It's Oscar Night, and so our Sunday song selection is obliged to take a nod at least in the direction of the Academy Awards. The very first Academy Award for Best Song was handed out at the 7th Oscar ceremony, hosted by Irvin S Cobb, eighty-four years ago this week - February 27th 1935 - and, in our own more modest way, we thought we'd honor the number with an additional Song of the Week statuette.
It started with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, toward the climax of a complicated plot, standing nonchalantly on a balcony in the unlikely English seaside resort of "Brightbourne" overlooking a spectacular art deco terrace of impossibly glamorous dancers:
FRED: Not a bad tune. What is it?
GINGER: It's the newest thing over here. It's called 'The Continental'.
FRED: 'The Continental'? I like it. That's the second thing I've found I'd like to take back home with me. You know the words?
And amazingly she does. "Beautiful music!" promises Ginger. "Dangerous rhythm!" And not just beautiful but award-winning music, and statuette-earning rhythm:
That's a spectacular twenty-minute integration of music, lyrics, dancing, dialogue, plot and even a special effect. It starts in Ginger's hotel suite with boy, girl, and Signor Tonetti, the comedy Italian and professional co-respondent. Or as his catchphrase puts it: "Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti!" If you don't know what a "professional co-respondent" is, look it up. I had to, when I started in radio as a teenager and a celebrated on-air personality was described to me as "wearing co-respondent's shoes". In order to fulfill the requirements of the role, Tonetti, played by Erik Rhodes, has to ensure that the principals remain in the hotel room all night. So Fred cuts out some silhouettes and sets them on a turntable, and it fools Tonetti for long enough, to the point where he grabs his concertina and unwittingly serenades them far below:
Two bodies swaying
And you are saying just what you're thinking of
So keep on dancing
For it's the song of romance and of love!
Downstairs, on the improbable terraces of "Brightbourne", an English seaside resort unlike any ever seen in reality, the film's choreographer Hermes Pan puts the company through ever more extravagant dance variations - waltz, tango, charleston, all such fun that you entirely forget that they make the point that "The Continental" is not a dance in its own right at all. This is Astaire and Rogers at the very beginning of their partnership, so Pan and his director Mark Sandrich are still using tricks from the dominant style of the day - Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers. There's a few overhead geometric formations as the dancers switch from black tails to white to faux-toreador vests. But boy, they keep things moving, from Eric Blore as a twinkle-toed waiter to Lillian Miles as a random hotel guest caught up in the fever of "The Continental". (Miss Miles is best remembered for another kind of fever, from Reefer Madness.)
Ginger Rogers was warbling "The Continental" into the history books, as the first Oscar-winning song. The Academy Awards and talking pictures had shown up more or less simultaneously in the late Twenties, but it took a while for the Academy to acknowledge that songs were a bigger part of the new Hollywood than, say, title cards (an original Oscar category that lapsed pretty quickly). Eventually, the industry figured out the obvious - that the movie business was also in the music business. When Con Conrad and Herb Magidson stepped up to receive the first Academy Award for Best Song at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles eight-anda-half decades ago, the new Oscar was a reflection not only of the success of the nascent genre of film musicals but also of the post-Wall Street Crash geographical shift of the music business: The big studios had not only signed up most of the top songwriters and brought them out west, but they'd also either acquired or started their own music publishing houses. For the next twenty years, the motion picture industry became a key supplier of America's hit songs, always as important as Broadway or Tin Pan Alley and often more so.
With one or two exceptions, the Academy's early judgments have been endorsed by posterity: Best Song 1935, "Lullaby Of Broadway"; Best Song 1936, "The Way You Look Tonight" (see Mark Steyn's American Songbook); 1938, "Thanks For The Memory"; 1939, "Over The Rainbow"; 1940, "When You Wish Upon A Star". The losers weren't bad, either: in 194l, when "The Last Time I Saw Paris" won, the other nominees included "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", "Blues In The Night", and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". Then came "White Christmas", "Buttons And Bows", "Baby, It's Cold Outside", songs still known, still sung, still recorded, still high-earning. In the Fifties, the film musical started to fade but the big theme song picked up the slack into the Sixties: "High Noon", "Three Coins In The Fountain", "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing", "Que Sera, Sera", "Days Of Wine And Roses", "Call Me Irresponsible", "Born Free", "Windmills Of Your Mind", "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head". By the Seventies, the bottom was dropping out of the title-song biz, and in the Eighties directors found it easier to slap a bit of boomer rock from the oldies station on to the soundtrack: What's Quentin Tarantino's best-known musical moment on screen? "Stuck In The Middle With You" - an old song for fresh ears.
