What Should Have Won the Best Song Oscar for 1938?

The Oscar went to “Thanks for the Memory,” from The Big Broadcast of 1938. One hopes that Bob Hope sent very expensive birthday presents to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin for giving him his signature song. I can see why the Oscar went to “Thanks for the Memory,” and Hope’s numerous (and variable) performances of the song continue to spark strong memories from my childhood. Every so often, I even find myself humming it. But we are in another one of those competitions where genius beats out excellence (as opposed to the times when mediocrity wins). If you’ve never seen The Big Broadcast of 1938, you’re in for a treat; Hope is great, as are Martha Raye and W.C. Fields (even with the one racist joke he zings off at a seal and Raye). As a child, I loved the big Art Deco boats; as an adult, the comedy brings me back.

Here was the field of original nominees:

Best Song: Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” won from The Big Broadcast of 1938, over Irving Berlin’s “Now It Can Be Told” from Alexander’s Ragtime Band, as well as Berlin’s “Change Partners” from Carefree; Lionel Newman and Arthur Quenzer’s “The Cowboy and the Lady” from The Cowboy and the Lady; Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s “Jeepers Creepers” from Going Places; Ben Oakland and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “A Mist over the Moon” from The Lady Objects; Edward Ward, Chet Forrest and Bob Wright’s “Always and Always” from Mannequin; Phil Charig and Arthur Quenzer’s “Merrily We Live” from Merrily We Live; Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson’s “My Own” from That Certain Age; and Johnny Marvin’s “Dust” from Under Western Stars

Berlin was nominated for “Now It Can Be Told,” a second-rate song from Alexander’s Ragtime Band. But even second-rate Berlin can be worth a listen now and then – although I prefer Ella Fitzgerald’s 1958 version from The Irving Berlin Songbook.

Here is Alice Faye’s rendition:

Irving Berlin also received a nomination for “Change Partners” from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ eighth pairing, Carefree. This time around, Astaire plays a psychiatrist who falls in love with his patient, played by guess who? Ralph Bellamy shows up drunk. Ginger Rogers hates Astaire at first, but then she makes up dreams so that he will keep treating her. “Change Partners” serves the story, as Astaire tries to get Rogers back after hypnotizing her into loving Bellamy instead. The song speaks of the longing for another’s lover, a feeling most human beings experience without the successful resolution Astaire achieves.

“The Cowboy and the Lady,” from the movie of the same name, was written by Lionel Newman and Arthur Quenzer. Fake cowboy music, so unimportant to the movie that they simply use it as background, and let the characters talk all over it.

“Jeepers Creepers” by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren from Going Places would go on to become a standard, unlike most of the songs the Academy nominated (in this, or any other year). The major reason for that? Merely the greatest musician of the twentieth century: Mr. Louis Armstrong. Infamously, Going Places has him singing this song to a horse to calm him down – the horse, not Satchmo. Sadly, Hollywood rarely used Armstrong effectively, due to racism.  I would recommend the performance Louis Armstrong gives with Jack Teagarden on a live TV performance in 1958.

Here is the better version:

Although I am no lady, I too seriously object to “A Mist over the Moon” from The Lady Objects. I suggest this is the worst song of the year – pompous, fake, and pseudo-romantic. I can’t believe Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics to this; or maybe I can – I’ve long suspected Richard Rodgers was the reason we listen to any of Hammerstein’s lyrics.  I need to go clean my ears out now; somebody crapped in there.

“Merrily We Live” from Merrily We Live tries to be merry, but all it is, is fake Hollywood swing, the musical equivalent of saying “have a nice day” and not really meaning it.

“Always and Always” from Mannequin isn’t served well by Joan Crawford, who isn’t known for her singing (and for good reason, since it’s an eminently forgettable voice). But more so, the song is just a piece of piffle about eternal love, with no memorable melody or lyrics. That MGM’s music department thought this was the best they could do still makes me cringe out of embarrassment for them – for just one better example, how about Judy Garland singing “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” for starters?

Deanna Durbin strikes again with “My Own,” from That Certain Age (the song was written by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson). The song serves Durbin well; I doubt anybody has wanted to hear it since. “My Own” is another forgettable love song with no real redeeming values other than Durbin’s voice.

