JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Lady Be Good

montage in the success sequence
 

by D. Scott Brewer and Chuck Kleinhans

 

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 24-27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006, 2016

The rapid montage sequence depicting and condensing a process of increasing success appears repeatedly in classical Hollywood films. As a recurrent element, it emerges frequently in biography pictures as a transitional device between early years of strife, hardship and preparation, and later years of a fully blossomed achievement. In such sequences we often see the meteoric rise of the athlete, gangster or entertainer moving from apprenticeship to national prominence, from family to the big time. Success montages often appear as elliptical condensations of group projects too. Thus the backstage musical commonly uses one type of success montage in depicting a condensed version of the opening night show and the audience's enthusiastic response.

Because it is such a widely used element of cinema, we were interested in closely examining a particular example — the composition of and rise to the top of the hit parade of the title song in the MGM musical Lady Be Good (Norman Z. McLeod, 1941). This sequence offers considerable development, and its length of about five and one-half minutes makes it one of the longest and most substantial success montages that we've seen.

We began studying the sequence on a horizontal editing table, which allowed us to observe the exact construction of the sequence. Some people might raise questions about this method of analysis, pointing out that by being able to examine the sequence frame by frame, we have analyzed it in a totally different way than how it is actually perceived by audiences. True enough. We acknowledge the difference between an analytical reading and an experiential one. But we also want to argue that we are able to describe the film in a way that opens up a more accurate understanding of how the film presents material which is perceived and understood almost instantaneously. In addition, we are able to consider how the sequence was put together, and how the makers of Lady Be Good tried to present the intellectual idea of "success" and the abstract concept of mass culture popularity in the concrete form of a rapid succession of images and sounds. We want to present here some results of our more detailed analysis. We do not claim to be exhaustive, but we do feel we have observed the most significant elements of the sequence in terms of what is conveyed and how it is presented.

The sequence can be loosely described in six parts, each of which shows one stage in the progress of song and songwriters: from creation to mass reproduction (printing), sheet music sales, song plugging, record sales, mass popularity, and triumphant success. A complete formal breakdown of the montage revealing all sound and image relations would be very long because of the density of the passage. Here we are presenting the results of our more detailed analysis in a digested format. We have segmented the sequence by major actions that convey a single concept or a related cluster of concepts.

To set the scene: Composer Eddie Crane (Robert Young) and lyricist Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) have gradually become a successful popular songwriting team and also a married couple. They split up professionally and personally, but neither is successful or happy without the partnership. At the point the success sequence appears, about two-thirds of the way into the film, Eddie tries to make up with Dixie. He tries out a new tune on her and she begins to supply lyrics. Thus the song "Lady Be Good" is born. (We will not deal here with the "artistic creation" sequences in Lady Be Good. Suffice it to say this is the third time in the film Dixie and Eddie "spontaneously" compose together.)

We are starting the success sequence with Eddie's playing of the completed song. Throughout the next five minutes and 21 seconds the song continues, changing in arrangement, tempo, orchestration and vocals. It ends with Eddie and Dixie at a banquet in their honor given by other songwriters and music publishers. In addition to showing their success via "Lady Be Good," the sequence reestablishes their working relationship and brings their personal lives together.

Presentation of images moves from Connotation (in italics) to shot number to time segment within the montage (shot number: minute.second) to image content summarized.

Part one: from creation to mass reproduction

 
Connotations of working (artist and technician).  
1: 0.00 Eddie starts playing the completed song; he hesitates at "misunderstood." They look at each other. Their separation has been a "misunderstanding." The glance unites them professionally and personally.

2: 0.22 In their publisher's office with Max (publisher) and Red (song plugger). Everyone beams. Max reaches for his cigar several times but is taken up with the music and stops the gesture. The song overwhelms automatic behavior; enchantment 3: 0.38 Shifting glances; all look at Max who says, "We've got a hit on our hands." Handshakes. People in the music business "know" the commercial future of a song on hearing it. Once created the hit is recognized for what it is, not made into a hit.

4: 0.46 Max: "Get me an arranger." Music: violins connote speed, acceleration. A symbolic moment; next we see a door with the word "arranger" on it. The montage builds on generalization not specificity.

5: 0.49 Door: "Arranger." Iris out: hands on piano.

6: 0.54 Eddie and older man; smoking, shirtsleeves, trying major chord then minor chord then major chord.

Connotations of work.

  7: 1.00 CU of handwritten song and hands; erasures, changes.

8: 1.07 Superimposition from 1.03 to 1.11; printing press, (stock footage) pulling a proof copy, correcting a proof copy by hand, a large press.

The sequence moves from creation to mass reproduction. Sheet music is the initial and basic form a hit takes.

9 1.12 (left) Superimposition: printing press and "Lady Be Good" sheet music stacking up (pixillation).

