15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”
Uh yeah! Ya think?! There’s quite a lot to like here, even if your Dad wasn’t a steam engine enthusiast who introduced you to the song when you were a kid. Judy Garland shows off her natural charisma and uniquely mid-century American singing voice in a sequence which takes its time in building from easy going to full steam ahead in an obvious nod to the gradual acceleration of the sort of train she’s singing about taking a trip on. The filmmakers even play into this, going from static and slow shots with mostly stock-still supporting characters to shots which open up the world around Garland and allow her cohorts to get in on the act. Even if you’re the type who considers the whole thing a little cheesy for your taste it’s a pretty accomplished use of the variety of skills on display.
Although the music for the song, written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (if you’ve been reading along since the start of this series you’ll already be able to connect each of these guys with other Oscar-winning songs), was first published in 1944 and was a number one hit for Mercer in the summer of 1945, it somehow remained eligible for the Oscar in 1946 when it was made a featured song in The Harvey Girls. Here’s the Johnny Mercer recording, which has a more consistent tempo.
This remains a bit of a mystery and if anybody has a definitive explanation I’m all ears, because Mercer’s recording was not the only one to hit the charts in 1945. During its reign on radio, another version sung by Bing Crosby arrived a couple of weeks later, peaked at #4 and then exited the charts before the Mercer version finally receded. But that’s not all. An orchestral recording of the song by Tommy Dorsey and his group debuted in August of 1945 and made it to #6. This version lasted just six weeks on the charts, but then a completely different Judy Garland recording appeared for one week in September at #10. In case you were counting, that’s four different versions of the same song which hit records over the course of just three months. And all prior to the release date of the movie it would appear in which would make it eligible for the Oscar. Maybe the song had always been intended for the movie, even as it was released over and over the previous year. Notice the mention of the film on the Mercer label in the video above? It’s also possible that situations such as this have motivated the Oscars to make their eligibility rules stricter than they were at the time. Heck, back in 2011 we ended up with just two nominees because of some eligibility errors.
One final note: the song appears to overestimate the scope of the railroad line it is celebrating, suggesting that it stretched from Philadelphia to California. Any trips to Pennsylvania or Wyoming would have required cooperation with partner lines. Facts can become of little consequence when a workable rhyme is needed.