Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

by Stephen C. Meyer


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Lavish musical soundtracks contributed a special grandeur to the new widescreen, stereophonic sound movie experience of postwar biblical epics such as Samson and Delilah, Ben-Hur, and Quo Vadis. In Epic Sound, Stephen C. Meyer shows how music was utilized for various effects, sometimes serving as a vehicle for narrative plot and at times complicating biblical and cinematic interpretation. In this way, the soundscapes of these films reflected the ideological and aesthetic tensions within the genre, and more generally, within postwar American society. By examining key biblical films, Meyer adeptly engages musicology with film studies to explore cinematic interpretations of the Bible during the 1940s through the 1960s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253014511
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/27/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Stephen C. Meyer is Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University. He is author of Carl Maria von Weber and the Search for a German Opera (IUP, 2003).

Read an Excerpt

Epic Sound

Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

By Stephen C. Meyer

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Meyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01459-7


A Biblical Story for the Post-World War II Generation?

Victor Young's Music for DeMille's Samson and Delilah

When Cecil B. DeMille was preparing to pitch his idea for a film on Samson and Delilah to Paramount, he was—at least according to the account in his autobiography—far from confident. "A new generation of executives had grown up since The King of Kings," he wrote, referring to his 1927 Christ film,

and most of them greeted my suggestion of Samson and Delilah with the expected executive misgivings. A Biblical story, for the post–World War II generation? Put millions of dollars into a Sunday school tale? Anticipating this familiar chorus, before the meeting held in my office to decide on my next production, I asked Dan Groesbeck to draw a simple sketch of two people—a big brawny athlete and, looking at him with an at once seductive and coolly measuring eye, a slim and ravishingly attractive young girl.

When the executives trooped in, ready to save me and Paramount from the ruinous folly they were sure I had in mind, I greeted them, saw them to their seats, and brought out the Groesbeck sketch.

"How is that," I asked them, "for the subject of a picture?"

They were enthusiastic. That was movies. That was boy-meets-girl—and what a boy, and girl!

"That, gentlemen, is Samson and Delilah."

Like so many of the other anecdotes in his autobiography, this brief story provides a simple answer to a complex question—in this case, about the viability of a biblical film in the postwar period. Despite (or perhaps because of) its jovial, commonsense tone, however, the anecdote reveals some important truths about the social and aesthetic contexts for the biblical epic in the postwar period. It is clear that the executives at Paramount—and most likely others as well—saw the entire genre as old-fashioned. In this context, it is worth remembering that DeMille was himself the most important director of epic film during the 1920s and 1930s. By the time that DeMille was making his pitch, he was already in hismid-sixties. It is entirely possible that the new generation at Paramount was inclined to look upon the Samson and Delilah project as an attempt by DeMille to relive the glory days of his young adulthood. In hindsight, of course, their skepticism seems entirely misplaced. Samson and Delilah would not only turn out to be enormously successful, it would also inaugurate a decade in which the biblical epic would arguably be Hollywood's most profitable genre. In the immediate postwar period, however, it was clearly seen as a risk.

DeMille was able to overcome the skepticism of the Paramount executives by the simple and time-honored strategy of foregrounding the eroticism of his material. In this sense, DeMille's promotional pitch simply recapitulated a central feature of his prewar epics. In The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), he had already combined lavish historical spectacle with the ravishing sexuality of Claudette Colbert; Dan Groesbeck's beefcake sketch may simply have evoked the promotional materials for these earlier, highly successful films. And although the idea of linking grandiose spectacle with the erotic may have reached its apogee in DeMille's oeuvre, it was hardly unique to his movies. Foregrounding the erotic was central to the epic genre, and it seems to have been particularly important for those films whose subject matter was based on Old Testament narratives. Even a cursory glance at this subtype of the postwar biblical epic will reveal the extent to which producers and directors were drawn to plot lines in which sexual desire and/or romantic love played a central role: not only the tale of Samson and Delilah, but also the stories of Esther, Ruth, and Jezebel, of David and Bathsheba and of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Indeed, the titles of these films—Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba, Esther and the King—often indicate this insistent focus on gender dynamics, a focus that is present even in films in which it is not so blatantly advertised. The Ten Commandments—or at least its first half—could in this sense easily have been titled Moses and Nefretiri. In this sense, the anecdote about the Paramount executives speaks to the "eroticization of the Old Testament" that was such an important part of the postwar biblical epic.

