Tag Archives: Pre-Code Films

Sound/Music in Film

King Kong (1933) – One of the first films to utilize sound effects to create a fantasy world, as well as the movie soundtrack as we know it today

Have you ever seen that movie where the musical score seems to be carrying the entire emotional burden of the film? That scene where a character is starring off into the distance while the music does the actual emoting? Or even that scene where the music feels superfluous?

I used to consider music an integral part of the emotional make-up of a film, but I’ve begun to realize that cinema offers many options when it comes to creating an emotional, aural, and visual landscape.

Yasujiro Ozu is acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of cinema, but he has a very unique approach to the use of music. The music in his films often does not provide any obvious emotional cues for the audience. There is a steadiness, sometimes even a cheerfulness, a serenity to the music he employs, even during dramatic situations. It contributes to the sense overall in his films that life goes on and that we must all move on, no matter what happens, but it also leaves the emotional cues to come from the actors, the story itself, and the framing.

Even when Ozu made silent films, he said that he preferred that the music have no connection with the plot itself. No use of music to highlight a tense moment, a romantic moment, to cue the audience on how they should feel. It all must come from within the screen itself.

Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to have been quite comfortable with fairly dramatic, romantic, and tense music and Hitchcock films have produced some of the most memorable movie soundtracks we have today: PsychoMarnieNorth By NorthwestVertigo. But he also experimented with an electronic score in The Birds, which employed simulated sound effects, such as the shrieks of birds. I recently watched Rear WIndow and realized that the film almost exclusively employs diegetic music, music and sound coming from the apartment building complex’s different rooms. There is a scene in the 1956 The Man who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart believes himself to be followed and hears footsteps behind him. It is the footsteps, not music, that creates the tension.

I think the point is that Hitchcock used music to complement his films, never to overshadow. The emotion is already inherent in his films, augmented with sound, even without the musical scores, but the music makes those images all that more potent and memorable.

In 2018, I discovered two French directors and comedians, Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati. They made their films in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tati began in mime, Etaix worked with Tati, before going out on his own. They are very different comedians, but their films are rooted in the visual comedy of the silent era and they also make superb use of sound effects.

Beginning at around 3:05 into the video, there is a discussion of Tati’s use of sound to build a gag. But Pierre Etaix also uses exaggerated sound effects of common objects around him to hilarious effect. It creates an internal rhythm to the comedy, rhythm apart from music, that makes one aware of the rhythm of sounds all around us. For me, in my life, it might be the rhythm of keys on a keyboard, footsteps, a clock, the whistling of a water pot, the cycles of a washer machine, rustlings created when one moves in a chair, running water, birds singing, rain falling, wind blowing, cars driving by, even the sound of my cat stretching or of her little paw pads sinking into the carpet as she walks.

Another director who makes notable use of sound is Andrei Tarkovsky. He singles out certain sounds and heightens them to create emotion (a discussion begins at 4:40 into the video below).

Interestingly, pre-code cinema (cinema made between 1929-1933) almost never employs a musical score. It was thought, when sound films were first made, that audiences would not be able to accept the sudden intrusion of music with no discernible source. The result is that nearly the only music one hears in a pre-code film is diegetic music, music from a visible source within the screen, like a radio, record player, singer, or band. Early sound films are not noted for their music, then, but their talking and the sound effects.

I actually think this contributes to a pre-code film’s energy and vitality. Think of the scene where James Cagney stands in the rain before going into a building to shoot up some gangsters in The Public Enemy. We hear the sound of the rain, of the car breaking to a stop, the sound of voices (and actors like Cagney or William Powell often speak in a rabid patter during these early years that has a rhythm and tone all its own). One almost has the feeling one could stick one’s hand into the frame and it would come out wet.

For me, the absence of music and the judicious use of sound effects gives a film a more tactile sense. Music, I think, can flatten the world, create a kind of distance between the audience and the image that is seen, because of the very unreality of non-diegetic music. This is why I think musical scores work so well for fantasy. Think of Lord of the Ring or Star Wars (a space opera, though I always appreciate the aural world created in those films: lightsabers, TIE fighters, blasters, Darth Vader’s breathing).

It does not seem like an accident that the first movie to make use of a musical score in much the same way movies do today should be the 1933 King Kong, a fantasy/adventure/romance (he film was also notable for its use of sound effects to create the unique roar of Kong or the other dinosaurs). Or think of Gone With the Wind, a lush romance that bears little resemblance to reality.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Or think of Vertigo or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with scores by Bernard Herrmann, which create a dreamlike, visual tone-poem feeling for the audience.

What ultimately prompted these thoughts was watching Dunkirk, which had a score so overwhelming that it irritated me and seemed to put the audience at a remove from the battle taking place before us. It submerged all the sounds of the engines of planes, gunfire, shouts of men, the water and waves and caused a certain muddiness and overwhelming of the senses.

