Oscar Flashback: Best Original Songs of the early 1940s, including ‘White Christmas’ and ‘You’ll Never Know’

This article marks Part 3 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 1941 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Out of the Silence” from “All-American Co-Ed”
“Blues in the Night” from “Blues in the Night
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company” from “Buck Privates”
“Baby Mine” from “Dumbo”
“The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good”
“Dolores” from “Las Vegas Nights”
“Be Honest with Me” from “Ridin’ on a Rainbow”
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” from “Sun Valley Serenade”
“Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye” from “You’ll Never Get Rich”

Won: “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good”

Should’ve won: “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” from “Buck Privates”

1941, the year “How Green Was My Valley” notoriously defeated “Citizen Kane” for the Best Picture prize, isn’t the most spectacular year in Best Original Song.

Five of the nine nominated tracks fail to leave much of an impression at all. Singer Frances Langford is back, this time with “Out of the Silence” from the supremely obscure “All-American Co-Ed.” But while Langford’s vocal is just as glorious on this track as the year prior, the song completely lacks the lyrical strength of Jule Styne‘s “Who Am I.”

Two more tracks, “Blues in the Night” and “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye,” are soulfully performed, by William Gillespie and the Four Tunes respectively, but short and fleeting. “Be Honest with Me” is a mildly charming little ditty from Gene Autry but, at a minute and a half, it comes and goes without really leaving a dent. “Dolores” is like microwaved Johnny Mathis.

The winning song, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” composed by Jerome Kern and written by Oscar Hammerstein II, is the track that famously inspired the Oscars to alter rules in Best Original Song and only allow songs specifically written for their motion picture to be eligible for consideration. Kern, who didn’t bother to attend this year’s ceremony, on account of not believing he’d win, protested the victory, as the song wasn’t written for “Lady Be Good” or performer Ann Sothern specifically. Despite Sothern’s fine vocal, this really isn’t one of Hammerstein’s better works. Given its World War II-era release, it’s understandable how and why it prevailed but just doesn’t carry the same weight today.

The three best nominees here are quite clearly “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Baby Mine” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

The “Dumbo” and “Sun Valley Serenade” tunes are both unforgettable because of the ways they’re incorporated in the respective pictures. The “Baby Mine” scene is downright devastating, almost certainly the most heartbreaking thing ever portrayed in a Disney picture. And “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” performed by the irresistible Dorothy Dandridge, is showcased in a dance number that’s an absolute ball to watch. The thing is, these are songs that don’t play nearly as well in strictly audio form – you’ve got to have the visual to boot, or else the effect just isn’t there.

This isn’t the case with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” a joyful, timeless number, performed masterfully here by the Andrews Sisters and covered time and time again over the half century and more to follow, most notably by Bette Midler. You can’t help but sing along, even if the tune is technically a little on the slight side.

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The 1942 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Always in My Heart” from “Always in My Heart”
“How About You” from “Babes on Broadway”
“Love Is a Song” from “Bambi”
“Pennies for Peppino” from “Flying with Music”
“White Christmas” from “Holiday Inn”
“Pig Foot Pete” from “Keep ‘Em Flying”
“There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise” from “The Mayor of 44th Street”
“(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” from “Orchestra Wives”
“Dearly Beloved” from “You Were Never Lovelier”
“I’ve Heard That Song Before” from “Youth on Parade”

Won: “White Christmas” from “Holiday Inn”

Should’ve won: “I’ve Heard That Song Before” from “Youth on Parade”

On a few occasions, tunes have been recognized in Best Original Song that sadly are not easily accessible for listening today. The first of these instances is “Pennies for Peppino” from “Flying with Music,” a picture that never earned a home video release and has not screened on television in more than a decade. Because of this, it will not be reviewed in this post.

Beyond the lost “Pennies for Peppino,” 1942 marked another uneven year in the category.

The travesty of Best Original Song here is the two strongest songs of the year are nowhere to be found among the Oscar nominees – the timeless “I’m Old Fashioned,” from the Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth musical “You Were Never Lovelier “(instead represented here by the inferior “Dearly Beloved”), and the delightful “(We’re Off on the) Road of Morocco” from the classic Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedy “Road to Morocco.”

Instead, we’re stuck with a couple of fleeting, frivolous tracks in “Always in My Heart” and “There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise”. “Love Is a Song,” which plays over the film’s opening credits, certainly isn’t among the more memorable Disney songs and “Pig Foot Pete,” while charmingly peppy and bouncy enough, doesn’t leave much of an impression either. Note that “Pig Foot Pete,” officially, was nominated for the musical “Hellzapoppin’,” even though it’s not featured in that picture, but instead the Abbott and Costello comedy “Keep ‘Em Flying.”

“(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” is performed with considerable finesse and energy by the Glenn Miller Orchestra but in hindsight is perhaps most notable for being the A-side to B-side “At Last,” which of course would go on to be an unforgettable record decades later for Etta James.

