Monday, October 20, 2014

Quick trip through the classical studio era

With time limited because I was out sick one day, I decided to offer the students a quick trip through the classical sound era. I chose a film from the early 1930s, one from the mid-1940s, and one from the end of the 1950s. These were The Black Cat (1934), Mildred Pierce (1945), and North by Northwest (1959). Three decades and three studios (Universal, Warner Bros., and MGM). Music for The Black Cat is a compilation score of classical orchestral and chamber music, including (among others) such familiar pieces as Liszt's Les Preludes, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture, Schubert's Symphony no. 8 (Unfinished), and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor—all of them staples of early film live performance practices. The music for Mildred Pierce and North by Northwest is largely, though not entirely, symphonic underscore by Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, respectively.

For The Black Cat I used the opening, which offers silent-film-era actor cameos in the establishing sequence, generic sound and effects added to an opening scene shot silent, and limited staging for dialogue due to microphone placement.

Mildred Pierce -- I used DVD chapters 18-20 -- shows prestige-level production values at their best and a remarkably nuanced sound track still consisting almost entirely of dialogue and music (both diegetic and non-diegetic).

North by Northwest, despite its widescreen color format, surprises because the sound track has changed very little -- only the addition of a few more understated effects (the big exception being airplane engine noise with an explosion!) and the underscore composer's emphasis on winds and brasses rather than the more traditional strings. I used the end of the auction scene through the arrival in South Dakota.