February 27, 2012

25 Seven Songs That Should Have Won the Oscar . . . But Didn't


Note: This is a revision of the post I originally published, "Five Songs That Should Have Won the Oscar . . . But Didn't." I've expanded it and added two more songs to the original five, based on feedback I've gotten on the first version.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, movies were one of the main sources of songs that made the Hit Parade and eventually became standards. These songs were written by some of the greatest popular composers of the time, people like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and the Gershwins. In the awards year 1934 the Academy began giving an Oscar for Best Song. For the first few years there were three nominees. Later the number of nominees varied from year to year, going as high as fourteen in 1945. The nominee had to be first heard in the movie, which meant that many well-known songs that had been previously recorded or used in stage musicals weren't eligible, although this rule was sometimes gotten around by having a new song written for the film version of a stage musical, for example, the 1935 nominee "Lovely to Look At," written for the movie version of Roberta.

As with other categories, when I look back at the winners and losers, it's sometimes difficult to understand the reasons behind the Academy's choices. How did songs which have become standards and been recorded again and again lose to cute songs which, while admittedly popular in their day, were works whose greatest appeal lay in their novel lyrics or catchy but essentially shallow melodies? Songs whose appeal was destined to fade with time, that today are seldom heard except in their original versions on nostalgia radio stations or cable music channels, or in kitschy Mantovaniesque arrangements on Muzak. In this post I'd like to present seven instances of songs that to me are great popular works of lasting appeal, but which lost to songs that strike me as clearly less Oscar-worthy.

1935
"Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat—Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin lost to:
"Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935—Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Al Dubin

Irving Berlin's love songs could tend towards the schmaltzy, but this one certainly doesn't. It's a gauzy, light-as-air confection whose well-known opening words signal its dreamy mood: "Heaven . . . I'm in Heaven."

1937
"They Can't Take That Away from Me" from Shall We Dance—Music by George Gershwin; Lyrics by Ira Gershwin lost to:
"Sweet Leilani" from Waikiki Wedding—Music and Lyrics by Harry Owens

Shall We Dance has my favorite set of songs of all the movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. It has such great songs as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," and this Oscar nominee, a wistful look back at a romance that's over, all built around the lingering memories of the beloved's mannerisms.

1941
"Blues in the Night" from Blues in the Night—Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by Johnny Mercer lost to:
"The Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady Be Good—Music by Jerome Kern; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

It's been said that of all the Tin Pan Alley composers, Harold Arlen had the greatest sympathy with African American music, and I would say the same applies to many of the song lyrics of Johnny Mercer. You can certainly hear that in this song, with its archetypically bluesy melody and almost jaunty take on the "you can't trust the opposite sex" idea. It might just be the anthem of The War of the Sexes. I've heard it sung just as persuasively by women about men as by men about women.

1943
"That Old Black Magic" from Star Spangled Rhythm—Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by Johnny Mercer lost to:
"You'll Never Know" from Hello, Frisco, Hello—Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Mack Gordon

The analogy of being in love to being under a magic spell was hardly original, but few songs have captured the helpless exhilaration of that feeling, the "elevator ride" up and down the scale of emotions, as vividly or as bouncily as this one.

1944
"Long Ago and Far Away" from Cover Girl—Music by Jerome Kern; Lyrics by Ira Gershwin lost to:
"Swinging on a Star" from Going My Way—Music by James Van Heusen; Lyrics by Johnny Burke

Nobody surpassed Jerome Kern at writing simple, gorgeous melodies. This is one of his best, a song that movingly conveys in words and music both the sadness of the memory of love won and lost long ago and the quiet joy of rediscovering it.

1954
"The Man That Got Away" from A Star Is Born—Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by Ira Gershwin lost to:
"Three Coins in the Fountain" from Three Coins in the Fountain—Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

Judy Garland said that Harold Arlen was her favorite composer, and for her comeback in A Star Is Born he came up with a smashing song that became one of her signature tunes, along with the 1939 Oscar winner "Over the Rainbow," also by Arlen, and the 1944 nominee "The Trolley Song." Here Arlen and lyricist Ira Gershwin created a dramatic, bluesy torch song about a woman whose love affair seems destined to end in sorrow, but who just can't let go of the memory of the man who deserted her.

1967
"The Look of Love" from Casino Royale—Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David lost to:
"Talk to the Animals" from Dr. Dolittle—Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse

Has there ever been a love song that expressed romantic longing with such gentle passion as "The Look of Love"? Burt Bacharach could write some truly bland melodies, but this one just wafts into your head and floats there. It's intense and delicate at the same time and completely hypnotic, no more so than when sung so exquisitely by the great Dusty Springfield.


