Few Academy Awards categories have as dynamic a history as Best Original Song. The category was introduced in 1935, but the “Original” wasn’t added until a decade later. It approaches the record for most nominees in a single year (fourteen!) and also ties the record for least number of nominees in a single year (two!), and it is the only category that can claim both extremes. It is a frequent target of mockery, a place where the industry’s tastes (or lack of) are most fully displayed, since it combines the voters’ typically middlebrow preferences with an area that most of them, as filmmakers, also know very little about. And its roster of winners and nominees is, pretty often, embarrassing.
It’s also a lot of fun to go through these and try to understand what was driving the preferences and tastes of Academy voters in various years. The tricky thing with Best Songs is that the very concept of the category is fundamentally unclear: are we voting for the best song as a thing-in-itself, or for the song used best in a movie in terms of singing and performance or even emotional/narrative context, or for the most popular song or the one that had the biggest “impact” outside the film, or for some combination of all these elements? This is less a category than a broad projection of competing values, and it makes for a frequently baffling competition.
Let’s start this month as we did last, with a lullaby sung by Bing Crosby. “Pennies from Heaven,” one of the biggest hits of his career, is a novelty song at heart from a lyricist who wrote lots of novelty songs, Johnny Burke. Starting with a “Since the dawn of time” intro, Burke’s fairy tale about raindrops being a kind of payment (?) for good weather doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,1 but I kind of like what composer Arthur Johnston does with it. Some bits are a little obvious, like the downward chromaticism (it’s falling rain, natch), but the chorus is nicely constructed, and I love the last few measures of the intro (beginning with “So it was decided…”). I wouldn’t call it my favorite piece in the world, especially not with Crosby’s typically soporific rendering, but I understand its popularity well enough, goofy lyrics notwithstanding.
I have a much harder time understanding the love for Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a classic song that debuted in the musical Born to Dance. Nothing against Cole Porter in general, who’s frequently excellent, but I find straight performances2 of this to be a total drag — its main theme just keeps burrowing further and further down, which is fitting from narrative perspective, but all that downward motion ends up feeling inert to me. That’s not even getting into what may be the single worst lyric of the 1930s (“Use your mentality / Wake up to reality”, which might work in a lighter or more ironical context but lands with a thud here), or Virginia Bruce’s disturbingly animatronic performance. To its credit, I do think the song eventually builds to a musically effective climax (around 1:30 below), but it’s also right when that toothache of a lyric hits, so…
While Porter’s work here is musically complex, there’s a lot to be said for taking a simpler approach. I don’t have a whole lot to say about “A Melody from the Sky,” Louis Alter and Sidney Mitchell’s nominated song from The Trail of Lonesome Pine, except that it captures the gentle quasi-pentatonic lilt of American folk music and adds no further frills, which is fine by me. The movie, the fourth adaptation of the popular novel (Hollywood never has new ideas!) is not at all a musical, but they found room for two songs for vaudevillian Fuzzy Knight. My sole complaint here is that they nominated the wrong one: the opener, “Twilight on the Trail,” is a frequently covered classic (you can listen to the film’s version here) and deserves to be, so I have no idea why they picked the less substantial of the two pieces. (Also, I don’t have the movie handy, so I have no idea what in the “Brian Wilson on a bender”-cacophony is happening in the back half of the clip below.)
Lonesome Pine was one of two non-musicals that managed to sneak into this category, but I have even less to say about the other. “Did I Remember,” from the Dorothy Parker-penned Suzy, puts less emphasis on the actual song than on the comic setpiece around it, though sometimes that’s enough for voters to remember it come awards season. Jean Harlow (dubbed by Virginia Verrill) is mostly drowned as she performs the “straight” version of the song by Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson (their names together sound like a Blazing Saddles gag), until Cary Grant gets the meatier part of the scene by speak-singing a recap with mocking “improvised” lyrics. He comes off as especially obnoxious here, but your mileage may vary. Stripped of all this nonsense, the songwriting is actually pretty good: give it a big band arrangement, and it sounds like perfect ballroom music for the Overlook Hotel. (Note: wordpress doesn’t want to embed this clip for some reason, so: here you go.)
