Monday, October 5, 2015

Star Wars Composer John Williams's First Score Was a Newfoundland Film

I'm a proud Newfoundlander, born and raised. I'm also an unabashed Star Wars fan, a film which we all know would have been very different without the classic score by John Williams. So you can imagine my shock, wonder and merriment last week when I discovered that John Williams' first professional musical score was for a Newfoundland travelogue in the 1950s.
The full details are here at an article from the CBC, but here's the short version: Williams was serving in the U.S. army in 1952 and stationed at a base in St. John's, Newfoundland (the island being the location of several major bases during and after WWII, as it was an important staging point for transatlantic flights). Like many military musicians he served his time working with a service band, and performed for dances at both the American and Canadian bases in the area. This talented young musician caught the eye of a local film company who had been commissioned by the government to make a tourism video for the newest Canadian province (Newfoundland only became part of Canada in 1949) and they hired Williams to score their film. 

The music doesn't sound much like the theme to Star Wars or Superman, as the composer instead opted to borrow elements from popular local folk songs, but it's still a weird and fascinating bit of trivia. But I have to admit, the score itself is basically an afterthought compared to the sheer batshit insanity that is the rest of the film. Thankfully, it still exists today in all of its mind-blowing lunacy:

My first quick thoughts about the film:

1. The narrator is drunk. He is literally shitfaced. There are weird cuts in the opening shot because I think he was falling out of his chair, and in the final moments he's struggling to keep his eyes open. He never misses a line though, which is proof positive that radio personalities in the 1950s were wasted at work at all times. Probably still true today.

2. The film is loosely told from the point of view of the suitcase. A talking suitcase. To be honest I didn't mind the fact that the suitcase talked (the narrator is drunk, remember, so he may be hallucinating the whole thing) nearly so much as I minded that they pointed out the damn thing cost $65. Sixty-five bucks in 1952 was an entire week's salary at a decent job. Who the hell spends an entire week's salary on a suitcase?

3. They keep talking about the "modern amenities" but it all looks like a communist internment camp. The houses are tiny and utilitarian, most of which were obviously just built a few days ago and are in the middle of the goddamn woods. They show swimming pools and tennis courts that, again, are in the middle of the goddamn woods. Most of the roads they show outside of St. John's aren't even paved. And you know the best part? Sixty years later a lot of those places still look exactly the same. (Except the roads part, the roads are now paved... mostly)

4. Apparently the pulp and paper mill is worth mentioning as a tourist attraction? It's brought up toward the end of the film, so maybe they were running out of stuff to talk about and they just really wanted to hit that twenty-minute run time...

5. But do you want to know the best part? The absolute best part of the film? The main attraction trumpeted by the this government-sponsored travelogue is HOOKING UP WITH RANDOM STRANGERS. Seriously. The male lead shows up in Newfoundland, bumps into a random woman and then proceeds to travel all over the island with her staying in shifty hotels. Not to mention the 1950s bathing-beauties that apparently come free with your parks and recreation brochure. The thesis of the piece seems to be: "Newfoundland: Come for the Scenery, Stay for the Strange!" I thought Free Love wasn't a thing until the 60s???

In case you were wondering if this was just a sad attempt by filmmakers who didn't know what they were doing, I should point out that "the film [was] selected as 'one of the outstanding travelogues for 1954' during a premier showing in New York City." So... this was a regular thing in the 50s? What was the California travelogue? An ad for a drug orgy?

So, yeah. The question remains: Was this a historic low point for John Williams and the province of Newfoundland? Or an awesomely high one?

When I'm not making fun of my mid-twentieth century tourism, I write books. My first, Ten Thousand Days, is now available at Amazon and many other booksellers worldwide. I'm also in the middle of crowdfunding a new book at Head over there to check it out. I'm thinking my third book will be about the wild party scene in Newfoundland in the mid-twentieth century.

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