May 28, 2007

Scherzando

Terry Teachout throws down a nice challenge today: name a great Hollywood film score written for a comedy. Tough, because, like so much else about comedy, if you notice the score, it's not really doing its job. Comedy is all about efficiency—film scoring is all about luxury. For a comedic one to work, the effort has to be imperceptible.

For an example, let's examine what I think is one of the all-time best comedy film scores: Franz Waxman's for The Philadelphia Story. The first thing you notice is that it's hardly there at all—maybe twenty minutes of music, and that includes some ambient Cole Porter arrangements for the big party scene. Which leaves, what? Ten minutes of actual cues? Maybe less? Yet without those ten minutes, the movie doesn't work at all.

Take the opening scene, a flashback in which Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant acrimoniously end their marriage. She breaks his golf clubs; he winds up to punch her, and instead puts his hand over her face and pushes her to the ground. Pretty tough start for a guy we're supposed to spend the rest of the movie rooting for. Waxman smooths it over with pure cartoon music, mickey-mousing every bit of action with imitative instrumentation. Not only does it decisively confirm the scene as slapstick, it reassures us that the main dramatic conflict is not serious enough to turn into drama. Waxman doles out a little more of the same later, when, depressed and confused, Hepburn downs an entire tray of champagne saucers. Incipient alcoholism? Nah—the insouciantly echoing clarinet line slyly signals that it's the beginning of her salvation.

Waxman brings his full romantic arsenal to bear in only one scene, the late-night dance between Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart—and even here, he sneaks in, ingeniously dovetailing the cue with some languid jazz coming from an on-screen radio. That's his strategy all the way through: slip into the scene, gently tip it in the right dramatic direction, and then slip out again.

Big, epic comedies can produce great scores (John Williams' underrated score for 1941 springs to mind), but such scores are usually forgotten because the resulting movies almost never work. (I'm racking my brains to come up with an example of one that does, and the only one I can think of is Ghostbusters, in which Elmer Bernstein's Stripes-redux score jostles for space with a lot of 80s pop.) Interestingly, some of my favorite music for comedies is pre-existing: Scott Joplin rags in The Sting, Carmen in the original Bad News Bears, the Marriage of Figaro overture in Trading Places. Lisa Hirsch nominates the collective work of Warner Brothers animation composer Carl Stalling—divorced from the films, the music does have a modernist, fragmentary musique concréte energy, but that's a response to the structure of the visuals, not an inherently musical inspiration. Alex Ross suggests Danny Elfman's score for Beetlejuice—I'd go back farther to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Elfman's first score and still one of the best things he's ever done, a pitch-perfect musical embodiment of the movie's loopy atmosphere. I searched high and low for that soundtrack, and when I found it, I wore it out.

That's the exception, though. I remember a few years back, when the Modern Library came up with their list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the last century. I was ticked that the Julia Child-Louisette Bertholle-Simone Beck Mastering the Art of French Cooking didn't make the list, but really, the elegance and wit of that book's writing will always take a perceptive backseat to its functionality. That's what good comedy scores are like: ideally stylish, but necessarily efficient.

The readers, blessedly more intelligent than me, have posted many a fine comment.

14 comments:

Elaine Fine said...

The only comedy I can think of that has a score that really stands out is Chaplin's own score to his silent film City Lights, which might fall into the genre of "romantic comedy." It seems that successful comedys that use original music have "songs" (like "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) while films that would fall into the genre of "drama" have scores that call more attention to themselves.

This is a very interesting challenge.

DJA said...

name a great Hollywood film score written for a comedy

That's easy -- Carter Burwell's score for Fargo.

(What do you mean, Fargo's not a comedy? Black comedy is still comedy.)

Liz said...

I guess most of the music is preexisting, but I love the music to "Moonstruck". The film would really be nothing without the opera soundtrack....

Lisa Hirsch said...

Moonstruck has a great score, it's true - it's one of my favorite films of all time, with that Nozze-like clockwork.

We saw City Lights recently with the soundtrack provided by the San Francisco Symphony - charming music, but not exactly great, I thought.

Rodney Lister said...

Is Jules and Jim a comedy? George Delarue's score for it is great, I think.

Elaine Fine said...

The score for Jules and Jim is great, but it is not a Hollywood movie, so it doesn't answer the challenge.

Matthew said...

I forgot about Burwell, but I would say his scores fall more in the great-because-you-don't-notice-them category. Terrific, subtle stuff, if you're not familiar with him.

It's OK to venture outside of Hollywood for this game, I think. I have no memory of the music to Jules and Jim, but I will nominate another sly bit of craftsmanship, Francis Lemarque's score for Playtime.

DJA said...

great-because-you-don't-notice-them

Most of the time, yes, but then there's that wonderfully ironic title theme that accompanies the car-in-a-snowstorm shot that opens the movie, and brilliantly shapes our expectations for the rest of the film.

I don't write film music, but if I did, I'd want to write like Burwell.

jason said...

There's the ubiquitous tango by Zbigniew Preisner throughout "White" from Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy. That may fall short of great, but it's darn catchy and fits the film.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Burt Bacharach's score for the first Casino Royale. Better than the movie.

I agree that Chaplin's City Lights score is a classic. Likewise, Modern Times. And don't forget Bernard Herrmann's score for The Trouble With Harry.

Rodney Lister said...

I didn't realize until late in the day that I had forgotten about Beauties of the Night by Rene Clair, a very French, very funny sort of take off on Intolerance, in which music plays a very big part (since it's about a composer). The score, which is pretty wonderful, is by Georges Van Parys. Sorry still not Hollywood.

For anybody who knew Robert Helps, the fact that it was his favorite movie means something.

Stephen V Funk said...

Even though it's more songs than score, how about This Is Spinal Tap...

And the "non-song" parts of the original Willy Wonka score are pretty great, actually...

Catch Me If You Can is a sorta kinda comedy with some nice Williams scoring...

Is Barbarella a comedy...?

How could we forget all that great Mancini music in all those Pink Panther movies?

Speaking of Mancini (and Sellars), The Party has a fabulous soundtrack too...

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Ernest Gold's score for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Maybe not *great* but damn good.

Elmer Bernstein's score for Stripes. It's basically a one-theme score, but quite effective. And, along with Animal House, got him lots more work doing comedy scores.

Poguego said...

Why is everyone forgetting Elmer Bernstein's Airplane!? Hands down one of the all-time best comedy scores in terms of sophistication, innovation, and pure fun.

I'll second Danny Elfman's Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and throw in Men in Black and Mars Attacks--though not the greatest of all time, maybe, they are both iconic and a great listen.

Does Young Frankenstein count if it is purely pastiche?