Breathing happens naturally. That’s one bit of good news we have as humans; a solitary effort in life we don’t have to add to our endless list of things to remember. And until we reminded you of it, you had forgotten all about breathing — and now you’re counting your breaths, aren’t you? Good, that’s the effect we were going for. Sometimes we neglect details in the bigger picture and ignore their significance. Classic films possess essential accessories that sink into our subconscious, just as breathing does.
One of these dirty little secrets has been hiding under your nose (or in your ears, rather) the entire time. Elusive stacatto from a string section embodies mystery, the world’s tiniest violin symbolises sadness, and boisterous brass sections with timpani drums cause us to shout profanities at the ignorant girl who dismisses the slasher in the mirror behind her. Film scores play a role identifying directly to your senses; they demand nothing and everything at the same time.
Probably the best way to recognise a score’s importance is to imagine films without music to carry the plot along; primarily “epics” of classic film. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) relied heavily on landscape cinematography to place its audience in sweat filled head wraps of Bedouins among the sweeping sands of the Nefud desert. Three hours and forty-seven minutes later, its audience witnessed one of the most captivating musical scores to grace moving pictures. But, it’s safe to say without the marriage of Maurice Jarre’s composition to the Jordan desert (where the picture was filmed), the journey of T.E. Lawrence onscreen would attract a flock of buzzards.
Visualise the O’Hara plantation of Gone with the Wind (1939) without “Tara’s Theme”. Impossible, right? Certain compositions earn immortality and acknowledgement parallel to the acting performances and direction. Max Steiner’s scoring of Margaret Mitchell’s epic exemplifies an unforgettable entente. Musical reflections filter throughout the film and harmonise Katie Scarlett O’Hara’s passage in life. For instance, as “Scarlett Prepares for the Barbecue”, Mammy jounces and squeezes all eighteen inches of Scarlett’s waist into a corset. Later in the film, post-pregnancy, the same jovial notes accompany her new waistline of “Twenty Inches!”.
Modern film scores appear less and less as soundtracks with popular “music” fill the track listings. However, if you see a Tim Burton film in the works, it’s almost guaranteed a recognisable Danny Elfman score will follow. The Golden Era had its celebrated composers as well, each possessing his own style.
Max Steiner, referred to as “the father of film music”, churned out over 250 film scores in his career — containing Hollywood’s greatest film score achievement of embracing atmosphere and pace through music in King Kong (1933). He developed a permanent and uplifted name in Hollywood film score history, even up against Bette Davis’ infamous complaint surrounding Mr. Steiner’s score to Dark Victory (1939) assisting her staircase ascent to an untimely death.
Elmer Bernstein, an American composer, gained the industry’s praise with hundreds of scores — including “greats” such as The Magnificent Seven (1960)(article), The Ten Commandments (1956), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Alex North introduced the first jazzy film score accompanying the raunch and depth of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
Franz Waxman interjected deception in his scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) , Suspicion (1941), and The Paradine Case (1947), while Bernard Herrmann prototyped Psycho’s “The Knife” as a definitive sound of murder–not to mention his musical contributions to Citizen Kane (1941), North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), and Taxi Driver (1976).
Our list of composers extend longer than you are willing to read, but their contribution to the films we love extend much farther than we realise. Film scores bring moving pictures to life in a downright magical way, and sometimes they serve as reminiscent reminders to revisit favourite films when they appear away from their normal onscreen setting (via iTunes, radio, etc.). It sounds like we’re wagging the nagging finger, “count your blessings” but really, we accept the three fingers pointing back at us. Many essential elements of classic film are taken for granted and film scores, thankfully, are lower on that list. Just remember, you would suffocate without oxygen, and classic films would suffer, too, without these timeless compositions.
Hilary is a film student in Canada and devotes a large percentage of her time to classic film research and co-hosting/editing a podcast called The Scarlett Olive. For more information, be sure to visit her website www.thescarlettolive.com.