Film music expresses the desires of characters, influences the emotions of audiences, and guides the direction of stories in ways that often go unrecognized. Although most listeners can identify a melody by composers such as Bernard Herrmann or John Williams, the American cinema has not always been devoted to producing symphonic scores that associate musical themes with particular characters. The diversity of musical forms that could be heard in nickelodeons across the country in the early 1900s returned as the film industry developed. What began as musical experiments with synchronization in the late 1920s became more sophisticated romantic scores in the 1930s and 1940s, eventually making way for theme scores in the 1950s and leading to the extensive use of popular songs in the 1960s and 1970s.
This course traces the history of Hollywood film music through four films that represent dominant musical trends. Coming at the end of the conversion to sound, Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) stars Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier singing Rodgers and Hart songs while the broomsticks, bells, and babies that surround them are also capable of making “music.” Now, Voyager (1942) demonstrates Max Steiner’s foundational role in the development of symphonic film music with an Oscar-winning score that illustrates the romance between a lonely spinster (Bette Davis) and a married man (Paul Henreid). In High Noon (1952), Dimitri Tiomkin transforms a cowboy song into a theme score that dramatically anticipates the impending duel between outlaw Frank Miller and a sheriff played by Gary Cooper. Finally, in American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas collaborated with sound designer Walter Murch on a film about a group of high school friends who drive the small-town California streets on the last night of summer to the popular tunes of a radio show hosted by Wolfman Jack. Together, we will listen and learn about one of the more unsung aspects of the movie-going experience.