Lend Me Your Ears

From the 1920s through the 1960s, certain bigger films played what were known as roadshow engagements. Roadshows would open in a select number of larger markets (New York, Los Angeles, etc.) for a certain period of time before opening in wider release. Features of roadshow productions included reserved seats and souvenir programs. These films were shown only once or twice a day, as opposed to every few hours like in today’s multiplexes.

Roadshow engagements were a bonanza for film music fans. Adding to the “event” feeling, most films included an Overture, Intermission, and Exit Music. In addition to the score within the film, these three opportunities allowed the composer to musically set the tone for the film before the lights had gone down in the theater, continue to restate important themes during the Intermission, and cap the picture with a musical wrapup as the audiences made their way up the aisles.

Sadly this practice is out of date. Instead, modern audiences spend 20 minutes looking at commercials and promos for upcoming films and another 20 minutes of previews before finally getting to the film proper. You’re exhausted before the movie even starts! But back in the day, a great overture could generate a lot of excitement for the picture you were about to see.

Most of the roadshow engagements were granted to big, sprawling epics. Occasionally films with lesser running times had roadshow productions, but it usually took a major star to generate the proper excitement. M-G-M’s 1953 production of JULIUS CAESAR had two of them–William Shakespeare and Marlon Brando.

Shakespeare had not fared well in Hollywood. Except for the debatable merits of M-G-M’s versions of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935) and ROMEO AND JULIET (1936), it was up to Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles to bring the Bard successfully to the screen.

Produced by John Houseman and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Hollywood (and M-G-M) finally got some of its own back with JULIUS CAESAR. Though the casting of Brando as Marc Antony raised some eyebrows, the film was solidly cast with outstanding classical actors (James Mason, John Gielgud), and familiar M-G-M faces, such as Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. Rounding out the pack of luminaries was Miklos Rozsa and his magnificent score.

Instead of composing the score in a Roman or Elizabethan style, Rozsa chose to regard the play “as a universal drama about the eternal problems of men and the timely problems about the fate of dictators. I wrote the same music, expressing my own musical language, for a modern audience, just as Shakespeare expressed with his own language for his own audience.”

[audio:juliuscaesar.mp3]

Click Track: Overture

Rozsa composed an overture specifically for the film, but M-G-M inexplicably replaced it with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. Rozsa’s Overture begins with brass fanfares before stating Brutus’s (James Mason) brooding theme. Compare that to the wild, Russian rhythms and melodies of Tchaikovsky’s famous work. Though it’s difficult to rag on Tchaikovsky, the music has no place in Shakespearean tragedy.

[audio:capriccioitalien.mp3] Click Track: Capriccio Italien

In addition to the Overture fiasco, the score as heard in the film is unfortunately truncated in spots and dialed down as to be almost inaudible in others. Yet Rozsa still manages to make an impression. As befitting the much more introspective nature of the story, the music is less flashy than most of Rozsa’s other historical films, but that does not detract from the majesty of this excellent score.

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