Greetings, fellow song-lovers! Last month we had an unexpected bumper crop of hit songs to discuss, and this year is surprisingly no different: quite a few of the songs below have withstood the test of time. You may think, well, that’s because nine songs were nominated, so of course there’d be more winners than usual… but as we’ve seen before, the category bloat of the 1940s only increased the chaff, and most years of this decade were pretty awful. This may be the exception: but for a few stinkers, you could make a good case for 1941 being one of the best years for the category overall.
Let’s start with those stinkers. Unequivocally the worst of the bunch is Gene Autry’s cornpoke ballad “Be Honest with Me,” from Ridin’ on a Rainbow. Autry was the second singing cowboy to perform a nominated song — the first was Roy Rogers, with the bizarre and amazing Johnny Marvin-penned “Dust” in 1938 — but Autry’s song and its lyrics by Fred Rose are nowhere near the same caliber. How inconsequential is this song? So much so that, even though it represents his sole Oscar nomination, Gene Autry’s extensive Wikipedia page makes no mention of it, like even his biggest fans can’t be bothered. If the folksy melody sounds a little familiar… try not singing along with the lyrics to “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Also near the bottom — although with a significant caveat — is the Louis Alter and Frank Loessler novelty tune “Dolores” from Las Vegas Nights. The caveat is that I can’t find a video of the actual Bert Wheeler performance in the film, and though there were plenty of cover versions recorded the same year, they can’t really give us a sense of what the song in the film is supposed to sound like, and the difference can be dramatic (as we’ll see in part 2 of this installment). The most popular version came from Sinatra who, funny enough, made his screen debut in the same film, but with a different song. Based on song structure alone, well… the song’s repetitions and cloying rhymes (“Not Marie or Emily or Doris” and “Serenade her chorus after chorus”… gah) may make it hard to hear the name “Dolores” again without wincing. A goofy song that might be more winning in context, especially if it’s taken to fully vaudevillian levels, but I otherwise don’t see how it rises above its jokesy premise.
One of the least-loved and least-remembered nominations went to Lloyd B. Norlin’s baffling “Out of the Silence,” from the cross-dressing college comedy All-American Co-Ed. But I protest: sometimes a song is more interesting for its failures. Frances Langford is over there singing an angular ballad, the ethereal women’s chorus around her is doing vocal pirouettes in the sky, and the orchestra is playing an upbeat beguine until it’s not. A bunch of truly odd choices rescue the song from the anonymity a more “correct” version might have had, and even LeRoy Prinz’s filmmaking during this scene feels just wrong enough to be right: the disconcertingly El Greco-ish paradise, the Sapphic idyll that seems in danger of becoming a Euripidean Bacchae situation, Francis Langford propped up like a scarecrow until she’s framed hagiographically against the clouds… this whole thing is weird. And I love it.
From here we move to the more respectably middlebrow work, and it’s disheartening to find a great songwriter like Cole Porter in this mushy middle. For one of America’s great songwriters, the Academy was relatively unkind to Porter: of his four nominations (and zero wins), only “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is usually ranked among his best work. This year’s effort, “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye” from Never Get Rich, is one of two nominated songs from 1941 sung by black men behind bars (yeesh), and unfortunately for Porter, the comparison does him no favors. Despite some clever bits of harmonic writing and a more upbeat tempo, Porter’s effort comes off the stodgier and more “inauthentic” of the two (more on this in part 2). On the happier side, Astaire splits screen time with a group of black singers, the Four Tones, with singer Lucius Brooks making his first big move from all-black Westerns to mainstream white films. It’s a fun performance:
Now we reach some of the all-timers. Despite being one of the best-known songs in the series, I’m not especially high on “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” mostly because it’s a bit of recycled material from lyricist Don Raye and composer Hughie Prince, with only minor adjustments: like, one song’s about a genius on the piano, the other’s about a genius on a bugle! Raye in particular made a career of this kind of song (see the addendum at the bottom of this installment), and though I don’t begrudge him his big breakthrough — it’s probably the best of his boogie pieces, even if it’s such a standard part of the repertoire that it may seem too familiar by half — it’s hard to have much enthusiasm for it when juxtaposed alongside his other, nearly identical productions.
