austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Give me a ship and a song

Here's one of the Unseen Cinema pieces I wanted to talk about separately. It's a 1938 bit produced for MGM and titled An Optical Poem, by Oskar Fischinger. The opening card explains its purpose pretty well:

``To most of us music suggests definite mental images of form and color.
The picture you are about to see is a novel scientific expriment --- its object is to convey these mental images in visual form.''

OK, maybe that's not so precise. What it aims for is to show pretty pictures in tune to the music. The pieces are created, the introductory material said, as cardboard cutouts hung on wires and stop-motion animated in this way. The effect is a little like watching the visualizer on iTunes --- to be honest, many of the completely abstract pieces in Unseen Cinema are a bit like that --- but since the iTunes Visualizer was probably inspired by shorts like this that's not so strange. These shorts have the advantage that visual tricks can anticipate the music instead of being purely reactive, and can reuse motifs when the music reuses sequences.

The striking thing (to me) is: the music for this 1938 short was Franz List's Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two, which you know as the Serious Music Piece that every Golden Age of Cartoons character attempted to play as chaos broke out around them. I don't know how that one piece of many got selected, other than that it's in the public domain and Tom and Jerry did so very well with it in The Cat Concerto that probably other studios started to copy them. And ... well ...

MGM didn't throw soundtracks out, as anyone who's heard the gunshot used for every door-slam (and shot gun) in every cartoon they ever did has noticed. I've picked up audio tracks of songs like ``Sing Before Breakfast'' from the Broadway Melody series used, without editing, in cartoons and shorts for decades. What I wonder is: might some of these cartoons have used the Hungarian Rhapsody because this was already in the stock library and easy to work with? I haven't compared the soundtracks but might this piece of music have become the definitive cartoon symphony because of this short?

Maybe not: the Hungarian Rhapsody was used in Disney and Fleischer shorts before this, and maybe this was just one little footnote along the way to it becoming The Cartoon Symphony Piece. But I'd like to know where the audio track for this came from, and where it went to.

Trivia: Bill James's 1978 Baseball Abstract sold only 300 copies. Source: The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics, Alan Schwarz.

Currently Reading: The Spirits Of America: A Social History Of Alcohol, Eric Burns.


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