The Greatest Movie Soundtracks Ever, Part 1: 1933-1959

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Here at Flavorpill, we love movies and we love music, so it’s probably no surprise to learn that we really love movie soundtracks. The history of the interaction of film and music is a long and fascinating one, so for the next few weeks, we’re going to be choosing and examining some of our favorite soundtracks and scores from over the years. This week: the oldies! Specifically, everything pre-1960.

King Kong (1933)

Apparently, the studio that made King Kong hadn’t budgeted for the composition of a soundtrack and planned to re-use snippets of music from other films. This plan probably speaks volumes about how music was regarded in Hollywood in the early 1930s – the first soundtrack album was still four years away, and music was generally an afterthought, seen as unimportant to the film as a whole. Happily, director Merian Cooper had more vision than his employers, and paid composer Max Steiner out of his own pocket to create a soundtrack for his film. The result was a landmark in American film music, and the start of a long and massively influential career for Steiner.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As well as being Walt Disney’s first film, Snow White is historically significant for giving rise to the Hollywood’s first stand-alone soundtrack album, which was a huge success and opened the American film industry’s eyes to the commercial potential of soundtrack music. It’s clearly still in demand, too – if you type “Snow White soundtrack” into Google, the first suggested search you get is “Snow White soundtrack Mediafire.” Ha.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

This soundtrack is fascinating because it marked a collaboration between Sergei Eisenstein, Russia’s most famous director of the early cinematic era, and composer Sergei Prokofiev. Eisenstein’s most famous films – The Battleship Potempkin and October – were silent, relying on their imagery to carry the impact of their subject matter. As such, Alexander Nevsky – the first of Eisenstein’s films seen by Soviet audiences for over 10 years, a period that encompassed his time in Mexico and the US and the destruction of his film Bezhin Meadow – represented something of a departure for the director. The result, however, was a testament to just how much music can add to a film.

Fantasia (1940)

If Snow White was the beginning of the history of Disney soundtracks, then Fantasia is arguably still its finest moment. The film was based around music – it took eight classical pieces as the basis for its eight animated stories. The choice of classical music was a financial one – after all, it was free – but the result was some of early cinema’s most memorable imagery, and even 70 years later, those damn brooms are still downright creepy. The music for Fantasia was also emblematic of something of a golden age for cartoon music – once Snow White and Fantasia demonstrated that soundtrack albums could be a money-spinner, studios quickly employed in-house composers and ensured that cartoons and music were linked as closely as possible, a trend that continued until the advent of television in the late 1950s cut into budgets and the need for cost-cutting outweighed the desire for original music.

Barsaat (1949)

It’s important to remember that the history of cinema’s not just all about Hollywood. By the 1950s, the golden era of Indian film industry was in full swing, and the tradition of incorporating song and dance into narratives was already well-established. The period from the late 1940s until the late 1960s is often referred to as Indian cinema’s greatest period, a creative explosion that coincided with the country’s independence from Britain. The success of a film has long been intimately connected to its music and associated soundtrack album – and few are more fondly remembered than Barsaat, which was the best-selling soundtrack album of the 1940s in India and marked both the debut of famous composition duo Shankar-Jaikishan and an early appearance for legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Early sci-fi films provided some interesting opportunities for the nascent world of electronic music. Along with Forbidden Planet (of which we’ll speak more in a moment), The Day the Earth Stood Still marks some of the earliest electronic music to reach the public consciousness, and the studio’s desire for suitably spacey noises led composer Bernard Hermann to experiment with theremins, tape reversal techniques, and other ideas that would become staples of sci-fi soundtracks the world over.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This was apparently Leonard Bernstein’s only original film score, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more of them. The beautifully atmospheric music he composed to set the scene for Elia Kazan’s classic film was one of the finest examples of what film scores are supposed to do – enhance the action without ever becoming overbearing or distracting. You never really notice the music in On the Waterfront, unless you specifically set out to listen to it, but the film would be dramatically less powerful without it.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Another Bernstein composed this classic score – Elmer, who’d later go on to make the classic soundtrack for To Kill a Mockingbird. The music in The Man with the Golden Arm is almost as ground-breaking as the film itself, marrying the script’s controversial depiction of heroin addiction to a soundtrack of manic late-night jazz (also the music of choice for the titular character, played by Frank Sinatra). The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award, the first jazz-based soundtrack to enjoy such recognition.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

If The Day the Earth Stood Still blazed an early trail for sci-fi music and electronic instrumentation, Forbidden Planet laid the paving and started directing traffic. It was the first film to have an entirely electronic soundtrack, although the motivation behind this wasn’t entirely visionary – it also apparently allowed the studio to circumvent the necessity to pay union fees, as composers Louis and Bebe Barron, who producer Dore Scharry met at a nightclub, weren’t members of the Musicians’ Union. Still, non-union labor or not, the two produced a remarkable musical soundscape for Forbidden Planet, constructing their own oscillators and filters in their back shed, running the sounds through similarly homemade ring modulators that had a habit of burning out after a few uses. The soundtrack was like nothing the public had heard before, and helped changed electronic music from an academic pursuit for composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen into an art form that connected with a wider audience.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

The classic musical soundtrack in the most literal sense of the term (as in the soundtrack to a musical). Jailhouse Rock was released when Elvis Presley was at the peak of his early fame, and was the last great artistic moment before his induction into the US Army. The dance sequence to the title track is arguably Presley’s finest moment on screen, although the success of Jailhouse Rock was in some ways counter-productive, condemning him to a decade of Hollywood exile in largely awful films before his comeback tour in 1969.

Next week: the 1960s!