Sunday, January 9, 2011

Don't Make a Scene (Sing-Along Month Edition): — Only Angels Have Wings

The Story: Harmony (noun): 1.  agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose.  Corny?  Maybe.  But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences.  Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts.  We see this work in music groups  all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.

Over the next four weeks in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.

Howard Hawks was the master of this musical sub-text (he was a master of sub-text, period).  He used music, not only for its intrinsic entertainment value, but also to infer dramatic points that moved the story along.

Take this scene from his terrific —Only Angels Have Wings.  In it, a group of pilots, charged with delivering mail and supplies by the only means possible—by air—battle the elements, all of them—Earth, Wind, Fire and Water—and the existential situation they have undertaken.  The work is dangerous and competitive, and, as in war, if they lose one of their colleagues, little time is spent mourning the dead.  The work goes on, and though the danger remains—those deaths emblematic of it—one doesn't falter, best to keep on going.  Death happens every day; there's no use slowing the living because of it.

Into this environment lands Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who finds this attitude cruel, uncivilized and brutal.  To the pilots, it is what it is—survival.  And her sentimentality risks everything.  So, she's put through the gauntlet, and emerges a little beat-up, slapped around metaphorically (in a quid pro quo for the physical one delivered to group leader Jeff (Cary Grant).  And rather than state the obvious ("Yeah, you were right, I was wrong, I see the error of my ways and I'm sorry"), she inserts herself back into the group, and participates in a group-effort.  It's subtle, unpretentious, and it gets the story-telling heavy lifting done, even if audiences don't recognize it.  That the song is an up-beat version of "One of These Days" (the next line is "you're gonna miss me, Daddy") is just the slightly ironic-tasting cherry on top.

And for that, she gets the highest compliment that can be bestowed in a Hawks film.  She is newly "a professional."


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