There have been many incredible songs that have won the Best Original Song Academy Award. In fact, the Best Original Song Academy Award has been awarded since 1934 at the 7th Academy Awards. Best Original Song is a songwriter’s award, for their specific composition for the film. The performer of the tune is not awarded.
The Award eligibility has changed throughout the decades. Before 1941, any song that appeared in a Motion Picture could get a nomination. But now it has to be a specific original composition that the artists recorded for the film. The song must be used in the motion picture or be the very first music played in the end credits of the film.
For this list, critical acclaim, commercial success and cultural influence of the winning songs was taken into account. This list consists of Best Original Song Academy Award winners from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. The 30’s, 40’s and 50’s feature tunes from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, beloved jazz standards and well-known musical classics. Stay tuned for future lists on the next decades to come.
*Please recognize these films and songs are of their respective eras and may include negative outdated cultural depictions.
10. “The Last Time I Saw Paris”- Lady Be Good (1941)
Jerome Kern (Music) Oscar Hammerstein II (Lyrics)
“The Last Time I Saw Paris”, a beautiful nostalgic ballad, was composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The song was majestically performed by Ann Sothern in the film “Lady Be Good”. Prior to the film’s release, performer Kate Smith made the song popular. And it provided nostalgia for Paris following the Second World War Battle of France. That was the battle that brought Paris under Nazi control. Hammerstein and Kern didn’t write this Best Original Song Academy award winner for the film. They composed, recorded, and released it before.
After “The Last Time I Saw Paris” won Best Original Song, the Motion Picture Academy changed the rules for the Best Original Song category. The song’s composer Jerome Kern petitioned the Motion Picture Academy to change the rule after winning for this particular song. Now in order for a song to be nominated, the song has to be specifically written for the film. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” is the last song to win Best Original Song at the Oscars even if the artists didn’t write is specifically for the film it appears in.
9.“High Hopes”- A Hole in the Head (1959)
James Van Heusen (Music) Sammy Cahn (Lyrics)
Audiences were first introduced to the catchy, fun and uplifting “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra and child actor Eddie Hodges in the film, “A Hole in the Head”. Along with winning Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, the song also got a Grammy Award nomination. The hit version of the song differs from the film version as it features Sinatra and a children’s chorus. Sinatra also recorded a version of “High Hopes” with different lyrics for the nineteen sixty Presidential Campaign of John F. Kennedy.
The song has been covered by various artists throughout the years like Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, and Doris Day. It has also appeared in plenty of films and television shows, like Rocky Balboa, Antz, The Simpsons and Lavern and Shirley. It is also a beloved tune in Philadelphia. Philadelphia Phillies fans associated it with baseball team’s play-by-play announcer, Harry Kalas. He sang the song after the Phillies won the 1993 National League Championships and 2008 World Series championships.
8. “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” – Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
Sammy Fain (Music) Paul Francis Webster (Lyrics)
The aria, Un bel di vedremo from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly serves as the basis for “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’s” musical refrain. Originally composed without lyrics, “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” had specific lyrics written for it in order to be eligible for the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards. The lyric re-work certainly paid off as the tune ended up winning the award. “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” has been featured and referenced in numerous films and television. From 1967 to 1973, a soap opera spinoff used the song as its theme. The best-selling number one Billboard hit version of the song was recorded by The Four Aces backed by the Jack Pleis Orchestra. Englebert Humperdinck has also consistently incorporated the song into his live show since 1995.
7. “Mona Lisa”- Captain Carey, U.S.A (1950)
Jay Livingston (Music) Ray Evans (Lyrics)
Performed in the nineteen fifty film, “Captain Carey, U.S.A” by Charlie Spivak and Tommy Lynn, “Mona Lisa” the theme song of the film, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The Nat King Cole version of this tune is the definitive version. A lovely jazz ballad, Nat King Cole’s version of “Mona Lisa” hit number one on the Billboard singles chart and stayed at number one for eight weeks. A well known pianist, the success of this tune helped in showcasing Cole as an incredible vocalist.
Cole’s “Mona Lisa” was also inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in nineteen ninety-two. The Nat King Cole version of this tune is the definitive version. It was also one of Cole’s favourites among his own recordings. A testament to the strength of the compositions, various artists from various genres covered “Mona Lisa”. The Willie Nelson country version to the Carl Mann Rockabilly version shows the song’s versatility. Much like the painting it refers to, “Mona Lisa” is timeless.
