Followers of this blog around the world (Hello, Colombia!) will have seen various postings that show me to be a big fan of British film music — especially that of the ‘good old days’ of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. And it’s probably every bit as easy to see from those postings just what it was that made that era of film-music so special. During those decades, Britain had a lot of really terrific ‘concert’ composers — Arnold, Bax, Britten, Frankel, Buxton Orr, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and more besides — and virtually all of them were seduced or co-opted into writing music for ‘the fillums’ on at least one occasion.
Only two things make me sad when I think about those ‘good old days’ of film-musical creativity. The first is the way that even our greatest composers could see their film-music treated as ‘disposable garbage’ by directors and editors (the specific words are those of Richard Rodney Bennett, spoken to me in one of several phone conversations we had back in 2003-4). The result is that while you and I may be desperately keen to hear what it is that, say, Arnold Bax did at any given point in his score for Oliver Twist (1948), it’s not at all impossible that the film itself has faded him out prematurely — or even replaced the intended music with something he wrote for a different juncture entirely…
The second bit of sadness comes from the fact that so many of these films simply aren’t shown any more: it’s jolly seldom that TV explores the movie archives in any thoughtful or organised way — and literally never that the music on the soundtrack is ‘foregrounded’ as the reason for scheduling a particular film. (What? Television develop an interest in composers? Whatever are you thinking!) And the result of this is that almost everyone in our pitiful and benighted nation now grows up with no feeling at all for the British film tradition and how its technical and expressive characteristics differed from those of Hollywood. In fact, I know more than one person currently entering middle age who has never, ever sat all the way through a full-length ‘black and white’ film from any country whatsoever…
Which brings me to this posting’s set of coded clips — as not only do they present part of an impressive film score by a British composer who’s unfairly neglected (aren’t they all?), but they’re also from a black and white movie to which I once directed a friendly acquaintance … only to hear him report back with nothing more than the words ‘I’ve never, ever seen a film that old!’
‘That old’, in this case, means a release date in February 1936; and the film in question is Things to Come, directed by the American-born William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957). I’m not going to reveal much about it in advance — except to say that (as you’ll see in the credits) the film’s composer was Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), and, yes, the music he wrote ended up being ‘messed with’ in all kinds of ways…
Here are the first few minutes of the film and score as they have come down to us — incorporating an opening set-piece that seems to me to show visuals and music working very well together: the music is absolutely integral to the shaping and pointing of the scene. (Remember that schoolboy, by the way: you’ll be seeing him again…)
If you noticed the moment in the title music where Bliss (or someone else…) halts the flow of the music so as to make space for a recorded ‘sound effect’, you might like to ponder how that particular noise would have struck audiences in early 1936 — a time when the Spanish Civil War had not yet begun, and the mass aerial bombing of civilian centres was still unknown in Europe. Would ordinary people have considered such a threatening noise realistic — or just a piece of film fantasy? Would it have struck a very uneasy chord with those who were veterans of WW1? I don’t have an answer; but perhaps you do.
Here’s the next clip — in which this element of the plot moves forward somewhat. (Note to Norman Wisdom fans: yes, that is Mr Grimsdale!)
Again, I don’t want to get in the way with too many words of my own; but did you notice how the running accompaniment to the march music actually moves in an implied triple time — with groups of six descending quavers heard against the four-in-a-bar of the material above it? You can actually count ‘threes’ across the music for quite a while before eventually we hear the whole piece move into triple time for that 3/4 pounding! Also: did you notice how Bliss uses the sound of side drums to introduce a hint of the motorcycle engines into his score? And isn’t it an astute move by the film-makers to maximise the ‘documentary’ reality of the succeeding section — with its official announcement partly inaudible! — by keeping that segment music-free?
