I’ve been pondering several of the responses that came in following my initial posting about the 1936 sci-fi film Things to Come and its terrific score by the great Arthur Bliss. I’ve already sympathised with a reader who found the film a bit hard to watch; what I’d like to do here is reply to a couple of other people who had thoughts about what I wrote. Interestingly, two of them reacted to the same paragraph — in which I discussed the final clip in that initial posting.
The paragraph in question is this one:
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.
If you want to see that clip again, you can go here; otherwise, you can refresh your memory with the following three ‘stills’ that I’ve extracted from the sequence:
The message from my first respondent — one ‘C.P.’ (who I don’t think I know; though I could be wrong…) — raised the question of whether it might not have been a bit optimistic for Bliss to expect a general cinema audience of 1936 to be up-to-speed on a concert music tradition stretching back to 1874: how likely is it that people would have caught his fleeting reference?
And that seems to me to be a jolly interesting question. I can offer two rough-and-ready answers, as it happens — though it’s worth stressing that I’m not a proper ‘cultural historian’, and can only flounder around with my common sense the same as anyone else…
My first answer derives from what I found when I looked in the vast repository of cultural-historical information that is the old Radio Times: a quick ‘Genome’ search revealed that Danse Macabre itself was actually broadcast fairly frequently on the old ‘National Programme’ between 1932 and 1936. (Click on the panel to see a fuller listing — including a few ‘false positives’.)
From this I think we are able to conclude that an enthusiastic British radio listener of the time stood a fair chance of having heard Danse Macabre and its clattering xylophone at least once by 1936 — whether that listener was a stereotypical ‘housewife and mother’ at home during the day or a ‘working man’ who was out until the evening: as you’ll have seen, there were evening broadcasts of the piece as well as daytime ones. Of course, without good data about how many people were spending how much time listening to the radio back then, we are not in a position to know how widespread knowledge of Saint-Saëns’s terrific piece might actually have been…
But, of course, it wasn’t only through radio that people would have encountered our ‘xylophone <–> skeleton’ convention and had the association reinforced. There was also the cinema itself. I’ve not come across any actual feature films from the late 1920s and 30s that have skeletons in them — but there are quite a few well-known animated ‘shorts’ from the first decade of ‘sound film’ that do.
Have a look at this one: the famous early Disney ‘Skeleton Dance’, the first of the ‘Silly Symphonies’ (released 22 August 1929). I won’t describe it at all: you’ll have to watch and listen for anything that looks or sounds like a xylophone, marimba, or xylo-marimba of the period:
Here’s another cartoon from the same era — this time with a character who persists to this day (and is still in copyright, thanks to the stranglehold that corporate power has over law-making in today’s post-democratic, neo-feudal society). I have just one little thing to say about this cartoon (released 2 December 1929) — which is to draw attention to the moment of Hilarious Racist Humour where a terrified Mickey squeals “Mammy!” while being made to appear like a performer in ‘blackface’. My assumption is that this is a reference to the popular song “My Mammy” (music by Walter Donaldson; lyrics by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis), which featured in the pioneering sound film ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) starring Al Jolson. The joke, if you can call it that, would surely have been immediately understood by the cinema audience of just two years later.
And here’s another such cartoon, for your edification and amusement. This one was released on 1 August 1931. (Ooh, look: ‘blackface’ again…)
And here’s yet another. This one is ‘Spooks’ with Flip the Frog (released 21 December 1931). While you’re hunting for skeleton/xylophone pairings in this, you might also like to ask yourself whether the central character looks more like ‘man in blackface’ than he does ‘anthropomorphic tail-less amphibian’: yes, I’m beginning to think that there’s hardly anything in US society and culture that doesn’t have a vein of casual racism running through it…
And here’s another skeleton-packed cartoon, featuring that wretched mouse again (released 21 January 1933):
And here is my final example, from the era of colour (released 29 January 1937):
Well, I daresay you noted enough xylophonic activity in several of those shorts to be able to agree with me that the association between hammered wooden percussion instruments and all things posthumously ossiferous was certainly circulating in popular culture in the years up to 1936 — though, as you will also have noticed, it’s not an inevitable accompaniment, and wasn’t the only conceivable sonic counterpart to skeletal goings-on. In other words, Bliss’s meaning must surely have been pretty clear to his first audiences: he can’t really be said to have gone out on a limb, bony or otherwise, in colouring his film score with a moment of xylophone/marimba sound.
As for the survival of the convention into our own day, that brings me to the second of the two responses I mentioned. This one came from an internet buddy of mine who knows that I’ve seen and enjoyed many episodes of The Simpsons over the years. There must be hundreds of episodes that I’ve not seen, however — and the one to which he referred me is one of them.
What he sent me were a few lines from an episode called ‘Coming to Homerica’ (Season 20, Episode 21; first shown 12 Nov. 2009):
Homer Simpson: I share your xylophobia!
Lisa Simpson: No, Dad, you mean ‘xenophobia’. Xylophobia would be the fear of xylophones.
Homer Simpson: I am afraid of xylophones. It’s the music you hear when skeletons are dancing!
In short, the association is alive and well even today — and, apparently, so immediately comprehensible as to be usable as the basis for a purely verbal joke. Since The Simpsons has an audience of many hundreds of millions of people around the world, it would seem that Bliss’s little percussion gesture isn’t going to become incomprehensible any time soon!
I can’t finish, however, without allowing the pedant in me to point out that the Simpsons joke actually takes a liberty over its Greek. ‘Xylophobia’ would be ‘fear of wood’, would it not…? ξύλον (xylon) = “wood”; φόβος (phóbos) = “fear”…
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