Friday Film (3) attempts to assemble the set of film clips I need for the topic I was planning to explore at this point are proving pretty unsuccessful; so after wasting quite a few evenings on this, let me push that topic down the agenda a bit — and explore a different one that still connects with where we were in our previous two postings, here and here.

Among our original topics, you may remember, were two habits that the Hollywood of the early 1930s eventually outgrew: first, the re-use of musical material in different movies, principally in the opening ‘title music’ (since that might easily be the only music there was in a film before the end credits); secondly, sound film’s regressive return to the old ‘silent film’ habit of stealing slabs of classical music — at the historical stage when background music first began to colonise significant stretches of the movie proper. What I want to do here is explore a setting in which both of these habits managed to persist for a few years more…

Whether or not I have an unusually good musical memory, I don’t know (actually, that’s not true: I do know, and I’m just too modest to say…); but over many years I would watch old movies and be absolutely certain that I was hearing music that I’d heard in other old movies… The problem was, of course, that in the days before the growth of ‘film studies’ on the one hand, and the internet on the other, it could be exceedingly difficult to obtain even basic information about who did what for which film in which year. Today, however, it’s almost ridiculously easy to follow the threads I was only dimly aware of all those years ago.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s revisit the opening seconds of The Black Cat (1934)…


The Liscard ‘ABC’ — as we remember it!

I can’t quite remember when it was that I first saw that opening — but, whenever it was, I knew perfectly well that I’d heard the music in another context, ages earlier. In fact, as I now know, I’d heard it as a small boy attending the ‘Saturday Matinee’ screenings at the cinema in Liscard that I and my local friends used to go to as ‘ABC Minors‘ — and where, for the cost of just a few ‘new pennies’, we could enter a world of cartoons and films, fizzy drinks and sweets, and sudden eruptions of casual violence.

The ancient serial whose episode I remember witnessing on my first-ever visit (the serial came after the cartoons but before the big film) was the 1938 embarrassment Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. As I recall, it had my full attention — partly because I’d never seen anything quite so awful before, and partly because it was Peter Johnstone and not me who had just been punched by John Bingham in the toilets. The serial itself — whose abysmal production values were distressing to me even at the age of ten years — was directed by Ford Beebe and Robert Hill, and produced by nine-thirty in the morning. It also came from Universal Studios — which is, of course, the reason why it was able to begin with this music

Ignore, for the moment, that there’s a fragment of Liszt’s Piano Sonata (compl. 1853) in the middle of that … and also that some barbarian of sound-editing lengthened the piece by simply playing some of it twice: I want to move forward a few seconds to the ‘recap’ segment — a very important juncture in a serial, this, given that a kid might easily have missed the previous episode … either because he wasn’t in the cinema that Saturday, or because he was in the toilets, pressing tissue paper against a bleeding lip. Here’s that specific segment…

Now, back then I considered those string-puppet ‘spaceship’ effects so bad as to be punishable — nor has my opinion softened over the years! — but I thought that bit of music was brilliant. And literally decades passed before I chanced upon the excellent film for which it had originally been written…

You’ll have guessed what’s been happening: Universal has raided its own back-catalogue of soundtrack music for whatever free-to-use fragments will fit one or other stretch of this fifteen-part series. (Both of those pieces seem to be by Heinz Roemheld, by the way.)

Liszt in March 1886, four months before his death.

But let’s get back to Franz Liszt, the great Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer who was born in 1811 and died in 1886. People have for a long time been rather snooty about Liszt as a composer — and I never have been. At a very early stage in my discovery of the classical repertoire, I heard his ‘Faust Symphony‘ (Eine Faust-Sinfonie) on the radio — this must have been round about 1977 — and it has been an indispensable part of my musical life ever since. What’s more, if even Wagner was happy to pilfer ideas from Liszt (and he was!), then who is anyone else to carp about the quality of the musical thought…?

Anyway, a person sitting in the Liscard ABC who knew and loved their Liszt (and back then, of course, I didn’t) would have jumped out of their seat upon reaching this next bit of Flash Gordon’s gripping adventure…

You see, it so happens that this entire passage is a somewhat incompetently orchestrated (not to mention clumsily played and badly recorded) version of the following section of Liszt’s great Piano Sonata. Yes, really…

So far as I can remember, this orchestrated segment also comes from The Black Cat — but, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not have to wade through all that weirdness just in order to check. What I want to do instead is end with a statement followed by a question

The statement is this. Over and over again in these old movies I have encountered stretches of music taken from works by Liszt. Mazeppa, ‘Liebestraum No. 3′, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto No. 1, Les Preludes (God Almighty!, so many uses of Les Preludes!), various ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’, Prometheus the list (as it were) just goes on and on and on

And here’s my question. Why Liszt…?!?


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3 thoughts on “Friday Film (3)

  1. I can only speculate (of course) – but I wonder how many of the musical directors at the main studios were exiles (enforced or otherwise) from the old Austro-Hungarian empire? So long as the use, or reworking of pre-existing classical scores was in fashion (or an economic necessity) then it makes sense to use the composer(s) who remind(s) them of “home”. Plus it would be easy to obtain scores. And Liszt’s music offers plenty of possibilities. I wonder, in passing, if there is music by lesser composers lurking (perhaps even unknown to us today) in some of these scores as well?

    If the Holywood MDs had been French, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find Berlioz cropping up with some regularity…


  2. Interestingly enough, when Korngold was pressed for time when composing his landmark score to CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) because Warner Brothers suddenly moved the premiere date forward in order to make the film eligible for the Academy Awards, he turned to two of Liszt’s tone poems for the battle scenes (Prometheus and Mazeppa) and for that reason, insisted on the screen credit “Musical Arrangements by Erich Wolfgang Korngold” even though 90% of the score was his original music!


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