Swap Meet Cinema: Sheet Music and the Movies

 Can we learn about film history through non-filmic means?

By most metrics, this week’s film, Thanks a Million, is not a very familiar title. It hasn’t screened theatrically in Chicago—or anywhere else, for that matter—in many years. I don’t know of any video release, and I can’t recall many TV airings. It doesn’t have much of a paper trail either, with minimal mention in histories of the musical or American cinema in the ’30s. It’s not discussed in relation to director Roy Del Ruth’s career either, but that’s because far too few people are thinking about that expansive and bewildering subject in the first place. (For one rare and sympathetic take on Thanks a Million, see William K. Everson’s brief Program Notes for a 1978 screening.) We managed to preview a collector’s 16mm print before booking an infrequently-circulated 35mm print from the studio vault for our calendar, but that was a stroke of luck.

We only knew to seek the film out in the first place after coming across some very attractive sheet music for it.

These days sheet music occupies a characteristically low rung on the cultural ladder. Collecting sheet music requires forgiving nostrils and a superhuman patience for sifting through stacks and stacks of third-rate swap meet chafe. Go to a used bookstore and ask the clerk if the shop stocks any and you’ll probably receive a shrug or a vague gesture towards a bin of smelly paper towards the back. Even bookstores that put great pride in the appearance of their first editions tend to dump contemporaneous sheet music haphazardly into dusty crates, with the paper left to crease and curl. (One marvelous local exception is Selected Works, the bookstore and sheet music specialist on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave.)

In its heyday, sheet music was ubiquitous. The 1892 release of Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball” achieved success on an unfathomable scale, selling five million home editions. Previously, a hundred thousand sales constituted a blockbuster. This is the moment when the publishing trade became the publishing industry, mass-producing commodities for a broad public. This wasn’t music as mediated by minstrels or street performers, but a product sold directly to the consumer. Whether the tune inside was an aria, a hymn, or a waltz, it was functionally little different from a stick of chewing gum.

Sheet music also expounded a certain democratic idea, if only by necessity. With the recording industry in its infancy, sheet music presented a warm and economical form of entertainment—a musical gathering of family and friends with whom one could interpret and render personal the popular tidings of the day. This aspect is a central part of Beck’s latter-day revival of the form—a new “album” due out next month as a sheet music exclusive. “The songs here are as unfailingly exciting as you’d expect from their author,” advises publisher McSweeney’s, “but if you want to hear “Do We? We Do,” or “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” bringing them to life depends on you.” Consumers are encouraged to buy the sheet music to facilitate recording and virally distributing their own versions. (Shades of Be Kind, Rewind? The pitch reminds me of the brilliant track that closes Albert Brooks’s 1973 LP Comedy Minus One, in which the listener is instructed to follow a printed script and form a stand-up duo with Albert.) Pre-release reaction has been divisive; in a reversal for the ages, Beck’s latest proved too much for Austin hipsters but earned hyperbolic praise from a branding guru at Forbes. (“A Genius Innovation … an idea that is so good, so fresh, so amazing that I … [need] to stand up to let the energy fill my body.”)

Beck can’t singlehandedly revive sheet music, but his Song Reader—a literal concept album—does draw attention to American sheet music’s considerable significance as indigenous, popular art.  The cover illustrations for many forgotten songs are themselves breathtaking.

Sheet music was, of course, also used to sell other media, especially movies, with tie-in songs launched long before the films themselves were able to sing and talk. Though many pieces of film-related sheet music reuse and recycle artwork from poster campaigns, it would be wrong to think of such ephemera as just a shrunken-down version of pre-approved marketing material. One-sheets, banners, lobby cards, billboards and the like targeted the mass audience, but were not products in themselves. You bought a ticket to the movie, not a copy of the poster. Sheet music was different, with the text, layout, color, and image all geared towards a sale of the thing itself. Sheet music was a revenue generator and a rubric of direct public reaction.

(It’s also instructive to compare the market for film-related sheet music to the collector’s market for film posters. Obtaining an original one-sheet for Top Hat or a lobby card for Casablanca might set you back thousands of dollars. Very attractive original sheet music, which displays just as well on the wall, can be had for a few bucks, provided you’re up for rifling through musty boxes and staining your fingertips.)

We’ve scanned some absolutely gorgeous examples and invite your indulgence below. Please click on the thumbnails to enlarge.



“Mickey.” Words by Harry Wiliams, Music by Neil Moret. Waterson, Berlin, & Snyder Co., 1919.

Silent films were often promoted with songs, even though there was no fixed soundtrack or score accompanying the film itself. This is a relatively early example from Mack Sennett’s Mickey. It’s dedicated to its star, Mabel Normand. Pearl White of The Perils of Pauline was also subject to sheet music tribute.




“Oh! Susanna.” Words and Music by Stephen Foster. Jack Snyder Publishing Co. Inc., 1923.

Silent films also provided publishers with a certain freedom to revive old favorites that might plausibly be connected with the latest hit. Here is one enterprising example, with Stephen Foster’s perennial standard benefitting from association with Paramount’s blockbuster western. Shown here in an “Old Masters Edition.”



“My Dream of The Big Parade.” Words by Al. Dubin, Music by Jimmy McHugh. Jack Mills Inc., 1926.

