Much of the writing in film studies published today can be understood as genre criticism, broadly speaking. And even before film studies emerged as an academic discipline in the 1970s, cultural observers within and beyond the academy were writing about genre films and making fascinating attempts to understand their conventions and how they speak to, for, and about the culture that produces them. While this early writing on genre film was often unsystematic, impressionistic, journalistic, and judgmental, it nonetheless produced insights that remain relevant and valuable today.
Barry Keith Grant's new edited volume with Malisa Kurtz, Notions of Genre: Writings on Popular Film Before Genre Theory, gathers the most important early writing on film genre and genre films published between 1945 and 1969. In the spirit of appreciating genre film, we asked Barry Keith Grant to curate a playlist of iconic music from genre cinema. Enjoy this fun whirl through movie history through its music.
“Back in the Saddle Again” – Gene Autry: As might be expected, a sense of nostalgia informs the discussions of the western in Notions of Genre. Autrey sings this song – his signature tune from 1939 – in the film of the same name, and it has everything going for it: cowpokes checking their saddles, the comic sidekick bumbling about, Hollywood cowgirls decorating the mise-en-scene, and a yodelling riff later used by Frank Zappa in “Montana.” Gene never misses a beat broadcasting his show from his ranch, even as he deals with the nefarious owner of the local copper mine.
“Beware The Blob” – The 5 Blobs: A novelty song inspired by the classic science fiction movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen as the brave teenager whose warnings initially go unheeded by the authorities. It’s silly little melody is a certified earwig, worming its way into the brain like the blob in the film oozes through the air vents in a movie theater. The tune—written by none other than Hal David and Burt Bacharach—is part of a proud tradition of novelty SF tunes that include such masterpieces as Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater,” The Ran-Dells “Martian Hop,” and the Boss Tones’ “Moppity Mope.”
“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” – Georgie Fame: Bonnie and Clyde is one of the latest films discussed in Notions of Genre. Its impact was extraordinary, not just in cinema but influencing other areas of popular culture such as fashion and music. A number of recording artists—even mellow Mel Tormé—capitalized on the film’s popularity by waxing tunes related to the infamous duo. But the best is Georgie Fame’s short pop hit. Fame, who has collaborated with Van Morrison on some of the latter’s projects, was a jazz musician disguised as a British Invasion pop singer. Listen to those lyrics just rhythmically role off the tongue, like Walt Whitman’s poetry.
“Moon River” – Jerry Butler: A standard composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it won the Oscar for Best Original Song in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The song evokes Mercer’s childhood in the American South, the line about “My huckleberry friend” specifically evoking the 19th century world of Mark Twain on the Mississippi. There are innumerable versions of the song, but Jerry Butler’s version from 1961 was a top chart hit even before Mancini’s was released. Butler, the original lead singer of The Impressions, would seem miscast, but his soulful interpretation lends a black perspective to the song that is entirely different from Andy Williams’ iconic but vanilla treatment.
Electronic music for Forbidden Planet: While the recently invented theramin seemed to be heard everywhere in science fiction movies of the 1950s, Bebe and Louis Barron’s music (or “electronic tonalities”) for Forbidden Planet (1956) was the first electronic film score. The Barrons used a ring modulator and other electronically manipulated sounds to create the cosmic array of bleeps, blips, and whirs that comprise it. The rhythmic sounds that accompany the plodding approach of the Monster from the Id is much more chilling than the feeble visual effects provided by Disney Studios. Far out, man.
“Put the Blame on Mame” – Rita Hayworth: There’s little one can say about this justly famous tune from the essential film noir, Gilda (1946), and its expression of masculine anxiety projected onto woman, that hasn’t already been said. Rita Hayworth performs the song in the film on the floor of a nightclub, the lyrics explicitly explaining that men have blamed women when things went bad, strutting her stuff while a seething, jealous Glenn Ford looks on. Regarded as the ultimate incarnation of the noir femme fatale, Hayworth’s singing is actually dubbed in the film by Anita Ellis, who in the course of her career voice doubled for a number of other actresses.
