Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an Oscar frontrunner for best animated feature, and if it wins, it won’t be the first time the Academy has honored the wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy. In 1941, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio became the first animated feature to win Oscars for best original score and song, for “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The 1940 film, based on children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, was the second animated feature released by Disney, after 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which, incidentally, also earned an Oscar nomination for original score). Composers Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, who had written the music for Snow White with Frank Churchill, were enlisted to craft Pinocchio‘s score. Harline and lyricist Ned Washington wrote the tune “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which was immediately recognized by Disney as a song that should be spotlighted. Popular vaudeville actor and singer Cliff Edwards, who had been cast as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, made a test recording of the song that went over so well, it became the music that played over the opening credits of the film and led into the first appearance of the cricket, who serves as the story’s narrator.
Hoping to replicate Snow White‘s box office success, Disney launched a robust publicity campaign for Pinocchio, complete with a New York premiere at the Center Theatre and afterparties at the Rainbow Room, the Stork Club and the Hotel New Yorker, as THR reported. But despite positive reviews, its initial theatrical run “lost $1 million … Not only was it expensive to make — $2.5 million, a daunting sum in those days — but World War II cut off the international markets,” THR said in a June 1992 story about the film’s restoration and rerelease.
The Academy, however, gave it a warmer reception: While the film didn’t earn nominations for best picture (it would take 50 years for an animated film, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to do so) or best animated feature (that category didn’t exist until 2002), its memorable music was recognized. Today, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is widely considered the theme song for The Walt Disney Co. and is ranked seventh on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest songs in film history.
This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.