Oscars flashback: Best Original Songs of the 1930s, including ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight’

This article marks Part 1 of the Gold Derby series analyzing 84 years of Best Original Song at the Oscars. Join us as we look back at the timeless tunes recognized in this category, the results of each race and the overall rankings of the Academy Awards winners.

The 1934 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Carioca” from “Flying Down to Rio”
“The Continental” from “The Gay Divorcee”
“Love in Bloom” from “She Loves Me Not”

Won: “The Continental” from “The Gay Divorcee”

Should’ve won: “Love in Bloom” from “She Loves Me Not”

The inaugural Best Original Song showdown included a mere three nominees – a far cry from the 10 nominations that would crowd this category a few years later, in 1938. Nominated were tracks from two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles and then one, “Love in Bloom,” from an early Bing Crosby picture. None of the three songs are terribly memorable.

Both “Carioca” and “The Continental” are peppy and listenable but instantly forgettable as mere audio tracks. “The Continental” prevailed, no doubt, on account of the glorious dance number it was included in. Ultimately, “Love in Bloom,” while no “White Christmas” or “Pennies from Heaven,” more resonates, showcasing that legendary Crosby voice. It’s a rich, smooth listen.

The 1935 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Lullaby of Broadway” from “Gold Diggers of 1935”
“Lovely to Look At” from “Roberta”
“Cheek to Cheek” from “Top Hat”

Won: “Lullaby of Broadway” from “Gold Diggers of 1935”

Should’ve won: “Cheek to Cheek” from “Top Hat”

It’s tough to really knock “Lullaby of Broadway” – it’s an iconic tune, later put to splendid use in the Broadway musical “42nd Street,” and the musical number it’s featured in is pretty captivating filmmaking. “Lovely to Look At” is also a fine effort, a charmer elevated to great heights by Irene Dunne‘s stunning vocal delivery.

With that said, “Cheek to Cheek” undoubtedly should’ve triumphed here. It is one of the all-time loveliest, most smile-inducing songs, performed pitch-perfectly by Fred and Ginger. Frankly, it might well prove to be of the greatest tunes ever nominated in this category.

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The 1936 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from “Born to Dance”
“Pennies from Heaven” from “Pennies from Heaven”
“When Did You Leave Heaven” from “Sing, Baby, Sing”
“Did I Remember” from “Suzy”
“The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time”
“A Melody from the Sky” from “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”

Won and should’ve won: “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time”

Poor “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” In 9 out of 10 years, it would easily be the winner. Alas, “The Way You Look Tonight” is just about the epitome of timelessness. It’s been covered by just about everyone under the sun, from the obvious likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, to the more atypical, like ’80s “Come on Eileen” crooners Dexys Midnight Runners and Carrie Fisher in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986).

Beyond those two juggernauts, you have another two very fine tracks in the Depression-era Bing Crosby classic “Pennies from Heaven” and the glowing “When Did You Leave Heaven,” a sweet number performed by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

The other two tracks are a bit forgettable, unfortunately, though “A Melody from the Sky,” which clocks in at a minute and 15 seconds, might well have the dubious honor of shortest-ever song nominated in this category.

The 1937 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Whispers in the Dark” from “Artists and Models”
“Remember Me” from “Mr. Dodd Takes the Air”
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” from “Shall We Dance”
“That Old Feeling” from “Vogues of 1938”
“Sweet Leilani” from “Waikiki Wedding”

Won: “Sweet Leilani” from “Waikiki Wedding”

Should’ve won: “Remember Me” from “Mr. Dodd Takes the Air”

In listening to the 1937 Oscar nominees for Best Original Song, the immediate takeaway is this must not have been an especially noteworthy year in movie music. Then, however, you realize 1937 was the release year of one of the all-time great Disney classics, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” meaning voters inexplicably opted to snub the likes of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Heigh-Ho,” among others. Oh well.

There isn’t really a dud among the five selections this year. There is not, however, anything to much write home about either. This year is notable for being the one occasion on which the great George Gershwin (posthumously) received an Oscar nomination, but “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” isn’t really among his best work, despite Fred Astaire’s fine, charming delivery. “That Old Feeling” is also a nice standard, covered by the likes of Doris Day and Judy Garland to Rod Stewart and Frank Sinatra, but it too is a bit tough to get enthusiastic about in the way you fall so head over heels for the likes of “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” “Whispers in the Dark” and the winner, the Bing Crosby-performed “Sweet Leilani,” are also nice and not much more.

