After an initial toe-dip into the pool of 1936, we dive right in with our look at Best Original Song. It was only the third time the award was given out, but already, history was repeating itself. The inaugural award was given to "The Continental" from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle The Gay Divorcée; two years later, it was another Fred & Ginger show that took home the prize. The winning song, plus the five other tunes it triumphed over, after the jump:
"I've Got You Under My Skin" from Born to Dance
music and lyrics by Cole Porter
first of four nominations
The movie: Three navy men pursue romance in port, with a triangle developing between a seaman, a Broadway diva, and a showbiz wannabe. Wit abounds in the songs, the script (co-written by scene-stealing supporting player Sid Silvers), the performances. Great damn fun! Also nominated for Dance Direction.
The nominee: Virginia Bruce performs it as an ode to James Stewart, the Broadway diva smitten with a regular guy. "I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near," she sings, and Bruce fills the clever lyrics with real pathos. The song is a classic, and would later be covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald.
"Pennies from Heaven" from Pennies from Heaven
music by Arthur Johnston
lyrics by Johnny Burke
Johnston's first and only nomination, Burke's first of five nominations
The movie: A modern-day troubadour reluctantly builds an unconventional family with a truant schoolgirl, her unemployed grandfather, and a beautiful social worker. A wholesome entertainment led laconically by Bing Crosby. Louis Armstrong gets a great showcase number with "Skeleton in the Closet."
The nominee: Performed multiple times throughout the film, from the opening credits to the final scene. Most significantly, though, is the scene where Bing sings it to the little girl who's experiencing what we would now call "economic anxiety" - she and her grandfather are destitute except for this dilapidated house! As the rain pours outside, Bing reassures her, "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?" It's a sweet moment, a lovely tune.
"When Did You Leave Heaven" from Sing, Baby, Sing
music by Richard A. Whiting
lyrics by Walter Bullock
Whiting's first and only nomination, Bullock's first of two nominations
The movie: Actress on the rise starts dating an alcoholic thespian as part of her manager's publicity ploy. Spoofs John Barrymore's fourth marriage to much-younger Elaine Barrie. Pretty mean-spirited, pretty forgettable.
The nominee: It's a nice enough song, and I've heard versions that have made me stop and take notice, but gosh, Tony Martin is doing the least, isn't he? The completely detached songs are at a disadvantage here, I think: they just can't compare with the emotional impact a more narratively-motivated song provides.
"Did I Remember?" from Suzy
music by Walter Donaldson
lyrics by Harold Adamson
Donaldson's first and only nomination, Adamson's first of five nominations
The movie: A non-musical! Chorus girl Suzy witnesses her new husband murdered by a German spy; she runs off to France, meets and marries a playboy pilot...and learns husband #1 is very much alive. Cary Grant's a fun cad, Franchot Tone does his thing, but this is a Jean Harlow vehicle, and she is marvelous.
The nominee: Suzy performs the song "Did I Remember?" at a nightclub in Paris where she meets Andre Charville (husband #2) - and as you see, he later turns the tables on her, most charmingly. It's a sweet, playful song in the moment, whimsical I guess. It makes it all the more effective when Suzy reprises it later on in the film, this time more somber and sob-filled, waiting to hear any word from husband Charville while he flies missions (and gallivants about with a beautiful woman who, unbeknownst to him, is the very German spy who shot Suzy's first husband). The lyrics fit with Suzy's journey with these men, men she loves, men she can't communicate with.
"The Way You Look Tonight" from Swing Time
music by Jerome Kern
lyrics by Dorothy Fields
The movie: Gambler goes to make his fortune and win back his fiancee, winds up entangled with a dance teacher. Overstuffed plot and delay in getting to the songs hobble this (over-?)polished Fred & Ginger entry, though it boasts their best song score and dance routines. Also nominated for Dance Direction.
The nominee: One of the most romantic songs ever written, there's a modesty in its introduction to the world: Ginger's in the other room, washing her hair, and Fred sings that even though she's in her boudoir, with the shampoo and cold cream and not ready to face him, he "will feel a glow just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight." It's honest, warts-and-all love - though of course, since it's a Hollywood film and it's Ginger Rogers, her "worst" is still a knockout.
"A Melody from the Sky" from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
music by Louis Alter
lyrics by Sidney D. Mitchell
Alter's first of two nominations, Mitchell's first and only nomination
The movie: An engineer comes to Appalachia and disrupts the lives of two feuding families. The first to to film extensively outdoors in color, giving us rich earth tones, tactile flannel. Pulls no punches narratively. Fine actin' from all. Would make a great double feature with The Big Country.
The nominee: One of two songs performed by Fuzzy Knight (as Tater, a wanderer of sorts), and not even the better of the two! Still, a good one: tranquil and romantic.
The winner is obvious to me - so great a song is it, I thought the best way to announce its win would be with one of the other many recordings made of it, my personal favorite version, proof positive that it is an unassailable tune:
"THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT"
KERN & FIELDS
Tomorrow, we continue our musical exploration with the nominees for Best Score: Anthony Adverse, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Garden of Allah, The General Died at Dawn, and Winterset.