Friday, 13 September 2013

Neil Brand reveals how "King Kong" changed movies forever in his marvellous BBC Four series, “Sound of the Cinema”

Please watch the scene Brand chose to illustrate his King Kong revelation, and see if you can figure out how it changed cinema (it had nothing to do with the ape):

Apparently, until King Kong – released in 1933 – Hollywood movie-makers were convinced that if the audience heard music on the soundtrack, they had to actually see the people making it on the screen. Fine for musicals, of course, but using music to increase an audience’s emotional response to drama or comedy was forbidden. Perhaps they worried that cinema-goers would view it as a throwback to the recent Silent Era, when live accompanists provided the soundtrack (except for Don Juan in 1926 - the first silent film to be released with an official orchestral soundtrack on an accompanying disc).

Having sunk a fortune into Kong, RKO worried about the audience’s reaction to what is – let’s face it – a damned silly story. So they broke with tradition and got in-house composer, the brilliant Max Steiner, to compose a score that would help the audience suspend disbelief by telling them how to respond to what was happening on the screen.

Brand uses the scene which starts 58” into the following clip to demonstrate how Steiner allowed us to identify with – and feel sympathy for – the big lummox as he strips away Fay Wray’s flimsy clothing and his heart awakens to beauty (and sex):

Without the music, Kong comes across as an extremely large potential rapist. The music humanises him. In order to synchronise the score to the action (Brand points to the trilling woodwind which accompany Kong tickling his captive), Steiner invented the click-track by punching regular holes in the optical soundtrack section of the print his music was to be recorded on.

RKO payed a whopping $50,000 to add music to King Kong – worth every cent, and then some.

Sound of the Cinema is the sort of programme that temporarily banishes resentment about paying a poll tax to an organisation that spends so much of it churning out hectoring, nannyish, finger-wagging socialist propaganda. There was nothing political about Neil Brand’s script – all we got was an enthusiastic expert lovingly illuminating a key aspect of cinema of which I, for one, was fairly ignorant. I simply cannot understand why BBC Four, which adds so much to our cultural life, has been routinely starved of funding by the BBC, while the moronic, cultureless drool-fest that is BBC Three has been regularly power-hosed with our cash.

One of the many admirable aspects of Sound of the Cinema is that Neil Brand isn’t someparvenu desperately trying to prove how damned clever and original he/she is. Despite – or maybe because of - being a cultural polymath (actor, dramatist, composer, silent film accompanist etc.), he is a roly-poly middle-aged bloke who looks like he spends a lot of time fiddling with Meccano in a shed at the bottom of his garden. Because Brand doesn't look like a typical TV art show presenter, you assume he knows what he's talking about (ditto rotund art historian and BBC Four regular Waldemar Januszczak).
young, glossy, glib Oxbridge

For those who can access the BBC iPlayer, the first part of Brand’s wonderful three-part series is available here. It’s worth watching just for the sequence where he demonstrates how, in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) the distinguished composer Erich Korngold used three distinct tunes in the space of 90 seconds to show Maid Marion first being suspicious or Robin Hood’s motives, then realising that he’s a genuinely principled man, and thenr starting to fall in love with him. The most miraculous thing about the sequence – in an echo of what Max Steiner did for the inanimate dummy playing King Kong - is that Korngold’s music allows us to ignore Flynn’s ridiculous hair-do and convinces us that the  Aussie plank can really act.

Thank you so much, Mr. Brand.

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