Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve compiled dozens of song lists, focusing on specific people (actors and actresses, singers, music directors, lyricists), themes, and more. There have been songs from many, many Hindi films, all the way from the 1930s to the first couple of years of the 1970s. One thing there hasn’t been – and quite an omission, too – are songs from Hollywood (or from English language films made outside Hollywood, too). Considering that I watch and review a lot of English language films, including musicals (Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Flower Drum Song and Oliver! among them), I figured it was about time I made a ‘ten favourites’ list of English language songs that I really like.
While–unlike Hindi cinema–Hollywood cannot boast of just about every film it makes being a musical, there has been no dearth of musicals. And that’s where I ran up against an obstacle: where would I stop? There are dozens of songs from films made both in the US and in England which I could listen to (and watch) over and over again. Should I do a theme? Should I choose one actor or actress (Gene Kelly? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Julie Andrews?)
Too much work, I thought. And too much sifting. So I chose this: songs from films which weren’t musicals. Each of the ten songs in this list is from films which were definitely not musicals. Westerns, war films, drama, comedy: but not the sort of film that had one song after another. In most cases, this particular song was the only song in the film. As always, these are all songs from films I’ve seen, all pre-70s, and in no particular order.
1. When Johnny comes marching home again (Stalag 17, 1953): When Johnny comes marching home again wasn’t composed for Stalag 17–it is a 19th century song that was written (and became popular) during the American Civil War. Its theme, of soldiers returning home from war, made it a very suitable anthem for a film set in a Prison of War camp, as Stalag 17 was. In Stalag 17, When Johnny comes marching home again is sung in a POW sergeants’ barrack at a makeshift party.
Everything about this scene–and this song–is brilliant: there’s the sense of camaraderie, of cheer despite their situation. There’s the somewhat uncoordinated singing, which makes it more believable, considering these men aren’t supposed to be professional singers. And there’s the suspense in the scene itself. (Note: if you haven’t watched the film yet, and intend to, you should know that this song can be a spoiler, because the scene and some of the dialogues give away an important element of the plot).
2. Que sera sera (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956): This one was one of the first songs I ever learnt, because my mother used to sing it to me (she always changed the last verse, however, and sang: “Now I have children of my own, they ask their mother, ‘What shall I eat?’”). I liked Que sera sera so much, I wrote down the lyrics, misspelling it as ‘Kay sera sera.’ Even though I discovered Alfred Hitchcock a few years later, the penny didn’t drop until I was in my teens and finally watched The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Here, Doris Day’s character, in Morocco with her husband (James Stewart) sings the song to their son, and further in the film, at a climactic moment, her singing it again forms an important plot point. I don’t recall any other Hitchcock film which included a song, far less a song that was a pivotal part of the plot. Doris Day, it’s said, didn’t care for Que sera sera (which, by the way, was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and won an Oscar for Best Original Song). It, however, became such a signature song for Day that she sang bits of it in other films later in her career too, and it became the theme song for The Doris Day Show on television, 1968-73.
3. The windmills of your mind (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968): Composed by Michel Legrand, and with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, The windmills of your mind also won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Unlike Que sera sera, this is the rather more common type of song in a film that wasn’t a musical: a credits song. As the credits roll (against a backdrop of striking stills from the film), Noel Harrison’s voice sings the song. I love the music, but what really stands out for me are the lyrics. The word-pictures they conjure up! The door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream; the Earth likened to an apple whirling silently in space… brilliant.
(The 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair had Sting singing his version of The windmills of your mind. I personally prefer Sting’s version to Noel Harrison’s).
4. Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’ (High Noon, 1952): Also known as The Ballad of High Noon, this Oscar-winning song was written by Ned Washington, set to music by Dimitri Tiomkin, and sung by Tex Ritter for this iconic Western about an about-to-retire sheriff who finds he must go up against a band of ruthless outlaws all by himself: the rest of the town has deserted him. His new bride, a Quaker and a staunch pacifist, is clear in her opinion—her husband must not fight. Torn, and eventually deciding to fight even if it’s suicidal, the sheriff walks out into the street at noon, to face the outlaws.
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’ is a credits song, seeming incongruous against a Western setting like this, but it fits right in with the dilemma faced by the characters Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly play in High Noon. He, torn between his duty to the town (which, ironically enough, has turned its back on him) and his nuptial vows. She, torn between the pacifism of her faith, and her nuptial vows.
5. My rifle, my pony and me (Rio Bravo, 1959): High Noon may be now regarded as an iconic Western, but not everybody was pleased with its motif of a sheriff having to go around asking for help, and eventually being helped by his wife. Its writer, Carl Foreman, was forced to leave the US (John Wayne was one of those instrumental in his eviction), and Wayne, along with Howard Hawks, set out to make a film that was a deliberate response to High Noon. Rio Bravo has a similar basic premise: a sheriff (played by John Wayne) has to go up against a bunch of outlaws. He’s not alone, though his assistants are a motley and unprepossessing batch: a drunk, an old man, a boy.
