What Should Have Won the Best Song Oscar for 1939?

I should just stop while I’m ahead — and while the Academy is ahead. In the easiest selection in Academy history in this category, Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” won for The Wizard of Oz. Let’s pause and genuflect together, shall we?

Almost any single song from The Wizard of Oz could have won the Best Song of 1939. The richness of Harold Arlen’s music combined with the matchless wit of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics make The Wizard of Oz one of the handful of musicals which will be remembered centuries from now. That, and Judy Garland’s unbelievably beautiful voice. Her rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” a song Louis B. Mayer wanted cut from the movie as irrelevant and disruptive, has withstood the test of time to become the very definition of wistfulness and longing. Arlen and Harburg originally wrote it as an up-tempo number, then one day while they were noodling around with it, Arlen grew distracted and slowed down, and even they were stunned by its soul. I salute the Academy for their genius in both nominating and selecting “Over the Rainbow” as the Best Song of 1939.

Unfortunately, the Academy didn’t stop there. They picked three awful songs to nominate alongside it, and ignored some damn fine ones.

“Faithful Forever” is a completely forgettable song from the Fleischer Studio’s Gulliver’s Travels, doing its best to imitate the tunes of Snow White (and Jeanette MacDonald). No nomination should have been given for this mush – which is too bad, because Gulliver’s Travels is worth at least one look, especially if you have children (okay, maybe only if you have children). The movie does little justice to Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece of satire and human observation, but taken on its own terms, it holds up, particularly for children and aficionados of the Fleischers. As the Fleischers had throughout the Thirties, they desperately wanted to outdo Disney (this was true of most animation departments). Paramount gave them their chance with this film, although the Fleischers wouldn’t match Disney until their first remarkable Superman cartoons, which took their animation in directions that have their roots in Gulliver. The opening shipwreck pales next to what Disney’s animators were doing with water, but at this point, the Fleischers had little experience with realistic animation, what with their focus on Popeye and Betty Boop. When they needed realism, they used rotoscoping, an animation process invented by Max Fleischer in 1915, wherein human actions are filmed, then traced by the animators. What the film does have going for it is in Lilliput, where the expertise of the studio in caricatures could emerge fully and comically. We see the weakest animation in the prince and princess, who look like vaguely drawn kewpie dolls, but the kings, the servants, and all the other Lilliputians have amusing moments, and something of Swift’s original intention emerges from the climactic war. One of the best bits, Gulliver’s waking, has been imitated ever since. None of the warmth of Disney’s dwarves comes out here, but an occasional (small) chuckle does. Worth a watch, if only to see what not to do if a major studio provides you with the funding for a full-length cartoon.

In Love Affair, Irene Dunne is a night club singer, but “Wishing” is the song she sings with orphans after her accident. Buddy de Sylva’s song, unfortunately, is a forgettable mediocrity Leo McCarey dropped for the remake, along with everybody else who ever heard it.

“I Poured My Heart Into a Song” is from Second Fiddle, which stars an odd pair: Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power, with a mediocre Irving Berlin score, and Power singing. A second-rate film at best, making fun of the search for Scarlett O’Hara, without much fun for the audience. Sonja Henie skates again, as well as ever. Only Berlin’s name brought in this nomination.

Here are Artie Shaw and Helen Forrest doing their best to make this turkey jump:

And what about the other songs they should have selected? As I’ve said above, almost any of the songs from The Wizard of Oz would have been superb choices, but the best are “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead”; “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”; “If I Only Had a Brain”; “We’re Off to See the Wizard”; and the outrageously punning “If I Were King of the Forest.” Has any other single musical ever had that many perfect songs specifically written for it?

1939 was the year of Arlen and Harburg. The only remaining song that should have been nominated is also by them: “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” from the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Groucho swung this one for the rest of his life.

What can possibly succeed that?

As always, I have more to say in my book, WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, volume One: 1927-1943: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0

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