Greenwood, Plainview, Skeffington and Copland

D-Day 

I thought I better write the comparative study of MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) and THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), before anyone else does.

Seriously, the two have nothing in common so this is the usual exercise in absurdity but both films did make me think about MUSIC a lot.

Of course, Jonny Greenwood’s monumental work for T.W.B.B. is extremely praiseworthy and interesting and has rightly provoked much discussion. And the fact that this major work has been denied a place in the running for an Oscar is an outrage — it’s more obvious than ever that the Best Score award is a closed shop and non-Americans need not apply. Ennio Morricone, f.f.s, has never won, despite a nomination for THE MISSION, one of his great works — when Bette Midler read his name from the podium, the applause brought the house down — “Ennio has a fan,” observed Ms. Midler. Nino Rota for THE GODFATHER and Michael Nyman for THE PIANO were barred on the same grounds as Greenwood: their scores used previously existing themes (but, perversely, Rota was allowed a half-share in a golden swordsman for THE GODFATHER II, even though that movie features predominantly themes written for the first film,) In the absence of an award for “Best Adapted Score,” the system should be altered so that an Oscar need not be denied to the year’s best soundtrack. 

I generally try to ignore the asinine decisions arrived at annually by the academy, but when the best film score of the year or maybe DECADE is excluded even from the privilege of being overlooked by numb-skulls, something has got to be done. Or, at any rate, said. Or blogged.

End of Oscars digression. Start of MR. SKEFFINGTON digression. A product of Warner Bros’ esteemed Masochism Department, this wartime weepie takes Bette Davis and Claude Raines through one marriage and two world wars, and is one of the few Hollywood films to mention Jews and concentration camps. The propaganda element is very delicately stitched into the overall pattern, while the central theme, “A woman is only beautiful when she is loved,” is wielded like a length of drainpipe in the hands of an enraged Viking (how the Viking got his hands ON the drainpipe is outwith the purlieu of this piece, which is an exercise in film criticism rather than Scandinavian ethnography or plumbing).

Vincent Sherman, who made one of our favourite gangster / women’s picture crossovers, THE DAMNED DON’T CRY, is here a smooth and sensitive channel for what they call the Genius of the System, creating an elegant and emotional studio picture that isn’t anonymous but isn’t exactly personal either, but is extremely GOOD.

Jerome Cowan turns up as an aging suitor, bringing home to the heroine the reality of her advancing years — a function he repeated years later in Mitchell Leisen’s great Twilight Zone episode, “The 16mm Shrine”. I’m certain Leisen must have seen and remembered him here.

Abel bodied

Walter Abel does what Walter Abel does, marvellously. Imported from Broadway and unsuccessfully cast as D’Artagnan, Abel found his footing in second banana roles, bringing cut-throat timing and toothy wit to his comic work.

Claude Rains supreme

But Claude Rains is MISTER WIT. A film automatically gets wittier when he’s around. Here, as in CASABLANCA, he has the Epstein brothers supplying him with some great material, but he always makes more of it than anyone else. “When a man becomes repetitious, it is time to see the District Attorney,” is a lovely line in context, but C.R. makes it soar over our heads, flip round in a vertical 180°, and skewer us right in the occipital lobe.

Set whimsy to stun!

Bette Davis presides over the whole affair with an iron hand, in a velvet glove, clutching a length of drainpipe (a different one). She plays the lighter scenes with the whimsy turned up to 11 (a whimsical Bette in full flow may be too much for those of a delicate sensibility) and throws herself into the third-act suffering with the zeal of a flagellant. It’s a terrifying lesson in Star Power.

she's got Bette Davis EVERYTHING!

