"Not a bad tune," Fred Astaire says in "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), listening to the orchestra and watching the crowd beneath his balcony. "What is it?"
Ginger Rogers is there to supply the answer: "It's the newest thing over here. It's called 'The Continental.'" And then they dance to it, while R.K.O.'s arrangers and orchestrators reprise its key themes over and over, until "The Continental" (music by Con Conrad, lyrics by Herb Magidson) was practically assured of being the first-ever "best song" recipient at the Academy Awards. This is what came to pass. Beautiful music. Dangerous rhythm.
This year, the academy nominated a mere pair of tunes in the original song category. One is the Sergio Mendes samba "Real In Rio," the highlight of the animated feature "Rio." The other, the mock-soul-searcher "Man or Muppet," comes from "The Muppets," which means we have come to the part of this sentence in which we remind people that back in 1979, "The Rainbow Connection" (from "The Muppet Movie") lost out to "It Goes Like It Goes" from "Norma Rae."
Peculiarly, this year's two nominated original songs reportedly will not be performed during the Feb. 26 Oscars telecast. This is strange. At a time in pop culture when song and dance cannot be escaped, it is strange for nominated songs to go unsung on the stage of the Kodak Theatre. I mean, half the reason I got interested in the Oscars as a kid was because of the James Bond theme production numbers of the WIN-button era.
Some years the academy gets the best-song award right, even if the song's not precisely daisy fresh. In the old days, a so-called "trunk" song might end up in a movie and become a hit. Take the 1949 winner, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," by the great Frank Loesser. Political incorrectness aside -- many have taken issue with the alleged date-rape undertones of Loesser's duet, though I don't hear it quite that way, and the lyric "Say, what's in this drink?" didn't mean the same thing then -- the song has become a classic, a standard. It was introduced to a wide audience by way of the MGM film "Neptune's Daughter." But Loesser and his first wife had been singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" for years, at parties.
More recently, the lovely ballad "Falling Slowly" from the movie "Once" stirred up a little controversy, in part because the tune turned up on other films' soundtracks around the time of "Once's" general release. Still, the academy ruled the song written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova to be eligible for an Oscar win. Which it won. And deserved to.
Some years the Oscars were spoiled for choice, and still managed to vote the wrong one into posterity. The 1937 crop included "They Can't Take That Away From Me" by the Gershwins and "That Old Feeling" by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown. The winner that year? "Sweet Leilani" from "Waikiki Wedding," which sounds like every other South Seas Tin Pan Alley number ever written.
On the other hand: In 1944, who could pick a winner among "Swinging on a Star" and "I'll Walk Alone" and "Long Ago (and Far Away)?" The "Going My Way" favorite, "Swinging on a Star" by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, came out on top that year. As did "Going My Way."
Some years, a Broadway-derived sound takes the cake. Any one of Stephen Sondheim's superb "Dick Tracy" pastiche numbers deserved an Oscar in its year, but only "Sooner or Later" was nominated (and won). A year later, the celebrated Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score for Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast" was Oscar-recognized for the title tune. Several years later, when Phil Collins won for "You'll Be in My Heart" from "Tarzan" -- over "Blame Canada" from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" and Randy's Newman's "Toy Story 2" theme, "When She Loved Me" -- I wonder if even Collins approved.
This year I'm rooting for the song that probably won't win, the Mendes samba from "Rio," partly because in this ridiculously nostalgic Oscar year it reminds me of a nominated tune from 1934. It came from another Astaire/Rogers picture, "Flying Down to Rio," released prior to "The Gay Divorcee" and representative of the late pre-Production Code era, when innuendo ran rampant and Rogers' outfits really were something to see through.
The song was "The Carioca," by Vincent Youmans, Edward Elischu and Gus Kahn. "Say, have you seen the Carioca? It's not a foxtrot or a polka." If that's not an Oscar-worthy lyric, then all I can leave you with is the winner of the 2005 Oscar for best original song: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." A deserving winner, I might add. Some years it's a Broadway-ized show tune; other times, it's the newest fake dance craze. And sometimes it's pimps and krunk and why not?
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