Do not forsake me O my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Wait, wait along.
The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.
O to be torn ‘twixt love and duty!
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty!
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon.
He made a vow while in State’s Prison,
Vow’d it would be my life or his and
I’m not afraid of death, but O,
What will I do if you leave me?
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
You made that promise when we wed.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Although you’re grievin’, I can’t be leavin’
Until I shoot Frank Miller dead.
Wait along, wait along
– “Do Not Forsake Me [The Ballad of High Noon]”, words by Ned Washington, music by Dmitri Tiomkin
“Do Not Forsake Me”, or “The Ballad of High Noon”, is perhaps one of the most widely known and fondly remembered theme songs of all time, but its colossal success depends on far more than a catchy tune. The ways that it was used within as well as outside of the film High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), were extremely progressive. It was tremendously influential and, as I will show, helped to popularise the use of theme songs in later years as well as to define the lyrical style that would dominate title songs in Western movies. It was also immensely effective in the way that it guided viewers’ expectations of the film, helping to shape their experience of it. For fans of the Western genre it is an especially interesting work as its lyrics lay bare some of the issues and concerns most central to the genre as well as to the film at hand.
In 1952, when High Noon was released, few dramatic films featured songs. Where they did exist, they were mostly diegetic. The decision to open the film with a song that functions so overtly as a narrational device is consequently striking and its implications are diverse. However, they can, for the most part, be placed within two categories, marketing and narration.
High Noon was by no means the first film to be cross-marketed with a song or musical score. Although the first film soundtrack album, The Jungle Book, was not released until 1942, merchandising of film songs either as short-play records or sheet music had already been common practice for some years (1). In August 1929, the New York Times was quick to report:
Boundless radio has found a common denominator with the audible cinema, the theme song; and already “The Pagan Love Song”, “Evangeline”, “Broadway Melody” and “The Breakaway” are persisting through the tubes (2).
The author of this article notes that as early as the late 1910s theme songs proliferated in “silent” cinema – both as live accompaniment to film screenings and in other arenas of circulation – and cites the theme songs for Mickey (Richard Jones, 1918) and The Bluebird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918) as early examples. Russell Sanjek argues that Mickey was responsible for demonstrating to the film industry how valuable a popular song could be for promoting a film (3).
This lesson was repeated many years later when High Noon set a new standard for effective cross-promotion, and in so doing encouraged a horde of imitators. It won the Academy Award for Best Song and, according to Jonathan Groucutt, “opened the floodgates” for theme songs, initiating the “’hit-theme’ mania” that had emerged in American cinema by the 1960s (4). After the success of “Do Not Forsake Me”, there was a vast increase in the number of films, especially dramatic films, to open with a theme song during the credits. Between 1950 and 1954, only 13 percent of American feature films used this device. Over the next five years the percentage grew to 22 percent and by the late 1960s this figure had risen still further to 29 percent. (5)
The biggest rise in the use of theme songs took place within the Western genre, argues Ed Buscombe, who claims that after 1952 most major Westerns opened with a theme song. He observes that this trend also resurrected the career of ex-singing-cowboy star, Tex Ritter, performer of “Do Not Forsake Me”, who found new success as a vocalist for a number of Western movie theme songs in the 1950s. (6) As one 1953 newspaper journalist opined,
Already the cycle is nobly launched, and judging from the rush around movietown to sign cowboy warblers who can give a pretty good imitation of Tex Ritter’s agonised delivery of Gary Cooper’s musical woes in High Noon, any picture of the Old West without such accompaniment may go begging for theatre engagements (7).
If the escalating popularity of theme songs can be partly explained by the success of High Noon, it should nevertheless be recognised that wider industrial factors underlay this trend. The drive to release theme songs through newly acquired or created recording arms of film companies had been hastened by the divorcement decrees of 1948. The severance of exhibition outlets from production companies and the loss of guaranteed revenue that these anti-monopolistic mandates caused, led production companies to seek alternate channels of gain. One of these was the expansion of their recording arms, and a more methodical cross marketing of music and film. (8) In 1951, a year before High Noon‘s release, a record executive argued that, “A film company must have a record arm. It could lose money, and it would still come out way ahead on the promotion of basic product.” (9) Jeff Smith describes the way this perspective influenced the release of High Noon:
UA touted the High Noon campaign as one of the biggest ever, and it features many of the components that were commonly used in later promotions, such as multiple theme recordings and co-ordinated radio exploitation… The centrepiece of the campaign was the six single releases of the film’s theme song. Frankie Laine and Tex Ritter’s versions, for Columbia and Decca respectively, were clearly the most important, but the tune was also recorded by Billy Keith, Lita Rose, Bill Hayes, and Fred Waring… Whereas a record promoter would seek out sales and exposure of a particular version of the theme, UA simply sought as much repetition of the tune as possible (10).
