Oscar and Song: Here's to the "Losers"
As Betty and I listened last month to a program of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, Ferde Grofé and others presented by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, I thought to myself that American popular musicI'm talkin' Tin Pan Alley, folks, not the dreck that passes for "popular these dayshas to be some of the greatest music ever written, and that I'm lucky to have been around to hear and appreciate it.
A large part of that music was written for an explicit purpose: either a Broadway show or a Hollywood film. Through the years, Hollywood has given us a dazzling array of memorable songs, many of which were nominated for filmdom's top honor, the Academy Award, but came up short. The catalog of soon-to-be classics that were somehow overlooked on Oscar night is frequently baffling, sometimes amusing and at times even mind-boggling. Herewith a few modest examples:
The first song to win an Oscar was "The Continental, written by Irving Berlin for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical comedy The Gay Divorcee. The runners-up were "Flying Down To Rio by Vincent Youmans, from the Astaire-Rogers film of that name (even though they weren't top-billed in that one), and Jack Benny's longtime theme song, "Love In Bloom, music by Ralph Rainger, lyrics by Leo Robin.
As it turns out, that was only the harbinger of powerful clashes to come. The competition heated up in 1935 when Al Dubin-Harry Warren's "Lullaby Of Broadway bested Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek and Kern-Dorothy Fields' "Lovely To Look At. Kern-Fields exacted a measure of revenge the following year, taking home the coveted statuette for "The Way You Look Tonight. Among the nominees were Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin and Arthur Johnston-Johnny Burke's "Pennies From Heaven.
What is most remarkable as one goes through the list of winners and "losers from the 1930s, 1940s and even 1950s is the number of eventual standards that were beaten by clearly mediocre contestants, starting in 1934 and continuing in 1937 when "Sweet Leilani, a lightweight song from the long-forgotten film Waikiki Wedding, somehow earned more votes than Sammy Fain-Lew Brown's "That Old Feeling and the Gershwin brothers' "They Can't Take That Away From Me. One can't disparage the winner in 1938, "Thanks For The Memory, wonderfully sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (and beating out "Jeepers Creepers and "Change Partners ), or "Over the Rainbow from one of the following year's blockbusters, The Wizard Of Oz.
1939, by the way, is considered by many to be the finest year in Hollywood history, a remarkable span in which Gone with the Wind was named best picture, vanquishing a number of formidable contenders: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice And Men, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights and the aforementioned Oz. Clark Gable, by the way, did not win an Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, losing to Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Leigh Harline-Ned Washington's "When You Wish Upon A Star (from Disney's Pinocchio) nabbed the top prize for a song in 1940, after which things really started to get interesting. The Oscar winner in 1941 was "The Last Time I Saw Paris, undoubtedly a sentimental favorite as the Germans were overrunning France, with Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer's sardonic love lesson, "Blues In The Night, and Harry Warren-Mack Gordon's upbeat "Chattanooga Choo Choo among the also-rans.
I wouldn't have wanted to be a voter in 1942, being asked to choose from among Kern-Mercer's "Dearly Beloved, Ralph Freed-Burton Lane's "How About You?, Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn's "I've Heard That Song Before, Warren-Gordon's "I've Got A Gal in Kalamazoo, Frank Churchill-Larry Morey's "Love Is A Song (from Bambi) and the eventual winner, Irving Berlin's masterpiece from Holiday Inn, "White Christmas. It didn't get any easier in 1943, as Warren-Gordon's "You'll Never Know (sung by Alice Faye in Hello, Frisco, Hello) took home the Oscar, besting, among others, Arlen-Mercer's "My Shining Hour, Arlen-E.Y. Harburg's "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe, Arlen-Mercer's "That Old Black Magic and Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. Talk about a Golden Age of Hollywood song-writing!