If you heard "The Mark Steyn Christmas Show" a few years back, you might recall Don Black (co-author of the above-mentioned "Born Free", the first British song to win an Oscar) generously pointing out that his fellow guest, Tim Rice, had won three Oscars. Tim modestly murmured that he happened to be in the right place at the right time for Disney. But there was a bit more to it than that. In the Nineties, the Mouse's rebirth produced a handful of new musical scores with real songs that audiences liked and remembered: Tim and Elton John's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" was not only a hit for Elt but was also taken up by, of all people, my New Hampshire neighbor Patti Page. The scores for The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast are genuinely liked. But the Disney renaissance sputtered, and by the Oughts we were down to pastiche numbers, and incidental music so incidental nobody notices it, and "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp". In today's Hollywood, it's even harder out here for a songwriter.
But you should have been there eight decades back, when every studio had the best composers, lyricists, arrangers, conductors and musicians all on payroll, right there on the lot. The losing songs in those first five years included "Cheek To Cheek", "I've Got You Under My Skin" (see also Mark Steyn's American Songbook), "They Can't Take That Away From Me", "Change Partners", "Jeepers Creepers": all movie songs - that's to say, songs written for movies. Yet in that first year of Oscar tunes it was an oddly tentative toe in the waters. For the Best Song of 1934, the Academy nominated just three numbers. The first was introduced by Bing Crosby in She Loves Me Not, one of those silly little pictures he made before Paramount wised up and recognized he was a real star. In this case, it was something to do with a gal who witnesses a gangland murder and decides to hide out as a male student at Princeton. Of course. Who wouldn't? But, along the way, Bing crooned:
Can it be the trees
That fill the breeze
With rare and magic perfume?
Oh no, it isn't the trees
It's Love In Bloom...
Not so much in bloom as over-ripe. It was by the team of Robin & Rainger - Leo Robin (words), Ralph Rainger (music) - who would go on to win the award four years later with "Thanks For The Memory". This time round they lost, yet the song stuck around for forty years due to a happy accident. One night, while Crosby's record was still a big hit, Jack Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone wandered into a nightclub, and the bandleader invited Benny, a competent violinist, to sit in on the next number. It happened to be "Love In Bloom", so Jack borowed a fiddle, played along and it turned up as a squib in a gossip column: "Jack Benny playing 'Love In Bloom' was a breath of fresh air," cracked the wiseacre. "If you like fresh air." A couple of nights later, he and Mary strolled into another supper club, and immediately the orchestra struck up "Love In Bloom". It took off from there, and, when Benny needed a theme for his radio show, it was the obvious choice. And so, every week, on radio and then TV, the intro to Robin & Rainger's lush Bing ballad was inseparable from Don Wilson's warm baritone announcing "It's The Jack Benny Program!", and a rhapsodic love song achieved immortality by being sawed into pieces by a fiddle-playing comic week in, week out, decade after decade. Off-air, Benny could actually play the tune rather well, if anyone had wanted to hear it that way.
The second nominee was "The Carioca", the song - or, at any rate, the dance - that made Fred and Ginger. It was written for the film Flying Down To Rio. Astaire and Rogers came way down the billing - after Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond and Paul Roulien - and most of the production number, including the vocal, was left to Alice Gentle, Movita Castenada, Etta Moten and various other luminaries. But, in their short dance duet, their first brief screen appearance together, Fred and Ginger stole the picture.
