Nat King Cole is one of the greatest American jazz singers and pianists to ever live. His music is synonymous with the golden age of music, as well as cinema, thanks to songs such as When I Fall in Love and The Blue Gardenia, both of which were title songs of films. By the time Nat King Cole sang Mona Lisa as the title song for Captain Carey U.S.A starring Alan Ladd in one of his best roles, he was an established popular singer who had managed to cross over from jazz into more mainstream fare. Nat King Cole did not write Mona Lisa. The lyrics and music was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston respectively, who also composed the hit song Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be) which was performed by Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the American standard, Buttons and Bows which appeared in The Paleface, and was popularised by Dinah Shore. Nelson Riddle, who would work with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and many other great American musicians, established an ongoing and successful working relationship with Nat King Cole after he did the arrangement for Mona Lisa. He would also do the arrangement for another Nat King Cole hit, Unforgettable.
According to Livingston in the July/August issue of American Song Writer Magazine:
“There was a picture called OSS, which took place during World War II, and Alan Ladd was in a little Italian town where the clandestine radio was, and they needed a song to warn them that the German patrol was coming. There was this blind accordion player who wasn’t blind playing on the street and every time he saw the Germans coming he would play a certain melody, so we wrote ‘Mona Lisa’ and they said that it sounded Italian and they liked it. Then they called us and said they had changed the title from OSS to After Midnight and we had to write a song with that title. They loved title songs because it sold their picture. So we threw away the lyrics of ‘Mona Lisa’ and wrote ‘After Midnight.’ A month later we picked up Variety and read where Alan Ladd’s new picture was going to be called Captain Carey, USA.
We went back to the studio and asked for ‘Mona Lisa’ back, and then pitched it to Nat King Cole and he liked it and recorded it on the back of ‘The Greatest Inventor Of Them All.’ So we went on a junket for Paramount about that time, and we took the records with us and we must have been on 25 or 30 radio shows, and when we got back the song was a hit. But the original ads for the record didn’t even mention ‘Mona Lisa,’ just ‘The Greatest Inventor.’ I think us pushing it really made the difference in that song being a hit.”
Nat King Cole’s version of Mona Lisa would stay on the U.S. Singles chart for eight consecutive weeks, and be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1950. This would be Livingston and Evans’ second academy award, as they had won for Buttons and Bows in 1947. They would go on to win one more Oscar for Que Sera Sera in 1956. Mona Lisa would beat out Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Cinderella, Mule Train from Singing Guns, Be My Love from The Toast of New Orleans and Wilhelmina from Wabash Avenue for the Oscar.
The song takes its title from the Renaissance painting of the same name painted by Leonardo Di Vinci, and as Livingston describes, acts as a warning signal for the Italian partisans when the Nazis are present in the small, occupied town. The song plays throughout the film in an instrumental version, often whistled by various characters to show their solidarity with Captain Webster Carey. But the song also acts as a symbol of Carey’s relationship with Giullia (played by Wanda Hendrix), the young Italian girl who he loved deeply and who he was supposed to marry. The lyrics of the song express the fact that despite being in love with her, Carey knew very little about Giullia, and therefore she was a beautiful but mysterious figure to him, which is intensified when he returns to the town after the war and finds her married to another man. The song acts as a means to convey Carey’s emotions about his relationship with Giullia, as well as Giullia’s unhappy marriage and her as a symbol of beauty and male desire in the film, as she is wanted by both her husband and Carey.
The song also connects with the part of the plot (which is a sort of Mcguffin) that explores valuable paintings that are being smuggled out of Italy, during and after the war, by a traitor to the Nazis. This acts as a means to explore the suspicion and mistrust that was rife after the war due to people accusing others of being collaborators and traitors, and setting up kangaroo courts that led to unsanctioned executions of those who were supposedly guilty.
The song is beautifully haunting due to its mournful, emotive lyrics, which express a love lost and found, and a man’s attempts to understand a woman who he has made into a symbol. This is elevated by Nat King Cole’s gorgeous vocals and piano playing. The song seems to act as a metaphor for so many things in the film: Carey’s relationship with Giullia, his own unresolved feelings of guilt and PTSD after serving in intelligence during the war, the scars not yet healed for the villagers who had to live on after German occupation, and the corruption that was rife after a time of enormous upheaval and change. It is perhaps comparable to As Time Goes By in Casablanca, in its function as a call back to the still open wound of the past, as well as romantic standard that acts as conduit between the audience and the characters in the film. While the other songs in the categories are now considered classics, Mona Lisa was perhaps the most timely, as it expressed so much about the state of the world after WWII. A world that was rebuilding itself, and trying to reconcile itself to the fact that it would perhaps never understand the circumstances and motivations of what came before. The film has a happy ending, but like the song, it is still uncertain what will come after.
This is my contribution for the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon being hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Please visit their blogs to find out more info and to read everyone’s posts.