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A Brief History of Music in Film

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A Brief History of Music in Film Going to the movies is one of America’s top favorite pass times; and no movie-going experience would be complete without the accompanying sound tracks. The music in movies often heightens the suspense and deepens the drama. The right background music can make us fall in love with a character, be terrified of the villain, or even adore an unlikely hero. Starting with Silent films and continuing until today, music has been an important part in the movie industry. In the beginning, movies had no sound and eventually the studios figured out they needed something for their movies to be more entertaining. Very quickly they figured out music would supplement and go along well with the action on the screen. Music has always been able to affect people emotionally, so it made a perfect accompaniment for movies. In the early theaters, pianos quickly became a well-recognized fixture. Organs quickly followed and music became a permanent part of the movie-going experience. At first, it was up to musicians to choose what music they would play during the films; but the music still didn’t have a true designated purpose, other than used as filler. Eventually the studios began producing music for the musicians that was more suitable for the film. The music became more and more specialized based on what the studio wanted, until music was specifically written for each film. In fact, Charlie Chaplin composed his own music for some of his films. This was the standard in movie theaters throughout America until the introduction of the first “talkie” in 1927.
The introduction of music with films served a dual purpose. Firstly, it added depth to the two-dimensional image on the screen. Secondly, it helped cover up the loud noise from the projector. Although it may not be technically be the first “talkie” ever, The Jazz Singer is often considered to be a landmark film because of its new mix of dialog and songs. This movie premiered in New York City at the Warner Theatre on October 6, 1927. It starred Broadway star Al Jolson. This perhaps began a long tradition of Broadway and film sharing stories and actors. Even today, one can find a Broadway show based off popular music or movies and there is no shortage of movies based off Broadway plays. In 1928, Warner Brothers followed The Jazz Singer with another Jolson part-“talkie”, The Singing Fool, which was a blockbuster hit. Theaters rushed to install the new sound equipment before their competitors, and to hire Broadway composers to write musicals for the screen. This “talkie” was a major leap forward from the previous attempts at adding sound such as Warner Bros. technology called Vitaphone which was sound on a phonograph record and was abandoned by 1931. The first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, included a musical sequence in a night club. The interest of the audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively. The Broadway Melody (1929) had a show-biz plot about two sisters competing for a charming song-and-dance man. Advertised by MGM as the first "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing" feature film, it was a hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1929. There was a rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage to star in lavishly filmed versions of Broadway hits. For instance, The Love Parade (Paramount 1929) starred Maurice Chevalier and newcomer Jeanette MacDonald, written by Broadway veteran Guy Bolton. Some of the earlier films with music would throw themes together from different sources like classical works, drama, and romance. In fact, Max Steiner used the French and German national anthems to compose the well-known score for Casablanca including the famous “play it again” song. Not only did music accompany films but sound effects helped as well. Earnest Schoedsack’s King Kong in 1933 was one of the first tracks to rely heavily on sound effects. The 1930s through the 1960s are considered to be the golden age of the musical film, when the genre's popularity was at its highest in the Western world. The 1930s was a great decade of change for movies. As mention earlier, Charlie Chapin sometimes composed his own music for his films including City Lights in 1931 and Modern Times in 1936 as well as later films. This was the exception, not every studio allowed their stars to create their own music. During this time period not everyone was totally clear whose job it was to write the music for the films. This was a time of experimentation for the new art form of film music. Director Josef von Sternberg was well known for changing musicians. Eventually the music became more advanced and stylized so that films like Sylvia Scarlett in 1935 and Bringing Up Baby featured soundtracks appropriate for the light comedy of those films. Additionally, composers developed suspenseful music for horror films such as The Son of Frankenstein in 1939. New styles were also developed in a grand lush orchestral style for movies like Street Scene in 1931 and Wuthering Heights in 1939 by Vaudeville and Broadway musicians and conductors like Alfred Newman. Even western movies developed their own musical language. This golden age of movies is famous for such larger-than-life movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - a 1937 American animated film produced by Walt Disney Productions and released by RKO Radio Pictures earning $8 million during its initial release briefly assumed the record of highest grossing sound film at the time. As well as Gone with the Wind 1938 which won eight Academy Awards for categories such as Best Picture, Best Actress, and Supporting Actress, Directing, and Art Direction. Perhaps the most famous film from the 1930s is The Wizard of Oz in 1939 which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Over the Rainbow.” It also won the Academy Award for Best Original Score as well as being nominated for Best Picture and Best Special Effects.
