by D. Scott Brewer and Chuck Kleinhans
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 24-27
The rapid montage sequence depicting and condensing a process of increasing success appears repeatedly in classical Hollywood films. As a recurrent element, it emerges frequently in biography pictures as a transitional device between early years of strife, hardship and preparation, and later years of a fully blossomed achievement. In such sequences we often see the meteoric rise of the athlete, gangster or entertainer moving from apprenticeship to national prominence, from family to the big time. Success montages often appear as elliptical condensations of group projects too. Thus the backstage musical commonly uses one type of success montage in depicting a condensed version of the opening night show and the audience's enthusiastic response.
Because it is such a widely used element of cinema, we were interested in closely examining a particular example — the composition of and rise to the top of the hit parade of the title song in the MGM musical LADY BE GOOD (Norman Z. McLeod, 1941). This sequence offers considerable development, and its length of about five and one-half minutes makes it one of the longest and most substantial success montages that we've seen.
We began studying the sequence on a horizontal editing table, which allowed us to observe the exact construction of the sequence. Some people might raise questions about this method of analysis, pointing out that by being able to examine the sequence frame by frame we have analyzed it in a totally different way than how it is actually perceived by audiences. True enough. We acknowledge the difference between an analytical reading and an experiential one. But we also want to argue that we are able to describe the film in a way that opens up a more accurate understanding of how the film presents material which is perceived and understood almost instantaneously. In addition, we are able to consider how the sequence was put together, and how the makers of LADY BE GOOD tried to present the intellectual idea of "success" and the abstract concept of mass culture popularity in the concrete form of a rapid succession of images and sounds. We want to present here some results of our more detailed analysis. We do not claim to be exhaustive, but we do feel we have observed the most significant elements of the sequence in terms of what is conveyed and how it is presented.
The sequence can be loosely described in six parts, each of which shows one stage in the progress of song and songwriters: from creation to mass reproduction (printing), sheet music sales, song plugging, record sales, mass popularity, and triumphant success. A complete formal breakdown of the montage revealing all sound and image relations would be very long because of the density of the passage. Here we are presenting the results of our more detailed analysis in a digested format. We have segmented the sequence by major actions that convey a single concept or a related cluster of concepts.
To set the scene: Composer Eddie Crane (Robert Young) and lyricist Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) have gradually become a successful popular songwriting team and also a married couple. They split up professionally and personally, but neither is successful or happy without the partnership. At the point the success sequence appears, about two-thirds of the way into the film, Eddie tries to make up with Dixie. He tries out a new tune on her and she begins to supply lyrics. Thus the song "Lady Be Good" is born. (We will not deal here with the "artistic creation" sequences in LADY BE GOOD. Suffice it to say this is the third time in the film Dixie and Eddie "spontaneously" compose together.)
We are starting the success sequence with Eddie's playing of the completed song. Throughout the next five minutes and 21 seconds the song continues, changing in arrangement, tempo, orchestration and vocals. It ends with Eddie and Dixie at a banquet in their honor given by other songwriters and music publishers. In addition to showing their success via "Lady Be Good," the sequence reestablishes their working relationship and brings their personal lives together.
CONNOTATION — — -TIME SEGMENT (min./sec.) — — -IMAGE CONTENT
PART ONE: FROM CREATION TO MASS REPRODUCTION
Connotations of working (artist and technician).
Connotations of work.
Mass production; technical work.
The sequence moves from creation to mass reproduction. Sheet music is the initial and basic form a hit takes.
PART TWO: SHEET MUSIC SALES
In many ways the next segment conveys spontaneity as the sheet music increases in sales. The segment details sheet music sales, building in a pattern of threes (two could be coincidence; three establishes a pattern). We see a piano playing "Lady Be Good" in a retail store, then "sales," and then a display case and money.
Declared a hit before public acceptance (self-fulfilling prophecy).
Connotations of eagerness.
A number of changes take place when we see other retail stores: the pianist becomes more fashionable, the buyers older and more numerous (younger people are tastemakers, trendsetters), more sales people appear.
"Serious" music instruments are the background for sheet music passing from retail clerk to consumers.
passed across counter, waiting hands. No money is exchanged.
The fact of increased sales is shown; why and how this happened is not shown.
The process of exchange, the circulation of commodities, is shown by the juxtaposition of two things: sheet music disappears and coins begin piling up. Although actual exchange of goods and money is not shown, retail trade is not accurately depicted, some kind of a relation is established. Sheet music goes to "the public" (not really customers or consumers in the economic sense), and money arrives and increases.