I thought you might enjoy this outtake of Judy Garland performing "The Man That Got Away," one that was unknown to me until recently. I believe the vocal track is the same as the one in the take used in the final version of the film. This take doesn't have the smoky, after-hours atmosphere or the more stylized staging of that one, but it has its own charm. The brighter lighting shows Judy looking slim and well rested, and the soft rose pink color of her blouse gives her a healthy glow.

25 comments:

  1. Sometimes it seems the Academy needs to periodically revisit past awards and make a few adjustments. You've just listed five great reasons it should.

    I'd assumed that "The Man That Got Away" had won the year it was nominated. I imagined it might have been some sort of consolation to Judy who lost Best Actress to Grace Kelly. But it turns out "A Star is Born" lost in all six categories for which it was nominated. 1954 was a good movie year, but still...not nearly so good that both "Rear Window" and "A Star is Born" should walk away with not one Oscar.

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    1. Eve, 1954 was a good year for American film, dominated of course by "On the Waterfront" and the two films you named, but also with several other very good pictures. Many, many people consider Judy's loss to be the biggest injustice in Oscar history. It's rumored that she lost to Grace Kelly by only a handful of votes. It seems just as unfair that "The Man That Got Away" lost to "Three Coins in the Fountain." It's a nice tune that seems to have been designed for Muzak, but every time I hear "The Man That Got Away" the melody and words stick with me for days, especially when performed by Judy. Like the best singers, she doesn't just sing the song, doesn't just act it out, but makes you feel she's really living it as she performs.

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    2. Eve, thanks for your note about "The Look of Love" not winning the Oscar after all. It prompted me to go back and revise the post.

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  2. R.D - You get no argument from me on this. Many OSCARS winning songs are just horrible. They seem to pick the weak, the dull and the unsophisticated. The rules for selecting a song constantly change. Some of those rules eliminated many fine works, for example, any song from a stage play adapted for the screen is not eligible. So what happens, the filmmakers purposely add a new song or two to them eligible for a nomination. Interesting enough there were only two songs nominated for this year's Oscars both from animated films. A song from the Muppets movie won.

    It took until 1973 for a rock and roll song to be nominated, (Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die). Never mind the he and John Lennon wrote eight to ten original songs back in 1964 for "A Hard Day's Night." The nominating committee or whomever apparently could not find room for one nomination for Lennon/McCartney, instead they went with such "classics" that year as "Dear Heart," "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "Where Love Has Gone, ""My Kind of Town" and the winning tune "Chim Chim Cher-ree", all of which I am sure are fondly remembered.


    John

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    1. John, the best song category lost its relevance for me in the mid-60s when rock became the dominant mode of popular music. For me the last truly memorable song to win the Oscar was 1965's "The Look of Love." (I love Dusty Springfield's version, and the more recent one by Diana Krall is great too.) The Academy never seemed to take rock to heart, preferring piffle like "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." Then "American Graffiti" started the trend of using existing music rather than original songs because of the audience's associations with that music. When you look back at previous decades, though, especially the 30s and 40s, so much popular music came from the movies.

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    2. John, I was mistaken about "The Look of Love" winning the Oscar. (Everything else I said about it still holds, though!) I've gone back to the original post and added it and another song to the original five.

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  3. It's interesting when you look at the song category. Popular music from the '30s and '40s were reflected in the nominations. When the first and second wave of rock came in the '50s and '60s, the nominated songs remained in the style of the '30s and '40s and written by the older songwriters rather than the new ones. It was like a clique that was hard to break into. Also, Oscar loves popularity with songs, just as it likes box office appeal. So big number one songs like "Swinging on a Star," from the year's number one box office champ, brushed aside the competition. "Three Coins in the Fountain" ... don't get me started on that one. However, I must admit that I am very fond of the lovely "You'll Never Know," sung by Alice Faye in the film and by Dick Haymes in a chart-topping version.

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    1. Filmboy, absolutely agree about the nominated songs from the 50s and 60s being in the style of an earlier era. For me these were not good decades for this kind of music. Your example of "Swinging on a Star" is a good one in that it shows how coming from the right movie--one that was popular and had a good box office--can sway voters when they make their final choice, as it still does, and not only in the best song category. "You'll Never Know" is a good song with a lovely melody, and the lyrics must have had added meaning during WW II. But it's not "That Old Black Magic"!