Ultimately, the best isn’t the Gershwin track or the Oscar winner, but rather “Remember Me,” from the obscure “Mr. Dodd Takes the Air.” The strong vocal performance of Kenny Baker, coupled with its sweet, nostalgic lyrics leave more of an impression than its competition.

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The 1938 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Now It Can Be Told” from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”
“Thanks for the Memory” from “The Big Broadcast of 1938”
“Change Partners” from “Carefree”
“The Cowboy and the Lady” from “The Cowboy and the Lady”
“Jeepers Creepers” from “Going Places”
“A Mist over the Moon” from “The Lady Objects”
“Always and Always” from “Mannequin”
“Merrily We Live” from “Merrily We Live”
“My Own” from “That Certain Age”
“Dust” from “Under Western Stars”

Won and should’ve won: “Thanks for the Memory” from “The Big Broadcast of 1938”

1938 marks the first of seven occasions in Oscar history when 10 or more tunes were nominated in Best Original Song. Somehow, in spite of the plethora of work recognized this year, there isn’t a whole lot to write home about among the selections.

Two of the nominated songs – the dreary, Roy Rogers-performed “Dust” and fleeting, Don Ameche-sung “Now It Can Be Told” – are probably best left forgotten. Another two – the aptly titled “Merrily We Live” and “The Cowboy and the Lady” – are kind of fun in a TV sitcom theme song kind of way. You bop your head along until the 90 seconds are over and then raise your eyebrow in disbelief that this stuff somehow garnered an Oscar nomination.

A few of the pieces recognized are nicely performed, but not especially memorable, like “Always and Always” from the Joan Crawford vehicle “Mannequin”; “A Mist over the Moon,” an early and rather overlong Oscar Hammerstein effort; and “My Own,” admirably belted out by “That Certain Age” leading lady Deanna Durbin.

This ultimately comes down to the three remaining nominees – the Louis Armstrong-performed “Jeepers Creepers,” Fred Astaire crooning another Oscar-nominated track with “Change Partners” and the winner, the classic Bob Hope-Shirley Ross duet “Thanks for the Memory.”

Depending on the performer, “Jeepers Creepers” can be a headache-inducing jingle. Armstrong just happens to sell it perfectly. Astaire’s “Change Partners” is warm, lovely and charming, albeit not quite in the same league as say, “The Way You Look Tonight.” Ultimately, “Thanks for the Memory” has best stood the test of time. While “Change Partners” comes close and you can’t go wrong with that Armstrong vocal, “Thanks for the Memory” is really the only truly timeless and iconic track to be found here.

The 1939 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Faithful/Forever” from “Gulliver’s Travels”
“Wishing (Will Make It So)” from “Love Affair”
“I Poured My Heart into a Song” from “Second Fiddle”
“Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”

Won and should’ve won: “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”

Between the years of 1938 and 1945, on seven occasions, voters nominated 10 or more entries in Best Original Song. The one year in that batch the Oscars opted not to do so – and instead rather strangely recognize just four tracks – was 1939.

What a shame that was, considering you could practically fill an entire category with just classics from “The Wizard of Oz” – not only the timeless, sumptuous “Over the Rainbow,” unforgettably performed by Judy Garland (and later the likes of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Harry Nilsson and more), but also “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz” and heck, even “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.”

Instead, inexplicably, voters nominated three supremely lackluster songs from other pictures – two truly grating tracks, “Faithful/Forever” from Paramount’s first-ever animated feature “Gulliver’s Travels “and “Wishing (Will Make It So),” which has to be the absolute worst part of the classic “Love Affair.” The final nominee, “I Poured My Heart into a Song,” is a rather middling Irving Berlin effort, performed not-so-memorably by Tyrone Power in the not-so-memorable Berlin musical “Second Fiddle.”

Its competition aside, “Over the Rainbow” really is one of the all-time great movie songs. The American Film Institute understandably ranked it number one on their “100 Years…100 Songs” list. So, even most of the nominees here are questionable, at least voters got the winner right.

The Oscar winners ranked (thus far):

1. “Over the Rainbow,” “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
2. “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Swing Time” (1936)
3. “Thanks for the Memory,” “The Big Broadcast of 1938” (1938)
4. “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Gold Diggers of 1935” (1935)
5. “Sweet Leilani,” “Waikiki Wedding” (1937)
6. “The Continental,” “The Gay Divorcee” (1934)

SEE Oscars flashback: Gold Derby celebrates 84 years of Best Original Song at the Academy Awards

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