With the start of the Second World War in 1939, the following decade saw a big change in the world. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese as well as the resulting loss of foreign markets made the early years of the 1940 decade not very promising especially for the film industry. However nearly a decade after the start of sound film productions, the challenges of the 1930 sound era were nearly over and the film industry thrived reaching its peak between 1943 and 1946. Just as every aspect of American life was affected by the war, so was the movie industries which begin producing war time favorites. Some big stars even enlisted for duty. The Office of War Information was formed by the government in 1942 and along with the film industry produced many pro-war propaganda films. The films of this time were also much more realistic, similar to those of the depression years. A prime example of these war-time propaganda films was the romantic story of self-sacrifice and heroism in the 1940 studio film, Casablanca. Additionally, Hollywood produced several star-studded, plotless, patriotic extravaganzas which featured big stars entertaining the troops such as, Hollywood Canteen in 1941 the film industry answer to a Broadway musical about the same subject. This decade was also big for Walt Disney. In 1940 alone, Walt Disney released two feature films, namely Pinocchio and Fantasia. Fantasia was the first film to be released in a multichannel sound format called Fantasound. “This film also marked the first use of the click track while recording the soundtrack, overdubbing of orchestral parts, simultaneous multitrack recording. The film also led the eventual development of a multi-channel sound system To escape the horror and weariness of the war years, people often escaped via popular musicals with their elaborate production numbers, simplistic plots, and music. In fact, in the final year of the war, 1945, six of the top ten box office hits were musicals including Anchors Aweigh and State Fair. All in all, there were about two hundred musicals produced during the 1940s including such classics as Meet Me in St. Louis, State Fair, Phantom of the Opera, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Ziegfeld Follies.
The end of the War saw many cultural changes which eventually blossomed in the following decade, the 1950s. Women started working outside of their homes and begin to wear pants more often and began cutting their hair shorter. People had more money than their parents had so owning a car became more common; people, especially women, sought higher education and were better educated in general; most people could now afford radios, phones, and televisions. There was also a major change in the family structure with youth becoming more independent and the influence of extended families diminished as more people could afford their own homes and the nuclear family became the norm. Unfortunately theater attendance declined due to the rise of television in the homes, so Hollywood began to develop ways to counteract television’s influence by increasing the use of color, introducing wide screen films, and creating gimmicks such as 3-D viewing with cardboard glasses and Smell-O-Vision. The 1950s saw a new diversification in genres and styles for instance, Alford Hitchcock’s movies with his specific type of thriller films were highly popular as were the much more family friendly Disney movies. Additionally, the 1950s saw a new sensuality through stars like Marilyn Monroe, who starred in the movie Some Like it Hot. This decade also saw the popularity of other big names in Hollywood Musicals such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, and even Elvis Presley who starred in Jailhouse Rock in 1957. All in all, there were more than one hundred and sixty musicals produced during the 1950s including such classics as Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), White Christmas (1954), A Star is Born (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), Oklahoma (1955), The King and I (1956), South Pacific (1958), as well as Porgy and Bess (1959).
The 1960s was a time of great cultural turmoil and change. “During the 1960s, groups that previously had been submerged or subordinate began more forcefully and successfully to assert themselves: African Americans, Native Americans, women, the white ethnic offspring of the “new immigration,” and Latinos. Much of the support they received came from a young population larger than ever, making its way through a college and university system that was expanding at an unprecedented pace.” This was also the decade of the Moon Landing, The Cold War, and the assignations of prominent political figures such as John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. This was the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, and the first man to walk on the moon. The cultural climate of film making was also changed Alfred Hitchcock’s physiological thriller, Psycho in 1960 is considered by some to be the “mother of all modern horror suspense films - it single-handedly ushered in an era of inferior screen ‘slashers’ with blood-letting and graphic, shocking killings.” This was also a time for Science Fictions films such as, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a ground breaking about a man who invents a time machine and travels through time. This movie includes fantastical imaginings about the future decline of human society, a theme that was created in many movies throughout the 1960s and 1970s. “Increasingly in the 60s, the major studios financed and distributed independently-produced domestic pictures. And made-for-TV movies became a regular feature of network programming by mid-decade. And by the end of the decade, the film industry was very troubled and depressed and experiencing an all-time low that had been developing for almost 25 years.” The first ever mall multiplex with seven hundred seats opened in 1963 while many smaller studios were being taken over by multi-national companies. There was a move away from big and costly historical epics except for two notable films El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire which were both produced abroad. However the musical seemed to still be going strong. “Hollywood's top musical star of the 1960s arrived from Broadway -- by means of a flying umbrella. Julie Andrews had every reason to believe that she would reach the big screen recreating her Broadway triumph as Liza in My Fair Lady, but producer Jack Warner rejected her as ‘not photogenic.’” Twentieth Century Fox was nearly bankrupt following the failure of historical epic Cleopatra. However The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews, with its modest budget quickly became one of those popular films of all times earning hundreds of millions of dollars and winning an impressive five Academy Awards including Best Picture. Julie Andrews also starred in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and the movie Star (1968) which became Andrews’ first commercial failure. Elvis Presley’s career continued with popular films like Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) in addition to his popular singing career. All in all, there were more than one hundred musicals produced during the 1960s including such classics as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), Hello Dolly (1969), and Gypsy (1962). The close of the sixties marks the end of the Golden Age of film and a continuing of the decline in the popularity of musicals.
