Melodrama as a Compositional Resource in Early Hollywood Sound Cinema

Neumeyer, David

The transitional cinema of the late twenties and early thirties was the site where studio producers, directors, composers, and sound technicians worked out the basic practices we now take for granted in film music. Max Steiner at RKO, Alfred Newman at Fox, Herbert Stothart at MGM, and others used theatrical entrance/exit cues for transitions between scenes and, occasionally, more extended, musically complete forms that set the mood of a scene but were not closely synchronized with action. When Steiner came to underscoring dialogue in the tightly synchronized fashion for which he is well known, he drew partly on Wagner and partly on the traditions of Viennese melodrama. The focus of the article is the technique of melodrama (speech accompanied by music) as a compositional source for underscoring dialogue. Steiner exploited the musical and expressive techniques of the early German melodrama as they survived in the "late" Romantic operettas of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolf Friml. Discussion of eighteenth-century melodrama and some theoretical questions for the combination of speech and music in a theatrical work is followed by a series of examples illustrating the article's main points: the grave-digging scene from Fidelio, the Act 1 finales from Romberg's May time (1917) and Friml's The Three Musketeers (1928), and two cues from Steiner's music for The Informer (1935). The final section situates the melodramatic musical cue within music's narrative functions in sound film.



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Columbia University
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January 23, 2015