Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores

Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores

Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores

Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores


Hollywood film music is often mocked as a disreputably 'applied' branch of the art of composition that lacks both the seriousness and the quality of the classical or late-romantic concert and operatic music from which it derives. Its composers in the 1930s and '40s were themselves often scornful of it and aspired to produce more 'serious' works that would enhance their artistic reputation.

In fact the criticism of film music as slavishly descriptive or manipulatively over-emotional has a history that is older than film - it had even been directed at the relatively popular operatic and concert music written by some of the migr Hollywood composers themselves before they had left Europe. There, as subsequently in America, such criticism was promoted by the developing project of Modernism, whose often high-minded opposition to mass culture used polarizing language that drew, intentionally or not, upon that of gender difference. Regressive, late-romantic music, the old argument ran, was - as women were believed to be - emotional, irrational, and lacking in logic.

This book seeks to level the critical playing field between film music and 'serious music', reflecting upon gender-related ideas about music and modernism as much as about film. Peter Franklin broaches the possibility of a history of twentieth-century music that would include, rather than marginalize, film music - and, indeed, the scores of a number of the major Hollywood movies discussed here, like The Bride of Frankenstein, King Kong, Rebecca, Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane and Psycho. In doing so, he brings more detailed music-historical knowledge to bear upon cinema music, often discussed as a unique and special product of film, and also offers conclusions about the problematic aspects of musical modernism and some arguably liberating aspects of 'late-romanticism'.


Can Hollywood films that are rich in music, even saturated with it, also tell us something about music? Can they be credited with critical self-awareness? The typical cinematic ‘love theme’ of the 1930s or ‘40s, soaring violins and sobbing horns straight out of Tchaikovsky tugging at our heartstrings, easily inspires mockery (once we have wiped our eyes). ‘Hokum!’ we cry, ‘manipulative nonsensel’The implications of just that sort of music, and that sort of reaction to it, are what interest me here. We encounter it in many types of film, including the excessively masculine world of westerns and action adventures. More usually it is associated with the supposedly softer-centered repertoire of noirs, melodramas, and ‘women’s films,’ on which criticism has often dwelt.

The music encountered in all of these genres has been problematized by an historical and critical discourse that is inadequately, if provocatively, represented by psychoanalytic theories about cinema music’s nature as a womb-like “sonorous envelope,” an image which deliberately invokes the emotive and yet threatening realm of the maternal. Rather than reducing it to a generalized form of cultural practice, however, I shall treat the nuanced actuality of movie music as if it were aware both of its possible psychological functions and of the culturalhistorical critique of the very European musical style, now usually known as ‘late romantic,’ which dominated film during the era of high modernism and of the emergent ‘avant-garde.’ For this reason my concerns will repeatedly reach out into musicological debate and into matters that will involve other kinds and situations of music than cinematic ones. Film music is older than film.

The two parts of this study are each related to historical exchanges between supposedly high-culture musical forms and those encountered in popular cinema. Following the more broadly based historical and theoretical approach of chapter 1, part I revisits the vexed issue of film’s and film music’s debt to . . .

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