6. “All the Way” – The Joker is Wild (1957)
Jimmy Van Heusen (Music), Sammy Cahn (lyrics)
The Academy award-winning song was introduced in the film “The Joker is Wild”. Frank Sinatra provided vocals for this gorgeous ballad, while Jimmy Van Heusen wrote the music and Sammy Cahn the lyrics. A countless number of artists over the past decades like Billie Holiday and Harry Connick Jr. covered “All the Way” due to its’ universal appeal. Celine Dion also released a duet version with Sinatra, using his recorded vocals from his nineteen sixty-three recording, reaching a new generation of listeners. Their version of “All the Way” was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Collaboration. Sinatra’s original solo version is still the best-selling version of the tune.
5.“The Way You Look Tonight”- Swing Time (1936)
Jerome Kern (Music) Dorothy Fields (Lyrics)
Fred Astaire originally performed the Academy award-winning Best Original Song, “The Way You Look Tonight”. And he sang it for his co-star Ginger Rogers. A sweet up tempo jazz number, Astaire’s version became a number one hit following the film’s release. Countless artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sonny Rollins covered the song. And those covers cemented it as a jazz standard. Frank Sinatra’s version from nineteen sixty-four, almost thirty years after the songs initial release, has become the most popular iteration of the tune. Upon first hearing the music composed by Jerome Kern, his songwriting partner and lyricist Dorothy Fields said, “The first time Jerry played that melody for me I went out and started to cry[…]I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful”. Through its’ new interpretations, this truly beautiful song continues to charm the world.
4. “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) ”- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Jay Livingston (Music) Ray Evans (Lyrics)
This Academy Award Best Original Song, served an important role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. Performed by Doris Day’s character “Jo” at a crucial moment, “Que Sera, Sera” became the signature song for Day. With a soaring sing-along style melody, “Que Sera, Sera” became hugely popular, hitting number one in the U.K. and number two in the U.S on the Billboard Hot 100. A cover version by Australian singer Normie Rowe also became a number one hit in Australia.
The worldwide popularity of the song and its title phrase has led it to appear in a variety of different television shows and films. Books, restaurants, airplanes, and even race horses have adopted the title, “Que Sera, Sera”. “Que Sera, Sera” has also become a popular celebratory football chant in England. The song placed at number forty-eight on the American Film Institutes 100 Years…100 Songs List.
3.“When You Wish Upon A Star”- Pinocchio (1940)
Leigh Harline (Music) Ned Washington (lyrics)
Featured in Disney’s “Pinocchio”, the moving ballad, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, was the first Disney song to win the Best Original Song Academy Award. Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket performed the song. And the film features it during its beginning and end scenes. “When You Wish Upon a Star” has now become the Walt Disney Company’s representative song. Walt Disney Pictures has been using the song to accompany its logo since the 1980’s. The first seven notes of the song’s melody live on in the horn signals of all the Disney Cruise Line Ships.
The song is also featured in many parades, firework shows and productions at Disney theme parks to this day. It has also impressively become a jazz standard performed by numerous artists like Linda Ronstadt, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and recently Beyonce, and is also part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. It ranked seventh on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest songs in Film History, also the highest of any Disney entry.
2.“White Christmas”- Holiday Inn (1942)
Irving Berlin (Music & Lyrics)
A certified Christmas classic, Irving Berlin originally wrote “White Christmas” for the musical film “Holiday Inn” for which it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. “White Christmas” is undeniably great, smooth, warm and beautifully melodic. The tune has been performed by numerous artists across many generations but Bing Crosby’s version is the signature version. In the film, Crosby performs the song as a duet with Martha Mears who dubbed actress Marjorie Reynolds voice. Crosby’s version is the world’s best-selling single, with an estimation of over fifty million copies sold worldwide. Sales of the song exceed one hundred million when accounting for all versions released.
Crosby’s version of the song ranked number two on the “Songs of the Century” list that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) compiled. And it ranked at number five on the American Film Institute’s 100 years… 100 songs list. “White Christmas” is also part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry and included on National Public Radio’s “NPR 100”. The latter celebrated the most important American musical works of the 20th Century. Apparently after writing “White Christmas” Berlin boldly told his Secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it is the best song anybody ever wrote.”
1. “Over the Rainbow”- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Harold Arlen (Music) Yip Harburg (lyrics)
A beloved classic sung by the legendary Judy Garland in her role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz with music composed by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. “Over the Rainbow” has a stunning melody and lyric that takes the listener to a place gorgeous place beyond the rainbow. What more can be said about this iconic song that hasn’t already been said? A signature song for Garland, “Over the Rainbow” has a timeless message. Countless artists around the world have covered the song. Some of the most notable cover versions come from Ariana Grande, Eva Cassidy and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
It ranked as number one on the Songs of the Century list for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It has the same ranking at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 songs list. It is also part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Truly deserving of all of its’ praise and success, “Over the Rainbow” will continue to resonate and provide hope to listeners for decades to come.