High Noon has acquired a reputation for precipitating changes in the style of film scores more generally, as well as they ways in which they were marketed. Although “Do Not Forsake Me” has, in itself, attracted considerable praise, the implications for later film music have been framed negatively by a number of musicians and critics. Some have argued that the desire to incorporate a theme that could be independently marketed took priority over the scoring of music appropriate to the film’s narrative and mood. Composer Elmer Bernstein claimed that “Do Not Forsake Me” precipitated the demise of the classical film score, whilst film historian Roy M. Prendergast went so far as to argue that it “unknowingly rang the death knell for intelligent use of music in films” (11). Dorothy Horstman blamed High Noon for killing off another musical genre, the cowboy song, as the “adult Western” took precedence over singing Westerns (12). These criticisms may indeed hold some water, but at the same time High Noon represented a renaissance in the way that title songs were adapted to narrational purposes, using “Do Not Forsake Me” in a sophisticated fashion to lay out some of the important themes at the start of the film.
Before looking in some detail at the words of “Do Not Forsake Me”, and considering how the song relates to High Noon, as well as its relationship to the Western genre more generally, it is important to note that the lyrics of different versions vary substantially from one another. Like several other movie theme songs of the 1950s, such as those of The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955) and 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957), the version played in the film contains very specific narrative references that were toned down or removed in order to create a more universal tale for the release of tie-in singles. The lyrics of Frankie Laine’s hit recording of “Do Not Forsake Me” were thus amended to omit all direct references to the film’s villain, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). Ned Washington wrote the lyrics for all three of these songs and thus stands out as a figure of central importance in the development of the Western theme song during the 1950s. Generating a prolific quantity of similar material throughout this decade, notably including the theme song for Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957), he played a central role in securing the success of the song’s formula.
The most exceptional feature of the lyrics to the version of “Do Not Forsake Me” that opens High Noon is the extent to which it summarises the plot, even suggesting the way in which the story ends. Narrative précis, as well as invocation of specific characters and narrative events, emerged as a fully-fledged song genre in 1952, the year that saw the release of both Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and High Noon. Although Rancho Notorious, which used this technique, predated High Noon by several months, its theme song never achieved the same degree of fame and influence.
Perhaps the paradigmatic example of the Western theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me” outlines the main story elements, including the initiating events, the backstory, and the primary conflicts that must be played out at the film’s climax. Nevertheless, the strategy allows the preservation of a remarkable level of suspense. We know what the conflicts are that will be acted out, but not the details of their development.
High Noon is built around the tense anticipation of the arrival of the nefarious Frank Miller on the noonday train. The song develops the implications of this event, hinting at the coming duel between Miller and Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) – “I must face that deadly killer” – as well as endowing Kane with an emotional depth that is less fully evident from his actions on screen. It bestows upon the film an ongoing psychological tension, heightening the drama of each minute – “Look at that big hand move along, nearin’ high noon” – as well as pointing forward to the climax.
The inevitable mortal battle with Frank Miller, indicated in the song, is the physical conflict that will provide the action and spectacle intrinsic to the genre. However, from our knowledge of the archetypal persona of the Western hero, coupled with Gary Cooper’s star image, we can surmise that “torn ‘twixt love and duty” provides the internal conflict that will be the film’s driving force. Instrumental phrases from the song are used throughout the film and these persistently remind the viewer of the corresponding lyrics. Graham Fuller writes that, “with its throbbing tune and recurring line of desperation – ‘what will I do if you leave me?’… it provides a chilling motif, ebbing away at moments of despair to suggest the real reason for the torment etched on Kane’s face.” (13). At several points in the film, a line from the song is heard, complete with lyrics, but only very faintly. The technique is thus less intrusive than the verses that punctuate Rancho Notorious or Gunfight at the OK Corral.
The song, at first glance, seems very simple in both structure and message. A slightly closer look exposes a work of considerable complexity. Ostensibly addressed not to the viewer but rather to Kane’s wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), the song jumps back and forth between tenses. It refers to historical events, such as the backstory of the conflict between Kane and Miller, and Miller’s vow of revenge on Kane for putting him in jail: “He made a vow while in State’s Prison, vow’d it would be my life or his…” It also points forward to the choice that Kane will make when Miller arrives, borne out of the emotional dilemmas that pervade the body of the film: “If I’m a man I must be brave…” Its description of these is centred on the choice he must make between “love and duty”. This is a feature common to many Western films. Robert Warshow has argued that a general feature of gender relations in the Western is that
If there is a woman [the hero] loves… he finds it impossible to explain to her that there is no point in being ‘against’ [killing and being killed]: they belong to his world… In Western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and the women are children (14).