When RKO decided to reunite them and this time as the stars, they were billed as "The King And Queen Of Carioca". The new film was an adaptation of Astaire's final Broadway hit, The Gay Divorce. For the screen, the title was changed to The Gay Divorcee: The Hays Office was not prepared to entertain the societally harmful notion that something as serious as divorce could ever be "gay", but they were prepared to concede the possibility that one of the parties might be (as in light and carefree, that is: now, of course, the western world is chock full of gay divorces and gay divorcees). The plot involved Ginger as the eponymous divorcee, in London to detach herself from a husband she hasn't seen in years. Fred shows up and is mistaken, as is the way, for the professional co-respondent. But let's not get too hung up on details. With the perverse genius of Hollywood, RKO kept the halfwitted plot convolutions of the original Broadway show but junked the entire score except for one song. And the score was by Cole Porter. The sole number they retained was "Night And Day". But otherwise every Cole Porter number was tossed overboard, and in-house songwriters were hired to compose replacements like "Let's K-nock K-nees".
The studio was especially keen to come up with another "Carioca", a brand new big dance number for Fred, Ginger, and wall-to-wall extras. The task fell to a couple of guys called Con Conrad and Herb Magidson. Con Conrad was at the tail end of a career that peaked in the Twenties with "Margie", "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me", and "Lena From Palesteena" (a neglected novelty song that I'm surprised no one's dusted off as part of the entertainment for Israeli Apartheid Week). He'd moved to Hollywood five years earlier because, even without the Wall Street Crash, he'd lost all his money sinking it into his own flop shows. Herb Magidson, by contrast, was at the beginning of a career that would peak a few years later with two very fine songs, "Gone With The Wind" and "The Masquerade Is Over". He also wrote "Enjoy Yourself" with Carl ("Marshmallow World") Sigman. For "Carioca: The Return", Conrad and Magidson more than delivered:
It's something daring
A way of dancing that's really ultra-new
It's very subtle
Because it does what you want it to do...
Exactly. "The Continental" wasn't a dance any more than "The Carioca" was. The waltz is a dance, so's the tango, and even the twist. But "The Carioca" and "The Continental" are just pretexts for production numbers - like the song says, they do what you want them to do. But RKO loved the number, and built the publicity campaign for The Gay Divorcee entirely around it. Who needs "Night And Day"? Newspaper ads showed cut-out footprints following arrows and dotted lines across the floor, Arthur Murray-style. Okay. So what exactly does this new dance involve?
It has a passion
An invitation to moonlight and romance
It's quite the fashion
Because you tell of your love while you dance...
Ah, right. So don't worry about where you put your left foot. Like the song's original subtitle says, "You kiss while you're dancing." When Ginger first sings the line, Fred interjects: "Not a bad idea" - although, as a star notoriously reluctant to kiss his leading ladies, he shows no inclination to act on it.
Then again, the number is brimming with all kinds of other good ideas, so who cares? It starts with a chromatic ostinato of accompanimental minims - or, if you prefer, a vamp. But it's so strong that, unlike the intros and accompaniments of any other number of the period, almost every arrangement of it in the last quarter-century has felt obliged to retain the vamp - Sinatra certainly did in 1950, also sticking with Ginger Rogers' deliriously anticipatory "Beautiful music! Dangerous rhythm!" In that sense, the vamp is part of the song. But then there's so much good music in this number. The main theme is one of those effortlessly swinging eight-bar phrases typical of the period, and then, via another one of those vamps that's embedded itself in almost every successive arrangement, we transition into a very lyrical, minimally-noted contrast to the main theme that develops and extends almost as if it's a song in itself:
While you're dancing
And then we're back to that chromatic ostinato, and a modified version of the notey main theme, getting more and more urgent:
You'll know before the dance is through
That you're in love with her and she's in love with you!
So much good music: Con Conrad had never written anything like it before and, dead three-and-a-half years after accepting his Oscar, had little chance to write anything like it again. I wish more singers reprised Lillian Miles' bit of frenzied rhythmic patter:
On the dikes of the Zuider Zee,
The wooden shoes have found the key
It's like a fever!
It's like a plague!
It's swept all Europe
From Moscow to The Hague!