“Laura” – Billy Eckstine: The theme from Otto Preminger’s great 1944 film noir has become a jazz standard, but nobody croons it like Mr. B, Billy Eckstine. His velvety baritone perfectly matches the dreamy, erotic longing that hangs over the entire film like the portrait of Gene Tierney upon which Dana Andrews becomes fixated. (How different would the film have been if Preminger had gone with his first choice, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Eckstine, a singing idol who at the height of his career, rivalled Frank Sinatra in popularity, gives David Raksin’s haunting melody and lyrics by Johnny Mercer (again!) the subdued steaminess the song demands. Raksin would provide the music for several subsequent Preminger movies.
“Waltzing Matilda” – Tom Waits:
Psycho (1960) – Bernard Herrmann: Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make Psycho on a smaller budget, and so he shot in black-and-white mostly with the crew of his television show, although he did retain composer Bernard Herrmann, with whom he had already worked on a number of films. Because he was offered a reduced fee by Hitchcock, Herrmann composed the score for the string section only rather than for full orchestra. The shower scene is one of the most well-known scenes in film history, and the musical cue for the scene perhaps the most famous. The plucked violins, recorded close to the microphones to amplify its ominous tone, eerily complement the slashing of Mrs. Bates’ knife.
“Riot in Cell Block No. 9” – The Robins: Well, it’s not quite Riot in Cell Block No. 11, the big house thriller by Don Siegel, but it’s close enough, only 2 blocks down. In the song the riot starts in Cell Block No. 4 and spreads all the way to Block No. 9, where an inmate, Scarface Jones, somehow retaliates against the prison screws with dynamite before the melee is quelled. The Robins evolved into The Coasters, noted for their humorous r&b hits like “Poison Ivy” and “Charlie Brown,” and like many of those hit songs “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” features the bass voice of Bobby Nunn, who sings the Lieber and Stoller tune like a cross between Al Hibbler and Jack Webb. Comes complete with police siren more than a decade before Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
“The Sheik of Araby” – Spike Jones and His City Slickers: This Tin Pan Alley hit by Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler with music by Ted Snyder was written in response to the enormous popularity of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921). The tune became popular with early and Dixieland jazz musicians, one of the most enjoyable of the many recordings of it done by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Jones and His Band, whose musicianship was in fact quite impressive, murdered many classics over the years (one of their LPs was entitled “Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry”), and their treatment of “The Sheik of Araby” brings out the whimsical qualities of the tune. The hilarious 1942 “soundie” recording by the band climaxes in a wave of hiccups brought on by hookah smoking.
“Running Wild” – Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe sings this 1922 song (not the one by Judas Priest or by Roxy Music) in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), of which this version, performed quite uptempo, is a case in point. The song is performed by Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters, an all-female band in which Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis), two musicians trying to escape town after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Jerry begins by playing sax to his own music, like Lisa at the beginning of The Simpsons, but then settles into a groove along with the band while Joe, leering at Monroe, plucks the back of his bass. Marilyn shimmies even better than the proverbial Sister Kate—like jello on springs, as Jerry puts it.
“Ruby” – Ray Charles:
The theme song for King Vidor’s 1952 backwoods melodrama Ruby Gentry starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston as star-crossed lovers. Composed by Heinz Eric Roemheld, the song generated some popularity because of an easy listening rendition by Les Baxter with a harmonica solo. But Ray Charles’ treatment of the song captures the sultry yet feisty quality of Jones’ title character.
“The Third Man Theme”: Anton Karas‘s singular music for the 1949 thriller based on the novel by Graham Greene is played entirely on zither, a distinction that sets it apart from all other film scores. Director Carol Reed wanted something different from the usual schmaltzy waltzes associated with Vienna, where the film is set, and he found it. The Band included it as the oddball it is on their Moondog Matinee LP, an album otherwise devoted to covering some of the classic rock n’ roll songs that influenced them. Thankfully, they don’t play zithers on their version.
