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Space Age Pop Songs

American Movie Themes


Once "The Third Man Theme" won recognition for the merit (and commercial viability) of movie themes on their own, it became standard practice to release soundtrack albums concurrent with the release of films, and a number of these themes achieved success as singles and became part of the standard repertory of exotica and easy-listening artists.

"Moonglow"/"Theme from 'Picnic'"

First, an important distinction must be made: the exotica standard, in this case, is the combination of these two songs, not each song on its own. "Moonglow" had been around since the 1930s, and was a hit for Benny Goodman's quartet, among others. But in the 1955 film, "Picnic," it was played as the backdrop to a scene of Kim Novak and William Holden dancing at a Kansas town picnic.

The scene is a dance of seduction, and "Moonglow," played by the band at the picnic on film gradually fades out to the "Picnic" theme, played by a lush studio soundtrack orchestra. For some reason, this combination held a special attraction for listeners and performers alike, for after Morris Stoloff had a hit with the first cover of the two songs, one segueing into the other, dozens of artists followed his lead.

It's a challenge to find a cover of "Moonglow" by itself after 1955--what you'll always find is a tune listed as, "Moonglow/Theme from 'Picnic.'" The combination provided good material for easy-listening groups: "Moonglow" being a light and elegant tune, "The Theme from 'Picnic'" a lush romantic rhapsody. Two for the price of one.

Recordings of "Moonglow/Theme from 'Picnic'"

"Exodus"

Music by Ernest Gold

Musically and thematically, "Exodus" is on a scale larger than "Moonglow/Theme `from 'Picnic'." The film tells a dramatic version of the founding of Israel, and the music is something of an anthem. Most performances play it that way: loud and heartfelt. But "Exodus" cannot resist the touch of a few artists who can't help but be true to their own styles. Thus, Martin Denny takes the melody and dumps the drama, dropping a small cocktail umbrella into his mix. And Chet Atkins turns the extravaganza into a low-keyed, country-boy stroll.

Recordings of "Exodus"

"Theme from 'A Summer Place'"

Music by Max Steiner

Percy Faith's cover of this tune spent most of 1960 in the top 40 charts. The music and the movie's topic of a romance between Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee were perfect for the clean-cut whitebread pop that prevailed on the charts in the era between Elvis joining the Army and the Beatles' arrival. It's an interesting mix of musical effects: the rhythm of the song is a stroll, while the melody is high-pitched and blithely romantic. The strings play against a "Chopsticks"-like piano pattern. Kind of like teen love: sincere but not overweight. It's also one of the slowest and simplest melodies in all popular music, which made it attractive to many groups with marginal musical ability.

"The High and the Mighty"

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

"The High and the Mighty" is the story of passengers thrown together by an inflight crisis en route from Hawaii to San Francisco. It's one of the many Airport"-style movies that follow a standard plot-line: take a bunch of characters from different backgrounds, toss in a crisis, and stir. The theme was noteworthy for its use of a whistler--Muzzy Marcellino on the soundtrack--to carry the melody.

"High Noon"

Music by Dmitri Tiomkin

It's tough to top the original version sung in basso-monotone by Tex Ritter on the film soundtrack, but many have tried. Richard Marino's version starts with a straight-face, then tosses in a swingin' lounge organ; Van Alexander saw that the true spirit of the song could only be brought out as a samba.

"Unchained Melody"

Music by Alex North

I wondered for years what the title of this song meant. Only recently did I learn that there is no mystery, other than the loss of a couple of quote marks: this is the melody from "Unchained," a prison movie from 1955.


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