Friday, January 24, 2014

Clip Show

Most people know John Williams as the film composer - - the fellow who wrote the Star Wars theme and the Jurassic Park and the Harry Potter soundtracks.


Not too long before he wrote his Jaws soundtrack, Mr. Williams went by the professional name of "Johnny Williams," writer of TV themes. He worked on end credits music for shows like Alcoa Theater and the Bob Hope specials. Much of his work was incidental music, and went uncredited in quite a few series.

One of his most frequent gigs was to write for action/adventure shows produced by Irwin Allen. Although he didn't write the theme to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he penned many title tracks for Allen, in shows such as The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Land of the Giants.

Irwin Allen constantly tinkered with shows to maintain his ratings and dazzle his audiences (albeit with a limited budget). An unusual technique that Allen relied on to pep things up was to have Johnny Williams completely rewrite the theme music after a few seasons. One of the most obvious examples is Lost in Space, where Williams had originally crafted an eerie, ominous and echoing theme for the initial two seasons, filled with trumpets, cellos, and piccolos :




By the third season Irwin Allen figured he wanted to stress the action and adventure angle and downplay the alien-ness of outer space. So, he had Johnny dump the old theme and create a more driven,  French horn-stuffed roller coaster of a theme. The new opener threw audiences into the middle of a fast countdown every week, paced by ticking rimshots and  hyped-up trombone arpeggios. It was definitely a new look-and-feel for the established series.

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Something I didn't realize until recently was that Allen used a similar approach with his 1968-70 series, Land of the Giants. In the show's initial outing, Williams built the theme to underline the ponderous size of the titled Giants on their home world, and the threat they posed to the puny Earth men who had crashed their ship on the Giants' planet.

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By the second year of the show, the ratings were dropping, so Allen brought Johnny Williams back to the composing studio to crank out a peppier theme. The new opening would be at a much faster pace, with clashing French horns and bass guitars and syncopated glockenspiels.

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The trick worked, and Giants continued for another two years. It's not easy to say that Johnny's new theme "saved" the show, but it certainly didn't hurt the ratings.

Looking back more than four decades at all the work Irwin Allen piled on John(ny) Williams's plate, it's amazing to think about how prolific Williams was beyond his epic movie soundtracks. I can't imagine any current TV theme writers jotting down so many disparate themes and variations for the same shows in the same time frame. Okay, maybe Michael Giacchino - - but is he still doing TV shows after LOST?





Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And at Last I See the Light

I promised myself that in 2014 I'd write a lot more about less "significant" things and focus more on simple things that flabbergast me. Of course, the flabbergasting began immediately.

Disney movies are eminently rewatchable. The songs, the characters, the settings, and the plot lines are usually compelling, and the animators typically hide details that are often overlooked, even after repeated viewings.

I was watching Disney's Tangled -- the Rapunzel story, last week, and spotted something I've never noticed before this thirty-eighth playback of the film. In the story, baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from her castle by an evil sorceress. The sorceress hides Rapunzel in a tower for eighteen years. Over the ensuing years, Rapunzel's mother and father (the king and queen) hold a memorial service for Rapunzel by lighting floating lanterns in honor of their lost daughter. At age 18, Rapunzel escapes from the sorceress's tower and attends one of these ceremonies by sitting in a boat, watching the subjects of the kingdom launch the floating lanterns into the night sky on her birthday.


The memorial service begins with the King and Queen lifting a single decorated lantern up from the rooftop of their castle.


The townspeople follow by launching thousands of their own, undecorated lamps. Soon, the sky is full of the bobbing lanterns. 


Rapunzel sings her song about "seeing the light." While she's singing, her parents' decorated lantern swoops down to the surface of the bay. Rapunzel reaches out and lofts it back up into the sky.

Only the audience (if they're clever enough to spot it) knows Rapunzel touched the very same lantern her parents lit that night.

I swear I've watched this movie several dozen times and never noticed that tidbit until last week. Hopefully I'm not the only clueless member of the audience.