In “Do Not Forsake Me”, as in “OK Corral”, the woman is invoked as support, a figure of strength in the background, without whom the hero cannot succeed. She is required to facilitate the hero’s success in the physical realm by bolstering his psychological strength and yet, when it comes to a choice between honourable machismo and the love of a woman, she will almost inevitably lose out: “Although you’re grieving, I can’t be leaving until I shoot Frank Miller dead.”
Although the song lyrics are in the first person and seemingly derive from Kane, it is no secret that they are actually performed by Tex Ritter – his contribution is prominently advertised during the opening credits. Although this establishes a distance between these words and the character of Kane, who is not in any case a character we might expect to express himself in song, the technique is significantly different from the introduction to Rancho Notorious by an omniscient narrator who withholds information. “Do Not Forsake Me” does not narrate with the benefit of hindsight, and yet the archetypal plot elements it invokes allow the viewer to extrapolate further narrative events, including the final showdown. The song appeals to our knowledge of other Western movies and in doing so it encourages us to model our expectations of the film according to generic conventions.
To précis the plot in the opening theme song may seem a curious ploy. One possible explanation of this strategy can be found in Richard Combs’ identification of High Noon as representing a precise stage in the development of the Western genre. He argues that, “A developing sense of its own ritual is one of the things that defines the ‘classic’ Western, but also leads it to outstrip itself (as perhaps all classicisms must), and finally to dissolve itself” (15). Certainly the film schematically draws attention to its formal attributes and yet Claude Mauriac’s interpretation of the pleasures that we seek in watching this genre is perhaps more satisfactory. He writes: “We love Westerns in proportion to whether they offer us just enough surprises to make us experience the pleasure of seeing images we have seen a hundred times before” (16).
In its avowal of the primary pleasures we derive from watching Western movies, and its meaningful augmentation of the experience of viewing High Noon, “Do Not Forsake Me” has secured for itself a prominent place in the pantheon of movie theme songs. The enormous contribution it has made to the heritage of Western theme songs as well as the developing art of cross-promotional marketing deserve to be remembered in the present era where such synergy has come to be taken for granted. Through its narration of universal themes within a specific tale it is a unique piece of writing that has had enduring repercussions.
- Jeff Rovin, The Signet Book of Movie Lists, NEL, New York, 1979.
- New York Times, 4th August 1929.
- Russell Sanjek, American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years – Volume III: From 1900-1984, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, p. 47.
- Jonathan Groucutt, “Scoring for the ’60s”, The Movie, vol. 7, chapter 75, pp. 1498–1500.
- Statistics given in this article are based on my survey of 2636 title sequences from American feature films of the sound period.
- Ed Buscombe (ed.), BFI Companion to the Western, BFI/Andre Deutsch, London, 1991, p. 194.
- Harold Hefferman, “The Minstrel is the Man of the Hour”, Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1953. Cited in Texas Jim Cooper, “Tex Ritter: His Songs and Personality Expressed the Ethos of Our West”, Films In Review, vol. 24, no 4, April 1970, p. 211.
- A detailed account of the film industry’s move towards diversification and conglomeration, and the resultant increase in cross-promotion of films and records can be found in Jeff Smith, The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. See also Alexander Doty, “Music Sells Movies: (Re)new(ed) Conservatism in Film Marketing”, Wide Angle, vol. 10, no. 2.
- Cited in Smith, 1998, p. 59.
- Smith, 1998, pp. 59–60.
- Russell Lack, Twenty Four Frames Under: A Buried History of Film Music, Quartet Books, London, 1997, p. 207; Roy M. Prendergast, Film Music: A Neglected Art, W.W. Norton, New York, 1977, pp. 102-3.
- Dorothy Horstman, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, second ed., Country Music Foundation Press, Nashville, 1996, p. 331.
- Graham Fuller, “High Noon”, The Movie, vol. 5, chapter 53, pp. 1052–53.
- Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: the Westerner”, in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974, p. 403.
- Richard Combs, “High Noon”, Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1986, p. 187.
- Cited in Lotte H. Eisner, Fritz Lang, Secker and Warburg, London, 1976, p. 301.