There were also knock-offs of a different sort throughout the 1920s. Here we have a song obviously inspired by King Vidor’s Great War saga, The Big Parade, an enormous success from the year before. (It wound up grossing more money than any other film of the silent era.) The songwriting team of Dubin and McHugh did have some credentials in this area, having penning the bawdy doughboy standard “Hinky Dinky Parley Voo?”



“Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me.” Lyrics by Al Dubin, Music by Joe Burke. M. Witmark & Sons, 1929.
“Dance Away the Night.” Words by Harlan Thompson, Music by Dave Stamper. DeSylva, Brown and Henderson Inc., 1929.
“In the Land of Make-Believe,” Words by L. Wolfe Gilbert, Music by Abel Baer. Leo Feist, Inc., 1929.

The talkie revolution also brought a new scale to marketing tie-ins, with musical films yielding scores with three, four, five, or more individually salable songs. (Note that “Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me” is one of nine songs offered from Gold Diggers of Broadway.) This complicated period registers several quite important absences for the film historian, with many transitional titles surviving fragmentarily or not at all. In such cases, the “lost” films are often best approximated in flavor and atmosphere by paper ephemera that remains—stills, lobby cards, and especially sheet music. Recent preservation efforts have salvaged about a fifth of the otherwise-lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (including the “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” number) but the spirit of the vanished original is conveyed elegantly by the sheet music. Likewise, Fox’s Married in Hollywood survives only in a brief fragment, but the sheet music leaves a vivid impression of the idiom the film occupied for contemporary audiences. I have no idea whether the Tiffanytone production of Molly and Me survives (many key films from important but under-capitalized mini-studio Tiffany-Stahl are gone), but I can’t imagine the film approaching the lyrical delicacy of the still that illustrates the cover of “In the Land of Make-Believe.”

“Broadway Melody.” Words by Arthur Freed, Music by Nacio Herb Brown. Robbins Music Corporation, 1929.
“Waiting at the End of the Road.” Words and Music by Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin, Inc., 1929.
“Taking a Chance on Love.” Words by John LaTouche and Ted Fetter, Music by Vernon Duke, 1943.

Films and sheet music were both highly lucrative commodities, but they traveled in different commercial channels with divergent expectations. Compare the treatment accorded to two roughly contemporaneous, all-talking, all-singing productions from the same studio, M-G-M. The Academy Award-laureled Broadway Melody receives absolutely beautiful, full-color sheet music, which includes original art and inset photographs of major cast members. King Vidor’s Hallelujah!  was a prestige production shot on location with an all-black cast. Its exhibition was proscribed in a number of Southern states. Its sheet music—a wonderful song from no less than Irving Berlin—is remarkably generic. It’s the end of the road, all right. I can only speculate, but the lack of star billing and any allusion to the actual content of the film suggests a canny marketing move from Irving Berlin Inc.: this is a product that can be sold south of the Mason-Dixon Line without offending the racial sensitivities of local bigots. (Just because Southern theaters won’t play Hallelujah! shouldn’t mean that music fans should be denied the chance to throw some coin toward Berlin.) The cross-promotional value accorded M-G-M is quite slim; it takes a moment to even recognize the piece as a movie tie-in. If this opportunistic interpretation sounds far-fetched, consider the very similar treatment that the all-black Cabin in the Sky received some fourteen years later.

 “A Farewell to Arms.” Words and Music by Allie Wrubel and Abner Silver. Keit-Engel, Inc., 1933.
“The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” Words by Buddy Kaye, Music by Dick Manning. Remnick Music Corporation, 1947.

You don’t remember theme songs for these somber pictures? Too much lilt? Sheet music titans beg to differ. Did you know that the arms in the Hemingway picture are not military implements but those “arms that caressed me?” At least this fanciful interpretation is rooted in the romantic drama of the film. More puzzling is “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” which manages to find sex appeal in a movie totally devoid of women:

I didn’t find the fortune I was looking for
I didn’t find the fortune, I found much more
For you are the treasure of SIERRA MADRE
And your love is the gold that I tenderly hold in my arms (!)


“It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day.” Words by Al. J. Neiburg, Music by Sammy Timberg and Winston Sharples. Famous Music Corporation, 1939.

This charming promotional piece for the Fleischer Studio’s full-length cartoon Gulliver’s Travels is one of the few pieces of filmic sheet music that explicitly refer to the filmmaking process. (There are a few too many perforations per frame, yes, but the Fleischers are hardly the first to take such license.)




“Rock Round the Rock Pile.” Words and Music by Bobby Troup. Robbins Music Corporation, 1956.

Not all sheet music was intended for home use. Remarkably, the novelty song from The Girl Can’t Help It was accorded a special edition for radio broadcast. Though Edmond O’Brien belts “Rock Around the Rock Pile” to memorable effect in the Tashlin film, the real linchpin is Jayne Mansfield’s seductive prison siren sound effect, which no sheet music can adequately replicate.




Special Thanks to the University of Chicago Regenstein Library Map Collection for their outstanding large format scanning facilities and kind staff. All images come from the private collection of the author.

For much, much more vintage sheet music, check out the Sheet Music Consortium maintained by UCLA, which collates records of digitized depositories from around the country.