Throughout Hollywood’s history, films set in the American South have spoken with a drawl. These films — which for convenience’s sake I refer to as “Southerns” — enjoyed a special prominence in the first half of the 20th century, when film reviews would routinely praise them with phrases like “authentic flavor” or “core of atmosphere,” and would invariably remark on the perceived realism of actors' accents. The South was marketed as a different world from mainstream America, to be captured on celluloid and sold through the appeal of its exotic difference.
Music was an important element in creating this imaginary Mason-Dixon line; scores for Southerns also had an “accent,” infused with the humidity of sub-tropical air and serving as markers of the perceived authenticity of these pictures. The slient and early sound eras were halcyon days for such films, presenting an idealized South, devoid of the recognition of the injustices and social divides that marked the lives of so many Americans. Their music was complicit in creating a mythos of a lost Southern perfection, a Dixie of moonlight, magnolias, and escapism.
By my current count, there were no fewer than 62 films set in the South during the 1910s and early 20s. For the most part, we must guess as to the sonic backdrops that would have been heard in the corner movie houses that dotted America’s cities and towns; there was little centralized control that filmmakers could exert over the pianists and orchestra leaders at the time. But they did try to do so, through industry magazines, how-to manuals, and collections of indexed scores.
In 1915, Erno Rapée, one of New York City’s most prominent theater orchestra conductors,offered one such manual. His Motion Picture Moods organized music for use with particular types of scenes (“Fire/Fighting,” “Funeral,” “Gruesome,”) and with particular settings (“Costa Rica,” “China and Japan,” “England”). It is significant that Rapée, didn’t include any songs associated with New England or the Pacific Coast or with New York or Chicago but did dedicate a section to tunes evoking the South.
Rapée's manual included Arthur Farwell’s “Plantation Melody,” a dreamy, chromatic piano arrangement harmonized by composer Arthur Farwell but “recorded” by Alice Haskell — meaning that Haskell had written down a melody as heard, presumably, from the lips of a former slave. Two other tunes carried a similarly checkered pedigree: Stephen C. Foster’s famous “Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Folks at Home,” songs by a Philadelphian that made their way into the American consciousness as emblematic of the “authentic” South, an idyllic place lost to the mists of time. And of course, there was Dan Emmet’s “Dixie-Land," apparently de rigeur for musicians working in the nation’s best movie houses.
Hollywood’s tradition of high budget, artful narrative films was inaugurated during this period with a nostalgic Southern: the now infamous The Birth of a Nation. This 1915 epic by D.W. Griffith created a powerful mythology — “American in story, in scene and in production,” as one reviewer of the time wrote — through a landmark union of sound and picture. Birth boasted a rarity for those days: a specially commissioned score by Joseph Carl Breil, which included both original themes and the tried-and-true quotations from classics and popular music. Breil incorporated the very tunes that Rapée had suggested, and cued them to accompany carefully choreographed photography.
The video clip below presents one such moment, introducing a South “where life runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more,” according to an intertitle. It is a world of elegantly dressed gentry, white picket fences, and African American slaves engaging in innocent antics — an idealized world supposedly free from the concerns of the 20th century.
Breil underscored the scene with a gently orchestrated arrangement of Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” intimately familiar to audiences from parlor singing and minstrel shows. The lyrics to this song, like the words of the intertitle that introduces this cue, speak sadly of the loss of a perfect Southern world:
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for the old plantation,
And for the old folks at home.
Those audience members familiar with the lyrics would have felt even more poignantly the loss of Southern utopia.
The enshrining of a lost Southern mythos generated a remarkable success for Griffith's film. Indeed, by some accounts, Birth remained the highest grossing live-action film until it was overtaken by another grand Civil War epic: Gone with the Wind (1939). Those two films might be considered the bookends for the earliest period in the Hollywood Southern. But this romantic Southern was on the wane by the time that Rhett and Scarlett had said their goodbyes; the middle decades of the 20th century brought a growing awareness of the social iniquities of the modern South, both within the region — particularly with regards to racial segregation — and when comparing its socio-economic conditions with the more urbanized parts of the country.
My University Forum talk will focus on the next generation of Southerns, a period when the luster of the Old South had begun to fade. In the films of the 1950s, the South continued to be portrayed as an otherworld, but its difference was now accentuated as an eccentricity, occasionally (as in Elia Kazan’s 1951 A Streetcar Named Desire) even as a delusion. These films also required music to help set their far less idyllic mood, and there was one composer who by the end of the decade had mastered it: Alex North (1910–91), who composed scores for eight Southerns between 1937 and 1961:
- The People of the Cumberland (1937), documentary by Frontier Films
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), based on the play by Tennessee Williams
- The Member of the Wedding (1953), based on the novel and play by Carson McCullers
- The Rose Tattoo (1955), based on the play by Tennessee Williams
- Hot Spell (1958), based on the play by Lonnie Coleman
- The Long, Hot Summer (1958), based on William Faulkner’s The Hamlet
- The Sound and the Fury (1959), based on the novel by William Faulkner
- Sanctuary (1961), based on the novel by William Faulkner
My upcoming lecture will analyze what one producer called North’s “extraordinary feeling for the atmosphere of the modern South” by showing how neatly he provided a sonic analog for this new portrayal of a North/South, urban/rural, modern/antiquated juxtaposition. I aim to provide some answers as to why a Yankee, socialist, Jewish composer with the deeply ironic name of "North" could become the musical voice of the South in Hollywood — and I hope to see y’all there.