Love songs have always scored the passions of our lives. For so long, the source of those songs have been the movies. As a screenwriter coming of age in the era of action films, I've longed for the lost days of musicals, where songs of ardor spilled off the screen into real life and swept up anyone who listened. Those are the songs that made lovers, and, which in turn, lovers took as their own.
When a couple connect to a love song, the lyrics and melody wrap around them wherever or whenever it is played, raising their romance to cinematic heights on cue. To say "Darling, let's make this our song" is to choose a theme for your love. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, here are some memorable movie love songs, guaranteed to pluck the heartstrings.
The quintessential couples' song is, of course, from "Casablanca." When Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) shows up at Rick's place, she asks the piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), to play "As Time Goes By." Later, heartbroken Rick (Humphrey Bogart) forces himself to listen. "If she can stand it, I can," he insists, when in truth, he can't bear to hear it without her.
The song provokes a flashback that shows them together, when the song was first sung and became theirs. The phrase "You must remember this" sings their destiny, since whatever their separate paths, it's clear they will never forget their love.
Memories play a large role in love songs. When Barbra Streisand recalled Robert Redford in "The Way We Were," lovers everywhere searched the corners of their minds for their own romantic moments.
In movies, those romantic moments are made to music. In the film version of Rodgers and Hart's play "Pal Joey," Kim Novak purrs "My Funny Valentine" within a heart-shaped frame that is padded and ruffled to resemble a bed, mesmerizing Frank Sinatra. In "The Talented Mr. Ripley," it's used by Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) to insinuate himself into the life and affections of Dickie (Jude Law).
The film, exquisitely crafted by director Anthony Minghella, showcases the song in a way that reveals Tom's duality. As soon as Dickie's girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) tells Tom the tune is one of Dickie's favorites, the sound of Tom singing it kicks in on the soundtrack as the seed of deception is planted in his mind. But we don't actually see Tom singing to Dickie until he reaches the phrase "Don't change a hair for me." . . . It's a cut made to underscore the irony of Tom's character as someone who will change his hair and then some in order to take Dickie's place.
The fact that Tom would rather be anyone but himself stands in sharp contrast to what is most comforting about the truest of loves. They provide a safe place to be yourself. Shared love songs give us the opportunity to see ourselves in the eyes of someone we love--mirrored back in a reflection of acceptance and affection. It's a look we hope lasts a lifetime.
"I'll be loving you always
"With a love that's true always."
Not only did one of the greatest American film composers write songs that became the musical signatures of couples who heardthem, he wrote one for himself and the love of his own life. "Always" was written by Irving Berlin as a wedding present for his wife.
Their song was taken literally in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," in which it is used in a seance. So potent is the haunting melody, it conjures up the ghost of Rex Harrison's deceased wife (Kay Hammond), much to the profound consternation of his present one (Constance Cummings). When a couple make a song their own, much like their love, it outlives them.
"You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
"You'd be like heaven to touch/I want to hold you so much. . . . "
The Frankie Valli-performed standard "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, has been a favorite of many couples and films as it captured both the ache of longing and the utter thrill of longings fulfilled in a single song.
In "Conspiracy Theory," Mel Gibson watches Julia Roberts in her apartment from his cab. He sees she's singing, finds the tune on his radio and sings with her, sharing the song that takes on a voyeuristic edge. For the sake of his love, and her own safety, he can't take his eyes off of her. Later, she will follow the sound of his singing voice to his rescue. The song doesn't just bond them together, it saves their lives.
In "10 Things I Hate About You," a teenage "Taming of the Shrew," Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) commandeers the Padua High School band to play the song in an attempt to tame cranky Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles). It works. But she's not the only thing that needs taming. Some think love itself is the culprit.
Indeed, love is often compared to a drug, drawing the inflicted into a haze where they are unable to sleep, eat or do anything but think of the object of their desire. But they can sing, as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy did in "Rose-Marie." She actually falls ill for want of him, and it is only with his answering tenor tones to her soprano "Indian Love Call" ("When I'm calling you-ooo-ooo . . . ") that all becomes well.
