When Warren Beatty Said "Drop the Music" and Changed Filmmaking Forever

It's amazing, isn't it, how you can see something again and again for fifty years and then suddenly perceive what should have been most apparent of all. I don't mean to say that I'm the first person to have come to this discovery, but I'm certainly the first person I know of who has come to it... other than Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn who sprung it on us without even taking a bow. Dozens of films on which I've worked as publicist, I assure you, are atop your own personal greatest flicks list. But I can think of no other that was more seminal in navigating movie-making to a new right path than Bonnie and Clyde.

I came to these conclusions while watching B&C for the twentieth time in the process of doing crash prep for perhaps the greatest distinction of my professional life: the invitation to be guest programmer of the month for Turner Classic Movies. I was the first press agent invitee, but I had cheated. I'd written a 650-page tribute to and exploration of the movies and the stars and the time I loved, the ones so gracefully celebrated every night on TCM. Starflacker: Inside the Golden Age of Hollywood, available only on Amazon and in excerpts on Huffington Post, captures the aura and the era of that golden past in 1500 easy, breezy, never sleezy anecdotes. Of course, Bonnie and Clyde was one of my four guest programmer selections. Nearly fifty years back, Warren had invited me aboard a revolution that turned Hollywood on its ear.

Halfway through the '60s, Hollywood was floundering its way trying to get in sync with and, more importantly in the studios' little bottom-line mind, trying to exploit the revolutionary tide of the times which emboldened that decade to consider itself the epiphany of the century. 1967 was a great year for getting on track. It had powerful movies exploring new themes and new ways of telling stories (The Graduate) of embracing the inroads of racial equality and tolerance (Heat Of The Night, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner) But it was Bonnie and Clyde that joyously and with punitive shock and cinematic punch told us that the gloves were off, that the rulebook was tossed out, that this new, rebellious energy could be used for any damned innovation which boiled in a filmmaker's blood.

The film industry immediately responded to that. The critics responded to it except for Bosley Crowther who kept flicking at it with his buggywhip. We could see in that film that movie-making was making a decisive change. What we didn't know and what I didn't realize for nearly a half-century was that we didn't hear how it was making a change. The music concept of Bonnie and Clyde was even more revolutionary than what was on the screen or how the narrative unfolded that extraordinary industry premiere night. The music score was driving our sense of this film's originality and leadership... BECAUSE THERE WASN'T ANY MUSIC SCORE IN THE CONVENTIONAL SENSE. Yes, yes, of course, we were all thrilled with the joyous rattle of Earl Scrugg's exuberant banjo brilliance in "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" which flung us into the Barrow Gang's reckless and mindless escapes at the start and into their plunging-towards-demise escapades later. But think about... or, better still, go back and see and HEAR that revolutionary classic film again. There is no music score telling us what to feel, fear, anticipate or hope in every human contact scene. When Bonnie and Clyde and CW and Buck and Blanche live out their lives, they do it without instructive music, just like you and I do. And I'm going to tell you how that came to be and how I came upon that much-ignored situation.

I'm not dissing film scores. They are vast parts of our movie-going ecstasy. Movie themes carry us through films and haunt us with the treasured memory of those films. My wife and I have as our personal love song "Fascination Waltz," which was Billy Wilder's love theme for Love in the Afternoon, the film on which Gisela and I met during its production in Paris. But in discussing Bonnie and Clyde while taping the TCM guest programing conversation with Robert Osborne, I had so much to talk about -- the genius of Beatty in sneaking this film past a vociferously reluctant Jack Warner to achieve its very release, the way its fire was nursed into a blaze, the industry astonishment. And so I never got around to discussing how there was no score to key the audience response to the interpersonal scenes or even the action set-ups.

So when I got back to LA, I called Warren to see if I was, at long long last, correct in perceiving that there was no film score. Apparently it had never come up in conversation before except between him and Arthur Penn. What I learned was that a prior directing commitment had required Penn to depart his and Warren' post-production work before the music was laid in. Warren had hired a top composer who had delivered a beautiful score. But something wasn't hanging together. He found that the score sentimentalized the action and dialogues and narrative... something music traditionally is specifically designed to do in other films. The point ofBonnie And Clyde was that the lives and deaths of the two protagonists not be sentimentalized. It wasn't a romanticized film but rather a punch-in-the-chest telling of desperate lives leading irrevocably to desperate deaths. They were desperados. And this absence of underlying score, this revolutionary break with tradition, powerfully helped make the film revolutionary. So Warren, having exhausted his music budget, called Earl Scruggs who, with wise enthusiasm, said it was Warren's for $470. Everybody, including Mr. Scruggs, the audience, the brothers Warner and movie history, came out on the plus side of that one. And movies were free to do things they never had dreamed of before. Well, maybe dreamed but not ventured.

Guest Programmer: Dick Guttman
8:00 PM NY time, 5:00 PM LA time Love in the Afternoon (1957)
10:30 PM NY time, 7:30 PM LA time Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
12:30 AM NY time, 9:30 PM LA time The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
2:45 AM NY time, 11:45 PM LA time Sullivan's Travels (1942)

• Flatt & Scruggs - "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" - YouTube

3 min - Jun 6, 2012 - Uploaded by McLeodBluegrass

Foggy Mountain Breakdown - Earl Scruggs - YouTube

4 min