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  4. While "You'll Never Know" may be a head scratcher now, one must remember that the Oscars are often a barometer of what is meaningful at the time, and not what may be remembered decades down the line.

    The lyrics of "You'll Never Know", written in 1943, smack in the middle of WWII, likely struck a huge chord for audiences, and Academy members, wondering when, and if, their loved ones would be coming home.

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    1. Kevin, you put your finger on what the Oscars are really best for--identifying what is most meaningful to voters at the time, a sort of historical barometer of tastes and preferences of their year. It's not entirely reasonable to expect voters to be thinking of longevity when they make their choices, and it's all too easy to criticize their choices with the detachment of hindsight. Still, it's interesting to see how attitudes toward such things change with time.

      I think you're right that the lyrics of "You'll Never Know" must have had special significance during WW II. Another similar example I considered was the win of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" over "Blues in the Night" in 1941--a pleasant song whose lyrics took on added meaning with the Nazi occupation of the city, probably the thing that earned the song its Oscar.

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    2. Kevin, when I went back to revise the post I decided to add "Blues in the Night" to the original five. Thanks for prompting me to rethink my decision not to include it!

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    3. According to Julie Andrews in her autobiography, HOME, that is exactly the reason that Hammerstein penned "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

      He says to her after hearing her whistle the song in the wings on the set of CINDERELLA, Hammerstein says, "I really meant that when I wrote it, you know.... I was so devastated when Paris fell to the Germans during the war, and remembering the city as I once knew it, I felt compelled to write that lyric."

      Here's the link to the passage at Google Books.

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  5. It's amazing to me that The Man That Got Away lost to the insipid Three Coins. I think The Man is the finest song and performance on film. Long Ago and Far Away and They Can't Take That Away From Me? Definitely should have been winners. Great post, R.D.

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    1. Thanks, Becky. It was actually "The Man That Got Away" which gave me the idea for this post by inspiring me to go back and look at other years to see if I could find similar instances of what seemed to me an inferior song beating a better one. In looking over the nominees and winners from the 30s-50s, I realized that on the whole the Academy did a pretty good job in this category. Sometimes the winner wasn't such a hot song, but in those years the field wasn't so great either. But I did find enough puzzling choices to get a post out of it! My favorite blooper was "Sweet Leilani" over "They Can't Take That Away From Me." How many people have even heard of "Leilani"?

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  6. Great selections! As I was watching the Oscars this year, I was saddened by what has become of the Best Song category. It's a throwaway award now. I do admit that the lack of a consistent category definition has caused some great songs to be overlooked. In other words, is it the best song or the best song in context of the film? "The Look of Love" is a Bacharach masterpiece (love the Diana Krall cover), but it didn't fit well with the campy CASINO ROYALE. On the other hand, the song "Alfie" summarized the ending of the film.

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    1. Rick, thank you. You posed an interesting question about how important the song fitting into the context of the film should be. In writing the post I didn't really consider this, in part because I've seen most but not all of the films the songs I named came from. (One I haven't seen is "Casino Royale.") I simply thought about the song as a song in its own right. I can certainly think of many nominated songs that have the ability to bring to mind the picture and situations from it, like "Alfie" or another nominee from 1966, "Georgy Girl."

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  7. R.D.
    I really enjoyed this post! When doing my Oscar posts I got a few comments about Cheek to Cheek losing then Sweet Leilani winning so I suspected this post would bring out old film fans as well as music fans.

    I can't imagine Three Coins in a Fountain winning over any song from A Star Is Born. I guess Talk to the Animals was catchy and a family favorite that year too. : (
    Have a great weekend!
    Page

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    1. Page, I'm sure there are explanations of why the voters of the years I discussed liked the winning songs enough to vote for them--the popularity of the picture they're from, the mood of the times, and so forth. Hearing the losers in their various incarnations over the years gives us the luxury of judging them against the winners with more detachment. I have to agree that the win of "Three Coins" over "The Man That Got Away" is one of the great puzzlers in this category. Maybe it was symptomatic of the preference for the bland, comforting, and innocuous that seemed to characterize so much of the 1950s.

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  8. Kevin makes a great point about "You'll Never Know." In that particular case it makes sense that a song so evocative of its time would win (even over a song with classic written all over it like "That Old Black Magic"). In some of the other cases, though, it's hard to imagine that the winning song meant so much to the era that it could beat out an obviously superior song - "Sweet Leilani" over "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Talk to the Animals" over "The Look of Love" - bizarre.