Not all love songs embraced by lovers are as intense. "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" was a popular couples song for decades and was a pivotal part of one of the greatest screwball comedies. In 1938's "Bringing Up Baby," Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant sing the song to tame the savage beast--a leopard named Baby, the star of Hepburn's scheme to keep Grant around until she can win him over.
The song was featured again in 1943's "Stormy Weather," in which it is performed by Lena Horne and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. She shimmers down a staircase lined with tuxedoed gents while he saunters down one trimmed with chorus girls in heart-shaped hats, all assembled to showcase her velvet voice and his "educated feet."
But a sonorous seduction can also be serious business. For Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their songs were foreplay to the consummation of their dance, with Astaire singing to woo Rogers into his arms.
"Shall We Dance" (1937) featured Astaire singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" to Rogers in the lovely and forlorn setting of a fog-filled ferry. The ballad was George and Ira Gershwin at the top of their form; Astaire adored everything about Rogers from "the way you wear your hat" to "the way you haunt my dreams." But they didn't dance it. That oversight was corrected more than 10 years later when Astaire and Rogers reunited for "The Barkleys of Broadway," in which it was both sung and danced. It became the only song they ever performed twice, and Rogers' favorite.
Sex as subtext became more overtly a part of the performances of love songs in later films. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Marilyn Monroe (at her Monroeyist) and Jane Russell ship off to "Europe, France." On board, Russell sings "Bye Bye Baby" with a group of traveling Olympic athletes, paying special attention to the "relay team." The number is preceded by a scene in which Monroe's boyfriend (Tommy Noonan) exhorts her to behave abroad as she checks out her cabin's mattress, extending her legs and repeatedly bouncing in a suggestive way that makes participants of adult-only cable channels seem downright stationary.
"That's very distracting," he says, to say the least. By the time she seductively coos her version of "Bye Bye Baby" to him, you just know he'll wait forever.
Love songs often serve to hold couples together when they are apart. At no time was this more apparent than during America's war years. The love songs that flooded films and radio seemed to traverse seas and skip the skies as they were shared by men missing home, with the women they left behind.
When Dick Powell, as "The Singing Marine," led a battalion of chorus men off to duty, their infectious "Song of the Marines" drummed its way into moviegoers' hearts. It began with the patriotic exaltation "Over the sea, let's go men" and ended in facetious optimism.
"Sally and Sue, don't be blue
"We'll just be gone for years and years and then
"We're coming back home to you again."
But not all partings end well and not all love songs have hope. When couples find their love songs incompatible, love itself isn't long for them. When Frank Sinatra crooned "This Love of Mine" with the help of Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra in 1941, his heartbreak was felt by millions of couples. It also sent many single girls into an enamored frenzy as they left their bobby socks and leaped screaming to the ceiling.
The lilting lament was still popular in 1945, when it was featured in "Bands Across the Sea," a short film about servicemen stationed abroad. The song remained popular throughout the decade as it struck a chord with anyone who had ever lost a love, longed for or never found one.
When Sinatra "asked the sun and the moon, the stars that shine, what's to become of it, this love of mine," women everywhere wanted to be that love, and men wanted to be him.
Everyone wants to come home to someone who loves them at one time in their lives. Cole Porter captured this sentiment in his classic ballad "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which was sung by Janet Blair and Don Ameche in "Something to Shout About" in 1943.
"Radio Days," Woody Allen's big-screen homage to the screenless airwaves of that era, aptly ends with that song. It is first heard on the radio in the home of a family toasting the New Year. Then its singer (Diane Keaton) is revealed at the program's nightclub where couples dance and dine, sharing the romantic mood of her performance.
It's the perfect depiction of how a song might actually become a couple's song. When Keaton intones, "You'd be so nice, you'd be paradise, to come home to and love," it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that those in the film listening might adopt the song as their own--as may couples watching the film together in theaters or homes. For coming home is at the heart of all great love songs, with the ultimate home being the arms of someone you love, that comfortable hold, that safe place to be yourself.
And if you find the right partner, and both listen carefully, perhaps one day, you too will whisper softly, "Oh, darling, they're playing our song." And it will be your song for all time.
"Not for just an hour, not for just a day
"Not for just a year, but always."
Screenwriter Devra Maza frequently writes about movies, romance and baseball.