The Mother Lode

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
Volume 13, Issue 6, June 2008

When Tim Curran approached me to write a regular column for FSM Online, my initial flattery quickly turned to panic. What could I possibly have to discuss on a regular basis? To answer that question, I fortified myself with Diet Dr. Pepper, Cheetos Puffs and Double Stuf Oreos, plopped down into my desk chair’s well-worn grooves, and settled in for a good, long think. An intimidating blank, white screen glared back at me from my laptop, daring me to write passionate, provocative prose. But hopped up on caffeinated aspartame, MSG and hydrogenated soybean oil, my ideas ranged from asinine and appalling to pompous and prosaic. When countless hours surfing the Internet proved fruitless, I turned to the FSM message boards for inspiration.

As I dug further and further into the archives, 2008 turned into 2007, 2006, and so on. Postings piled up like DNA strands, crisscrossing and weaving among themselves until I didn’t know Alex North from Eastern Promises. Then a glimmering nugget from 2004 caught my eye: “Why is there little or no golden age stories etc., in FSM magazine?” Eureka! My prospecting was at an end. I had found my topic.

“Gold Rush” will honor the musical pioneers who staked their claim during the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, there was trouble in them thar hills. “Cheez, who wants to read about a bunch of ancient, dead people who wrote archaic music?” asked one poster. “Watching mold grow would be more interesting.” My mission became to “communicate what’s great and redeeming and relevant about ‘old’ film music.”

While not every Golden Age score is a gem, “it’s an era rich in genius, bigger-than-life personalities and great film scores.” The music that flows through the veins of numerous Golden Age composers not only influenced the next generation, it continues to inspire musicians today. Michael Giacchino and Aaron Zigman cite Max Steiner as a major influence. John Debney acknowledges his passion for Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin. Bernard Herrmann influenced everyone from Danny Elfman and Elmer Bernstein to Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat. Bernstein also acknowledged his debt to Franz Waxman’s “superior dramatic sense,” Miklós Rózsa “for the grandeur of his concepts,” and David Raksin for the “peculiarly American voice” he brought to film scoring. And without Alfred Newman, there may have been no Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams; almost certainly there would not have been a David or Thomas Newman.

With these names alone, “the Golden Age remains one vast of motherlode [sic] waiting to be mined.” But “Gold Rush” will also excavate those less-familiar composers who may have been buried in the sands of time. To that end, I’d like to present you with the first installment in the series: 10 golden scores worthy of examination.

An Affair to Remember
Hugo Friedhofer

David Raskin called Hugo Friedhofer “far from the ordinary, garden-variety misanthrope.” But this misanthropic view of life kept Friedhofer’s scores from sounding like the “overdramatic twaddle” that many film score fans associate with the Golden Age. Friedhofer worked on close to 250 films as an arranger, orchestrator or composer, orchestrating almost all of Korngold’s 16 films and over 50 scores for Max Steiner. So why pick this sentimental 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr romance over something more substantial, such as his 1946 Oscar-winning score for The Best Years of Our Lives? Because Friedhofer’s mastery of the orchestra, especially in the understated treatment of Harry Warren’s lovely title tune, keeps the score from over-romanticizing an already schmaltzy story. Friedhofer’s music is one affair truly worth remembering.

Auntie Mame
Bronislau Kaper

FSM has thankfully—and deservedly—resurrected Bronislau Kaper from relative obscurity. From his early days in Hollywood composing songs for Marx Brothers films to his hit, “Hi Li-li, Hi Lo,” and his Oscar-winning score to Lili, Kaper has proven he certainly knows his way around a melody. Scores for films such as Home on the Hill and the epic Mutiny on the Bounty show him equally adept at scoring dramas. But his adroit comedic skills are nowhere more apparent than in his classic score for Auntie Mame (1958). Inspired by Rosalind Russell’s bravura performance, Kaper’s score is enjoyably light and breezy, featuring a main theme that is as glamorous and swellegant as Mame herself.

The Catered Affair
André Previn

Four-time Oscar winner André Previn has tackled nearly every facet of music, including film, jazz, Broadway, opera and the concert hall. This child prodigy began working at M-G-M while still in high school, and at age 19 was hired permanently as a conductor and composer. Though he is justifiably lauded for his musical adaptations, Previn’s original scores bear a distinct stamp that remains remarkably fresh 50 years later. The Catered Affair (1956) features an unobtrusive Previn score for this kitchen-sink drama starring Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis as a Bronx cabbie and his wife trying to afford a wedding for their daughter (Debbie Reynolds). The main theme features a memorable 3/4 melody that displays just a whiff of the characters’ Irish background. Previn also utilized his fondness for jazz in various source cues and the love theme between Debbie and Rod Taylor. Previn’s unique musical voice keeps the film from becoming a dated affair.