Part two: sheet music sales

 
In many ways the next segment conveys spontaneity as the sheet music increases in sales. The segment details sheet music sales, building in a pattern of threes (two could be coincidence; three establishes a pattern). We see a piano playing "Lady Be Good" in a retail store, then "sales," and then a display case and money.

 
Declared a hit before public acceptance (self-fulfilling prophecy).

10: 1.15 (left) CU sheet music cover and "New Hit" sign.

Connotations of eagerness.

11: 1.19 (left) Retail store. Matronly pianist playing stride piano style. Background: young people buying sheet music.

A number of changes take place when we see other retail stores: the pianist becomes more fashionable, the buyers older and more numerous (younger people are tastemakers, trendsetters), more sales people appear.

"Serious" music instruments are the background for sheet music passing from retail clerk to consumers.

12: 1.22 (left) Display case with violin, horn, flute. Sheet music passed across counter, waiting hands. No money is exchanged.

The fact of increased sales is shown. Why and how this happened is not shown.

13: 1.25 Another store with a "Lady Be Good" wall display in the back, pianist, more people, more women customers, two women selling.

14: 1.31 Sheet music on display case without explanation disappears off the case. Superimposition of coins falling downward in the frame.

15: 1.32 Sheet music all disappears. Coins fall in superimposition and pile up in the same plane as the top of the display case.
The process of exchange, the circulation of commodities, is shown by the juxtaposition of two things: sheet music disappears and coins begin piling up. Although actual exchange of goods and money is not shown, retail trade is not accurately depicted, some kind of a relation is established. Sheet music goes to "the public" (not really customers or consumers in the economic sense), and money arrives and increases.

Increase in numbers implies success. The success of the song links Eddie and Dixie in love and as public figures, celebrities.

 
16: 1.35 Third store. Two pianists, customers crowding the counter, in the background a display with Eddie and Dixie's picture in a heart and the words "Big Hit."

17: 1.38 Repetition of segment 14. Sheet music vanishes while money descends.

18: 1.43 Optical multiplication of hands playing piano; tempo of music increases.

The sheet music echoes the coins falling earlier, to some extent equating the two.

19: 1.50 (left) Exterior, store display window with crowd looking in. "Sensational Hit." Pages of sheet music fall downward in the frame in superimposition. At first we thought paper money was falling in superimposition, but it was sheet music.

Sheet music sales appear to be a spontaneous activity — self generated and self propelled. Any rationality, order, decision making, planning, etc. in business is erased. The concept of "retail sales" disappears too. Instead, merchandise vanishes and money appears.

20: 1.54 (left) Repetition of display case and disappearing sheet music with superimposition of a curtain of sheet music covers which rises. The segment depicting sheet music sales ends by continuing the "magical disappearance of sheet music.

Part three: song plugging

   

The job often had associations of crassness, aggressive selling, and sometimes "deals," favors, payola, etc.

 

The next segment uses a pattern of three to show song plugging. The job of the song plugger was to persuade performers to use new songs. Such performance stimulated sheet music sales. At the time, the song plugger was important in producing an initial momentum for the "hit."

 

Aggressive selling vs. indifference or disinterest.

21: 1.55 (left) Red (Red Skelton) the song plugger in the offices of a distinguished older man makes extreme gestures of playing a violin while making nasal "violin" sound.

"LBG" reaches the audience for Boston Pops type performance.

22: 2.01 (left) Man is shown as a conductor of an orchestra playing "Lady Be Good."

A simple transition device that reinforces the idea of performance affecting sheet music sales.

23: 2.07 (left) Curtain of sheet music moves up; copies of LBG sheet music fall down through the frame.

Commonplace racist stereotyping: the musicians seem unimpressed.

24: 2.09 (left) Red in a Chinese restaurant or club sings the song to some men in a mixture of pidgin English and "mispronounced" sing-song rhythm (with exaggerated gestures).

A gag, but is the joke on them or on Red? (and us?)

25 2.14 (left) Same men in costume and with instruments. Singer sings in a foreign language — no apparent relation to the English version in music or vocals.

Sales are connoted.

26 2.20 (left) Repeat of the sheet music curtain motif.

The strong implication that the particularly open mercenary activity of song plugging has no effect. A hit is not really sold, it is recognized.

  27: 2.24 Red doing a pigeon-toed dance for the Berry Brothers (a stage dance trio who appeared earlier in the film) We are backstage with the Berry Brothers on and around large trunks and a Venus de Milo (connotation — odd prop?) As with the others Red songplugs, they seem disinterested. But in each case the song is used in performance.

28: 2.33 Red falls (ineptness).
 
 

29: 2.33 Berry Brother falls ...

... (skilled dance split).

The headline is inordinately large, which makes it easy to read, but which also grants the song a great importance. The song is now known by one word — Lady — which is the mark of success and fame (e.g., Ike, Prince, Barbra, Ali, etc.)

30: 2.41 (left) Transition. Sheet music covers superimposed with Variety.

31: 2.42 Variety headline: "Lady" Promising.