But the music… I love Franz Waxman. His score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is of Total Importance in the history of Hollywood music, and is a joy to the ears. When angels and demons have interspecies sex with each other, this is what they listen to. Waxman also brought the same wit to another, more obscure, James Whale movie the same year — in the opening party scene of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? Waxman appears to provide a jazz tune as source music, but is actually underscoring a series of little dialogue vignettes in the most precise way: foreground music masquerading as background. And that’s just two films out of five scored in one year out of a thirty-five year career (which also includes that Twilight Zone episode…)

But for some reason, Waxman can’t quite get a handle on MR. SKEFFINGTON. Faced with a film that starts mostly light and journeys into dark and tortured terrain, Franz attacks the comedy like it’s a Carry On film, while overstressing the subtle hints of tragedy to come like Bernard Herrmann accompanying the sinking of the Lusitania. Once the film settles into weepie mode, the score finds its correct register and things progress smoothly, but it’s a rocky first hour.

This dovetails with what I wanted to say about Mr. Greenwood’s exciting score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, because one of the striking things about that, apart from the sheer impact and originality of the sonorities, is the way the highly emotive and forceful music DOESN’T synchronise with the moods onscreen. While Waxman is slamming emphasis onto each flutter of an eyelid, Greenwood lays thick aural layers of terror over scenes that don’t have any apparent terror in them — he’s preparing you for the NEXT scene, which will have plenty. When Plainview (John Huston [Daniel Day-Lewis]) is promising wealth and health and education to the townsfolk, the music is plangent and heartbreaking, playing the mood of some upcoming scene, an hour away at least, where they find out they’ve been cheated, and playing it so effectively that the scene doesn’t even have to be included in the film.

Unusual!

fires on the plain

The score is actually so overwhelming that if it DID synchronise precisely with the tones onscreen it might seem hammy and bombastic — instead it manages to be poetic and allusive without pulling any punches whatsoever.

It did remind me a very tiny bit of Aaron Copland’s score for THE HEIRESS, but Copland only gets ahead by a few seconds. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable thing he does — by signalling an emotional change, a realisation or a plot development before it’s happened, he’s actually re-writing the movie. Copland and Greenwood both show how a score can be far more than an accompaniment or a mood-enhancer, it can be both part of film story-telling and an abstract force whose role can extend beyond the moment.

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7 Responses to “Greenwood, Plainview, Skeffington and Copland”

  1. Mr. Skeffington is really something. How they got away with it I’ll never know. Maybe because it was Bete Davis and Claude Rains together again nobody at Warner Bros. paid much attention to what the film was actually saying.

    Vincent Sherman BTW, knew his leading lady uh. . .intimately. He was quite the Casanova in his day.

  2. Am looking forward to sampling Sherman’s audio commentary.

    Bette I think made a play for most of her directors. On The Nanny, she even tried to nail the writer, which puts one in mind of that bad joke about the dumb actress, except that she wasn’t dumb, whatever else she was.

  3. Just looked at the Vincent picture — I must say he’s doing well to maintain eye contact!
    I wasn’t too startled by the multiple infidelities in Mr. Skeff, but the intermarriage was a pleasant surprise, and when we’re always told that Hollywood avoided the subject of Nazi anti-semitism it was impressive to see that referenced, as well as the homegrown American variety.
    There’s a certain amount of soap opera to it, but some impressively adult attitudes too.

  4. Actually it was a Polish joke: “Did you hear the one about the Polish actress? She thought the best way to get ahead was to sleep with the writer! Thanks folks — I’ll be here all week!”

  5. What, no mention of Waxman’s superb score for “Sunset Boulevard”? I like what the music does in “Rear Window,” too — complete with Bernstein quote.

    And Abel … he’s positively elegant in his two Leisens, “Arise My Love” and “Hold Back The Dawn.”

  6. Yes, he works really well in those Leisens. “I’m not happy,” as he repeatedly says in Arise, getting bigger laughs each time from the audience I saw it with.

    Waxman is a genius — his music for Dodsworth and Remember Last Night? is particularly striking: he uses source music in a very distinctive way — the party scene in RLN is broken up into musical phrases timed to match the diting rhythms and the rhythms of the dialogue, creating an awesome impression of speed. The Bride of Frankenstein obviously deserves mention also.

  7. [...] propria dipendenza dall’altro (in questo caso, il signor Skeffington di Claude Rains). Come lo definisce David Cairns, «un prodotto dello stimato Reparto Masochismo della Warner Bros». Peccato non [...]

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