What Should Have Won the Best Song Oscar for 1940?

The Best Song category didn’t do so bad in picking their winner this year, but the rest of their choices leave a good deal to be desired. That, of course, still puts them WAY ahead of the normal abysmal results in this category.

Here is the original slate of nominees: Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s “When You Wish upon a Star” won from Pinocchio, over Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “Down Argentine Way” from Down Argentine Way; Jules Styne and Walter Bullock’s “Who Am I?” from Hit Parade of 1941; Chet Forrest and Bob Wright’s “It’s a Blue World,” from Music in My Heart; James V. Monaco and Johnny Burke’s “Only Forever” from Rhythm on the River; Artie Shaw and Johnny Mercer’s “Love of My Life” from Second Chorus; Robert Stolz and Gus Kahn’s “Waltzing on the Clouds” from Spring Parade; Roger Edens and Arthur Freed’s “Our Love Affair” from Strike up the Band; and Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer’s “I’d Know You Anywhere” from You’ll Find Out

I’m just going to say it up front: “When You Wish upon a Star” may be a simple little ditty, but infectiously so. We’re not talking the insidious ear worm that is “It’s a Small World” – sorry about that – but Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edward’s rendition as Jiminy Cricket speaks to the same longing for a better world that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” does. In a year when Irving Berlin or Cole Porter were producing something, perhaps we would be making a different decision – and Porter was indeed ignored for the very good “I Concentrate on You” from Broadway Melody of 1940, which I am herewith nominating for this category. As it is, no more memorable song emerged this year from Hollywood.

Down Argentine Way is a harmless Betty Grable-Don Ameche programmer turned Technicolor extravaganza, with the great good sense to have the excesses of Carmen Miranda and the miracle of the Nicholas Brothers to spice up the pretty slop. During the Forties, the United States went crazy for all things Latin: the rumba, the conga, the cha-cha-cha, Desi Arnaz, Xavier Cugat, Carmen Miranda and more. Even Disney got into the act with Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Orson Welles wrecked his career by abandoning The Magnificent Ambersons at the cutting stage to head down to Rio for what was eventually released in 1993 as It’s All True. The nominated title song, “Down Argentine Way” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, is of a piece with this fad, and one that cropped up throughout my childhood on various television shows. Like a large number of songs from before the Sixties, and precious few since, this attempt to paint a picture of a foreign land in rhythm and words was a common form of popular song. Catchy, yes; deep, no. A pleasant little ditty, and one that keeps its shelf life better than one would expect.

Hit Parade of 1941 is forgettable. “Who Am I?” by Jules Styne and Walter Bullock is one of those songs that speaks of the insecurity we may feel when outclassed by the one we have chosen to love. A gentle song, and now largely forgotten. I can imagine Frank Sinatra using it on one of those suicidal albums he recorded in the late Fifties – you need to be careful with his music! The nomination should stay for that alone. Styne would go on to write many songs for Sinatra, as well as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “Time after Time.” Bullock wrote a number of forgotten songs.

“It’s a Blue World,” by Chet Forrest and Bob Wright, came out in Music in My Heart. Tony Martin sang the song; Rita Hayworth starred. The ballad isn’t bad, and it has been covered by other artists as a kind of minor standard. Martin had a decent voice, even if he is almost completely forgotten today in the aftermath of Sinatra’s revolution in singing in the Forties. Chet Forrest and Bob Wright also wrote “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”

 

Bing Crosby and Mary Martin croon their way along this little ballad, “Only Forever.” Rhythm on the River has Basil Rathbone using ghostwriters to put his songs together; Crosby and Martin decide to break out on their own. “Only Forever” is the result. James V. Monaco is most famous for “You Made Me Love You,” Johnny Burke for “Swinging on a Star” and “What’s New?” “Only Forever” is pleasant enough, but if I remember it a year from now I will be shocked.

Going in, I had high hopes for Second Chorus: Fred Astaire’s dancing, Artie Shaw’s swing band rocking, and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Who could ask for anything more? It turns out I could: Paulette Goddard can’t dance. Astaire himself named it “the worst film I ever made.” Artie Shaw’s music and Fred Astaire’s dancing fit together nicely. Somebody should have taught Burgess Meredith and Astaire how to play fake trumpet better, although Goddard must have been impressed with his ability to pucker up and blow, as she married Meredith in 1944. Mercer was one of the finest lyricists in musical history; Shaw led one of the top swing bands. Putting them together should have resulted in classics – but no, sometimes fire doesn’t catch in the tinder. The song “Love of My Life” is brief, swinging, and hardly up to Johnny Mercer’s best. An interesting sidenote for those of us who love Shaw and Mercer, but hardly anything other than a minor event.

When Robert Cummings meets Deanna Durbin on their first date (such as it is) in Spring Parade, “Waltzing on the Clouds” is the song he composes on the spot, with her help shushing everybody. Gus Kahn (“Makin’ Whoopee”) does his usual rhymes; Robert Stolz (he’s world famous in Vienna) provides a decent waltz. Not a bad little ditty, but nothing to make you grab your strudel – or a nomination.

“Our Love Affair,” from Strike up the Band, was written by MGM musical mavens Roger Edens and Arthur Freed. “Our Love Affair” couldn’t be lovelier, when sung by Judy Garland. A memorable tune, and one that fit the needs of the musical perfectly, as the song proves capable of being orchestrated in a multitude of ways; “Our Love Affair” remains a minor classic.

Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer wrote “I’d Know You Anywhere,” for You’ll Find Out, a truly odd nomination, which marks the only time a movie starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi produced an Oscar-nominated song – and the only time those three were in a movie together. Given that Kay Kyser and his big band feature as well, the paradox seems even odder (and you may never get another chance to see Kay Kyser and His College of Musical Knowledge quite this extensively). The orchestra uncovers a plot against an heiress (the band is playing at her birthday). Of course, any time you can get Johnny Mercer lyrics and Jimmy McHugh music, you increase the chance that you’ve got a classic on your hands. Both of them are responsible, separately, for some of the greatest songs ever written; I leave it as an exercise for the class to discover which ones. Trust me, they’re worth your time. “I’d Know You Anywhere” is sung by the band’s canary, Ginny Simms. A love ballad of some charm, the song can stand with most of the typical sort that every big band produced. I found myself wondering why it never caught on as a minor standard.

In addition to Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” from Broadway Melody of 1940, starring Fred Astaire, “I Hear Music” by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, should also have been nominated; the song is from Dancing on a Dime, an otherwise forgettable movie. Both have become solid standards of the American Songbook, and could easily replace almost all the songs the Academy did select.

I couldn’t find a clip, so here’s Bing’s version:

You can read more about this and much more in my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0

And now, please vote!

 

 

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