Which isn't really true. Yet for a faintly absurd production number the song certainly enjoyed a long life. Nat "King" Cole made it a great live speciality. But Frank Sinatra can claim the unique distinction of having made two solid records of it. The first was in April 1950 at the tail end of his relationship with Columbia Records. It's a jumpin' George Siravo arrangement with a lightly swingin' Sinatra vocal complemented by Billy Butterfield's beautiful muted trumpet solo:
That particular blend - relaxed vocal over hard swing - would define Frank's Capitol sound just a few years later, but in 1950, strange to say, nobody wanted Sinatra as a swinger. He was a fading balladeer whose swooning bobbysoxers were far in the past. "The Continental" appears on a wonderful album called Sing And Dance With Frank Sinatra, but it never even made the Billboard LP charts. Sinatra liked the songs enough to re-record six of the eight tracks a decade later with Nelson Riddle on Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! - "When You're Smiling", "It All Depends On You", "It's Only A Paper Moon", "My Blue Heaven", "Should I?" and "You Do Something To Me". The seventh - Rodgers & Hart's "Lover" - he re-recorded with Billy May a few months later.
That left just one song from Sing And Dance that Sinatra had not returned to: "The Continental". He rectified that situation in 1964, when he and Nelson Riddle got together for their first "concept" album together at the new Reprise label. At Capitol in the Fifties, the concepts were emotional and artistic - In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin' Lovers... This time the "concept" was a Trivial Pursuit answer: What do all these songs have in common? "Days Of Wine And Roses", "Moon River", "Swinging On A Star", "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing"... Or, if you prefer, the concept's a commercial one: The songs are all Oscar winners. Ergo, they're already hits. So why shouldn't Frank glom onto them? There are some great tracks here - the counter-intuitive swingin' "Days Of Wine And Roses", the humming cool of "Way You Look Tonight" - but they never quite come together as an album. Nevertheless, Sinatra and Riddle go to some lengths to wrest "The Continental" away from Frank's younger self and the Siravo arrangement:
It's great fun when it gets to that middle section:
While you're dancing...
And the band deftly relieves Frank of the "It's Continental!" line.
How you sing!
While you're dancing...
It's marvelous for as long as it lasts, although you wish he and Riddle had done an extra half-chorus.
In the mid-Seventies, Maureen McGovern, who'd enjoyed success with two Oscar-winning disaster-movie theme songs (from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), revived the first and second Academy Award songs for a single. On the B-side "the McGovern Sisters" performed a multitracked swingin' "Lullaby Of Broadway", and on the A-side there was a "Continental" full of period charm. The single was a huge hit in Britain, though it seems to have been all but airbrushed out of the oldies vault. These days, Miss McGovern, a very technically accomplished singer, can be a bit overwrought for my tastes, and tends to make a meal of ballads that are already a wee bit too precious. That cute "Continental" shows a side of her I wish she hadn't chosen to mothball.
The song is a good song, as Sinatra well understood. But what makes it a great movie song is the way it's used in the film - the way the entire energy of the picture seems to be working toward that explosive twenty minutes of plot, character, dialogue, singing, dancing, design, orchestration and photography that together celebrate all the possibilities of music in film. On the eighty-fourth anniversary of its victory, it remains a worthy inaugural winner of the Academy Award for Best Song. Fifty years later, it was all over. A "film song" was, if you got lucky, a hit record pasted on to the picture for promotional purposes. Will the movie song ever come back? Unlikely, but who knows? In the meantime, we should note that "The Continental" owes its real immortality to its namecheck in a far better, and better-known song - Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "I Won't Dance (Don't ask me)".
Don't ask you? Why?
When you dance you're charming and you're gentle
'Specially when you do 'The Continental'
But this feeling isn't purely mental
For heaven rest us
I'm not asbestos...
Thus, "The Continental": A non-dance that shows up in two real songs. Not bad.
~For the stories behind the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight", the Oscar-losing "I've Got You Under My Skin", and many other classic Sinatra songs, see Mark Steyn's American Songbook. And, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member's pricing on that book, plus A Song for the Season and many other Steyn Store products. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.
We can't promise a Gay Divorcee-level finale (although there is some musical content of a sort), but Mark and Dennis Miller will be continuing their first ever stage tour together this coming week at the Kodak Center in Rochester, New York on Friday March 1st and the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on Saturday March 2nd. And remember that with VIP tickets you not only enjoy the best seats but you also get to have your picture snapped with Mark and Dennis, and take an autographed gift home with you. We hope to see you there!