Here’s the next step in the development of this thread in the story:
And at this point there are several things I want to say. First, that clip contains what is without a doubt the most unsparing depiction of civilian slaughter I’ve ever seen from that date. I’m not any kind of expert on old films, but I watch them whenever I can, and I don’t know of anything from the 1920s or ’30s that’s more powerfully truthful than this. It makes Eisenstein look like a cartoon. (Mind you, so does a cartoon.) And while the combat scenes in the old All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Lewis Milestone; 1930) contain harrowing moments, the fact is that the violence we see there is between fighting men, not directed at civilians of both sexes and all ages from aeroplanes four or five miles above. (I am aware, of course, that a complicating factor when comparing early filmic depictions of war is the impact that censorship and repeated cutting have had on the completeness of the content: it is a rare thing indeed for us to be able to see the film that was originally made, or was meant to be.)
Secondly, having mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front, I probably ought to point out that there are one or two moments when Things to Come seems to be making pretty explicit reference to it. Here, for example, we may be getting an appropriation of the earlier film’s famous left-to-right tracking shot in which we see the German machine-gunners mow down the attacking infantry. (See the relevant extract by clicking here: you’ll spot the bits I mean.) And it’s a meaningful appropriation too: by the late 1930s, the ‘front line’ had indeed left the battlefield and moved into ‘Everytown’. In fact, when it comes to clearly defining the relocated territory on which this new brand of war will be fought, Menzies ‘brings it home’ in a rather clever way: note what was the first building to be hit!
Thirdly, there’s the music itself — and, in particular, the sequence of keys we’ve been hearing. I don’t deny that the music contains a lot of sequential writing and tonal fluidity; but some interesting fixed points can be discerned. Whether or not you and I are meant to care, the opening Westminster chimes present us with the sound of F major (clip 1). When the ‘definitive’ march music arrives (clip 2), it is in F minor: we’ve lost the ‘major’. When we hear it again with a different sequel (clip 3, first entry), it starts in that F minor; ends with those loud repeated F’s as the guns prepare to fire — and is followed by a long stretch in which the principal pitched sound is the endlessly sustained F in the noise of the bombers: now we’ve even lost the ‘minor’!
And it isn’t only F that’s treated this way. When, after the fluid and chromatic title music, we arrive at 1940, Christmas, Everytown, and toy soldiers (clip 1), we find ourself in the brightly textured and emphatic D major (‘Born is the Ki-ing of I-is-ra-el…’, etc) that is the first of the scene’s several keys. By the time the massed aerial force arrives (clip 3, second entry), however, all we’ve got — in the noise of this new fleet of bombers — is a menacing low D: once again, what was originally a bright major key has been stripped down to a single sound, and not a nice one either.
Just one more clip before we finish:
And just a few brief comments in appreciation. First, Bliss is once again using his drummers to provide what qualify as sound effects: here they are imitating the noise of rifles and machine guns. (It’s probably worth mentioning that Bliss knew perfectly well what guns sounded like: he had fought in WW1, and been wounded twice, as well as gassed.)
Second, if your ears were paying proper attention, you’ll have heard something subtle but significant at the point where the ‘dissolve’ makes the soldier’s corpse on the barbed wire give way to the scraps of uniform. Since the film-makers either chose or were required to show nothing of the body between those two points in time, there was no hint of the skeleton to which it would eventually have been reduced. Except that there was, of course: Bliss adds a few quiet notes on the xylophone (or the marimba) — to create a sonic evocation of the skeletal that actually draws upon a tradition that extends at least as far back as Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre of 1874.
Thirdly, just look at how carefully someone has thought about the ‘Public Information’ leaflet we see blown into a bush: the lettering is drawn from a variety of fonts — to create the impression of ‘whatever’s left’ type being used in a world reduced to rubble…
All in all, this score is a terrific piece of work which greatly enhances a film that has many important things to say and constitutes an impressive achievement (even if its later stages do sometimes appear a bit dated and even weirdly incoherent). I have a few grumbles about what was done in (or to) the music at a couple of junctures; but who cares about those? You’re far better off ignoring me altogether and exploring the March in the version Bliss put together for the Suite…
…Which piece I hereby present in the (slightly modified) form I first heard, on a tape I bought in John Menzies(!) all the way back in 1978 (I probably still have that old cassette somewhere…): yes, Bliss’s March from ‘Things to Come’ is a work I have known and loved my entire musical life — thanks to Geoff Love And His Orchestra…
Here’s the track in question. Enjoy!
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