After the end of the Golden Age of film, musicals became more and more rare. Some notable musicals include Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Cabaret (1972), Jesus Christ Super Star (1973), and Mame (1974). In 1975 the racy and controversial musical the Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered and quickly became a cult classic. Around the country, theaters would show the film and the experience became increasingly interactive. As it following increased fans would often dress as their favorite character, act out some scenes alongside the movie and even developed a whole set of props to bring to the theater to throw toward the screen. The movie A Star is Born premiered in 1976 starring Barbara Streisand. The decade closed out with mega hits like Grease (1978) and Hair (1979). The eighty’s also featured its fair share of fun and popular musicals such as, Fame (1980), Xanadu (1980), Annie (1982) Best Little Whore House in Texas (1982), Flashdance (1983) Foot Loose (1984), and A Chorus Line (1985). The comedy Sci-Fi thriller Little Shop of Horrors starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin premiered in 1986 followed by Dirty Dancing in 1987 and The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988). The nineteen eighty’s ended with the Disney blockbuster The Little Mermaid, an animated feature loosely based off a children’s fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson.
The nineteen ninety’s saw its popular movies as well including Dick Tracey starring popular music icon Madonna (1990), Disney had a very strong decade during the nineteen ninety’s featuring many films such as, Beauty and The Beast (1991); the historical fiction film, Newsies (1992); The Lion King (1994); Pocahontas (1995); The Hunch Back of Notre Dame (1996); Hercules (1997); Mulan (1998); and Tarzan (1999). The tradition of the musical continued with a remake of How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2000, the edgy rock opera adapted from the stage, Hedwig and Angry Inch in 2001 also adapted from Broadway was Chicago (2002), The Music Man (2003) which was a remake of the original movie specially made for television. Continuing the trend of adapting musicals from Broadway to film, The Phantom of the Opera premiered in 2004; followed by The Producers (2005) and Rent in the same year. Dream Girls (2006), Hair Spray (2007), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and Momma Mia! (2008) all also originated on Broadway. The year 2009 featured the irreverent movie The Big Gay Musical while 2010 saw the collaboration of two musicals icons from different eras, Cher and Christina Aguilera starred in the musical Burlesque in 2010. The move towards more modern and updated musicals continued with a remake of Footloose (2011), and the new musical Rock of Ages (2012). Les Misérables was revamped and filled with top named stars such as, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway. Finally the success of Disney’s latest musical Frozen (2013) is evident in its popularity and well-known all across the country.
The popularity of musicals is easy to see based on the sheer numbers of musicals produced over the decades and the prevalence of music in movies. However the musicals do not stand alone. This is evident in the large numbers of music from movies and or musicals that have placed highly on the bill board charts. “Working together, film and music have both done their parts to promote their respective work. While a popular song may create buzz for a film, a popular film can do even more for a song sometimes making it a hit.” For instance, according to Billboard, the top song from a movie on the charts was “You Light up My Life” by Debby Boone which hit number one for ten weeks in 1977. “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie was number one for nine week in 1981. “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III was number one for six weeks in 1982. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was number one on the charts for four weeks in 1970. “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins from the movie Footloose was number one on the charts for three weeks in 1984 and was featured in a Broadway show inspired by the movie of the same name.
In addition to hitting the Billboard charts some songs from movies are forever part of the American cultural because of their status as standard Holiday/Christmas songs. For example Bing Crosby “White Christmas” is from the movie Holiday Inn (1942) the essential Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was first sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Finally, “We Need a Little Christmas” originates from the musical Mame, which was a musical movie, starring Lucille Ball, based off a Broadway musical.
From the beginning starting with the first “talkie” introduced music inside the theater all the way to the currant day musical phenomena “Let It Go,” from Disney’s Frozen, music has been an important part of the movie experience that has instilled itself into the American culture, including our most sacred holiday traditions. Today music and movies are absolutely inseparable, though it is arguable that no one would want movies without the music we have grown so accustomed to.

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