The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

“Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!”

The Adventures of Robin Hood is the quintessential Errol Flynn swashbuckling film. Pitch-perfect casting begins with Flynn as the lord who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, Olivia de Havilland as the lovely Maid Marian, and Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone as the heavies. Stunning Technicolor cinematography and snappy direction and editing adds up to one of the grandest entertainments in film history.

A critic at the time wrote that Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score makes “the leaves of Sherwood Forest even greener…virtually bringing Robin and his Merry Men to life!” From the opening march to Robin’s syncopated trumpet call and the beautiful love theme for Robin and Marian, Robin Hood contains what many believe to be the archetypal Korngold score.

Robin Hood relies heavily on action and Korngold’s cues for these sequences are some of the best ever heard in film music. Robin’s escape from the castle and the final duel between Robin and Sir Guy (Rathbone) are particularly effective. Even when the action slows down a bit, as in the feast in the forest, Korngold gives us a grand Viennese waltz. The brass are heard to great effect during the fanfare and processional march for the golden arrow. Thankfully the studio mixing crew favored the music more than the sound effects, allowing Korngold’s score to be heard to its best advantage.

Today we can’t imagine the film without Korngold’s marvelous music. But it almost didn’t happen.

Korngold, at home in Vienna, wrote to producer Hal B. Wallis, “Robin Hood is no picture for me. I have no relation to it and therefore cannot produce any music for it. I am a musician of the heart, of passions and psychology; I am not a musical illustrator for a 90-percent action picture. Being a conscientious person, I cannot take the responsibility for a job which, as I already know, would leave me artistically completely dissatisfied.”

While waiting for his opera, Katrine, to premiere in March, Korngold received word that neither star Richard Tauber or conductor Bruno Walter was available. Korngold wanted to go ahead without them but his manager suggested he wait till October. Leo Forbstein, head of the Warner Bros. music department, made a personal appeal to Korngold, to which his manager said, “It’s an omen. Go to Hollywood and come back in October.” Korngold accepted, as his son George remembers, “on the condition that he would take the assignment on a weekly basis, and that he would be allowed to resign should he find himself unable to continue on artistic grounds.”

As The New York Times reported in May, Korngold’s “two houses have been confiscated by the Nazis, the ‘Katrine’ is waiting to be born in a more friendly hospice. Korngold is grateful to ‘Robin Hood.'” “If I hadn’t accepted that omen and come over to Hollywood,” Korngold said, “I would probably be dead now.” According to the Times, “he hummed all the way over on the boat, and by the time he got to Hollywood the whole score was pretty much in his head.”

George also remembers, “My father was on the verge of stopping several times. I shall never forget his anguished protestations of ‘I just can’t do it,’ which I overheard in the middle of the night through my bedroom wall. He was suffering, and at the same time producing one of his finest scores…” The score took seven weeks of work, 257 pages of sketches, 2,788 bars and forty-seven numbers. The score is approximately the length of Strauss’ opera, Salome (i.e. ninety minutes).

Thankfully because of the rule changes in 1938, Korngold himself was finally able to receive an actual Oscar, as opposed to the music department studio head. Alan Burt states unequivocally, “Korngold’s score has proven to be the quintessential romantic epic score, timeless and universally affecting.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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