Increase in numbers implies success. The success of the song links Eddie and Dixie in love and as public figures, celebrities.
The sheet music echoes the coins falling earlier, to some extent equating the two.
Sheet music sales appear to be a spontaneous activity — self generated and self propelled. Any rationality, order, decision making, planning, etc. in business is erased. The concept of "retail sales" disappears too. Instead, merchandise vanishes and money appears.
PART THREE: SONG PLUGGING
The job often had associations of crassness, aggressive selling, and sometimes "deals," favors, payola, etc.
Aggressive selling vs. indifference or disinterest.
"LBG" reaches the audience for Boston Pops type performance.
A simple transition device that reinforces the idea of performance affecting sheet music sales.
Commonplace racist stereotyping: the musicians seem unimpressed.
A gag, but is the joke on them or on Red? (and us?)
Sales are connoted.
The strong implication that the particularly open mercenary activity of song plugging has no effect. A hit is not really sold, it is recognized.
The headline is inordinately large, which makes it easy to read, but which also grants the song a great importance. The song is now known by one word — Lady — which is the mark of success and fame (e.g., Ike, Prince, Barbra, Ali, etc.)
PART FOUR: RECORD SALES
The scene is devised to connote "recording," not to actually describe the act.
Technical work; association with RCA Victor dog trademark; wishing for good luck.
Increase, multiplication, acceleration are used here, as earlier, to suggest quantitative success.
Another pattern of three commences as record and performance are combined in three geographic areas.
Success in public recognition (in this case in cafe society). The success of LBG has brought them together in public places and in the public eye. Material success produces personal recognition.
Validation by the authoritative newspaper on entertainment.
PART FIVE: MASS POPULARITY
Another pattern of three commences as LBG climbs the chart: ordinary people begin singing the song in everyday situations and change the words, making it their own. Mass culture becomes validated as folk culture.
This sequence implies that a successful song goes all the way to the top when ordinary people take it up and make it their own. The hit parade is a measure of popular opinion, consciousness, activity. Interestingly enough, the previous indicators of commercial exchange are missing now. Although the chart indicates record sales, by being parallel cut with plain folks singing the song, it seems that it is more of a popularity poll. As people sing the song (not as they buy the records) it becomes number one.
PART SIX: PEER RECOGNITION AND TRIUMPHANT SUCCESS
After the two have achieved great success, peers give recognition.
First depiction of the radio in the sequence.
Radio seems to be the last medium for songs to catch up with the popularity of LBG: it responds to the groundswell of public activity (rather than itself shaping taste and purchases).
In this segment the highest success combines (1) maximum quantitative success (record sales per week) with (2) public recognition by one's peers (the banquet).
After seeing the sequence, if we ask the question, "How does a song become a hit?" we find that it all seems to happen spontaneously. When created, a song either is a hit or it is not. After that, all that's needed is the exposure so that everyone (the publisher, the performers, the record companies, the public, radio) can share in that recognition of the hit's essence. This is, of course, a distortion of how the music industry actually operated in 1941. In fact it is so much of a distortion as to be completely fantastic and imaginary. We can see how the very simplified form of the Hollywood montage with its continual use of stereotypes, of univocal conventions, of simplified symbolism, meshes very well with producing a vastly simplified and simplistic understanding of the processes of mass culture.
We know that many techniques and examples of montage were brought to Hollywood in the Thirties by Slavko Vorkapich who had studied with Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers. Vorkapich worked on a number of montage sequences and gained such fame for them in Hollywood that "Vorkapich" became a slang term in the industry for any montage sequence. Unfortunately, we've been unable to find out very much about how such sequences were handled in Hollywood. Some studios had separate units just for such sequences, and young directors often started there, as did Don Siegel, for example. But there seems to be no article that discusses what specific methods were developed for the Hollywood montage and what the people making them thought about montage and how they compared their work with that of the Soviet filmmakers.Other questions also come up. For example, how does rapid montage work? How do audiences understand it? How much information and what kind of visual and sound information can be conveyed? The answers to such questions may well come from work in perception and cognition and from studying the work of avant-garde filmmakers who have worked extensively with rapid montage. Short of launching such a full-scale investigation, it seems fair to say that in LADY BE GOOD we have a very watered-down version of montage, if we take Eisenstein as our standard reference point. In the hands of Arthur Freed's MGM musical unit, intellectual montage became what we would call "lobotomizd montage."