds Minutes to Live so you should read that, too. And though it wasn’t yet associated with a movie, 1961 was the year Roy Orbison released “Crying,” which would eventually lead to the greatest movie music scene of the millennium, so far. So it wasn’t all bad. And if we’re talking about the best movie songs of the year rather than just the Oscar-eligible, I’d have to include Michel LeGrand’s and Jean-Luc Godard’s (as lyricist!) “Chanson d’Angela” from Godard’s Une femme est une femme, a movie released in ’61 that took years before it finally opened in the United States. Remember when Godard was fun?
Next month: A piece of “sentimental, tacky crap” sets off a political scandal. Yay, the 80s!