This year comes down to the Judy Garland-performed “How About You,” the Margaret Whiting-performed “I’ve Heard That Song Before” and the winner, the Bing Crosby-performed classic “White Christmas.”

“How About You” is a real charmer, with a marvelous Garland vocal. It really does transport you back to 1940s New York. Crosby’s “White Christmas” is an unimpeachable classic.

Ultimately, however, “I’ve Heard That Song Before” leaves the most stirring impression. The combination of Styne’s music, Sammy Cahn‘s reliably terrific lyrics and Whiting’s sensational vocal is too much to resist. Harry James and Helen Forrest would later go on to perform an even more wonderful cover of the song, which was used to perfection throughout Woody Allen‘s “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986).

The 1943 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” from “Cabin in the Sky”
“You’ll Never Know” from “Hello, Frisco, Hello”
“Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There” from “Hers to Hold”
“Change of Heart” from “Hit Parade of 1943”
“Saludos Amigos” from “Saludos Amigos”
“My Shining Hour” from “The Sky’s the Limit”
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” from “Something to Shout About”
“We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” from “Stage Door Canteen”
“That Old Black Magic” from “Star Spangled Rhythm”
“They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” from “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Won: “You’ll Never Know” from “Hello, Frisco, Hello”

Should’ve won: “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” from “Cabin in the Sky”

In reviewing these 10-nominee Best Original Song line-ups from the 1940s, one can’t help but wonder if there were any tunes in these years not recognized at the Oscars. That’s the only way to rationalize a frivolous minute-and-10-second number like “Saludos Amigos” having garnered recognition – voters must’ve just been bestowing nominations upon everything.

1943 marks yet another hit-or-miss year in original tunes at the Oscars, with just two truly outstanding nominees, neither of which is the winner; a few solid, if rather unremarkable tracks; and then a whole lot of category filler.

Let’s first get the more lackluster nominees out of the way here – besides the aforementioned “Saludos Amigos” (surely the worst Disney song ever nominated in this category), “Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There” (Deanna Durbin at her most bombastic); “Change of Heart” (a poorly produced Jule Styne piece where the music is so dense and overpowering, it’s difficult to comprehend the lyrics); “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (a decent Cole Porter composition later covered nicely by the likes of Dinah Shore and Nina Simone but not sold very well here by Don Ameche and Janet Blair); and “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” (an Al Dubin piece nicely performed by Lanny Ross but not even among the more memorable songs from “Stage Door Canteen”) just aren’t Oscar-caliber.

There are two songs here that are sumptuously performed – “My Shining Hour” (by the lovely and awfully underrated Joan Leslie) and, the winner, “You’ll Never Know” (by the terrific Alice Faye), which would later reach a whole new generation of moviegoers through an appearance in “The Shape of Water” (2017). Both tunes are a pleasure to listen to, if perhaps a bit unremarkable beyond the great vocals.

Glenn Miller‘s “That Old Black Magic,” on the other hand, is an absolute treasure to take in instrumentally, but the Johnny Johnston version showcased in “Star Spangled Rhythm” is not quite of the same caliber as many of the covers to come – Ella Fitzgerald, Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland all breathed more life into the song.

Now let’s get to the really good stuff.

“They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” is a delightfully charming, witty song and it’s the only occasion on which Bette Davis has performed a musical number on the big screen. Frank Loesser, who would later win an Oscar for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but was really more known for his work on Broadway, wrote this charmer and Davis sells it effortlessly. In most years, this would have deserved to win.

Alas, this is a year with Ethel Waters.

Waters, who would later that decade garner a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her tremendous work in “Pinky” (1949), commands the screen in a way so few could as she sings “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” from Vincente Minnelli‘s film adaptation of Broadway’s “Cabin in the Sky.” The song, composed by the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg team who gave us “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), is also plenty wonderful on its own terms and was covered to great success by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland, among others. But it really is Waters’ powerhouse vocal that makes the tune so special.

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The 1944 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“Rio de Janeiro” from “Brazil”
“Long Ago (and Far Away)” from “Cover Girl”
“I’ll Walk Alone” from “Follow the Boys”
“Swinging on a Star” from “Going My Way”
“I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” from “Higher and Higher”
“Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” from “Hollywood Canteen”
“Silver Shadows and Golden Dreams” from “Lady, Let’s Dance”
“The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis”
“Remember Me to Carolina” from “Minstrel Men”
“Too Much in Love” from “Song of the Open Road”
“I’m Making Believe” from “Sweet and Lowdown”
“Now I Know” from “Up in Arms”

Won: “Swinging on a Star” from “Going My Way”

Should’ve won: “Long Ago (and Far Away)” from “Cover Girl”

Voters sure loved their Bing Crosby, didn’t they? Though “Swinging on a Star” maintains a solid reputation to this grace, ranking 37th on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list, it doesn’t much stand out in contrast to its 1944 competitors.

There are few forgettable entries, though they aren’t bad like, say, “Saludos Amigos” – the Dinah Shore-performed “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Now I Know,” for instance, are admirably performed, digestible tunes, but come and leave without leaving a notable dent. Same with the Jackie Moran-performed “Too Much in Love” – listenable and nothing more.

