Wednesday, August 08, 2007

First Movie With Licensed Recordings?

Oh, just one more thing (™ Columbo) about music licensing: what was the first movie that paid to use real recordings of popular music?

For many years, licensed recordings were almost never used in film (or television for that matter). If characters turned on the radio or played a record, it would usually be music that was directly written for the film by the composer. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window uses only "source music" from radios, phonographs and pianos -- but nearly all of it was composed by Franz Waxman; you don't hear anyone putting on a record that actually existed. In Out of the Past, when Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer put on a record, it's a recording of the movie's main title theme by Roy Webb, which has also been played by a jazz band in another scene.

By the early '70s, with American Graffiti and other films, movies and television had changed their tune (bad pun intended); now if a record was playing in a scene, it would be a real record. In The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman and John Williams even parodied the old practice by having Williams' title song reappear as every single piece of source music in the film (including two radios playing different "recordings" of the same song); that's how out of date that practice had become.

While I'm not fond of the way pop recordings are often used in place of real soundtrack music, I think it is much, much better (though more expensive) to have real recordings whenever source music is called for. If someone is playing a record, it should be a real recording, not only for realism but because the character's choice of music tells you something about that character. But when did it become all right for studios to pay to use recordings that they didn't own?

The first movie I'm aware of that uses a clearly-identifiable popular recording (that wasn't created directly for the film) is Henry King's masterpiece Margie (1946). This movie is framed as a flashback to the '20s, and transitions from the present to the past by having Margie (Jeanne Crain) and her daughter put on "My Time Is Your Time" by Rudy Vallee. Most of the other '20s songs are performed by people in the film, but the use of "My Time Is Your Time" is more akin to what we'd expect today: a real period recording that the filmmakers paid to use.

But that's 1946, and there must be others before that. Are there? (I'm not talking about having people in the movie play or sing popular songs, like the bar pianist playing Rodgers and Hart's "The Blue Room" in The Big Sleep. I'm talking about actual recordings that had been made and released separately from the movie.)


Anonymous said...

There's the romantic ballad record playing in Thelma Ritter's apartment when she is murdered in Pickup on South Street...that might be original to the film though.

It's an interesting question, and I think a reason why we didn't see pop records being used in films till the late 1960s is due to the predominance of big band music in culture of the time...I suppose the usual studio way of the time is to have an onscreen musician(s) playing a period song (i.e. Casablanca's As Time Goes By, Perfidia, Crazy Rhythm, The Very Thought of You, etc.) or have a nondescript studio orchestra playing a big band arrangement for movie "records" or radio music, such as in From Here to Eternity where the radio plays Chattanooga Choo-Choo, but it is pointedly not the period Glenn Miller recording.

I know it can't possibly be the right answer to your question, but I'll hazard a guess: Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at my Door in 1967. Scrosese's subsequent Mean Streets, along with American Graffiti, certainly set the precedent in the early 1970s.

Anonymous said...

I should read more carefully: thought your question read post-Margie, not pre-Margie...D'oh! But you're probably right, I can't think of any occasion prior to that.

Anonymous said...

In 1932's IF I HAD A MILLION, a rotten widdle brat plays "I'll Be Glad When You're dead, You Rascal You" while his gazillionaire granddad lays dying upstairs; the recording galvanizes him to disperse his cash. I have no idea if Paramount either owned the rights or recorded a new version.

In MONKEY BUSINESS, The Marx Brothers all pretend to be Maurice Chevalier, and Harpo almost pulls it off by playing a record of the REAL Chevalier -- but Paramount had MC under contract, and that was more an early version of cross-marketing.

Anonymous said...

This sticks in the mind: the practice of using "fake" source music had fallen so out of favor by 1971 that it seemed an intrusive surprise when Jennifer O'Neill put on a 78 rpm record late in SUMMER OF '42... and it's a "period" recording of Michel LeGrand's main theme from the movie. LeGrand's score is pretty but terribly repetitive in its constant use of the theme; it would have been preferable to hear almost any genuine romantic standard of the period rather than another reprise of that theme.

Anonymous said...

"For example, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window uses only "source music" from radios, phonographs and pianos -- but nearly all of it was composed by Franz Waxman; you don't hear anyone putting on a record that actually existed."
No, but at the young composer's party, they all sat around the piano and sang "Mona Lisa," a hit song, albeit one owned by Paramount.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the W.C. Fields segment of "If I Had A Million" inspired Disney storyman Roy Williams to mount that wooden railroad tie to the front of his car and hunt down road hogs, too? The timing is certainly right.

Anonymous said...

What about Penny Serenade, which featured some records, if not original pop recordings?