More novelty songs! I’ll cop to disliking most of Harry Warren’s 11 nominations, since, much like with our friend Don Raye, they sound quite a bit less interesting when juxtaposed against the songwriter’s other, often very similar works. But — also as with Raye — the long life of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” is understandable, even if its lyrical hook (by Mack Gordon) relies entirely on its corny alliteration. The song’s original appearance in Sun Valley Serenade is essentially a two-parter, both backed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, as our friend Persia so ably discussed here recently. The first vocal performance comes from the charisma-vacuum of Tex Beneke, a smooth-voiced crooner with a leading-man jawline who never once looked comfortable in front of the camera. The second, far superior half comes from a radiant Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, setting the stage on fire with comedy and choreography. As user ozduck noted in the comments to Persia’s piece, the latter sequence could be removed for distribution in “certain” geographical regions of the country. You know the ones.
Of course, Disney’s big 1941 effort Dumbo has its own goofy novelty songs, but the Academy had the presence of mine to go straight for the ballad-y tearjerker, “Baby Mine.” Ned Washington was just coming off his win for Pinocchio‘s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but this was songwriter Frank Churchill’s first time at bat under Team Mouse, and … he’s not quite the same caliber of composer as Pinocchio‘s Leigh Harline, who left the studio to pursue other opportunities after bringing home his Oscar (Not to pile on here: Churchill’s life was awfully short and tragic). Look, I’ve seen this movie a thousand times and this song makes me cry every single time even if it’s not exactly the most interesting song on its own terms (nor even the best in the movie, frankly.) Without the heartbreaking visuals, there’s less here than meets the ear… There’s a reason you almost never hear this outside of the movie, but there’s also a reason it’s remembered so fondly:
Finally we come to the winner and, as it turns out, a highly consequential one for the history of the category: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” ostensibly from Lady Be Good. I stress the “ostensibly” here because Kern and Hammerstein were actually annoyed by their win. They’d written the song as an independent piece that was published, performed, and much recorded a year before Lady Be Good, so why was this even included among the nominees, much less for a version that’s fairly inessential in the context of the film? Alas, there was a war going on, Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and the song’s popularity wasn’t entirely a function of its simple, hummable tune. That simplicity, however, proved key to its longevity: it’s not a sappy dirge for a fallen city but a relatively light nostalgia piece that relies on context to pack its punch. The film exploits this to fullest, juxtaposing stock footage of the city against Sothern’s performance. It’s quite effective, but… it didn’t belong at the Oscars. Recognizing the unfairness of the decision, Kern petitioned the Academy to change the rules — beginning next year, all songs had to be original to the movies in order to be Academy-eligible — and Hammerstein even sent an apologetic telegram to another composer he thought was robbed of the victory (who we’ll discuss in part 2!)
Oh, that’s right: we have a part two this month. It’s not because the category is so large that we need to split it. As you may have noticed, we’ve already covered eight of the nine nominees. No, we have a part two because I can’t possibly fit everything I want to say about the ninth nominee in one of these capsule summaries, so it gets its very own installment.
Instead, I’ll leave you with a shadow ninth, a piece that also made Oscar history, but for the wrong reasons. “Pig Foot Pete” was a 1941 song wrongly nominated a year later, and for the wrong film — as far as I know, the only time anything like this has ever happened. For some reason, the Academy cited the song at its 1943 ceremony for its appearance in Hellzapoppin’, where… it most emphatically did not appear. Instead, it comes from the 1941 film Keep ‘Em Flying, also starring Martha Raye and thus the likely source of confusion. As a technically 1941 song, it properly belongs in this month’s installment, so here you go. If you were hoping a song with the title “Pig Foot Pete” would at least be fun, I regret to inform that it’s another Don Raye special, if you aren’t already sick of his shtick. Truly a man of singular talent.
(Raye even had the audacity to write a lyric here to the effect that Pete, yet another genius at the piano, “brought the boogie-woogie up to date,” like, man, you’re just trolling us now.)
Next month: Back to our regularly scheduled installments of musical mediocrity… yay?
Also: stay tuned for part two later this week! (Update: here’s the link!)