The Significant Role of Music in Black and White Films

     Throughout the course of the semester, I have had the opportunity to critically analyze films of the black and white era. It is easy to conclude that these films differ from modern pictures in many aspects, but perhaps the most obvious is music. Living in a period in which the soundtrack of a movie is critical towards both revenue and promotion, I was very surprised to see how the role of music in film has changed through time.

     In both of William Wyler's films that were witnessed by the class, music was essential for setting the mood and arousing the expectation of the audience. Viewers of the 1939 film, based on Emily Brontë's 1847 book, Wuthering Heights, could anticipate the outcome of an argument between Heathcliff (Rex Downing/Laurence Olivier) and Catherine (Sarita Wooten/Merle Oberon) solely on the pitch of the background music, scored by Alfred Newman. This is most evident in Wuthering Heights's final scene, as the happy, high-pitched score playing in the background corresponds perfectly with the two (ghost-acted by doubles) walking into the clouds. The intentions of the film makers were to use music as a tool of assuring the viewer that the ending was as happy as possible.

     The role of Aaron Copland's score in The Heiress, filmed in 1949 and based on Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1948 play version of Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, also serves as a tool that provides reassurance to the audience's perceptions. The scene in which Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is awaiting the arrival of Morris (Montgomery Clift) and the carriage is a perfect example. The viewer does not become aware that she is being stood up until the music changes into a depressing and angry tone. The score is essential in the final scene as well, when the tone shifts from mellow to dramatic in Morris attempt to enter Cather's house. This culmination of The Heiress, perhaps the greatest scene in the movie, would not have been nearly as effective without the corresponding music.

     Wyler is not the only example of a film maker incorporating a dramatic score into his presentation. Jack Clayton did so as well, especially in his 1961 rendition of William Archibald's 1950 play version of Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw. In this cinematic mystery, entitled The Innocents, there are many scenes in which the characterizations of the children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) undergo a complete makeover. The music, by Georges Auric, is what allows the viewer to notice the change and question the film makers intentions. The Innocents would not have its many scenes surrounded by suspense and anticipation if it were not for the tones created by the score.

     In modern film, more emphasis is put on the acting in the action and drama sequences in film than on the music. The score of a film has become a means of making money with big-name recording artists. It has been interesting to discover the film's score did once have a significant role in the production of a film.

Craig Sam Aguiar

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