Genevieve
Larry Adler

Due to the Black List, legendary harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler was living in British exile when he was offered the chance to compose his first film score, for 1954’s Genevieve. This delightful British comedic gem about a vintage car race features a unique score, orchestrated mainly for harmonica and piano (though certain cues are scored more fully). Though the film opened to big box office in Britain, Adler agreed to remove his name from the credits and replace it with that of music director Muir Mathieson so that the producers could secure a U.S. release for the film. When the score received a surprise Oscar nomination, Mathieson’s name was listed. Though Mathieson had never claimed credit, it wasn’t until June of 1986 that the Academy’s Board of Governors updated Academy records to give Adler his proper recognition.

 

Harvey
Frank Skinner

Frank Skinner is best known for his scores for Universal’s sci-fi and monster flicks and Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, but his 1950 score for Harvey shows that he was equally adept at composing for comedy. Skinner’s four-note vibraphone motif for Harvey and the light-hearted main theme set the tone perfectly for this gentle comedy based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Though James Stewart’s mild-mannered Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull’s Oscar-winning support help us suspend belief in this fanciful tale, Skinner’s delightful score just might have you have seeing six-foot tall white rabbits as well.

 

Marie Antoinette
Herbert Stothart

With a budget of roughly $2.5 million and reigning studio queen Norma Shearer as the doomed French queen, Marie Antoinette (1938 ) was the kind of glossy biopic that only M-G-M could make. Though it plays fast and loose with historical facts, its sumptuous art direction and costume design, and Herbert Stothart’s classically orchestrated score perfectly capture the pomp of the French court. Stately dances and fanfares that sound like they’re straight out of Handel convey the period, while a soaring love theme makes this score unexpectedly moving. Though his satiny string sound exemplified the M-G-M gloss, Marie Antoinette gave me newfound appreciation for Stothart’s talent as a first-class composer.

 

No Sad Songs For Me
George Duning

George Duning was, as film-music author Tony Thomas put it, the “personification of the old studio-system professional.” One of the unsung heroes at Columbia Pictures, Duning worked as an adaptor, orchestrator, arranger, musical director, or composer on hours of uncredited stock music. But talent can’t stay uncredited forever. Duning is best known for accompanying Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around in the surf in From Here to Eternity (1953) and his number one hit on the pop charts combining an instrumental version of “Moonglow” with his love theme from Picnic (1955). But I have a soft spot for his lovely score to the little-seen No Sad Songs for Me (1950), featuring a dying Margaret Sullavan who blesses her husband’s affair so that her daughter will grow up with two parents. What could have easily turned into sentimental melodrama becomes pitch perfect thanks in no small part to Sullavan’s straightforward performance underscored by Duning’s lovely, yet never sentimental, music.

 

Quality Street
Roy Webb

Though you may not know Roy Webb’s name, his influence is felt even today as a signer (along with his brother Kenneth) of the original charter that formed The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and as the author of the official football fight song for Columbia University (his alma mater). But it was his position as the head of RKO Studios music department from 1936 until the studio’s demise in 1955 for which film score fans give thanks. Though he became best known for brooding psychological dramas and Val Lewton thrillers, I am partial to his charming, classically tinged score for J.M. Barrie’s drawing room comedy of errors, Quality Street (1937). Scored mainly for strings, woodwinds and harpsichord, the music conveys the upper-crust residents of Quality Street where, as the title card says, “a gentleman passerby is an event.” Unfortunately for Golden Age fans, when Webb’s home burned to the ground in 1961, all of Webb’s written and recorded film scores and unpublished concert music were lost, leaving us with very little recourse to study his scores outside of the films.

 

Secrets of Life
Paul J. Smith

After paying his dues composing uncredited music for Disney shorts, Paul J. Smith broke out of the pack with his first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), alongside Disney veterans Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline. After sharing a 1940 Oscar for Pinocchio (with Harline and lyricist Ned Washington), Smith’s star began to rise with more high profile work over the next decade. When Disney unveiled his groundbreaking series of nature films, True Life Adventures, in the 1950s, Smith was the “natural” choice to compose the scores and his music accompanied eight films in the series. In Secrets of Life (1956), Smith musically conjured volcanoes, a “bloom bolero,” and in this featured clip, some very industrious ants. Though I slept through most of these films when they were shown to us in school, I can now appreciate not only their breathtaking cinematography, but the essential musical contributions of unsung Disney musicians like Paul J. Smith.

 

Separate Tables
David Raksin

Best known as the composer of the song “Laura,” David Raksin began his career in Hollywood at age 23 working on Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Whether it was his “peculiarly American voice” or “[he] was possibly writing music he would not have been ashamed to show his celebrated mentor, Arnold Schoenberg,” the producers of Separate Tables (who had not wanted to hire Raksin in the first place) felt the music was “too contemporary in style,” requiring him to rewrite major portions of the score. But no matter how compromised, Raksin’s score in the finished film is still a beauty. Particularly ravishing is the theme for Rita Hayworth, a melody every bit as glamorous as Rita herself.

* * *

These 10 personal favorites of mine constitute only a slim vein of the riches waiting to be unearthed from the Golden Age vaults. Further installments of “Gold Rush” will share stories, scores and composer profiles not only for Golden Age fans, but also for those of you “who are interested in Golden Age music but [are] not sure exactly how to connect with it.”

So, stake your claim and strike it rich.

–FSM

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