Of course, there was more to the genre of the biblical epic than simply "boy meets girl, and what a boy, and girl!" As in genres such as grand opera and the historical novel, the plots of these epics frame the erotic by a grand historical narrative. When Samson loses his hair as a direct result of his sexual dalliance with Delilah, for instance, his "folly" (to use the words of the film's introductory voiceover) is not merely a personal misfortune. The forces of tyranny and superstition—embodied by the Philistines and their "devil god" Dagon—achieve a temporary victory as a result of Samson's inability to control his desires, and the "dream of liberty for his people" is momentarily eclipsed. The fundamental idea—that sexual incontinence leads inevitably to historical/political catastrophe—is driven home in other Old Testament epics as well. In David and Bathsheba, for instance, the king's relationship with the wife of Uriah the Hittite leads to drought and political dissolution. In Solomon and Sheba, the king's unbridled lust for the Queen of Sheba makes him vulnerable to a coup attempt by his brother Adonijah, and exposes his kingdom to attack by external enemies. Even in The Ten Commandments, it is perhaps the soft arms and ruby-red lips of Nefretiri, and not the chariots of Rameses, which most seriously threaten the destiny of the Hebrew nation. In the postwar epic (to put it another way), sexual desire has world-historical consequences.

It seems unlikely that the Paramount executives to whom DeMille made his Samson and Delilah pitch were particularly interested in these historical ramifications. Their biggest concern was with what we may call the third defining characteristic of the genre—the religious nature of the material. For mainstream Christianity and Judaism, the 1950s were halcyon days, and from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it is easy to see the biblical epic as part of the "fourth great awakening" of American religious life. To the movie executives of the 1940s, however, the religious subject matter of Samson and Delilah was clearly a potential liability. In prewar epic films such as The Ten Commandments (1923), King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932), DeMille had found effective ways of representing the transcendental or supernatural aspects of the story. But the Paramount executives were clearly worried that the audiences of the postwar period had grown too sophisticated for these techniques. The idea of a Samson and Delilah film seemed too outdated and moralistic to succeed with a new generation of filmgoers.

The fears voiced by the Paramount executives in DeMille's story, of course, never materialized. Helped no doubt by the star power of Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles, Samson and Delilah was the highest-grossing film of 1950. The film garnered two Academy Awards (for Best Color Art Direction and Best Color Costume Design) and was nominated for several others. As the first of the postwar biblical epics—and by virtue of the fact that it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille—Samson and Delilah was (perhaps inevitably) firmly rooted in the generic conventions of the prewar era. It shares neither the psychological subtlety of later epics such as David and Bathsheba and Barabbas, nor the widescreen grandeur of Ben-Hur and the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. The music for the film may be seen in similar terms. Paramount executives used their in-house composer Victor Young for the musical score, which was eventually nominated for an Academy Award (although it did not win). Young was a well-respected craftsman, known especially for skill in scoring exotic themes and locales. Like the scores to so many other films during this period, Young's music for Samson and Delilah is essentially leitmotivic in structure. The writing is very much in the tradition of classic Hollywood film scores by composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Like DeMille himself, Young was in many ways simply relying on tried and true techniques in order to craft entertainment for the new post–World War II generation.

If I have concentrated on sexual desire, history, and the religious in this preliminary discussion, it is not because these form a complete list of generic characteristics, but rather because it was in these three areas that the underscoring—at least potentially—could make the greatest contribution to DeMille's film. The most memorable theme in the movie is surely the melody that Young wrote for the Delilah character—it dominates the score in much the same way that Hedy Lamarr's performance of the role dominates the visual narrative. Young seems less assured with regard to the historical/geographical frame of the film. Despite his reputation as a master of musical orientalism, Young seems to have had little interest in the kind of historical authenticity that was to be of such importance to other biblical epic film composers (most notably, Miklós Rózsa). And while it is possible to hear certain sections of the score as references to a specific Jewish identity, a particular ethnic sound plays a much smaller role in Young's music than it does in other film scores (such as Mario Nascimbene's work for Solomon and Sheba). In a similar manner, Young's music for the transcendental moments of Samson and Delilah seems to look backward to the tropes and conventions of the prewar era (if not to symphonic and operatic tropes of the nineteenth century). Like the Paramount executives listening to DeMille's pitch, Young was perhaps most comfortable with the parts of the film that had to do with "boy meets girl, and what a boy, and girl!"

Gendering the Opening Credits

The essential character of Young's score is readily apparent from the music that he wrote for the opening credit sequence. As with most typical mid-century Hollywood films, the opening credits for Samson and Delilah function both to provide data about the external reality of the film (principally, the names of the stars and those involved in its production), and to suggest key elements of the imaginary world that is about to unfold. Visual elements such as typeface and/or scenic backdrop are often an important part of this process, but it is primarily through the underscoring that the opening credit sequence typically introduces the fundamental character and emotional mood of the film. The opening credit sequence for High Noon (1952)—to take a particularly well-known example of this technique—is accompanied by the ballad "Do Not Forget Me O My Darlin'." "Do Not Forget Me O My Darlin'" returns as nondiegetic music at various points in the film (most notably at the end), but Dmitri Tiomkin uses it as source material for other parts of his score as well. Examples such as these illustrate the links between the music industry and film that were becoming increasingly important during this period, but they grow out of a practice that stretches back into the world of nineteenth-century opera and operetta overtures. Like these overtures, the opening credit music primes the perceptual pump. When themes and melodies from the opening credit music return in the remainder of the film, they are (if only subconsciously) recognized and emotionally marked. In this way, the opening credit music introduces the semiotic logic of the film, drawing the audience into its essential soundscape—as well as its attendant mood or emotional ambience—even before the diegesis begins.

