Friday, March 07, 2014

Last night I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Because I've spent most of my career writing fiction about the 30s and 40s, and I'm quite meticulous about avoiding anachronisms (except when I introduce them deliberately), it was interesting to see a Hollywood film about a heroic anachronism: Steve Rogers is frozen in 1943 and wakes up in the present day. Unfortunately, no effort is made to make the character speak in the language of an adult from that era (with a few rudimentary exceptions e.g. Steve refers to Peggy Carter as his 'best girl'. Carter is about 100 years old at that point but is played, as in the previous film, by 32-year-old actress Haley Atwell. Impressive CGI is used to age Atwell's face, but she hardly bothers to adapt her vocal timbre to match, giving the unsettling effect of an old person speaking in a young person's voice, which is inadvertently quite appropriate in the context of this screenplay.)

In one scene, Steve is in a lift with Nick Fury, and he says something like, 'In my time, they used to play music in elevators.' This irritated me so much that I almost couldn't enjoy the rest of the film. 'I don't know exactly when "elevator music" was introduced,' I thought to myself, 'but it couldn't possibly have been earlier than the 50s or the 60s. There's no way a guy from the 1940s would have a nostalgic memory of elevator music. These writers are so lazy. Why didn't they hire me as a script consultant or something?'

But today I found out I was wrong!

'On May 31, 1931... New York City unveiled the 102-story Empire State Building,' writes Joseph Lanza in his book Elevator Music. 'Music had to be piped into the elevators, lobbies and observatories to give people at least some illusion of continuity amid the disorder. One particular incident shows just how much elevator music became part of the historical record. On July 28, 1945 an Army B-52 bomber on a cross-country mission crashed into the Empire State Building's 79th story. Flames shot up the elevator shafts, damaging glass cables and threatening to engulf fifty people stuck inside of a glass-encased observatory on the 88th floor. The front-page article in the July 29th New York Times reported: "Even at this terrifying juncture, however, the 'canned' music that is wired into the observatory continued to play, and the soothing sounds of the waltz helped the spectators there to control themselves."'

So they really did have elevator music in Captain America's time. All the same, I maintain that it would have been installed in a relatively small number of commercial buildings, and an army officer from the Lower East Side would not have spent so much time in elevators with elevator music that an elevator without elevator music would later seem worthy of comment. I was at least 15% correct in my cantankerous pedantry.


Paul Steeples said...

Nice blog. But to add some pedantry, either the book you cite is wrong or there's a transcription error. An Army B-52 can't have crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 because (i) the first one didn't fly until 1952; and (ii) B-52s are enormous, and it would have demolished the whole building. It was probably a B-25 Mitchell, a much smaller WW2 bomber. Looking forward to reading Glow after the review in the last LRB, hence the visit to the site.

Daniel Luke said...

Elevator music wasn't a bad idea, for its time, but since its inception I would have occasionally prefered elevator trivia. Or, ambient trivia elsewhere too. Imagine how much more you would know about the world, music, even, if you had been exposed to facts for even one tenth of the time you were exposed to music.

UplayOnline said...

if you had been exposed to facts for even one tenth of the time you were exposed to music.