Overtures in Films

Nothing marks the change in films from the past to the present more than the film overtures.  There are many films that contain them, and there are now tons of people that don't even know what I'm referring to.
The starting of this is hard to pinpoint, but films as far back as the 1920s included these overtures.  It certainly is related to the theatre or opera experience which most people would be used to.  In the heyday of films in the 1950-1970s (mainly epic films) had the instrumental overture before the film started.  It is no surprise that many Broadway film adaptations included or expanded their overtures.  Most times this was when the audience would still be walking in.  Many times the screen had the word OVERTURE over a black screen, or perhaps the background would change.  Generally, the overture was similar to a thematic medley (like in the theatre), but in several cases an original composition.  Other times the overtures would blend into the credits, the practice which eventually phased directly into the main titles sequences we see today.  

Many other films that have overtures were included in the roadshow engagements. Of course there were films that had the full treatment.  That typically included the overture, act one of the film, the curtain closing for intermission (with often entr’acte music) and then exit music for the audience.  The movie studios and theaters really tried to make it a really a special event for these films.  For many video and television releases, the roadshow aspects have been removed, but the music is typically released on the soundtracks.    

Here are some overtures, many of which are:
Gone with the Wind (Max Steiner, 1939)
The Ten Commandments (Elmer Bernstein, 1956)
Ben-Hur (Miklós Rózsa, 1959)
North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann, 1959)
West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein, 1961) (Not in stage show)
Lawrence of Arabia (Maurice Jarre, 1962)

How the West Was Won (Alfred Newman, 1962)
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
(Ernest Gold, 1963)

The Sand Pebbles (Jerry Goldsmith, 1966)
The Cowboys (John Williams, 1972)
The Black Hole (John Barry, 1979)

Star Trek the Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith, 1979)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (Danny Elfman, 1993)(Soundtrack only)
Mulan (Jerry Goldsmith, 1998)(Soundtrack only)
Dancer in the Dark (Björk, 2000)
Kingdom Of Heaven (Harry Gregson-Williams, 2005) (Director’s Cut)

Are there any favorite film overtures that I didn’t mention?

Post a Comment


  1. I like Jerry Goldsmith's "Ilia's Theme" overture, which preceded Star Trek: The Motion Picture's Woody Allen-style opening credits in 1979. But because I was too young to be interested in seeing that movie when it was first released, I was treated to the Ilia theme's pre-opening credits appearance on the Director's Edition DVD in 2001.

  2. You beat me to it, Jimmy. Ilia's Theme is a fantastic overture. And that transition into the now classic Main Titles- pure film score bliss.

    It's a shame the Kingdom of Heaven overture (and entre d'acte) didn't make the jump to the blu-ray version. It was a very classy touch.

  3. You forgot one of my all-time favorite scores - How The West Was Won. I remember seeing this film when it first came out with the three projectors and the fuzzy lines where the films "met." This one also had a great Entr'Acte and Finale that made for a memorable film experience.

  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey!!! Although not the most traditional of scores, it sets the tone for the entire film. (Some believe that the black screen is a close-up of the Monolith itself!)

  5. "Many times the screen had the word OVERTURE over a black screen, or perhaps the background would change."

    No, that's on the VHS or DVD. No original roadshow release had an overture showing anything like that on the screen at all. WEST SIDE STORY had its lines and changing colours, yes, but not the word "OVERTURE". If you see that in a cinema then you're being cheated.

    2001's overture being a close-up shot of the Monolith is a cute response to the fact that it's really just black film. During the overture the projector douser should be shut to prevent stray light from reaching the screen and the audience should see closed curtains, not blank screen.

    "That typically included the overture, act one of the film, the curtain closing for intermission (with often entr’acte music) and then exit music for the audience."
    "Entr'acte" in cinema is generally hold to refer to the overture to the second part, rather than recessional music following the first part. For most shows featuring an entr'acte will have one manifestly similar to the overture (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA's is identical), but in some case - BEN-HUR, for example - the entr'acte can be markedly different.

    TORA TORA TORA (1970) is an odd example too in that it has no overture, but it is provided with an entr'acte after intermission.

  6. Thanks for your great insights!

  7. East of Eden has a very telling overture, starting mellow and transitions into very confrontational orchestration as it progresses

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