I’m glad that so many people were pleased to see the clips from Captain Blood within the previous posting in this little series: the extent to which the arrival of Erich Korngold transformed the nature of Hollywood’s film music is — to me at least! — so stunning that I’m always eager to share clips that foreground his skill.
Which, of course, my previous posting didn’t really: the majority of the music in the Captain Blood fight scene wasn’t actually by Korngold at all — and even the beefed-up orchestration of those borrowed bits of Liszt was probably carried out by his studio team, rather than by the great and busy man himself. So let me put this right in today’s posting.
What I’m going to do here is facilitate something that, in ‘normal’ artistic circumstances, I try to discourage: comparison. (This probably isn’t the place to go into a lot of detail; but as far as I can see, the art-work is there to put something across — and the audience is there to ‘get it’, full stop. Therefore, ‘comparison’ between art-works is — like comparison between telephone messages! — not something for which any spontaneous need exists … and, where carried out, is likely to be as destructive (in terms of inhibited reception) as it previously seemed seductive to practitioner and recipient-victim alike. Let’s leave it there for now.)
What I think makes comparison meaningful where the following two clips are concerned is — very simply! — the fact that they both have such similar aims, realised by such similar means, over such similar time-scales, and with the employment of so many identical conventions. We have the same actors; the same director; the same studio; the same function within the ‘local’ filmic structure, and similar (not identical) significance within the total structure. Yes, there are significant differences: in the second clip, Flynn is no longer an unseasoned leading man, intermittently out-of-his-depth; sound film has graduated to embrace colour and the possibilities it offers; both Flynn and Rathbone have had years of additional fencing lessons; director Curtiz now has a highly controllable interior set to work with — and, most significantly of all, Korngold wrote all of the music himself…
Here are the two clips. Enjoy, and — for once! — compare with a clear conscience as, at the same time, you drink in the expressive substance…
From Captain Blood, released 1935:
From The Adventures of Robin Hood, released 1938:
Having provided those two clips, there’s something I want to say about the second one. But since it’s a submission that won’t make adequate sense unless the reader has listened — really listened — to everything Korngold does in that sequence, I’ll leave it until next Friday. In the meantime, feel free to play this second clip a few more times. I doubt you’ll get sick of it: I myself have one of the world’s lowest boredom thresholds, and I’ve never tired of this sequence, even though I must have seen it — and the entire film! — fifty times or more.
Let me end with two indispensable stories from my own life, both of which I promise I am reporting as accurately as memory allows. Here we go…
Years and years ago, I used to go out with a girl who was a competitive fencer of an impressively high standard. And I really mean it: there is (or, at any rate, was) some kind of numbered UK ranking based on the results of fencing contests up and down the country — and she was actually on it, somewhere in the middle. Now, when I discovered this, it was only a matter of time — I think about 11 seconds — before I said ‘You know, there’s a little sequence in an old film that I would love to show you…‘ And at the end of it — once evil Sir Guy had taken his astonishing plunge into well-deserved oblivion — I asked her what she made of all that screen sword-play. ‘It’s very good…‘ she said, in a rather slow and thoughtful way that even suggested a measure of surprise.
Here’s the second story — which, as it happens, comes from around the same time. I was speaking to a chap whose surname was Rathbone; and, me being me, I simply had to check whether he was any kind of relative of the marvellous old screen star. Not only did it turn out that he was, albeit distantly, but he also had what he said was a family anecdote about the sword fight in Robin Hood. Apparently Flynn and Rathbone were very competitive when it came to the speed with which they executed their intensely coached and carefully choreographed moves — and, at one point during filming, one of them got ahead of the other just enough to inflict a little thwack. A certain amount of ‘needle’ immediately entered the proceedings, and in the following takes, the two started to duel with a degree of angry intensity that became so obvious to the watching film crew that people moved forward in order to gently break things up. At which point the director gestured in a way that clearly meant ‘Leave them to it: we’re going to the end of this shot!‘ And that’s what they did. So, somewhere in the footage that made the magnificent ‘final cut’ there may even be a few seconds of a fight that was just a little more real than it was meant to be…
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