Old Hollywood Songs: When You Wish Upon a Star

Today's song is When You Wish Upon a Star performed by Cliff Edwards as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940).

As part of my series on 1940 in film, I'll be writing about the Academy Award nominated songs of 1940. First up is the Oscar winner, When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio.

When You Wish Upon a Star is familiar to Disney fans all over the world even if they have never seen Pinocchio. It is the company's unofficial theme song, played before the opening credits of most Disney movies, performed during shows and fireworks displays at Disney's theme parks, and it is even the horn signal for the Disney Cruise Line (clip below).

Actually, When You Wish Upon a Star doesn't have that much screen time in Pinocchio, especially for an Academy Award winning song that has since become a pop culture icon. Singer Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket briefly performs the song during the opening and closing credits, and there are occasional snippets of the melody throughout the score, but that's about it (the clip at the top of the article shows the opening credits; the clip below shows the closing credits).

The brief appearance of When You Wish Upon a Star in Pinocchio fits in with Walt Disney's movie making philosophy. The early Disney movies are not the full-fledged musicals of later films (obviously, Disney's other 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia, is the exception to this rule); in fact, Disney resisted putting too many songs in movies, according to The Songs of Hollywood by Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson. Disney felt that audiences were already being asked to defy logic with Pinocchio's fairy tale story of a wooden marionette coming to life, and he wanted the story to be grounded in reality as much as possible. Disney believed that audiences would be turned off by constant musical numbers, so he only allowed a few songs in Pinocchio. Besides When You Wish Upon a Star, there is the Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio duet on "Give a Little Whistle," and Pinocchio's solo number, "I've Got No Strings." 

Still, Disney was a shrewd businessman, and he knew that a hit song would help sell the movie to the public. He hired Edwards, a famous singer who went by the stage name Ukulele Ike, to play Jiminy Cricket, and he had songwriters Leigh Harline and Ned Washington write the wistful tune and heartfelt lyrics. Edwards, soprano Julietta Novis, and The King's Men recorded a version for Decca Records that became a huge hit.

When You Wish Upon a Star has maintained its place in the public imagination since 1940. It has been recorded by dozens of musicians, but it is especially popular among jazz artists ranging from the Dave Brubeck Quartet to Louis Armstrong (clip below). When You Wish Upon a Star also "kinda inspired" the melody of the Beach Boys' hit, Surfer Girl, according to songwriter Brian Wilson.

When You Wish Upon a Star has made an even bigger impact in Scandinavia, where it is a beloved Christmas song. The song is officially known as "Star of Bethlehem" and it is usually played on TV every Christmas Eve. Although each country seems to have different lyrics, they are more religious in tone than the English version with the singer urging listeners to look for the Bethlehem star that appeared at Christ's birth and then pray for their wishes to come true (at least, that's what I got from Google translate). Here's the Swedish version called, "Do You See the Star in the Blue."

Pinocchio is available on DVD and Blu-ray.