Friday Film (1)

https://media.giphy.com/media/o0vwzuFwCGAFO/giphy.gifA new departure, this — suggested by a friend and loyal reader, probably in response to my having recently said (more than once!) that I am currently very short of free time and not often able to put together the kind of chewy 1,300-word pieces that I’d prefer to be uploading every couple of days. ‘Couldn’t you bash out a series of quick, short posts on film or TV music?’, she said. ‘Posts that come out regularly (like, once a week) so people can have new ideas about things to investigate…?’

Well, I suppose I could.  There’s no shortage at all of thoughts floating around in my head concerning interesting (and other) uses of music in movies and TV programmes — and, in the case of many of these thoughts, a simple juxtaposition of video clips would get a worthwhile point made without much need for involved verbal discussion. So let me start putting together a little mental list of ‘music and vision’ topics that will progress in a sensible direction (to some extent, at least) — and then I’ll see if I can’t get one film-musical posting uploaded every Friday between now and the end of the year. Naturally, I’ll keep the other postings coming as best I can — ‘as and when’ I get the kind of free time that allows it…

So what about this posting, the first in the series?

Well, why don’t we start with a curious film-musical detail from more than 80 years ago — the 1930s, in other words — when music was still tentatively making its way into the new ‘sound film’, and various approaches were being tried out by all the different Hollywood studios…?

Folks who don’t carry a timeline of film-technological innovation in their heads may like to be reminded that, back then, it had been as recently as October 1927 that audiences were first astounded by the massive hit that was Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer — with its unprecedented combination of new-fangled synchronised sound, old-fashioned intertitles, and long-familiar, visceral racism. Here, by way of preparation, is the original 1927 trailer — which for many millions of people will have been the first time an image on the screen was heard to speak out loud (note how the speaker very consciously functionalises the cliche of an opening cough!)…

The movie itself I want to illustrate with two clips — first of all, because I’ve found that the film’s ‘hybrid’ nature isn’t sufficiently appreciated by people who’ve never actually sat through its gear-crashing changes to and from the new filmic language; secondly, because I want to give every reader the opportunity to feel as staggered as I am by the appalling ‘blackface’ music-hall tradition; and, thirdly, because one of the clips greedily avails itself of some distinctly inappropriate Tchaikovsky — and we’ll be coming back to that particular practice in a few minutes…

All right: that’s a bit of necessary — or, at any rate, desirable — cultural and technological context. Next, as a piece of sheer musical marvellousness not devoid of contextual relevance, I present a single number from a Tchaikovsky ballet score first performed in 1877…

And at this point, we’re ready to roll…

Here’s a video of the 1931 release Dracula, made by Universal Studios. What I want to refer you to on this occasion is merely the title music at the very opening — but I’ve not coded that as an extract because I’m hoping that all those readers who’ve never seen the whole film will come back and watch it later (it is the weekend, after all…). As for what happens in that title music, I know that — at this point! — I needn’t say anything about it (apart from providing the historical information that the uncredited musician who produced this particular abbreviation seems to have been Heinz Roemheld [1901-85]).

Now, let’s move forward to Universal’s 1932 release Murders in the Rue Morgue. I don’t need to say a thing about this title music either — as you’ll hear… (Once again: do watch the whole movie sometime!)

And now Universal’s The Mummy, released 10 months later. (Incidentally, I once lived in a flat whose landlord — a famous retired academic who was born in 1923 — popped round one day in 2006 while I was watching this film … and told me that he actually remembered the experience of being taken to see it by his nanny when it was first released in the UK…)

And now the opening (only: it’s all I can find) of Universal’s Secret of The Blue Room, from 1933…

Now, having given everyone the chance to watch those four openings, I want to say three things. The first is that we need to rein in that tendency we all have to jump to congenial conclusions based on a tiny number of data-points. For example, we shouldn’t assume that the reappearances of this butchered Tchaikovsky fragment show it to have been ‘the studio’s signature tune’ or suchlike — because if you hunt about you’ll find that there are major Universal releases from this same period — Frankenstein, for example — that don’t use it. (Something of the real story about how this music came to be used and re-used across four films can perhaps be divined from the interesting online forum here).

Secondly, there is the fact that what this little handful of examples seems to indicate is that in the period 1931-33 the commercial world’s leading film makers felt under no particular obligation to do much at all with title music — either in terms of creating an individualised opening statement unique to that particular film, or as a means of taking control of some part of the drama’s essential expressive territory in advance of the narrative action. We do see a glimmer of such a thing in The Mummy, of course — in the form of that short musical sequel whose ‘exotic’ augmented seconds help to reinforce our visual impression that the opening scene is located ‘outside’ the Western cultural, geographical and even religious-spiritual orbit — but that’s as much as we get at that point. (I can also cite Frankenstein, by the way: it has ‘its own’ opening music.)

And, thirdly, if you watch all of these films, you will discover that, once the ‘film proper’ begins, the amount of music we hear as so-called ‘background score’ may be little or nothing: it can even be the case — as in Dracula, as well as (yet again!) Frankenstein — that not until the closing credits start to roll do we once again hear any musical sound that isn’t intrinsic to the depicted action and mise en scène. (Again, The Mummy is somewhat different — not least in the way it reaches for a notable quantity of ‘extrinsic’ music when the film switches to the mute and anachronistically shot action in the ‘flashback’: for [possibly incorrect] details see here.)

Well, with all of that clarified, we can now have a quick look at the surpassingly weird piece of cinema that is Universal’s The Black Cat (1934)…

Yes, that title music does contain odd recompositions of material lifted from Liszt’s Piano Sonata and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fantasy Overture’ Romeo and Juliet — but keep listening: once the film itself is under way, ‘background music’ erupts over and over again — and to the extent that only ten or eleven minutes in total are free of it. In other words, even though this score does contain — in the ‘old’ silent-film manner! — tons of material derived from several different ‘classical’ composers (you’ll hear shameless thievings from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dukas, Palestrina, Schubert and Schumann, as well as more from Liszt and Tchaikovsky), its approach to scoring shows that between 1933 and 1934 Universal’s ‘sound films’ made a transition from what may strike us today as a rather stilted and primitive use of music, to a manner of employment which in its copiousness and fluidity makes us feel it to be essentially modern. (That is not a positive evaluation, by the way.)

What was it that brought about such a development? Well, I daresay that there was more than one contributory factor (there always is!) — but one of the more important was undoubtedly something that can be conveyed using only two words: King Kong.

I’ll have something to point out about that film and its music next week (unless everyone writes in to say that this idea of a weekly film-related posting strikes them as thoroughly awful and not worth bothering with); right now, though, I want to end with a long clip that ought to lighten the horror-laden mood somewhat — while still not letting go of Tchaikovsky…

To be honest, I’ve spent ages, over the last year or so, searching for an excuse to put this extract in a posting — and finally I’ve found one! The segment is 18 minutes long — and it’s from a film I’ve loved ever since I saw it as a young boy — I think at one of those ‘Saturday matinee’ programmes that used to be put on specifically for kids at ABC cinemas. We can come back and talk about it and its music later, if anyone feels like it…

That’s all, folks…

MD

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