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Big Band Report

Oscar and Song: Here's to the "Losers"

By Published: April 6, 2007
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 music—I'm talkin' Tin Pan Alley, folks, not the dreck that passes for "popular these days—has 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!

I'll concede that I've always been a fan of the 1944 winner, Johnny Burke-Jimmy van Heusen's whimsical "Swingin' On A Star from the Bing Crosby tear-jerker Going My Way, but once again the competition was formidable, including as it did "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night, "I'll Walk Alone, "I'm Making Believe, "Long Ago And Far Away and "The Trolley Song (which may not even have been the best song from Meet Me In St. Louis, a film that also introduced "The Boy Next Door and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"). Rodgers and Hammerstein won their first and only Academy Award in 1945 for "It Might As Well Be Spring, but once again the going wasn't easy, as "Spring had to outflank such heavyweights as "Accentuate The Positive, "Aren't You Glad You're You, "I Fall In Love Too Easily, "I'll Buy That Dream, "Linda, "Love Letters, "Sleighride In July, "So In Love and "Some Sunday Morning. Yes, they couldn't hold the nominations to two or three songs in those days.

That brings us to 1946, the end of World War II, and another winner for Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, "On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, whose closest competitors were Kern's "All Through The Day, James Monaco-Mack Gordon's "I Can't Begin To Tell You, Hoagy Carmichael's "Ole Buttermilk Sky and Berlin's "You Keep Coming Back Like A Song. While not quite a standard, the 1947 winner is a personal favorite, Allie Wrubel-Ray Gilbert's "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah from a magnificent partly-animated film, Disney's Song Of The South. Among the contenders: "A Gal In Calico, "I Wish I Didn't Love You So and "Pass That Peace Pipe.

1948 was a relatively lean year, as Jay Livingston-Ray Evans won their first Oscar for "Buttons And Bows, sung by Bob Hope in The Paleface, which earned the nod over four other songs including Styne-Cahn's "It's Magic from Doris Day's first film, Romance On The High Seas, and, believe it or not, "The Woody Woodpecker Song. Another light-hearted entry, "Baby, It's Cold Outside, grabbed the brass ring in 1949, outdistancing Victor Young-Ned Washington's "My Foolish Heart, Styne-Cahn's "It's A Great Feeling and two other nominees.

In the 1950s, as the heyday of the Hollywood musical slowly decelerated, the over-all quality of the songs also waned, but even so, a fair number of notable tunes were among the nominees that failed to win an Oscar. The roster includes "Be My Love (1950), "Too Late Now, "Wonder Why (1951), "The Man That Got Away, "Count Your Blessings (1954), "Something's Gotta Give, "The Tender Trap (1955), "True Love (1956), "An Affair To Remember (1957), "A Certain Smile (1958). Mercer's "Something's Gotta Give" lost to "Three Coins In A Fountain," which, to me, was one of Oscar's more blatant travesties.

The pickings were even slimmer in the 1960s as film songs became more a side dish than a main course. Still, there were a handful of admirable tunes that were passed over on Oscar night including "The Second Time Around (1960), "Tender Is The Night (1962), "Charade (1963), "My Kind Of Town (1964), "Alfie (1966) and "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? (1969). By the 1970s the larder was so depleted that most lovers of popular song were no doubt listening to their old recordings and longing for a return to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. As we now know, that Golden Age won't ever reappear, and the compass has been pointing downward ever since. But what a treasure trove of great music Hollywood has given us, and at least we have those recordings, and our memories . . .

Au Revoir, MBB

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