In the 1950s, when the movie musical blossomed into its golden age, another phenomenon occurred in tandem that had to do with movie music. This was The Theme from an otherwise non-musical movie that was played all through the film, flicking us like a wet towel snapped at the back of our legs. Then it morphed into a popular song, made the Hit Parade, and took on a life of its own.
Think of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955) and “Picnic” (1955) and we think of the song from the movie that takes us by the hand and gently leads us into romantic undercurrents. Sometimes it grabs us by the neck and throttles us into paying attention, sternly reminding us that This Is the Pivotal Moment. Both songs leapt off the screen and dashed down the street to the recording studio. Here are The Four Aces taking a crack at “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” and the McGuire Sisters having a go at “The Theme from Picnic.”
The Four Aces made a career covering movie theme songs, and here they are with “Three Coins in a Fountain.” That film, produced in 1954, featured Frank Sinatra’s voice launching The Theme. But most movie themes seem to have had less auspicious origins. The decade’s fascination with The Theme From the Movie might have begun with “The Third Man” (1949) and the needling zither of Anton Karas. The zither music has become as identifiable with that film as Orson Welles.
And one guy on a zither was a lot cheaper than hiring an orchestra. Along the same lines of economy in the form of a distinctive sound, we have the theme from “Ruby Gentry” (1952) played by George Fields on the harmonica. Fields also did the harmonica solo on “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
A single guy whistling made the theme of “The High and the Mighty” (1954) memorable. He was Muzzy Marcellino, who whistled in a handful of movies in what one imagines must have been a career of fairly limited opportunities. Here is Mr. Marcellino at work.
“Moulin Rouge” (1952) gave us “It’s April Again” which was also called “The Song from Moulin Rouge”, which was also called “Where is Your Heart?” Not being able to decide on a title did not keep Percy Faith and his orchestra having a hit with it.
Dimitri Tiomkin, prolific composer for the movies probably did not expect to join the pantheon of the Hit Parade with his cowboy song, “High Noon” or “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darlin’” from “High Noon” (1952). Tex Ritter sang it in the film, but Frankie Laine lassoed it and made it his own.
Except for the anomaly of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, most of these theme-from-the-movie songs were from the early 1950s. Popular music tastes changed for a younger record buying audience in the later part of that decade. We still have the occasional hit song from a movie, but never one that is so threaded into the film like a tapestry, where we are inspired, enthralled, and beaten over the head with it. And yet, like the victims of a slapstick thump on the head, we may be left with a warm and goofy smile from the assault as the music swells.