Greetings fellow Soluters and music lovers! I once again ran out of time to do a proper analysis this month, but the scheduling gods have lent me a bit of a hand: just like the category’s previous (and first) year, this year produced only three nominees. The good news is, unlike the row of duds that the previous (and first) year lined up, the voting body for 1935 picked a bona fide classic and another pretty darn good song. I only hate one of the three! Unfortunately, the Academy being what it is, that’s the one that took home the statuette. So let’s get started, shall we?
The winner for best (not yet “original”) song was the interminable “Lullaby of Broadway” from The Gold Diggers of 1935, a piece largely remembered today for the inventive, nearly fifteen-minute Busby Berkeley staging. And that staging is still pretty breathtaking, from the famous opening shot of Wini Shaw’s head against a solid black field… Sadly, computer screens just can’t capture the effect as well as a theater screen. From there Berkeley eschews the kind of giant stage spectacle he’d mastered in earlier films, including Gold Diggers of 1933, and opts for an odd mini-film about a fun-lovin’ urbanite who parties all night and sleeps all day and falls to her death from a balcony… what? The bit is long, so it’s broken up on Youtube. Here’s part one below (and here are parts two and three):
I’d love to keep talking about the sequence because it is such a great sequence, but we’re here for the song, and the song barely qualifies as a song: it’s a motif repeated ad nauseam, then a second motif added just to break up the monotony with something — anything. Al Dubin’s lyrics are the only real thing of interest, trying to find ways to liven up Harry Warren’s ungodly earworm. I understand it’s a classic and there are no shortage of covers etc. etc. But even Ella didn’t bother stretching this thing out to more than a zippy two minutes and change, because there’s so little there. Rarely have even the bad winners given me so little to say.
Moving on to the pretty good. Jerome Kern is far from my favorite composer of the era — compared to his peers, his songwriting can be, as the kids say, a little basic — but every now and then he does hit it out of the park: his winning entry for the next year would be one of the greatest songs the category ever saw, much less awarded. “Lovely to Look At“, from the musical Roberta, is nowhere near that level of achievement, but it’s enjoyable on its own merits, a kind of awkward dialogue between fluffy aria and halfhearted patter. The song is broken into two different sequences: the operatic (Irene Dunne, below) and the laconic (Fred Astaire, with Ginger doing a fake-Eastern-European shtick, and you can watch it here if you want.)
Roberta had originally debuted on stage in 1933, but “Lovely to Look At” was added specifically for the film adaptation. Kern had nothing left to prove here, since the original stage version already boasted another of the era’s greatest songs, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (here’s Dunne singing to, um, balalaikas: the musical has a weird “deposed Russian prince” plotline. Anyway, hard to hear anyone other than the Platters doing this.)
The new song is just fine: Kern does a very strange thing in the introduction, leaping to a ♭III and then right back again, as if embarrassed to do something so gauche and then making up for it with fairly straightforward harmonic writing hereafter. Then we get that odd balance of sorta-aria and sorta-patter that leaves the song in a sorta-generic no-man’s land. Setting the music aside — and this will be the gayest thing I ever say in this series (and we haven’t even gotten to Dorothy and Oz, lol) — but this whole sequence is giving me the highest camp, and I live for it. Oh, to be Irene Dunne and awkwardly descend a staircase while clutching one’s furs! Anyway, happy Pride month.
That leaves us with one nominee, the one that should have won, Irving Berlin’s lovely “Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat. I can only assume the biggest strike against it was that it represented yet another Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers collaboration, at which point the duo was performing 2/3 of all nominees in both of the category’s years of existence. Phew.
I can be pretty down on Astaire for what I called his “laconic” delivery above: he’s not the strongest singer, so he dances his heart out and relies on his charm, and… it doesn’t always work. Here it works just fine, and Berlin really knocks it out of the park with that opening phrase to Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s “Heaven… I’m in heaven…” Then the melody climbs by stacking a bunch of appoggiatura upwards on top of each other (an elaboration of the downward step on “heaven”), creating an ecstatic burst right when he sings “I can hardly speak“. Chef’s kiss. Even if I’m less enamored of where the song goes from there, it’s hard to deny the craftsmanship of Berlin’s opening phrases. Kern got to that level occasionally. Harry Warren, rarely.
What else could have been nominated?
The usual caveat for pre-1941 films: the Academy didn’t begin by mandating the “original” qualifier for film songs, which greatly expands the range of what was available. Still, we’ll stick to new music, and there was plenty that could have gotten in here, if not won.
Take the musical comedy Every Night at Eight, another showcase for the songwriting talents of Jimmy McHugh (now doing the music) and Dorothy Fields (now teamed with George Oppenheimer on lyrics). Most of their pieces for the film, like the film itself, have fallen by the historical wayside, but not its biggest hit, performed by Frances Langford: “I’m in the Mood for Love.” It’s a good old-fashioned swoony love song, and even if that’s not quite your thing, there’s no doubt this is one of the all-timers:
We could even look to other Busby Berkeley numbers for inspiration, particularly his show-stopping staging of Allie Wrubel’s “The Lady in Red” from In Caliente. Once again, Wini Shaw is here to guide us through the story of the mysterious and deceitful lady in question, and — but for an uncomfortable comedy sequence around the midway mark — it’s as lively and visually interesting as anything in the Berkeley catalogue. At least this song is much less of an annoyance. And it came with its own Looney Tunes tie-in!
Speaking of kids’ stuff: I’d be remiss not to mention the Shirley Temple vehicle Curly Top, which introduced one of her signature songs, “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” But I’d rather be remiss than listen to that song again, so I’ll end with another 1935 kids’ movie song that was not eligible by virtue of it being a Soviet production, Lev Shvarts’ classic ditty “My Lilliputian Girl” from the nightmarish stop-motion The New Gulliver. Pleasant dreams! (edit: I see Mosfilm won’t let the clip embed here, so just click on the link below)
Next month: ugh…