“Where the Boys Are” – Connie Francis: One of the formative teen movies of the 1950s, Where the Boys Are (1960) provided motivation for college students to head to Florida during annual Spring Break. Connie Francis, one of the top female singers of the time (she recorded for MGM, the same company that owned the film studio), seems at odd with the rest of the film’s music, by west coast jazz arranger and composer Pete Rugolo, but she nicely lends her plaintive vocal style to the film’s idea of developing female hormones.
“Happy Trails to You” – Roy Rogers and Dale Evans: “Happy Trails” was the signature tune of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who moved from B-movies to television with two different weekly shows in the early 1950s. Their 1952 recording of the song for RCA, featuring the whistling of the Whippoorwills along with the laconic clippity-clop of the rhythm section that must have been provided by Foley artists banging cocoanuts together, nicely evokes the era’s vision of the west as a vast and sublime, yet ultimately benign, mythic space. Young cowpokes across the nation sang the tune as visions of tumbleweeds danced in their heads.
“Am I Blue?” – Hoagy Carmichael: Hoagy Carmichael who appears in To Have and Have Not (1944), where he plays the Wilson Dooley part in the film that brought Bogart and Bacall together. Carmichael or a pale imitation appeared of him in a number of films of the period as a kind of wise observer. The part was perfect for Carmichael, who could elevate the colloquial to the poetic in songs like “Baltimore Oriole” or “Hong Kong Blues,” the latter of which also is included in To Have and Have Not. Carmichael sings the song in a bar, while Lauren Bacall shoots sultry glances at Bogie, who looks like he’s sitting in Rock’s Café Americain. Apparently Carmichael’s singing is so infectious that the band spontaneously joins in and Bacall begins to sing, which she can’t.
Arthur Bliss’ score for Things to Come (1936): Composer Arthur Bliss’s strident yet memorable score is perfectly suited to the exhortatory tone of H.G. Wells’ dire warnings in the monumental British SF movie Things to Come. The opening sequence, for example, is a model of narrative and kinesthetic economy, with each carefully composed shot contributing to its overall power. We move quickly from the Cabal and Passworthy families celebrating Christmas to rising unsettling rumors about the possibility of war to the outbreak of hostilities. Carols are being sung, the songs counterpointed to and gradually overwhelmed by Bliss’s militaristic music, just as in the visuals Christmas emblems and icons are replaced by placards and newspapers prophesying war in increasingly larger print.
The Factory Scene in Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin: Chaplin was indeed the complete filmmaker, functioning as writer, producer, star, composer, and director once he moved into features. His lilting theme for City Lights (1931), “Smile,” may be his most famous composition, but the music and overall soundtrack for Modern Times (1936) is nothing short of brilliant. The film is about the intolerably impersonal and fast pace of contemporary life (the film ends with The Tramp, in his final appearance, bring brushed aside by a passing automobile), and Chaplin’s music for the scene in which poor Charlie, frantically tightening widgets on an assembly line, has a nervous breakdown. The music moves effortlessly from evoking the frenetic pace of industrial progress to the pastoral peace of Charlie’s escape fantasy.
“Lydia the tattooed Lady” – The Marx Brothers: The Marx Bros. perform “Lydia” in At the Circus (1939), and it’s better than some of the musical numbers in their other films. Groucho sings, after introducing the song by explaining that “I met her at the World’s Fair of 1900. Marked down from 1940,” Chico hardly pretends to be playing the piano, and Harpo swings from the light fixtures in a diner car. The assembled extras join in for the rousingly surreal operatic chorus. Groucho begins each verse about the lady’s tattoos by warbling “Oh, Lydia, that encyclopedia,” and the forced rhymes only get better (or worse, depending on your point of view) as the song progresses.