It’s as least as much of a trifle as the other “pretty okay” nominee that year, “When Did You Leave Heaven,” from the Alice Fay vehicle Sing, Baby, Sing. It’s a goofy, song-length version of an old pickup line (“Did it hurt…?”), and that’s about it. I’ll at least say that the nominations got it right here in avoiding a lesser choice: though it’s just a passing episode in the movie, this song is far better than the title track. It’s cute, it’s corny, it has some lush harmonies, and Tony Martin’s performance is equally corny and does a nice job slurring his notes around that syrupy melody. Hard not to love the canned expressions from the all-woman orchestra giving the production some serious Robert Palmer vibes.
Finally, we have the winner, surely one of the most deserved in the history of the category, “The Way You Look Tonight.” Swing Time may not hold up in toto as a movie, but its introduction of this standard by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields is a delicate showstopper. Fields, a regular lyricist for the Cotton Club with a couple of hits of her own, pens some lovely, emotionally transparent lyrics as understated as the piano-forward orchestration, and I especially love her use of “hidden” rhymes that give the stanzas more structure than they initially seem to have. (Fields would be the only woman to win an Oscar in this category until the end of the 60s.)
Kern was the oldest of the category’s nominees that year, a veteran songwriter with a long roster of hits under his belt, and that confidence shows a bit in the song’s unpretentiousness. Structurally, “The Way You Look Tonight” is all about very basic building-blocks, some of which are used counterintuitively. For example, we might associate very emotional music with melodies that leap upwards, right? Instead, Kern uses two leaps in its main theme, and both are down: the first a fifth, the second a full octave. In between the downward leaps, the melody creeps upwards in a stepwise path, and that’s where the tension comes from, the slow climb before its next drop, like a melodic base jumper.
This tension is amplified by what’s happening in the harmonies. Western music is very much centered around the idea of dissonance “resolving” into satisfying consonance, and the functional drama of our music involves moving from a “dominant” chord (often a dissonant V7) to the “tonic” (I), or home key. Here, we get the dominant a few measures into the main theme (when Astaire sings “cold” in the first line), and we could return immediately home at that moment, but instead, Kern gives us an irregular resolution, a minor iii chord, which delays our return at just the moment the melody is climbing upwards. In less technical terms, both the harmony and the melody are conspiring to build tension at the same time, one by delaying and the other by climbing, and both release that tension at the same moment: the harmony finally resolves to tonic just as the melody hits its highest note (in the first line, the “of” before the drop to “you”).
I want to stress that none of this is very unusual: you’d learn about irregular resolutions in your first semester of songwriting.3 But it’s rare to hear all these “basic” elements working together so well, so purely. If last week’s “The Man That Got Away” was a musical Babette’s Feast of complex chords and relationships, then “The Way You Look Tonight” is the ratatouille that sends Anton Ego into raptures: a simple dish, exquisitely prepared.4
What else could have been nominated?
This is a much tougher question in the first decade of the category, since there was no technical reason that preexisting songs couldn’t be nominated, which opens up a whole lotta existing musical properties. Still, we’ll keep it to the original stuff for simplicity’s sake.
I mentioned at least one song above (“Twilight on the Trail“) that absolutely deserved to make the list, but the alternate options were plentiful. The industry was glutted with screen musicals in 1936, but it’s still surprising that nothing from Follow the Fleet made it in here, despite some of Irving Berlin’s best songwriting. It may have something to do with the actual performances. The movie’s most iconic sequence, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” is an absolute triumph of songwriting and orchestration, but Astaire’s singing is… somewhat less of a triumph. Equally disappointing is Ginger Rogers’ shaky delivery in “Let Yourself Go,” but I’ll be damned if this little trifle doesn’t work for me anyway. The song is weird, ostensibly in a minor key but shifting to major at the end of each phrase in the chorus (we call this a Picardy cadence, but you usually do this once at the end of a piece, not every few measures!), and to be fair to Rogers, she has to leap up to a tone (a major third) that’s totally unprepared by the music preceding it, a mean little trick by Berlin that’d trip up even more confident singers. Still, I get chills when the chorus swoops up to its last iteration (beginning around 1:35 in the clip below). It’s intense, and songs like this are usually not intense. (Also, check out a pre-fame Betty Grable as one of the background trio.)
