Friday Film (84)

When I was a nipper, my childhood home contained a fair few records of popular music from the 1950s. And it was via one of these that I believe I first heard the voice of the American ‘country music’ singer Tex Ritter (1905-74).

The song I remember most clearly is the one he recorded for use as the opening music of the 1952 film High Noon —  which I don’t think I’d seen, back then, even though my dad was a big fan of ‘westerns’ and there seemed to be a lot of them on TV.

Just to make sure we’re all ‘on the same page’ right from the start, here’s the track I’m thinking of (complete with contemporary movie poster)…

Hearing this again after a gap of, literally, decades, I find myself experiencing a mixture of old and new impressions; let me reveal some of them before we get to the film clips…

As it happens, the ‘adult me’ is not at all impressed with Tex Ritter’s singing. However, not being ‘a critic’, either professionally or psychologically, I have no difficulty at all summoning up sufficient humility and realism to acknowledge that it isn’t really people like me who Mr Ritter is addressing. (See? Leave your narcissism on a peg by the door, and everything comes out right.)

I also find myself a little curious to know why a track produced in 1952 should have a recorded sound that is so remarkably poor: the early 1950s are not exactly gramophonic prehistory, are they? Maybe a country music historian will let us know why it is that a big star’s title song for a big budget movie sounds so much like it was recorded in a big bathroom…

Thinking back, I can clearly remember that I didn’t rate the song’s melodic invention at all highly, and didn’t ever feel much like singing or humming along with it. What’s more — and rather remarkably, given how often I must have heard this ultra-famous tune! — I suddenly realised, as I ‘clicked’ to start the video, that I couldn’t even remember how its second phrase went… And now I see why: with access to words and concepts that I simply didn’t possess as a musically sensitive but completely untutored seven-year-old, I can tell that a chunk of implied music — one whole 2/2 beat — has been distortingly snipped out of the tune’s sixth bar, with the accompanying parts also shortening the bar to suit. Now, I don’t think there’s anyone alive who loves a good structural compression more than I do — and ‘a good structural compression’ is precisely what this isn’t. To me, in fact, it sounds very much like the kind of senseless alteration that a performer makes because he can and no-one can stop him; and my suspicion that this dislocating snippage took place in the bathroom, I mean the recording studio, rather than in the composer’s heart and brain is, I think, confirmed by the fact — as I now discover! — that our disruptive, non-functional abbreviation is not found in the printed music

With this music before us, we can in fact diagnose the kind of performing malpractice to which I eventually gave the name ‘Buskers’ Disease’ — and which can be observed to occur in two forms. The first is what tends to happen when a bad busker reaches a point in a tune when it seems that ‘nothing is happening’; i.e. a notated rest. He or she will then simply jump to the next actual note and carry on as if nothing hadn’t happened. The second variety is what occurs when our bad busker thinks that not very much is happening; i.e. a long note. At some point within it, he or she will then simply cease paying attention to the underlying musical metre and jump forward to the point where the next note happens to begin…

And it is of course the second of these two varieties that we find in Ritter’s recording. He actually bottles out of two long notes, each of which involves a syncopation: the minim gets shortened to a crotchet, and the upbeating crotchet tied to a semibreve is reduced to a downbeating semibreve. Now, I ought to say right away that I’m not all that overwhelmed by the written original either; but in spreading a ‘short line’ — a mere six syllables — across a maintained ‘four bar’ phrase length it does at least give the listener time to absorb the significance of the ‘wedding day’ aspect within the emerging situation. Whereas what Ritter’s version gives us is a feeling of confusing, distracting ‘rush’ that comes from nowhere — and goes straight back again: not only do the succeeding related phrases retain their regular length, but when the middle section (with all its repeated notes) is over and we return to our opening tune, a neat piece of compositional ‘foreshortening’ sees to it that the opening segment is not reprised. Ritter’s alteration, in short, just makes a mess.

It is, I think, instructive to compare this recording with the one sung by Frankie Laine — which came out the same year (indeed, before the film was released), and was made with composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s direct involvement, partly as an attempt (we gather) to pre-popularise a film that the studio viewed as a disastrous flop waiting to happen. What we find in this version is that background metre and phrase length are preserved — while foreground rhythm is sacrificed: Laine, too, bottles out of the long notes and their syncopations; but at least he puts rests in to fill the gaps…

For my next observations, both ancient and modern, we need to move on to a clip of the film’s opening. (Yes, that really is Lee Van Cleef in his late twenties…)

You see, what I think becomes even more apparent when this ‘title song’ is experienced in its allotted cinematic context is how astoundingly tautological it is: over and over again, the lyrics feed us gobbets of plot-specific information whose exposition would properly be the task of the actual drama as it unfolds in, as it were, ‘reel time’. Now, I admit that there isn’t going to be much happening in a 1952 western that most of the audience hadn’t seen a hundred times before; but, even so, I’m bothered that no-one in charge of this project seems to have been overly concerned at the extent to which the film’s sung opening pleonastically betrays — and in more senses than one — the film’s screenwriting. For it seems to me that a remarkable amount of actual ‘spoiler’ is contained in that song: not only are we told the point of the film’s title, but even the plot’s two most fundamental dramatic conflicts — that between the hero and his would-be killer, and between the hero’s love for his wife and whatever it is that threatens to take her from him — are both given away ‘for free’.

