May 10, 2005

MAYBE IT'S JUST A GREAT TUNE? (via Governor Breck):

"Do Not Forsake Me: The Ballad of High Noon" and the Rise of the Movie Theme Song (Deborah Allison, Senses of Cinema)

“Do Not Forsake Me”, or “The Ballad of High Noon”, is perhaps one of the most widely known and fondly remembered theme songs of all time, but its colossal success depends on far more than a catchy tune. The ways that it was used within as well as outside of the film High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), were extremely progressive. It was tremendously influential and, as I will show, helped to popularise the use of theme songs in later years as well as to define the lyrical style that would dominate title songs in Western movies. It was also immensely effective in the way that it guided viewers' expectations of the film, helping to shape their experience of it. For fans of the Western genre it is an especially interesting work as its lyrics lay bare some of the issues and concerns most central to the genre as well as to the film at hand.

In 1952, when High Noon was released, few dramatic films featured songs. Where they did exist, they were mostly diegetic. The decision to open the film with a song that functions so overtly as a narrational device is consequently striking and its implications are diverse. However, they can, for the most part, be placed within two categories, marketing and narration.

High Noon was by no means the first film to be cross-marketed with a song or musical score. Although the first film soundtrack album, The Jungle Book, was not released until 1942, merchandising of film songs either as short-play records or sheet music had already been common practice for some years. In August 1929, the New York Times was quick to report:

Boundless radio has found a common denominator with the audible cinema, the theme song; and already “The Pagan Love Song”, “Evangeline”, “Broadway Melody” and “The Breakaway” are persisting through the tubes.

The author of this article notes that as early as the late 1910s theme songs proliferated in “silent” cinema – both as live accompaniment to film screenings and in other arenas of circulation – and cites the theme songs for Mickey (Richard Jones, 1918) and The Bluebird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918) as early examples. Russell Sanjek argues that Mickey was responsible for demonstrating to the film industry how valuable a popular song could be for promoting a film.

This lesson was repeated many years later when High Noon set a new standard for effective cross-promotion, and in so doing encouraged a horde of imitators. It won the Academy Award for Best Song and, according to Jonathan Groucutt, “opened the floodgates” for theme songs, initiating the “'hit-theme' mania” that had emerged in American cinema by the 1960s. After the success of “Do Not Forsake Me”, there was a vast increase in the number of films, especially dramatic films, to open with a theme song during the credits. Between 1950 and 1954, only 13 percent of American feature films used this device. Over the next five years the percentage grew to 22 percent and by the late 1960s this figure had risen still further to 29 percent.

The biggest rise in the use of theme songs took place within the Western genre, argues Ed Buscombe, who claims that after 1952 most major Westerns opened with a theme song. He observes that this trend also resurrected the career of ex-singing-cowboy star, Tex Ritter, performer of “Do Not Forsake Me”, who found new success as a vocalist for a number of Western movie theme songs in the 1950s. As one 1953 newspaper journalist opined,

Already the cycle is nobly launched, and judging from the rush around movietown to sign cowboy warblers who can give a pretty good imitation of Tex Ritter's agonised delivery of Gary Cooper's musical woes in High Noon, any picture of the Old West without such accompaniment may go begging for theatre engagements.

If the escalating popularity of theme songs can be partly explained by the success of High Noon, it should nevertheless be recognised that wider industrial factors underlay this trend. The drive to release theme songs through newly acquired or created recording arms of film companies had been hastened by the divorcement decrees of 1948. The severance of exhibition outlets from production companies and the loss of guaranteed revenue that these anti-monopolistic mandates caused, led production companies to seek alternate channels of gain. One of these was the expansion of their recording arms, and a more methodical cross marketing of music and film. In 1951, a year before High Noon's release, a record executive argued that, “A film company must have a record arm. It could lose money, and it would still come out way ahead on the promotion of basic product.” Jeff Smith describes the way this perspective influenced the release of High Noon:

UA touted the High Noon campaign as one of the biggest ever, and it features many of the components that were commonly used in later promotions, such as multiple theme recordings and co-ordinated radio exploitation... The centrepiece of the campaign was the six single releases of the film's theme song. Frankie Laine and Tex Ritter's versions, for Columbia and Decca respectively, were clearly the most important, but the tune was also recorded by Billy Keith, Lita Rose, Bill Hayes, and Fred Waring... Whereas a record promoter would seek out sales and exposure of a particular version of the theme, UA simply sought as much repetition of the tune as possible.

High Noon has acquired a reputation for precipitating changes in the style of film scores more generally, as well as they ways in which they were marketed. Although “Do Not Forsake Me” has, in itself, attracted considerable praise, the implications for later film music have been framed negatively by a number of musicians and critics. Some have argued that the desire to incorporate a theme that could be independently marketed took priority over the scoring of music appropriate to the film's narrative and mood. Composer Elmer Bernstein claimed that “Do Not Forsake Me” precipitated the demise of the classical film score, whilst film historian Roy M. Prendergast went so far as to argue that it “unknowingly rang the death knell for intelligent use of music in films”. Dorothy Horstman blamed High Noon for killing off another musical genre, the cowboy song, as the “adult Western” took precedence over singing Westerns. These criticisms may indeed hold some water, but at the same time High Noon represented a renaissance in the way that title songs were adapted to narrational purposes, using “Do Not Forsake Me” in a sophisticated fashion to lay out some of the important themes at the start of the film.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 10, 2005 12:03 AM

Then as I understand their comments, Messrs. Bernstein and Prendergast did not care for the scores of movies the likes of The Magnificent Seven, Lawrence of Arabia or Dr. Zhivago?

Posted by: Rick T. at May 10, 2005 10:39 AM

I vote for Theme from the Third Man but the best western movie theme is The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Posted by: h-man at May 10, 2005 3:34 PM

As a child of the late 40's/early 50's Westerns, I used to listen to the AM (of course) classical music station as so much of that music generated images of the times the Western's portrayed.
"Do Not Forsake Me" was indeed a changing point in movie music (I prefer Frankie Laine's version to the original).
Can anybody think of the movie "Giant" without hearing the "Yellow Rose of Texas" on their mental soundtrack?
As far as the "G, B & U" & other themes (not songs), I think the song from the TV series "Rawhide" is a much better example, as it is a song, not a "theme". Oh, and it was sung by my aforementioned favorite, Frankie Laine, not that that could influence my judgement.

Posted by: Mike Daley at May 10, 2005 10:48 PM

To change the subject slightly, I've always thought High Noon to be a fundamentally dishonest movie, and I can't watch it any more because it makes me too angry.

American towns following the end of the Civil War were filled with veterans, men who were ready to defend themselves and their families, and quite skilled in the use of weapons.

What a bunch of crap to think that Frank Miller (no relation) et al. wouldn't have been met with a hail of bullets the minute they stepped off the train. By comparison, look at Northfield, Minnesota and what the townsfolk did the James gang. Chewed'em up and spit'em out.

What was rabble like the Jameses (or the decidedly second rate villians of High Noon) after you'd survived Cold Harbor or the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania?

Posted by: H.D. Miller at May 10, 2005 10:53 PM


I've always liked it for the same reason as The Maltese Falcon, accidently anti-Communist movies written by Communists.

Posted by: oj at May 10, 2005 11:47 PM