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Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films

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Lavish musical soundtracks contributed a special grandeur to the new widescreen, stereophonic sound movie experience of postwar biblical epics such as Samson and Delilah, Ben-Hur, and Quo Vadis. In Epic Sound, Stephen C. Meyer shows how music was utilized for various effects, sometimes serving as a vehicle for narrative plot and at times complicating biblical and cinematic interpretation. In this way, the soundscapes of these films reflected the ideological and aesthetic tensions within the genre, and more generally, within postwar American society. By examining key biblical films, Meyer adeptly engages musicology with film studies to explore cinematic interpretations of the Bible during the 1940s through the 1960s.

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1. A Biblical Story for the Post–World War II Generation? Victor Young’s Music for DeMille’s Samson and Delilah

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When Cecil B. DeMille was preparing to pitch his idea for a film on Samson and Delilah to Paramount, he was—at least according to the account in his autobiography—far from confident. “A new generation of executives had grown up since The King of Kings,” he wrote, referring to his 1927 Christ film,

and most of them greeted my suggestion of Samson and Delilah with the expected executive misgivings. A Biblical story, for the post–World War II generation? Put millions of dollars into a Sunday school tale? Anticipating this familiar chorus, before the meeting held in my office to decide on my next production, I asked Dan Groesbeck to draw a simple sketch of two people—a big brawny athlete and, looking at him with an at once seductive and coolly measuring eye, a slim and ravishingly attractive young girl.

When the executives trooped in, ready to save me and Paramount from the ruinous folly they were sure I had in mind, I greeted them, saw them to their seats, and brought out the Groesbeck sketch.

 

2. Turning Away from “Concocted Spectacle”: Alfred Newman’s Score for David and Bathsheba

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By 1951—the year in which both David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis premiered—the practice of supplementing box office receipts by commodifying cinematic music was already well established. This commodification took a variety of forms. Later in the decade (after the long-playing record became established as a commercially viable medium for recorded sound), “original sound track” albums became important. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the principal media for the dissemination of film music (outside of the films themselves) were concert music (such as the Spellbound Concerto that Miklós Rózsa created from his score for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or the Sinfonia Antarctica that Vaughn Williams developed from his score for Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic) and popular songs, either taken directly from the film or else cobbled together by adding words to prominent themes from the film score. These songs (and, to a lesser degree, the concert music as well) could then be recorded and/or sold as sheet music. Along with various picture books, novelizations, and other kinds of material, these ancillary products orbited around mid-century films like so many moons around a central planet.

 

3. Spectacle and Authenticity in Miklós Rózsa’s Quo Vadis Score

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In “The Romans in Films”—one of the lesser-known feuilletons from the Mythologies collection—Roland Barthes turned his caustic wit on a seemingly inconsequential detail from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953): namely, the hair styles of the leading actors. In this film, he writes,

all the characters are wearing fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. . . . What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness. We therefore see here the mainspring of the Spectacle—the sign—operating in the open. The frontal lock overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome.1

Barthes places the omnipresent forelock in what he calls an “ethic of signs.” “Signs,” he continues,

ought to present themselves only in two extreme forms: either openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra, as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet . . . (as in the art of Stanislavsky, for instance). But the intermediate sign [such as the fringe] reveals a degraded spectacle, which is equally afraid of simple reality and of total artifice.2

 

4. Novel and Film, Music and Miracle: Alfred Newman’s Score to The Robe

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The postwar religious revival that I referenced in the introduction to this book was manifest not merely in film, but also in many other aspects of American culture, and one index of its strength was the prevalence of religious works atop the best-seller lists during the period. Although the completion of the Revised Standard Version in 1952 propelled the Bible itself briefly to the top of the nonfiction list in the following year, works such as Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (a retelling of the basic Gospel narrative) and Catherine Marshall’s A Man Called Peter (an inspirational biography of her husband, the preacher Peter Marshall) were more typical.1 Perhaps the most popular and influential of these postwar religious nonfiction works was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 186 weeks, 48 in the No. 1 nonfiction spot.2 Other popular titles included Billy Graham’s Peace with God and Dale Evans Rogers’s My Spiritual Diary.3 The hunger for religious books was also reflected in the popularity of historical novels based on biblical events and characters. The beginnings of this trend may be traced back into the war years, which saw the publication of Lloyd Douglas’s blockbuster novel The Robe (1942). Douglas followed up this success with his novel The Big Fisherman (1949), in which Peter is the central character.4 But Douglas was by no means the only novelist to take advantage of this hunger. Sholem Asch’s Moses (1951) and Frank Slaughter’s The Galileans: A Story of Mary Magdalene (1953) found their way onto the best-seller lists of the time, although their popularity was eclipsed by that of Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice.5 For the book trade in the postwar period, in short, religion sold, and sold well.