    So glad you mentioned Dusty Springfield's sublime rendition of "The Look of Love." What a voice she had and how exquisitely she rendered this song - the best version, hands down.

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    1. Eve, I think Kevin's point about the Academy's choices so often reflecting the mood of the time is evident not just in the best song category but in others too, especially the best picture award, where the motivation often appears to be to recognize a picture that seems of topical importance at the time but doesn't age particularly well. (Sometimes the motivation is the opposite, when escapist pictures are honored instead of better ones that deal with subjects that are perhaps too painful or challenging.) Critics' groups are not wholly immune to this either, I think because critics sometimes overrate pictures when they respond strongly to the subject or the point of view. And even though the Oscars often seem to follow predictable patterns, there are times when it's just plain impossible to second-guess why the voters made the choice they did!

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  9. Sorry I got here late R.D., especially with the subject at hand. I think those who follow the Oscars will agree that this category has resulted in rampant injustice over the years, and sometimes downright embarassment. Just the other night we got to see a Muppet song defeat the only other nominee, equally undistinguished. I can certainly add a number of other songs that didn't seserve to win, (and some others that were wrongfully ignored) but I think you have done a superlative job here in nailing a small group that fully deserved wins, but lost out for a host of reasons that we have long come to expect from the oft-woeful decision-making.

    1967 was particularly laughable, though Bricusse teamed with Anthony Newley to pen a delightful score for WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in 1971.

    "Cheek to Cheek" was obviously a major casuality as is the song from "Shall We Dance." You write splendidly and passionately here about this subject!

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    1. Thanks, Sam. The songs I wrote about are a kind of music I didn't have a lot of interest in during the heyday of rock, before it began to grow stale for me. As I grew more familiar with the popular songs of the 30s and 40s, I was amazed at how many of them came from movies of the time and how many really good ones were recognized by the Academy with nominations but not wins. That was really the genesis of this post. When I hear this music, I just have to marvel at the craftsmanship that went into it, something that becomes apparent if you consider how many incarnations some of these tunes have been through.

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  10. R.D., sorry to be late in commenting - I did read this fine piece the other day but then had to dash away, so have now returned to read it again. I've been getting increasingly interested in songs of the 1930s and 40s recently, and listening to a lot of Astaire and early Sinatra (he covered so many of the great film songs), so this is a posting that I found particularly fascinating. 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' is one of the greatest standards and I must agree it is a great shame that it lost out to 'Sweet Leilani', which is a nice song but has nowhere near the power of the Gershwin. I remember reading a quote from Ira Gershwin, though I'm not sure now where I read it, saying that he was thinking about George's illness and how he was going to lose him when he wrote the lyric, and it does have that kind of sadness to it.

    For 1943, I do love 'That Old Black Magic'... but I also find it amazing that in that same year another great standard by Arlen and Mercer, 'One For My Baby (And One More For the Road', specially written for Fred Astaire to perform in 'The Sky's the Limit', didn't even get a nomination! For some reason the forgettable 'My Shining Hour', performed by Joan Leslie in the same film, got the nomination instead.

    The following year, 1944, I'm also puzzled that 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' from 'Meet Me In the St Louis' didn't get the nomination rather than 'The Trolley Song', though both are great... but anyway I agree with you that 'Long Ago and Far Away' should have won that year.

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    1. Judy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hadn't heard the story about Ira Gershwin thinking of his brother George when he wrote the lyrics to "They Can't Take That Away from Me." The anecdote does lend extra poignancy to those words. George was only 39 when he died but left behind an incredible body of work. I've always had a special fondness for the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, and for me this one is among their finest. My absolute favorite George Gershwin melody is "Summertime."

      Arlen and Mercer were a wonderful team. I always think of Mercer's lyrics as the cleverest of the "Songbook" writers, equaled in their cleverness only by Cole Porter. You're right about "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Along with "White Christmas," which did win the Oscar, it must be the most durable of all modern Christmas songs and seems to grow more popular every year. Just as Bing Crosby did the definitive version of "White Christmas," Judy did the definitive version of "Have Yourself..."

      You mention Fred Astaire. Writing this post made me realize that though he's thought of primarily as a dancer, most of the great songwriters of the 30s and 40s--Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin, Arlen--wrote songs for him and he did a sterling job of performing and recording them.

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  11. nice idea.. thanks for posting.

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