Dean Martin played the alcoholic deputy Dude in Rio Bravo, and where there was Dean, there had to be at least one song. My rifle, my pony and me was the one, a quintessentially Dean Martin song, languorous and smooth and evocative (the music, by the way, is also by Dimitri Tiomkin; lyrics by Don Williams). Ricky Nelson blends in perfectly, too, singing along with Dean. (Incidentally, this role is one of my top two favourite Dean Martin roles—he’s superb as Dude).
6. Moon River (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961): Unlike, say, Julie Andrews or Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn was first and foremost an actress, not a singer (her songs in My Fair Lady too were mostly not sung by her). For Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, composer Henry Mancini spent a month tinkering around with a tune that she could manage, and ended up with Moon River, written to lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Holly Golightly, the whimsical, somewhat desperate, torn-by-dilemmas heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, sings Moon River in classic Holly style: sitting on a fire escape, strumming a guitar, a woman at ease. Lovely lyrics, and there’s something so wide and free and gentle about the music.
Interestingly enough, while Moon River did go on to win an Oscar for Best Original Song, it almost didn’t get included in the film: the Paramount boss was dead against it, and Audrey Hepburn had to fight very hard to have the song retained.
7. Three coins in the fountain (Three Coins in the Fountain, 1954): ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ was a term used to label a period during the 1950s and 60s when Rome (and Italy) became a favourite destination for Hollywood film-makers. Sword-and-sandals dramas like Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, and The Fall of the Roman Empire, along with romances and dramas like Roman Holiday and The Agony and the Ecstasy were some of the landmark films of the Hollywood on the Tiber era. Three Coins in the Fountain, about three American women in Rome who find love in the city, wasn’t one of the big hits; but it did feature, as theme song, this romantic number sung by an uncredited Frank Sinatra, to lyrics by Sammy Cahn and with music by Jule Styne. The song was written and composed in an hour’s time, and Sinatra recorded it the next day. The song went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Song.
8. From Russia with love (From Russia With Love, 1963): I had initially titled this post ‘Ten of my favourite Hollywood songs’. Then, I changed that to include English-language songs, not merely songs from Hollywood films—mostly because of this song from British cinema: a theme song from a Bond film. Bond films have never been a huge favourite of mine, and though I’ve watched nearly all of them, they tend to blur into a composite mass of gadgetry, Bond girls, and OTT villains for me. But, the music. From For your eyes only to Skyfall, Bond films have often had really good theme songs (not to mention that classic theme music!).
The theme song of From Russia with love was sung by British singer Matt Monro, to music by Lionel Bart (who would go on to compose the music for Oliver!) Unlike the stylishly hip Bond theme, this song’s a softly romantic number, and Monro’s voice is perfect. My only grouse is that the song is so much in the background: it appears in the last scene as Bond and his Russian girlfriend go down a canal in Venice, talking as the song plays. It continues through the end credits, but I’d have liked it more unadulterated from the beginning.
9. The higher up the berry tree (Many Rivers to Cross, 1955): Like When Johnny comes marching home again, this is another song that wasn’t written specifically for the film in which it appeared. From what I can tell, The higher up the berry tree is a traditional folk song, with obscure roots. Saul Chaplin, who won Oscars for his music in films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, An American in Paris, and West Side Story, however composed the version that played in Many Rivers to Cross. The song was sung by Sheb Wooley, and appears mostly during the credits, though shortly after the film opens, Robert Taylor, playing the footloose and fancy-free fur trapper Bushrod Gentry, comes tripping along, singing the song too. It’s a delightfully peppy song, and one I fell in love with the first time I watched this film.
10. The longest day (The Longest Day, 1962): I began this list with a song from a World War II film, a song which would be probably familiar to lovers of Hindi cinema (When Johnny comes marching home had its tune adapted to the popular Na bole tum na maine kuchh kaha, from Baaton Baaton Mein). It seems fitting, therefore, to end this list with another song from a WWII film, and a song whose tune was lifted to create a song in Hindi cinema.
The Longest Day, a retelling of D-Day, which launched the Normandy invasion of June 1944, was one of the most ambitious films ever made. It had a huge star cast, including American, British, French and German actors, among them John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kenneth More, Curd Jurgens, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Ford, Paul Anka, etc. Paul Anka, in fact, wrote the lyrics for the theme song of the film, which was composed by Maurice Jarre. It’s a stirring song, both martial as well as tragic in its prediction that “Many men are here to stay/Many men won’t see the sunset/When it ends the longest day”. The song’s tune ‘inspired’ Zindagi milke bitaayenge, from Satte pe Satta. Anka himself didn’t sing the song, which plays near the end of the credits: it was sung by a chorus.
Which are your favourite songs that fit this theme? Great songs from English-language that aren’t musicals? Please share!