Needless to say, the emotional ambience of Samson and Delilah—as well as the bulk of its plot—will be largely determined by the erotic/romantic relationship between the two principal characters. The music for the opening credits to the movie—like those to many other mid-century Hollywood films—prepares the ground for this diegesis. It follows what James Buhler, David Neumeyer, and Rob Deemer have called the "conventional musical design" for this music, articulating two distinct theme groups, whose gender associations are impossible to deny. The credit music begins with a three-note call-like motive featuring an upward leap of a minor seventh, a motive that will soon become associated with Samson himself. In both its texture and in its intervallic profile, the motive clearly evokes the horn call and fanfare, musical topoi traditionally associated with masculine vigor and energy (see Example 1.1). With some imagination, we may perhaps also hear in this motive a reference to the blast of the shofar, a suggestion of the specifically Jewish identity of its hero. This music accompanies an image of two hands unrolling an ancient scroll, upon which the title of the film appears. The font used for this title, as well as for the credits that follow, is built up from short angular lines, in imitation of ancient cuneiform writing. As these appear on the screen, we hear a short extension of the fanfare theme (appearing in the upper staff in my transcription), whose distinctive melodic profile will return at various points in the film in which the plot references the Jewish people or the Jewish land. This extension, with its distinctive augmented second melodic interval, is closely related to the Miriam motive that I discuss below.

Here in the opening credits, this motive leads directly into a brief statement of the Philistine march music that will later be associated with the forces of tyranny. Young uses this march idea to bring the music to a full cadence. An abrupt change in texture and tempo marks the beginning of the second part of the opening credit music: a full, A-A-B-A statement of the melody that will soon be associated with Delilah (see Example 1.2). In its rhythmic and melodic profile, as well as its basic texture, this theme provides a stark contrast with the masculine musical gestures from the very beginning of the opening credit music. Instead of the leaping angularity of the Samson motive, Delilah's music is characterized by scalar motion. It suggests a triplet subdivision of the beat, while Samson's motive (as well as the march idea with which it is occasionally linked) is firmly in duple meter. The quasi-military instrumentation of the Samson motive is set against the lush sound of the strings, playing the Delilah theme in their middle range, accompanied by occasional harp chords. The opening credit music, then, creates what we might almost call an aural analogue of Groesbeck's sketch, focusing our attention firmly on the big brawny athlete and the ravishing sexuality of the leading lady.

Young's music is able to function in this manner, of course, precisely because it conforms so closely to firmly established musical topoi. If Samson's motive is essentially a modified fanfare, so too does the music for Delilah echo that used to depict similarly dangerous women, not only in other postwar biblical epics, but in other cinematic genres as well. The Delilah theme most directly recalls, perhaps, the music that Rudolph Kopp wrote for Cleopatra in DeMille's 1934 epic of the same name. The (anti-) heroines in film noir (to take another example) are also frequently given themes featuring rhythmic ambiguity and slippery or turning melodic figures. Like many other aspects of mid-century Hollywood film scoring technique, this convention is firmly rooted in the long operatic tradition of the femme fatale. Carmen's "Habañera" is probably the proximate source for the film music associated with these dangerous women. Like the music for Bizet's famous character, these themes operate according to an old and very widely distributed semantic logic, in which tonal and rhythmic stability are associated with social and emotional stability. Like the bodies of the women with which they are associated—and in contrast to the masculine angularity of the hero motives—these melodies curve and flow. As in Carmen, the sinuous lyricism of these cinematic themes is bound up with sexual seduction and moral turpitude. Young's opening credit music, in short, operates within a very widely distributed and firmly established semantic system.


Excerpted from Epic Sound by Stephen C. Meyer. Copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Meyer. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note to Readers
1. A Biblical Story, for the Post-World-War II Generation?: Victor Young's Music for DeMille's Samson and Delilah
2. Turning Away from "Concocted Spectacle": Alfred Newman's Score for David and Bathsheba
3. Spectacle and Authenticity in Miklós Rózsa's Quo Vadis Score
4. Novel and Film, Music and Miracle: Alfred Newman's Score to The Robe
5. Spirit and Empire: Elmer Bernstein's Score to The Ten Commandments
6. The Law of Genre and the Music for Ben-Hur
7. King of Kings and the Problem of Repetition
8. Suoni nuovi, suoni antichi: The Soundscapes of Barabbas
9. Universality, Transcendence, and Collapse: Music and The Greatest Story Ever Told

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