Though music can also be used to turn carnage into elegy, as Mel Gibson did in the film Hacksaw Ridge. It was a movie that I quickly realized I should not eat while watching, but I was also astonished at how Gibson could portray scenes of such wretched human suffering and overlay it with music, so that the scene then became an elegy to the suffering of the men. But it was achieved by using music to put a slight distance between the audience and the suffering of the men so that the audience could step out of their initial gut horror and think about the nature of their suffering. It was a very curious affect.

I have been extremely curious to know what other people think on this topic? Are there scores your love, scores that drive you up the wall, favorite sound effects from movies?


Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Movies


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“The Miracle Woman”: The Film That Made Me a Fan

The Miracle Woman[1]I saw Barbara Stanwyck in movies before, some of her very best, no less: Remember the NightThe Lady Eve. But it was not until Frank Capra’s 1931 The Miracle Woman that I became a Barbara Stanwyck fan. There was something about that movie that sent me on a stampede to see all her films I could lay my hands on.

I’m still not entirely certain what it was about that particular film that so impressed me. Perhaps it was how sincerely and passionately she threw herself into the role. There’s nothing quite like a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck and in this film she ran through nearly every feeling in the book, displaying raw, naked emotion and passion that impressed me as being unlike anyone else I had seen.

The Miracle Woman is about Florance Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a pastor who died penniless and brokenhearted after years of unrequited service to a church full of unhearing parishioners. After lashing out at them in anger, she is approached by the con artist, Hornsby (Sam Hardy), about working with him. She becomes Sister Fallon, preacher and healer, and he manages everything from behind the scenes, paying people to pretend to be healed.

But when John Carson (David Manners – in a far more interesting role than he had in The Mummy and Dracula) is stopped from committing suicide when he hears her voice over the radio, they soon meet and fall in love. With John believing in her completely, she begins to have second-thoughts about what she is doing and Hornsby begins getting jealous and threatens to expose her. Her rediscovery of faith is gradual. At first she wants to stop the fake healings and simply do her stuff honestly, forgetting that it was through dishonesty that she got such a large following in the first place (not to mention the money that Hornsby is embezzling). It takes her a while to come to the place where she is willing to give it all up to do what is right.

Like Capra’s later Meet John Doe (starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper), Capra is exploring the idea of whether or not something is still true, even when that truth is used to exploit others. Florence may be intending to fleece people, but her words still touch them, namely John Carson. It changes his life. And he changes hers. Through all the abuse of faith by hypocrites and hucksters, truth still shines through.

Unlike Capra’s later film, however, The Miracle Woman is entirely Barbara Stanwyck’s film. She is at turns tough, vulnerable, tender, enraged, quiet, worldly, sincere, passionate, simmering, ashamed.

mirwo_stl_5_h[1]When we first meet Florence Fallon, she is at the pulpit, telling the parishioners that her father is dead. She starts out quietly, but soon builds to a crescendo. Like I said, no one can quite top pre-code Barbara Stanwyck for intensity. It’s the sort of intensity that seems borderline too much, except when it’s done sincerely. It almost became a running joke in Stanwyck’s early career that at some point in her movies she would start yelling at someone and tell them to get out. That is generally the sort of thing that gets toned down as actors become more polished and experienced, more measured in how they express emotion. But it was precisely that intensity that caught my attention – it can be thrilling to watch somebody give a performance their all, holding nothing back, similar to the thrill my dad describes in watching a football game where the players equally are striving to win with everything they have in them.

But she’s not running on all cylinders the entire movie. She can pull back and be still, talking with John, crying over her father. Then she’s back at it, exposing the truth in a burning building (and Capra really had her stand on a set that was burning). It’s her capacity to let it all out and then pull back that partly impressed me. And she was only 23 or 24 years old at the time, with most of her career still ahead of her.

This is my contribution to the “Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For the rest of the entries, click here.



Posted by on January 20, 2016 in Movies


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Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold_Diggers_1933_posterI still can’t decide what I actually think of Busby Berkeley. Do I enjoy his work? I can’t decide. He doesn’t choreograph dances, he creates vast kaleidoscopic arrangements of people, specifically chorus girls. They are dances firmly in the fantasy realm that could never have actually been performed on a stage. Sometimes I think I am more in awe of his mind than I am of his actual dance sequences. How does he think of these things?! Sometimes I get frustrated, because I miss the flow and grace and energy of real dancing, but he is certainly unforgettable.

1933 was the pinnacle year for Warner Bros. musicals, starting with 42nd Street – the musical that revived movie musicals as a viable and profitable film genre – and including Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. They all have much the same cast, the same choreographer, the same songwriters. They were also all three made before the Hays Code was more firmly enforced in 1934. Watching those three movies is like watching a variation on a theme: backstage musical during the depression with impoverished chorus girls negotiating lack of money, falling in love, sugar daddies and the desire for stardom. But it’s a fun theme, irrepressible to the core despite the depression constantly in evidence.