 

5. Spirit and Empire: Elmer Bernstein’s Score to The Ten Commandments

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Like many other critics writing during the 1970s, Michael Wood had an essentially negative attitude toward the biblical epics of the previous decades. In a striking phrase from his book America in the Movies, Wood describes the epics as “articulations of a genuine American myth: the myth of excess, the myth that suggests, in many places and in many forms, that only those things that are too big are big enough for American appetites, and that only too much is really sufficient.”1 “The basic elements of the epic,” he continues a few paragraphs later,

seem to run from the relatively minor ones like the music (preferably by Miklos Rozsa or Elmer Bernstein, and always a martial, pompous affair, with lots of organs and trumpets, a mixture of Elgar, Episcopalian hymns, and Handel, alternating with exotic-sounding slow movements for the love scenes, variations on the tunes we usually associate with snake charming) to relatively major ones like certain sturdy, straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the orgy, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and big, earthshaking themes.2

 

6. The Law of Genre and the Music for Ben-Hur

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In 1981, Jacques Derrida published an influential essay entitled “The Law of Genre”—an essay that begins with a gesture at once provocative and ludic.1 “Genres are not to be mixed,” Derrida writes. “I will not mix genres. I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them.” Derrida’s rhetorical strategy is to trace the various contradictory resonances of this doubled prohibition in order to arrive—several pages later—at what he calls “the law of the law of genre.” This “law of the law,” he writes,

is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy. In the code of set theories, if I may use it at least figuratively, I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging—a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set. With the inevitable dividing of the trait that marks membership, the boundary of the set comes to form, by invagination, an internal pocket larger than the whole; and the outcome of this division and of this abounding remains as singular as it is limitless.2

 

7. King of Kings and the Problem of Repetition

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Among the many markers of the aesthetics of the superlative was a distinctive visual style that was used to market the biblical epics and the ephemera with which they were associated. We may see this specific visual style, for example, in the sheet music covers for Ben-Hur arrangements that were published in the early 1960s (see Figure 7.1a). On these covers, the visual field is dominated by the title of the film, which appears in block capitals as if it were part of a gigantic stone edifice. This edifice is oriented with its corner toward the viewer, so that the gigantic letters appear foreshortened by perspective. Around these monumental letters are vignettes from the chariot race (which had quickly become the most famous scene in the film). This visual style finds interesting analogues in some of the Quo Vadis posters, but it is most closely connected to the promotional materials for King of Kings (see Figure 7.1b). In these images, we see the same kind of block letters, foreshortened so that they appear to be a part of some monumental construction. Instead of the chariot race, the title is surrounded by a legionnaire’s helmet and a visual allusion to the Sermon on the Mount scene—a scene that (in terms of spectacle, if not of content) was marketed as the successor to the chariot race in Ben-Hur.

 

8. Suoni Nuovi, Suoni Antichi: The Soundscapes of Barabbas

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The popularity of the biblical epic, as I have already noted, was closely associated with the “fourth great awakening” that filled the pews of churches during the postwar period. The crest of this religious wave is of course impossible to mark with specificity, but we might use church attendance as a rough measure of the centrality of Christianity in American life during this period. Self-reported church attendance reached its all-time high in the United States in 1955 and 1958: years which correspond almost exactly to the release dates of the two films that probably mark the high water point of the genre (The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, respectively). The association between the postwar biblical epic and the postwar Christian church, moreover, was not merely a matter of statistics. Cinematic representations of biblical narratives found their way into the fabric of American religious life, not least through musical adaptions. Selections from Miklós Rózsa’s scores for King of Kings and for Ben-Hur were arranged for church choir, while The Ten Commandments—especially after it began to appear on television in 1973—attained a special, quasi-sacramental position as a special Easter program. The monumental scale of these films, their centrist theological stance and optimistic messages, position them as cinematic analogues of the expansionist, self-confident mainline Christianity of the 1950s. The postwar biblical epics, in other words, were both participants in and expressions of the “fourth great awakening” of American religious life.

 

9. Universality, Transcendence, and Collapse: Music and The Greatest Story Ever Told

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In the new economy of the blockbuster that began to emerge in the postwar period, Hollywood studios needed to transform the premieres of their big-budget films into high-visibility cultural events. Among the many strategies that they employed along these lines was to publish books or pamphlets in conjunction with these blockbuster premieres. Noerdlinger’s Moses in Egypt—to which I referred in chapter 5—is a somewhat anomalous example of this kind of work. More typical is a promotional book by Ray Freiman that was designed to accompany the premiere of Ben-Hur.1 Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the book is dedicated to high-impact images. At the end of the book, for instance, are a series of color prints—reproductions of oil paintings depicting various scenes from Ben-Hur—that may be carefully torn out along conveniently placed perforated seams (the text informs us that these prints are suitable for framing). The book also includes profiles of the stars, as well as brief essays that discuss various elements of the film such as costumes, sets, and music. The emphasis in all these essays is on size, splendor, and magnificence. The promotional book for Ben-Hur, in short, documents and exemplifies the aesthetics of the superlative that was such an important part of the biblical epic genre.

 

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