You Can Call Me Al

Published in Film Score Monthly Online
August 2008

For 20 years Alfred Newman ruled over the 20th Century Fox music department. Today, he rules over my tiny New York apartment. In my entryway, a framed, bronze, first-day-issue Newman stamp welcomes those few intrepid visitors who are willing to venture to the wrong side of the tracks to visit me.

The eldest of 10 children, Newman (1900-1970) was a musical prodigy on piano and supplemented his poor family’s income by playing in theaters and restaurants. Later, he traveled the vaudeville circuit billed as “The Marvelous Boy Pianist.” By the age of 20, he was conducting musicals on Broadway for the likes of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern—training that put him in good stead when he accompanied Irving Berlin to Hollywood in 1930. Newman’s conducting became legendary, and he is still considered to be the finest conductor in the history of film.

Oscar began its love affair with Newman early on. He conducted One Night of Love, the first winner for Best Score in 1934. With 45 Academy Award nominations, he is tied with John Williams as the second-most-nominated person in the history of the awards, behind Walt Disney. With nine statues, Newman is the most honored composer in Oscar history, and between 1938 and 1957, he was nominated an incredible 20 years in a row.

So what makes an Alfred Newman score so special? For me, it is his choice of material and the lack of “cheap sentiment” in his music, combined with Edward Powell’s superb orchestrations and Newman’s baton skills. More than anything, it is a rich, romantic, lush string sound—the legendary “Newman strings”—that defines Newman’s music.

All About Eve (1950)
Everything about All About Eve—from Bette Davis’ career high as aging actress Margo Channing to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s peerless script—has brought me years of joy ever since I first saw it as a college undergrad. Newman steered clear of the witty barbs that ricochet from one character to the next, letting the orchestra soar during the transitions, pauses, and wordless interludes. Newman rings down the curtain on a young actress (Barbara Bates) standing in front of a wardrobe mirror wearing Eve’s (Anne Baxter) coat and holding Eve’s newly won acting trophy. Eve’s theme and the opening fanfare crash (and clash) side by side, book-ending the film and continuing the ruthless machinations begun by Eve at the start of the film that are now her downfall. Like everything else in this my favorite film, Newman’s score deserves a standing ovation.

Anastasia (1956)
Some of my earliest memories of film music come from playing piano arrangements of famous themes like The Apartment and Exodus as a young boy, long before I ever saw the films. One of my favorites was the theme from Anastasia. The film was an adaptation of a 1954 play by Marcelle Maurette, loosely based on the true story of “Anna Anderson,” a former inmate in a German asylum who claimed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest surviving member of Russia’s Romanov royal family, massacred in 1918. As the eldest of 10 children of immigrant Russian Jews, Newman was the perfect composer to score Anastasia. He composed a monothematic work in which the memorable main theme was “simple and heartfelt, Russian in character, and lent itself to development and variation.” In this cue, the theme accompanies a distraught and confused Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman) as she wanders the streets of Paris. Seeing her reflection in the Seine, the strings seesaw in despair as the main theme strains upward until Bounine (Yul Brynner) pulls her back from the brink of suicide.

The Best of Everything (1959)
For his final score at Fox, Newman composed a rare title song, a popular practice that began with Dimitri Tiomkin’s highly successful High Noon in 1952. Newman was not primarily known as a songwriter, but “The Best of Everything” is a gem. I first fell in love with this beautiful melody on the Charles Gerhardt compilation, Captain From Castile: The Classic Films of Alfred Newman. Newman’s haunting tune, choral oo-oo-oo’s, Sammy Cahn’s poignant lyrics, and Johnny Mathis’ trademark vibrato give this sudsy soaper a touch of late 1950s class. Astute listeners of this instrumental track may notice a slight timbre change in the string sound, no doubt in part to Earle Hagen’s orchestrations. This was the first picture not orchestrated by Newman’s longtime right hand, Edward Powell, after a falling-out on The Diary of Anne Frank. And though Hagen’s orchestrations fit the glossy tone of the film, they demonstrate how integral Powell’s talent had been to Newman’s sound.

