Songs on Screen: The Great Journey of Lonely Dreamers in America's Rainbow Trilogy
Songs On Screen: HitFix recurring feature of tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here.
There are three great songs from American film, and they are all about rainbows.
“Over the Rainbow,” “Moon River” and “The Rainbow Connection” – are the three most quintessentially American songs ever to appear on screen, sung by three quintessentially American characters; and all three stand apart as plaintive cries of lonely souls dreaming of someplace far away..”Waiting round the bend” ”where troubles melt like lemondrops” for “the lovers, the dreamers and me”
The things these songs share tell you everything needs to know about the character of 20th Century America. The things they don’t share tell you everything you need to know about how that character changed as the era wore on.
Let’s start at the top, and the very top it is. In 76 years since, no song has busted out of a film to have the impact of “Over the Rainbow.” Probably no movie song has had half the impact of Judy Garland’s heartrending ballad. #1 on the AFI 100 songs list, covered by and earning hits for every singer to enter a recording studio for the past 80 years (Josh Groban, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Art Tatum, Bily Ray Cyrus and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to name the first few at hand). President Kennedy reportedly would refuse to let Judy Garland off the phone (she was a regular caller) until she sang it to him.
Given that “Over the Rainbow” is all but our national song, it’s interesting to note what a solitary little song it is that we’ve chosen. Far from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Over the Rainbow” could be the loneliest song ever written; a teenage girl singing very pointedly to herself (or to her dog) trying to convince herself that there’s a better world out there somewhere. What makes it so wonderfully moving is how Ms. Garland (and its greatest interpreters since), amidst all that raw pain laid bare in the lyrics, they are able to summon this unstoppable belief in that world “where troubles melt like lemon drops” with those chords tripping over each other as the broken spirit soars “away upon the chimney tops.”
If this song had just been released as a record, not as part of any film, one wonders what impact it would have had. No doubt it would have done very well; it’s a beautiful song. But even today, four score years later, it is impossible to hear it without thinking of that lonely farm girl with braids in her hair. The song and the character combined with the medium itself to create something transcendent that was unique to its time. Dorothy imagining this magical land where blue birds fly was in many ways a stand in for the movie’s audiences, seeking to escape their troubles during the depression days, in these giant transporting palaces, watching a medium that was still very new and very magical.
It’s not surprising perhaps that these sentiments were penned by someone who had a particular better world in mind. Lyricist Yip Harburg was one of Hollywood’s most ardent campaigners for the Socialist Party of America. Prior to signing on to Oz, he had written the official anthem of the Depression Era’s downtrodden, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” (as well as the less solemn “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Teaming up with Harold Arlen for the film, the pair got the fun songs out of the way, before settling in to try and come up with a ballad to introduce Dorothy at the start of the film. Arlen struggled to find the right melody for the “sweeping” number he felt they needed, until it came to him while driving one night and he pulled over, raced into Schwab’s Drugstore, and jotted the immortal tune down on a napkin.
Seeing what a heart-breaking piece it is, it is no shock that many of the Oz’s hard-headed producers wanted to kill it in its cradle. When he first saw the film, studio boss Louis B. Mayer is said have hated it, thinking it too slow and mournful an opening to what was supposed to be a family film. At least three test screenings were held showing versions of the film with the song cut out. (Indeed, a later reprise of the song that Dorothy sings while in the Wicked Witch’s clutches was cut, never to return or to be seen again, the footage since lost). The song was only restored at the pleading of Associate Producer Arthur Freed, to whom the world owes an unpayable debt.
Once it was released, however, “Over the Rainbow” instantly gained its status as the ultimate film song, and the ultimate statement of how we as Americans thought of ourselves; lonely, solitary dreamers, whose belief in a better place can never quite be stamped out.