Movie Title Songs
For many, many years in my young movie going career title songs seemed to be a fixed part of the cinematic landscape. For me it started with the western High Noon(1952) with “Do not forsake me oh my darling” being intoned by Tex Ritter throughout the film almost as a sub textural commentary by Sherriff Will Kane played by Gary Cooper who won an Oscar for his role. It heightened the dramatic intensity of the drama and it wound up winning the Academy Award as Best Song for that year. But I know that movie title songs started way before that. One only has to think of Laura (1944) and the haunting title song that film inspired. But I guess I didn’t pay attention to them until High Noon. But after that it seem like every movie coming out of Hollywood had a title song to go with it.
The logic behind the title song was that it helped to commercially sell the film. A producer would hire a composer/lyricist team or sometimes one person who did both and contract them to write a song with the hopes that the song would become a hit and get a lot of radio airplay. And every time the song was played and the title was heard it could mean more dollars at the box office. Therefore one of the requisites of the contract was that the title of the movie had to be a central part of the song. This placed the burden more on the shoulders of lyricist than the composer who could write any melody within reason and it would be accepted. But the lyricist had to find a reasonable way to utilize the title as a lyric. What do you do with a title like “Magnificent Obsession” or “Last Train from Gun Hill” or “The Fast and the Furious”? The interesting thing is, if given the problem song writers usually came up with ways to work their way around it. Some were wonderful like the previously mentioned Laura while others were either strained or downright silly. “They call him the winner who takes all and he strikes like Thunderball .” From the James Bond movie.
The title songs that always ignited my interest were the ones written for dramatic films. Films like From Here to Eternity (1953), or Not As a Stranger (1955) or Dead Man Walking (1995) where there was nothing inherently musical in either the title or the content. With musicals it’s a given, comedies lend themselves to songs as well. And westerns always seemed to have some musical component built into the genre too. But take a gangster film like Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932) or (1983) what could a title song say? And Horror, was there ever a title song written for a film in that genre? Come to think of it Science Fiction isn’t a particularly musical genre either. Still I would guess if some producer wanted a title song for something like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 or 2008) some songwriter would take on the challenge, and who knows, might even bring if off well.
The man who found a way to deal with those questions sometimes magnificently (Three Coins in the Fountain -1954) and sometimes absurdly (Oceans 11-1960) was Sammy Cahn(1913-1993), a facile lyricist who for the longest while was the go- to guy for title songs. He once said that if given the contract he could write a lyric for a film called “Eh!” He wrote things like The Tender Trap (1955), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Best of Everything (1959)The Long, Hot Summer (1958) Johnny Cool (1963) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). And for doing so he garnered 23 Academy Award nominations, this is the most by any lyricist in film history. He won 4 for Best Song. And today there is an annual award for the best movie song named in his honor; The Sammy Award. It is said that he wrote title songs for more than 100 movies but I couldn’t find any source to authoritatively verify that number. But the number is high. And most of the songs were lyrically of a high order.
The Bond films are the only ones that continue that tradition with any regularity today and their track record has been something of a mixed bag. But still they ought to be praised just for carrying it on. And I know that it is one of the things I wait for when a new James Bond movie is on the horizon. Who’s going to be singing the new Bond title song and what will it sound like. My absolute favorite is From Russia with Love (1963) which I find totally haunting, followed by You Only Live Twice (1967), Goldeneye (1995) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Many of the others are fine but those stand out for me. Now I’m not including the songs like All Time High from Octopussy (1983) or We Have all the time in the World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) because they weren’t title songs. And I guess one could stretch a point and include Nobody Does it Better because the lyric does include a line that says; “Like heavens above me the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” That gets in the film’s title in addition to the fact that it’s a lovely song as well.
Title songs do serve another purpose above and beyond adding to the box office take of the film. From an audience standpoint it serves as a reminder of the film and its pleasures, if we liked it, when we hear the songs being played years after the movie has disappeared. So songs like Charade (1984) or North to Alaska (1960) or even something as silly like Georgy Girl (1966) can bring back not only memories of a fun movie but also of charming Lynn Redgrave who sadly passed away this year.
So title songs whether silly or great have a place in our cinema world and may the tradition remain with motion pictures forever.