“I’m Making Believe” was later a great standard for others, but barely leaves a blip in just over a minute of “Sweet and Lowdown.” Likewise, “Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart” and “Silver Shadows and Golden Dreams” are little more than merely pleasant. As for “Remember Me to Carolina,” it’s a bit tough – well, frankly, almost impossible – to sit through Benny Fields‘ blackface performance. But one also can’t deny Fields has an awfully rich voice.

The other four nominees lift this category considerably.

Tito Guizar‘s vocal performance of “Rio de Janeiro” is a real stunner – not sure the song itself is much to write home about, but his delivery is memorable for sure and it’s the kind of find that will inspire listeners to seek out other work of his’. Likewise, Judy Garland is sublime on “The Trolley Song” – she sells it and turns it into an iconic movie moment.

The remaining two nominees are even better. “Higher and Higher” marked Frank Sinatra’s film debut and “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” finds Ol’ Blue Eyes in refreshingly vulnerable form. It’s a sweet, tender tune on its own terms and his convincing delivery makes it all the more impressive.

But ultimately, it’s Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth (with Martha Mears dubbing) on “Long Ago (and Far Away)” that most thrills. The song is simply pure Technicolor romance and a real charmer, listenable for hours on end.

The 1945 Oscar nominees in Best Original Song were:

“I Fall in Love Too Easily” from “Anchors Aweigh”
“Sleigh Ride in July” from “Belle of the Yukon”
“Aren’t You Glad You’re You” “The Bells of St. Mary’s”
“More and More” from “Can’t Help Singing”
“Endlessly” from “Earl Carroll Vanities”
“Accentuate the Positive” from “Here Come the Waves”
“Love Letters” from “Love Letters”
“Some Sunday Morning” from “San Antonio”
“I’ll Buy That Dream” from “Sing Your Way Home”
“It Might As Well Be Spring” from “State Fair”
“Linda” from “The Story of G.I. Joe”
“Anywhere” from “Tonight and Every Night”
“The Cat and the Canary” from “Why Girls Leave Home”
“So in Love” from “Wonder Man”

Won: “It Might As Well Be Spring” from “State Fair”

Should’ve won: “So in Love” from “Wonder Man”

Sadly, this year includes not one but two lost songs – “Endlessly” and “The Cat and the Canary,” both from pictures never released on home video.

1945, thankfully, marks the final year in which voters nominated 10 or more entries in the Best Original Song. In fact, they went out with something of a bang, recognizing a hefty 14 songs. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough strong material at play here to even fill up a solid category of five.

Let’s get the most lackluster nominees out of the way first: “More and More” marks yet another bombastic Deanna Durbin song recognized by voters; “Love Letters” is just as melodramatic and ludicrous as the Jennifer Jones-Joseph Cotton yarn it hails from; “I’ll Buy That Dream” sounds and is staged like a gratingly cheerful TV commercial; and “Linda,” clocking in at about one minute in length, is just inexplicable as an Oscar nominee in every regard.

Then there are the nicely performed, but mostly forgettable numbers: “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” charmingly delivered by Frank Sinatra but not one of the more memorable moments from the delightful “Anchors Aweigh”; Bing Crosby doing fine, serviceable deliveries of “Aren’t You Glad You’re You” and “Accentuate the Positive”; and then Martha Mears (dubbing for Rita Hayworth again) and Dinah Shore in lovely form on the undistinguished “Anywhere” and “Some Sunday Morning,” respectively.

The win for “It Might As Well Be Spring” can’t be knocked too much. It’s great that Rodgers and Hammerstein were able to pick up an Oscar in their tremendous careers but is this particular tune really a standout in their songbook? Not so much.

Contrast that with “So in Love,” a truly dynamite number from a not-so-dynamite film, that nonetheless lifts its picture to high heavens, even if it’s only for about six and a half minutes. The song itself is terrific and it’s staged just marvelously on screen, beautifully choreographed and performed exquisitely by Vera-Ellen, who really doesn’t get enough recognition these days. “So in Love” is perhaps the most purely fun song nominated at this still-early point in Best Original Song.

The Oscar winners ranked (thus far):

1. “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
2. “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time” (1936)
3. “You’ll Never Know” from “Hello, Frisco, Hello” (1943)
4. “White Christmas” from “Holiday Inn” (1942)
5. “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio” (1940)
6. “Thanks for the Memory” from “The Big Broadcast of 1938” (1938)
7. “Lullaby of Broadway” from “Gold Diggers of 1935” (1935)
8. “It Might As Well Be Spring” from “State Fair” (1945)
9. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good” (1941)
10. “Swinging on a Star” from “Going My Way” (1944)
11. “Sweet Leilani” from “Waikiki Wedding” (1937)
12. “The Continental” from “The Gay Divorcee” (1934)

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

SEE ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ is first Disney winner in Best Original Song

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