With help from the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby delivers a sermon on happiness in this tune from hit songwriters Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Crosby and co-star Sonny Tufts introduced the song in the 1944 musical comedy film Here Come the Waves as part of a blackface routine, an unfortunate fad in many musicals of the era. Mercer, a singer as well as a lyricist, recorded the single with the Pied Pipers and Paul Weston's orchestra at Capitol Records two months before Crosby cut his at Decca. Both versions peaked at #2 on the pop chart, but Mercer's lasted 13 weeks compared to Crosby's nine.
When Arlen and Mercer were planning songs for the Navy-themed musical, an old idea jostled loose in Mercer's mind. He told the BBC: "When I was working with Benny Goodman back in '39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon, 'Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.' Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so Southern and so funny that I wrote it down on a piece of paper. And this was, what, five years later? And Harold Arlen and I were riding home from the studio after a conference about getting a song for the sailors. … And Harold was singing me this little tune he had sung me before. Now, that's a strange thing about your subconscious, because here's a song that's kind of lying dormant in my subconscious for five years, and the minute he sang that tune, it jumped into my mind as if it dialed a phone number. Because it doesn't really fit. The accent is all different. I just think there's some kind of fate connected with it."
Tying in with the sermon theme, the lyrics reference two biblical stories: Jonah and the Whale and Noah and the Ark. In the Book of Jonah, the title figure flees God's command to warn the corrupt city of Nineveh of their impending doom, and he ends up in the belly of a whale. Similarly, in the Book of Genesis, Noah was commanded to build an ark for his household and specific animals to escape a devastating global flood. The song asks, "What did they do just when everything looked so dark?" The answer is simple:
Man, they said, we better
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
Most versions retain the biblical references, but many - including Crosby's single - eliminate the opening verse that introduces the song as a sermon on "the attitude of doing right."
This was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1945, but lost to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" from the movie State Fair.
Several artists covered this, including Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Paul McCartney, and Dr. John. Clint Eastwood recorded a version for the 1997 movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
This was used in the movies The Mighty Ducks (1992), Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), L.A. Confidental (1997), and Blast from the Past (1999). The cast of Frasier sang it in the 1999 episode "Shutout in Seattle: Part 2," and the TV show Gotham featured Bing Crosby's version in the 2014 episode "Spirit of the Goat."