Nomination day must have been an even bigger disappointment for the crew behind Gold Diggers of 1937. Fresh off winning the Oscar for Best Song the year before (one of my least favorite winners), the groundbreaking Busby Berkeley series contracted a popular young Cotton-Club composer named Harold Arlen and future blacklistee Yip Harburg to write the music for this installment on the strength of Arlen’s early hits like “Get Happy” and “Stormy Weather,” but Berkeley apparently wasn’t satisfied with their work for the film. Without telling them, he pulled in the previous year’s winners Harry Warren and Al Dubin to write him a few show-stoppers, but apart from a reasonably popular “With Plenty of Money and You,” nothing really stuck. “Plenty of Money” is a cut above Warren’s usual work (he was a skilled composer of earworms, which is damning with faint praise), and Arlen’s comically loose “Speaking of the Weather”5 shows signs of the mature, complex composer he’d grow into, but nothing seemed to speak to Academy voters.
But maybe the overall biggest surprise of the snubs was a song that’s since become a classic: the theme song to the disaster flick San Francisco, a love song to the city composed by recent immigrants Bronisław Kaper and Walter Jurmann (with lyrics by industry veteran Gus Kahn.) As with Follow the Fleet I have my doubts about the way the song is actually presented in the film — Jeannette MacDonald’s warbly, hyper-affected performance just plain hurts my ears — but you get a hint of the song’s greatness when the full audience joins in for the big finale (around 2:20 below). The jaunty melody and well-placed syncopation give it a forward momentum that other city anthems can only dream of. It’s a rousing piece and no wonder it became a giant hit, though (in keeping with our chat last month about the industry’s dicey attitude towards Afro-American music) also as clear a case study in cultural appropriation as you could ask for: set in 1906, a room full of well-dressed white people hootin’ and hollerin’ to a Stephen Fosteresque minstrel-show melody the same year Scott Joplin was driving himself into financial ruin to get his work on stage.6 Then again, there were multiple actual blackface performances this year (including, most infamously, in Swing Time), so this is an issue we’ll run into repeatedly in the course of this series.
1. Seriously: rain is supposedly “payment” for sunny days, but the song suggest we are paying for it, so why is the sky dropping its payment money on us? And how does that make us “rich”?
2. Hot take: I prefer the Four Seasons’ zhuzhed-up version of this song to any of the “classic” performances, by a wide margin: their barbershop vocals help break up the monotony quite a bit. Also great: Neneh Cherry’s extended riff on the main bits.
3. Okay, it’s a little unusual: composers more often feint to a minor vi, since this involves a more “classical” resolution of the dissonance. Instead, Kern exploits the fact that a V7–iii feint sets up a chain-reaction of dominant relationships, or what we call a circle progression: iii–VI–ii–V–I.
4. One other point I want to stress about the scene in Swing Time: I’ve listened to a half a dozen recordings of the song, but I love Astaire’s performance and the movie’s orchestration best because they’re so bare-bones. There’s no attempt to elaborate, ornamentalize, or otherwise give the song more than what’s already there. I don’t always appreciate Astaire’s limited emotional range (this will come up in future installments), but it’s the right element here. Why try to gussy up a simple dish with a cumbersome garnish?
5. The Academy may not have taken notice, but other people did: the next year, “Speaking of the Weather” would be the setpiece of an especially weird Frank Tashlin short for Merrie Melodies.
6. Worse: the opera he did managed to stage that year has been lost forever, and his other opera, Treemonisha, wouldn’t be staged in full until the 1970s. You can (and should!) watch the Houston Opera perform the latter here.
Next month: a collective shrug of mediocrity, and also Mel Brooks.