It may be hard for us today to imagine what moviegoers in the 1920s must have felt when they watched their first talkies in the cinemas. By now, there have been a number of movies describing just this peculiar sensation. But what the audience must have experienced when suddenly their movie stars uttered words could have created unforgettable moments; now think what they felt when they heard them sing. When the talkies made song composers out of former story writers and promoted not only the respective actors but helped boosting the sale of sheet music simultaneously. Now audience left the cinemas not just discussing the movie, but whistling its theme.
The new variation of having a famous singer or a star from Broadway perform in a movie for a few years – actually those at the center of Katherine Spring’s study – put the singing (and the songs) in the foreground.
Particularly in the years 1929 – 1930 most movies had songs as “additional actor,” often resulting in a plot that had little consistency and was held together by a musical theme, its variations, repetition and other songs; instead of following a plot from beginning to end, as the short tradition of American movies had so far.
A high number of movies from that time were, in fact, remakes of Broadway shows; just much cheaper.
Furthermore, a number of production mergers appeared. With the advent of talkies the cinemas no longer had to hire musicians for ambiance or sound effects, and neither had there to be whole libraries of sheet music to be acquired. Additionally for presenting songs in movies the studios now suddenly had to pay fees and royalties. So the studios in turn affiliated themselves with music publishing companies to avoid those payments. This was the beginning of huge cooperations that not only had a strong impact of music publishing and the role of music in popular culture, but would forever alter the way movies were made, directed and consumed.
So far, the big music publishing firms were located in New York, the center of US music publishing. But with the advent of talkies several songwriters left the East Coast and settled in Los Angels, successfully challenging New York’s role as music capital of the country. Los Angeles became the new media and film center and now could serve neighboring Hollywood with songs, tunes, sound effects and what later became known as “OST,” original soundtrack recording.
Katherine Spring, Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, concentrates on songs and film music of “non-musical” films, meaning motion pictures that are neither musical comedies, nor employ musical storytelling (once spoken once sung and so forth.)
She investigates Westerns, comedies, prison drama and adventure pictures. Non-musical films still leave a huge selection of films up for research, even if non-musical films featured much fewer songs.
In the early years, songs were merely used discretely as an introduction to situations or storylines; a feature borrowed from Broadway shows. The performance of famous singers in movies also started just then; no matter if the singer had any part in the story or if his appearance followed any narrative logic. (Hence the book’s title Saying it With Songs;it is actually the name of a 1929 movie, starring Al Jolsen.)
At the same time, in the non-musical film, there was a tendency to include music in the scenes as diagetic music, e.g. music that both actors and audience would hear. So only when the particular scene featured a piano, a stage or even a phonograph, music or song performance would be an option. But since those restrictions ultimately limited the inclusion of music altogether, and while music sales proved to be a good additional source of income for the now multi-media-companies, in the mid-1930’s, this constraint was abandoned. By then, non-diagetic music in the background and the insertions of musical themes slowly were accepted and formed the basis of the typical Hollywood soundtrack.
Spring goes into many details, quotes from a huge number of rare movies and suggests a number of theories and findings from film theory to prove the importance of the early years of sound movies. Since movie corporations finally adapted their ways of promoting the films to those actions long established in the music publishing business, the sale of music, soundtrack music, became a new field of interest. In classics such as High Noon or The Searchers, the marketing and advertising of the main theme song were subject to massive promotion undertakings by the companies.
Sometimes the promotion efforts were bigger than those for the movie itself. For the classic film noir Laura, the theme song even had to be produced after the screening of the movie, for audiences were inquiring with 20th Century Fox where to buy the theme song. And since it only existed as a melody, it had to be fitted with lyrics by Johnny Mercer: It became a hit record in 1945 and a jazz standard later on.
So we learn from Saying it with Songs of the many different approaches to fit sound film with actual music and song. According to Spring “…the earliest Hollywood sound films remain a testament to the richly variegated period of song use that resulted from studios’ conversion to sound and concomitant in the music industry. … [S]oundtracks of the transitional era are not so much precursors (in the teleological sense) as they are fruitful experiments with two nascent models for film scoring: the popular song score and the orchestral background score.” The period at hand, therefore, was very important, never again would sound and song in movies implore so many questions, revolutionize production and increase sales. And never again should it give so many reasons to discuss narrativity and story logic and become a huge playground for creative experimentation.
While the reader learns a lot about movie theory and song arrangement, it is still a very light and easy style we encounter on these pages; this comes as a great plus, considering the many texts about movie theory that do just the opposite.
This title will also be of interest for researchers of popular music, since it gives a broad introduction of how one kind of pop song (the film theme song) was established, promoted by radio, sheet music and naturally in the movies and influenced/lured audiences.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015
Katherine Spring. Saying It With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema. (Oxford Music/Media Series) Oxford University Press, 2013, 244 p.