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Hollywood Quarterly (1950) - Film Music of the Quarter




Film Music of the Quarter


LAWRENCE MORTON is an arranger and composer of music for both film and radio. This is the eighth in his series of reviews of film music which was begun in Volume III of the Hollywood Quarterly.

IN THE quarter's crop of films, the best opportunities for music were offered by the westerns with their beautiful scenic shots, their blunt drama, their violence, and their forthright, unsubtle characterizations. Two of the plums of the crop, Broken Arrow and The Furies, went respectively to Hugo Friedhofer and Franz Waxman. It was interesting to hear these two scores on a double bill, to contrast Friedhofer's quiet, confident power with Waxman's extrovert vigor and impulsiveness, and to notice how Friedhofer brought a human quality to a somewhat stilted script and depth to a technicolored but still two-dimensional screen, while Waxman brought a defining color and brilliance to events and to characters which were so conventionally portrayed by all the actors, except Walter Huston, that not even technicolor could have separated them from the landscape.

I thought it typical of Friedhofer that he should have used the tinkling sounds of harp and celeste to evoke the other-worldly, mystical atmosphere of the young heroine's observance of an Apache religious rite; and equally typical of Waxman that he should have used approximately the same tinkling sounds to evoke his heroine's delight in the gift of a diamond necklace. Friedhofer seems to get inside a film, so to speak, to take part in its events, and then retire into his study where, after tranquil recollection, he puts down on paper what it felt like to be a participant. His approach to films is contemplative and poetic. Characteristically, the finest sequence in the present score is the simple wedding music — an English horn solo followed by a duet for flutes and a reprise of the horn melody, accompanied by widely spaced kettledrum beats. "Beautiful" is the adjective for music like this.

Waxman, on the other hand, seems to set his writing table in the center of the stage, where he observes characters and events at very close range, and then composes his score on the spot with all the sound and fury taking place around him. His approach to films is reportorial, and his reporting is detailed, realistic, full of urgent and immediate passion. Characteristically, the best sequences in The Furies are those which use the materials of the title music — the bold trumpet tune built on juxtaposed triads, the heavy um-pah rhythm, and the telegraph-beat ostinato. This is all muscular music and it can properly be described as exciting.

These two approaches to film scoring are mutually exclusive though equally 'valid. Their results differ vastly from every esthetic and stylistic viewpoint. It would be an illuminating experiment in musical dramaturgy to have these two composers exchange assignments, each to write a new score for the other's film.

In both films the least satisfactory musical sequences were those for the love scenes. Friedhofer, after his beautiful wedding music, lapsed into a passionate strain for high strings, and Waxman, after an expressive silence for the first embrace of his lovers, lapsed into a typical love theme. I suspect that these lapses into the industrially correct representations of passion arose less out of inner conviction than out of obligation to placate front offices where the fictions about love music are fiercely maintained on the grounds that the primary function of love is to produce pop-tunes useful to the exploitation of motion pictures. I would like to regard it as symptomatic that Hollywood's best composers have exhausted the primary sources of erotic expressiveness-Wagner, Puccini, and Berlin. And I would suggest that they now go digging for ideas in, say, Mozart's operas and Stravinsky's Story of a Soldier.

Melodramas run second to westerns in musical opportunities. Friedhofer's score for Edge of Doom was short, but the tragedy and gloom of the film were forecast in the heavy E-flat minor chords of the main title. Waxman's Night and the City played eloquently with dissonances and silences and, like The Furies, it had many open spaces for music. But neither of these scores has earned Waxman the applause that he has been receiving for Sunset Boulevard, although they are far more satisfying musically. Again, Sunset Boulevard has a brilliant, frenetic main title, this time combining the racy jazz elements of syncopated brass chords and piano "licks," the excitement of "hurry" music (again the telegraph-beat ostinato in the strings), and a dramatic crescendo of climbing sixths. Altogether there is probably an hour of music, but most of it is played under narration or dialogue. From this barely audible level of existence it emerges, at the end of each narrative speech, into a fullness of sound which it enjoys for a life span approximately equal to that of the radio "bridge," the function of which it also performs. The plain fact is that the script of Sunset Boulevard, with its use of both narration and dialogue, and its realization through the camera, is so complete as to leave music not much to do. And as Messrs. Brackett and Wilder tell us, in one of the speeches of their hero (a screen writer), they are resentful of scoring that obliterates dialogue. They are quite right. It remains for them to take the next logical step, which is neither to eliminate the scoring altogether as Alfred Hitchcock would like to do, nor to dub it into inaudibility, but to allow it to perform functions not already performed by script, camera, and cutting. There is not much point, for instance, in having Waxman tell us that a mysterious atmosphere pervades Gloria Swanson's run-down house. We have already learned that through the eyes of the camera and the words of Bill Holden. But when Waxman tells us something about the mistress of the house that we don't already know, which he does with a theme in an attenuated tango rhythm, then he should be allowed to make his point with full voice so that we will be able to follow the development of the tango motif through all the stages that lead to the denouement in the final Salome scene, where the motif at last reaches its apotheosis.

This is the kind of film, in short, where music is needed principally for what Virgil Thomson has called its luxury valueexcept in passages like the main title, the beauty treatment montage with its brilliant solo violin runs, the "welcome back" scene on DeMille's sound stage, and the Salome scene. Elsewhere, Waxman's invention and skill have been starved by a diet of low decibel content. One would like to ask producers why they demand the presence of music and then deny themselves its greatest benefits. But perhaps the question is not really necessary, for in a recent radio interview with Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock revealed a pathetic lack of understanding of what music is and does. And obviously his shortcomings are typical of the producer/director mind even though they are not universal.

George Antheil's score for In a Lonely Place suffers from the same kind of malnutrition, and it demonstrates once again that composers are not likely to find a full use of their talents until scores are planned well in advance of shooting. Antheil had an attractive idea for this score — the symphonic development of a waltzlike theme. It had a plushy-vulgar quality that suited the story admirably, and it modulated from key to key as frequently as Humphrey Bogart's moods, but unfortunately it had little opportunity to make a real dramatic point. Considering this kind of frustration, so frequently visited upon Hollywood composers, would it not be better for them to resign themselves to the performance of the trivial, decorative, but still charming functions with which Malcolm Arnold and Henri Sauget contented themselves in Eyewitness and The Scandals of Clochemerle?