“Dust” by Johnny Marvin shows up in the Roy Rogers film Under Western Stars. I have a childhood fondness for Rogers, not from watching his films, but from living near him on the weekends up in Apple Valley in the high desert of Southern California. He was a true gentleman, who couldn’t have been nicer to his young fans (my younger cousin had a massive crush on him that reduced her to speechlessness every time she saw him). The Roy Rogers Museum was a special treat, although seeing Rogers’ horse Trigger and his dog Bullet stuffed was creepy at first. Here, he plays a cowboy running for Congress, trying to help his constituents deal with drought and corrupt water companies. “Dust” is a serious song outlining the troubles of the American farmer and rancher, in a prayer and lament for rain.

As for the snubs, the Academy omitted some great songs, but part of the reason was the shift in nomination rules: in an attempt to be egalitarian, they limited each studio’s music department to the submission of a single song. I’m all in favor of democracy in love, politics, and marriage, but when it comes to parenthood, teaching, and art, democracy has no place. Parenthood and teaching requires benevolent dictatorship, but art requires a meritocracy. This submission process lasted from 1938 to 1945, and succeeded in producing some real howlers, both in terms of what they nominated, and in what they omitted. Here’s a few of what they left out, all three of which should have been nominated: Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” from Hard to Get, Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser’s “Two Sleepy People” from Thanks for the Memory and (hold onto your jaws), the Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” from The Goldwyn Follies.

Dick Powell stars in Hard to Get, and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” was written for him, with Mercer’s amusing lyrics (“when you were only to startin’, to go to kindergarten”). Powell’s version was rapidly eclipsed by Bing Crosby’s cover, which may explain why the studio bypassed this song (that, and Powell’s film wasn’t a hit).

 

Hoagy Carmichael, the composer of “Stardust” and many other classics, got together with Frank Loesser (best known for Guys and Dolls), and the amusing “Two Sleepy People” resulted for Bob Hope, the star of Thanks for the Memory. Gee, there’s a surprise: Hollywood rushing out a film to capitalize on success; “Two Sleepy People“ is also intended as a clone of “Thanks for the Memory.” My feelings about “Two Sleepy People” are tied to a version Christopher Lloyd sang as the Reverend Jim on Taxi, so I keep hearing Lloyd’s unmistakable voice whenever I think of this song; I freely admit I’m prejudiced because of how much that made me laugh. But the song has been covered numerous times as a standard, so clearly I’m not alone. The movie is completely forgotten except for this one song.

The Goldwyn Follies, a musical monstrosity Samuel Goldwyn concocted, is infamous for a number of reasons: this was George Gershwin’s last assignment, as he died of a brain tumor during filming (Vernon Duke helped Ira finish); George Balanchine came in and choreographed a ballet for Gershwin’s An American in Paris, only to have Goldwyn hate it and cut the piece before it was filmed; Goldwyn fell in love with Zorina, his leading lady, who fell in love with Balanchine instead; the Ritz Brothers had a ball creating mayhem; Edgar Bergen shows up with some other dummies. In the middle of it all, “Our Love Is Here to Stay” quietly made its fabulous way into the world, where it has remained as one of the greatest songs ever written. Kenny Baker introduced the song; Baker is best known today for rising to stardom on the Jack Benny show, as well as appearing in the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. He has a nice crooner voice, sounding mostly like Dick Powell, although Baker could sing opera (to a small degree). The song itself, and not the performance, should be the point, and this song has it all: a great melody and compelling lyrics, and that indefinable quality of grace and permanence that marks the classic American song: “But oh, my dear, our love is here to stay / Together we’re going a long, long way / In time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble / They’re only made of clay / But our love is here to stay.” Enchanting!

You can find more in WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1927-1943: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0

And now, please vote!

 

 

4 thoughts on “What Should Have Won the Best Song Oscar for 1938?

  1. Darn it, I so wanted to go with the Roy Rogers song but, ugh, it was horrible. And while I’ll agree that “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” is a great song, I think the academy got it right this time, even if for the wrong reasons. Listening again to “Thanks for the Memory,” masterfully performed by Hope and Ross, almost had me in tears. Thanks for the video clip. 😉 It gets my vote.

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