Golden Age Film Music: Colorful, Ornate and Gaudy?

Mark Swed’s Los Angeles Times review of the opening concert of the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival made for some angry comments left by film score fans. However, I found his opening remarks particularly vivid:

Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was, of course, black and white.  What gave the pre-World War II talkies their “color” was their ornate, even gaudy, music.

My first exposure of Golden Age film music came from the RCA compilations recorded by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1970s. Here was music with sweep and grandeur, much like the ever-present Star Wars score that I so dearly loved. As Mr. Swed points out in his review, it’s not a long journey from John Williams back to the orchestral flourishes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold back in the 30s and 40s.

There have always been, and probably always will be, those who complain of a “gaudy” quality to Golden Age music. Immigrants like Korngold, Max Steiner, and Miklos Rozsa were there in Hollywood at the birth of film music. With the still relatively new phenomenon of sound in motion pictures, it was only natural that music became an essential element of the sonic landscape of film.

Yes, Golden Age music is often ornate, sometimes even gaudy, if you will. But it provides the flat, two dimensions of black-and-white film with a colorful sense of vibrancy and life.

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