On top of which, there is the question of dramatic ethics. People will think my allusion to ‘ethics’ here is silly; but it is actually the case that a fictional dramatic villain can only ‘own’ that role on the basis of things that are said and done within the world of the drama: it simply is not aesthetically legitimate for a ‘title song’ to convict someone of the deepest villainy before he or she has even showed up, dramaturgically speaking. Or, if it is legitimate, it is so only on the level of mere melodrama, where our ‘characters’ are simple Charles Dickens ‘Punch and Judy’ cut-outs with pre-set natures. (And, of course, in these very pages I have more than  once accused ‘Hollywood’ of standing closer to melodrama than to drama proper.)

Obviously, as a little seven-year-old kid who’d never even seen the film, I wasn’t aware of any of these problems; but, as a precocious little tick who, by then, had heard and responded to an awful lot of popular songs, I was aware of at least one oddity. I was too young to have coined the term ‘obtrusively superfluous nominative specificity’ (I didn’t come up with that until I was nine…); but it certainly struck me as weird that ‘a song’ should suddenly throw up the name of one ‘Frank Miller’ (who he?) — and, what is more, do so just in time to set up ‘that deadly killer’ as a rhyme: since literally any name at all can be invented and inserted into a song or poem to make possible a desired rhyme, the exercise in apparent arbitrariness represented by the ultra-convenient arrival of a ‘Frank Miller’ has nothing but a weakening effect on the song qua song.

Nor is this our title song’s only regrettably questionable use of rhyme. I’ve never quite got over the way the lyricist — apparently Ned Washington (1901-76) — happily coughed up ‘that promise when we wed‘ to go with ‘shoot Frank Miller dead‘ in a song which is being sung by a musical representative of the uxorious husband. (“Hey, darling: listen to this! I’ve made our marriage vows rhyme with an act of murderous violence! Isn’t that great?“)

[[Insert: And at this point, my pal Hugh — devoted reader and passionate film-music historian that he is! — will be unable to contain himself: ‘The Frankie Laine version’s words are different!‘, he’ll be yelling at his screen. As indeed they are: have another listen, if you didn’t notice first time, and observe how many of my preceding analytic condemnations are neatly circumvented in this re-writing; i.e. note the extent to which the song is de-particularised. Yes, this might have been done for ‘copyright reasons’ (‘Frank Miller’ as corporate property, and so on); no, that doesn’t make the slightest difference aesthetically: the song is vastly improved — expressively strengthened — by the changes.]]

If you want to know what I would have done for the film itself — and you don’t; but I don’t care — I would have produced a title song that was entirely a presentation and exploration in abstract, de-personalised terms of the wife’s devout Quaker pacifism: rather than ‘telling you the plot’, such a song would be taking an inevitably ‘undramatic’ element of the story and making it a central spar of the overall musico-dramatic structure well before it moved from pre-dramatic latency into ‘official’ and ’embodied’ dramatic view. Properly written, such a song might even have provided a Leitmotiv or two to attach to the wife’s thoughts, words and deeds in a setting where the 22-year-old Grace Kelly’s distracting youth and beauty will tend to work against her part’s strictly dramatic ‘weight’.

But what do I know. As an old girlfriend said to me in 2006 — as we came out of some movie that she’d enjoyed and I hadn’t — “If you really knew anything about drama, you’d be writing films instead of talking about them, and you wouldn’t be in the mess you’re in.” That told me, eh?

Well, since the film’s actual opening song isn’t about pacifism and doesn’t seed the soundtrack with material for ‘Quaker wife’ Leitmotivs, what do we get on the soundtrack?

Tragically, what we get on the soundtrack is … Well, have a listen…

Yes, it’s true: just as, over and over again, the verbal contents of the title song tell us what we are about to see dramatically enacted in the film, so do the musical contents of the film continually remind us of what was heard in the title song

What on earth was everyone thinking…?!?

Personally, I do like the sound of that piano in the orchestra; and I acknowledge that Tiomkin does find a lot of ways of keeping things going musically while still reacting gesturally to various on-screen events. Apart from that, though, I declare myself horrified by a display of literal motivic and thematic monomania so extreme and unrelenting that one doesn’t even like to say that the original title song ‘comes back at the very end’: it’s hardly ever been away

What do you think…?


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