Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

With the invention of synchronized dialogue for film, a world was created. In 1929, Hollywoodland began to produce a wild string of thousands of films–something no one ever thought was possible–in a wide variety of genres and qualities. With the birth of the film microphone screenwriters could try out clever lines, and the world was baptized by Greta Garbo‘s thick alto in 1930: “Give me a viskey, ginger ale on the side…and don’t be stingy, baby” (Anna Christie).

With all of this excitement came some confusion: What do you do during the times when no one is speaking? Luckily, for Hollywoodland, a Broadway composer and conductor named Max Steiner arrived just in time—in 1929. Steiner is usually credited with being the first to figure out how and where to place music so that it would help to build a climax rather than just exist as a constant accompaniment or as filler during transitions. His place in film history was secured with his groundbreaking work for the outlandish extravaganza King Kong in 1933. The percussive and emotional score enlivens the strange plot with methods that influence filmmaking today. By combining his knowledge of late–19th century composers such as Wagner and the catchy, accessible styles of musical theater, Steiner created new ways of mingling themes for a film’s characters that have become scoring standards. Steiner’s master score for Gone With The Wind (1939) is considered by many to have set the standard for theme creation, specifically “Tara’s Theme.” Steiner composed over 90 individual pieces of music for the film, each time waiting for scenes to be completed so he could time his compositions perfectly to the action.

His placement and variation of “Tara’s Theme” throughout the film—sometimes accompanying wide panoramic shots and sometimes subjective close-ups—introduced a new technique into the art of filmmaking. Audiences now expected that an important character in an epic drama should have a theme to accompany them, and that the audience themselves deserved the theme, so they could have a souvenir to hum to themselves for years to come.

Studios knew that they also needed strong talent capable of bringing a true Broadway experience to the entire country. The uplifting silliness of the musical was extremely important during a time when most couldn’t spare a dime. Many stage musicals were adapted for Hollywood, a tradition that has continued for decades with varying degrees of success. Still other musicals were created specifically for Hollywood. While the very first talkie, Al Jolson‘s The Jazz Singer (1927), combined silent dialogue sequences and songs featuring real sound, the earliest integral film musical was Sunny Side Up (1929) scored by the Broadway hit songwriting team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson. DB&H created one other film musical, Just Imagine (1930), a bizarre science fiction comedy.

After one initial failed foray into the movies with Delicious in 1931, George Gershwin (1898-1937) was lured back to Hollywood in the final year of his short life to create a song and dance vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Shall We Dance (1937). He lived to write two more film musicals: A Damsel in Distress (1937) and The Goldwyn Follies (1938). Other Broadway luminaries who created musicals specifically for Hollywood at this time were Irving Berlin: Top Hat (1935), which was also for Astaire and Rogers, and the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart who wrote songs for the films Love Me Tonight (1932), Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), and the on-again, off-again production I Married an Angel (1933-38).

There was no chance of returning to live orchestras playing stock music now that audiences were used to high volumes of musicals, swashbucklers, and epics and craved more pictures with memorable intense scores that would lift them towards adventurous worlds filled with wise-cracking heroines and heroes. The new profession of film scoring was about to become an extremely demanding one indeed—a serious ambition not for the faint-hearted.

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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