But Gold Diggers of 1933 is somewhat unique. It is a less cohesive story than the other two and manages to combine backstage musical with sex comedy and social commentary. The movie was based on a 1919 play and 1923 silent film, which were about gold digging chorus girls getting caught up in high society and the kernel of that story – the sex comedy part – is sandwiched in Gold Diggers of 1933 between a musical. Seriously. The beginning is a musical, we take time out to have our comedy, and then the movie goes back to being a musical at the end. There are no songs or dances in the middle of the film.


Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler

The film follows the fortunes of three chorus girls, Carol, Trixie and Polly (Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler). The show they are in folds up when creditors close it down because the producer, Barney, failed to pay his bills (Ned Sparks). They are broke and reduced to stealing their neighbor’s milk, until they hear that Barney is putting together another show, though he has yet to find a backer. However, living next door to the girls is a young songwriter, Brad (Dick Powell). Barney hears his songs and hires him to write for the show and Brad offers to be the backer, somewhat to the girl’s skepticism. But he comes through with the cash and the show goes into rehearsals and opens as a hit while he and Polly fall in love.

At which point the depression era musical goes into temporary abeyance and the sex comedy begins. It turns out that Brad is from a blue blood Boston family and when they hear that not only is he writing songs for a musical, but that he is also starring in it and has fallen in love with a chorus girl, the family is appalled and descends upon him to demand that he at least give Polly up. His brother, Lawrence (Warren William), a respectable banker and his lawyer, Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) decide that they must buy Polly off. But of course, they mistake Joan Blondell’s Carol for Polly and when they insult chorus girls in general as unprincipled, vulgar gold diggers, Carol and Trixie vow revenge. They’re going to act like unprincipled, vulgar gold diggers! Romantic complications ensue as Carol and Lawrence accidentally fall in love.


The Forgotten Man

And then we’re back at the end with several big musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, ending with “The Forgotten Man,” dramatizing the plight of WWI veterans. It’s interesting, because the movie ends on that note.The romance is resolved before the “Forgotten Man” number and the lasting impression the film seeks to give you is the one of the depression and the soldiers. It’s a surprisingly grim note to end on, though also a call to arms (presumably by supporting FDR; Jack Warner was a big supporter).

I find the beginning and the end to be the strongest, though that’s not a complaint. The beginning is a great evocation of the shared struggles of the girls during the depression. I especially like the scene where Barney and many of the chorus girls meet in Polly, Trixie and Carol’s room to discuss his new musical, which he says is going to be all about the depression, while Brad shows them his songs, and you can visualize the musical we actually see later taking shape.

And then, of course, there is the iconic opening song, “We’re In the Money,” which fairly drips with irony, since the girls are not allowed to complete their song before their show is forcibly closed down. “It’s the depression, dearie,” as Ginger Rogers acidly observes.  Another iconic song is “Pettin’ in the Park,” which is one of Busby Berkeley’s most suggestive sequences, almost bizarre at times. The men are all trying to make out with their girls, who escape during a rainstorm and change behind a screen, clearly nude, and emerge in a cute suit of armor. There is also a mischievous baby, played by Billy Bart, who runs about watching and encouraging and who gives Dick Powell a can opener to get through Ruby Keeler’s suit.

Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler

Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler were in seven movies together and were a popular screen team. They always played similar roles: he was a happy-go-lucky guy who often played juvenile lead in the musicals they are putting on and she was the innocent and sweet presence among the cynics who becomes a star. She is not the greatest dancer – heavy on her feet and looks somewhat off balance – but they are a cute and winning couple that you always root for.

Joan Blondell plays Carol, the wise-cracking chorus girl with the heart of gold. She has an interesting style of singing, reminiscent of Rex Harrison. She talks her songs rather than sings them. Aline MacMahon plays the comic who is out for gold. Warren William usually played smarmy businessmen, but rather unusually in this film he is an uptight banker bewildered by Blondell.

In Gold Diggers of 1933 Ginger Rogers had yet to make Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire, though that would also be released in 1933. The film actually opens with her singing “We’re In the Money” and for a moment you think she’s going to be one of the important characters, but she almost entirely disappears after the song, only to reappear occasionally to try and steal Guy Kibbee from Aline MacMahon. Listen for when she sings part of “We’re In the Money” in pig Latin.

Joan Blondell and Warren William

Joan Blondell and Warren William

The songs were written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Harry Warren is not as well remembered today as his contemporaries, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. Part of the reason is that he chose to write almost exclusively for Hollywood, where songwriters did not receive the same level of recognition. But he was just as successful, winning three Oscars for best song and nominated for eleven. He and Al Dubin wrote the songs for most of the Warner Bros. musicals in the 1930s. They are the kind of songs you absolutely cannot get out of your head. I’ve been singing “We’re In the Money” for a week now and I’m still having trouble getting “Lullaby of Broadway” out of my head and I saw The Gold Diggers of 1935 months ago. Sometimes I feel like a walking jukebox, singing snatches of Harry Warren songs while I go through my day.

The three Oscars he won were for “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello with Alice Faye, and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland.

Here is “We’re in the Money,” positively small scale compared to the dances that come later in the film.


Posted by on July 6, 2015 in Movies


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