David and Bathsheba (1951)
For being a self-proclaimed non-religious man, Newman was particularly adept at scoring religious films. David and Bathsheba is the Biblical telling of King David (Gregory Peck) and his illicit love for the beautiful Bathsheba (Susan Hayward). Newman’s love theme for strings ascends chromatically from the very depths of the heart. To hear just how valuable Newman was on the podium, compare Newman’s original track with the excellent re-recording by Richard Kaufman conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on the Wuthering Heights: A Tribute to Alfred Newman CD. Though Kaufman uses the same original Edward Powell orchestrations and has far cleaner sound quality, it is missing the passion that Newman’s conducting brings to the earlier version.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
In 1956, playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett turned Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl into a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, which they later adapted for George Stevens’ 1959 film version. Like the sun pouring through the attic’s broken skylight, Newman’s beautiful score shines a ray of light into the Franks’ shattered lives. According to Newman, “George decided that our film shouldn’t be one of doom and gloom but we should concentrate on the love and humor of these people…the music would be motivated by high ideals, the tenderness and the spiritual qualities inherent in their family life and their special badge of courage…I attempted to evoke the memory of a happier past, the hope for a happier future, the longings of oppressed people and the love of family, one for the other, and most of all, the great dignity and courage of the Frank family and their friends in the face of disaster. For Anne, I tried to achieve in her music, her simple candor, her warmth, and her abiding and inspiring faith.” The most powerful moment in the score comes during the final moments of the film. Anne (Milly Perkins) and Peter (Richard Beymer) kiss as the strings swell to a full-blown statement of “Anne and Peter’s Theme,” and the French horns seem to cry out a heartbreaking “Peter, Peter” as approaching Nazi sirens cut off all hope of a future together. This cue moves me to tears every time.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Today, How Green Was My Valley is unjustly derided as the film that beat Citizen Kane at the Academy Awards. Richard Llewellyn’s novel of a Welsh mining family was lovingly translated to the screen through Philip Dunne’s screenplay and directed with customary grace by John Ford. For the score, Newman selected many Welsh folk songs and hymns to be sung a capella, weaving the melodies throughout the score. The love theme for Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) and the local preacher (Walter Pidgeon) is based on an Irish folk song, “The Sixpence.” The orchestrations showcase a popular Newman technique in which the theme begins in a solo instrument, followed by the entire string section, and completed by a solo instrument once again. Newman was criticized for using an Irish melody in a Welsh picture, but who cares when the tune so perfectly captures “love denied.”

The Keys of the Kingdom (1945)
Based on A.J. Cronin’s novel, The Keys of the Kingdom stars Gregory Peck as a Scottish priest sent to China to establish a Catholic mission. Newman incorporated Irish and Chinese elements into the score. A memorable theme is associated with Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong), a local Chinese nobleman who deeds the Hill of the Brilliant Green Jade to Father Chisolm (Peck) for saving his son’s life. Newman later reused the melody in his Oscar-winning Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), while Richard Rodgers seems to have been borrowed (or lifted) the tune for the song “I Have Dreamed” in the musical The King and I.

The Robe (1953)
As opposed to the pomp and grandeur that Miklós Rózsa brought to his religious scores over at M-G-M, Newman’s tended to be more personal and introspective. In The Robe, the love theme for Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Diana (Jean Simmons) contains religious overtones that foreshadow Burton’s acceptance of Jesus later in the film. Newman’s score became a legendary footnote in Oscar history: Franz Waxman was so incensed that Newman failed to receive a nomination that he quit the Academy in protest.

The Snake Pit (1948)
Long before 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Snake Pit took a harsh look at life in a state mental hospital. Olivia de Havilland gives a raw performance as Virginia Cunningham, a young married woman who finds herself in a state insane asylum and can’t remember how she got there. For much of the film, Newman eschews his gorgeous string writing and treats us to a little shock treatment of his own with strings that shriek like musical inmates. At the end of the film, Newman introduces a new theme for the unspoken love Virginia imagined for Dr. Kik (Leo Genn). Newman later used the theme in 1949’s The Prince of Foxes.

The Song of Bernadette (1943)
Newman’s first Oscar for Best Original Score almost didn’t happen. Author Franz Werfel originally recommended his friend Igor Stravinsky to compose the score for the film adaptation of his novel, The Song of Bernadette. With producer Darryl Zanuck away at war and unable to veto the idea, Newman let Stravinsky compose the score. While Stravinsky is certainly no slouch as a composer, thankfully his music was rejected, allowing Newman to compose what is arguably his finest score. (Stravinsky later incorporated his own “Apparition of the Virgin” music into the middle movement of his Symphony in Three Movements.) The highlight of the score is Bernadette’s first vision. Newman originally wrote the scene with Wagner’s Grail music and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in mind, “a terrifying standard to have to approach,” he said. When he reread Werfel’s book, he found that Bernadette had never claimed to have seen anything other than a “beautiful lady.” Bernadette’s theme consists of four ascending notes, which, according to Jon Burlingame in his commentary for the DVD, is “as if she’s gazing toward heaven.” Newman stated, “The theme was fragile and yet loaded with dynamite.” “I thought the music should not be pious or austere or even mystical, or suggest that the girl was on the first step to sainthood,” said Newman. “She was at that point simply an innocent, pure-minded peasant girl, and I took my musical cues from the little gusts of wind and the rustling bushes that accompanied the vision, letting it all grow into a swelling harmony that would express the girl’s emotional reaction. And it was important that it express her reaction, not ours.” Without a doubt, this scene won Newman the Oscar.

* * *

To this heathen, Alfred Newman is God among film composers. To quote the opening title card from The Song of Bernadette, “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

I believe, I believe!

—FSM

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