Wildcelt Listens to the movies…


Wildcelt is and always will be a film buff. My mailman even regards me as the Queen of Netflix. Well, no apologies. And for me my love affair with movies only heated up during a vacation to Disneyland five years ago on a balmy spring evening under the enormous arches in California Adventure. Suddenly from hidden speakers somewhere above me I heard wafting over the whole scene the love theme from the epic Ben Hur. I was transfixed, instantly taken back to when I saw the movie as a little girl and left the theater humming this beautiful music over and over. The memory resonated so powerfully that I began to think about the music of the movies, something I’d taken for granted, I suppose, but now began to remember and listen to and pay attention to as never before. You’ve all probably had an experience similar to mine at Disneyland—so Wildcelt invites you to look back with me and listen again to the movies.


How did it all come about—all this music on soundtracks to support the drama we are watching on a screen? It’s almost as if the old line we use should go something like “Lights! Camera! Action!—Music!”. How essential is music to our experience of the movies? Even in the silent film era there was music. The famous French composer Saint-Saëns, to cite one influential example, wrote a score to accompany an otherwise soundless movie in 1908! Movie audiences (and the word “audience” does come from the Latin word for “hear”) needed music then, just as it had been needed in staged productions before that in order to enhance dramatic effect. Some of the music scored for silent films was as carefully adapted to images on screen as anything in our times, though not all of it would get to be heard in a mass market. ( And there are scores only now being heard the way they were intended when the films are shown at revivals.) A lot of this old music is worth a re-hearing.


Theaters in those olden days sometimes attempted primitive phonographic accompaniments for musical backgrounding of movies, not with much success. So, as in live shows, they utilized pianists and organists and other instrumentalists by the thousands to sometimes play from scores (whether or not written for the films) or improvise music to more or less go along with the action—there were “how to” manuals for such players! But then came the big break-through of synchronized sound on film in parts of the movie The Jazz Singer in 1927—it helped that it had a hugely popular star, Al Jolson-and the floodgates opened.


“Talkies” had arrived, and very quickly so did films with songs and music in them performed by the actors. But music to accompany the imagery and the drama off-screen, whether it was originally scored or borrowed from existing work, posed technical problems of reproduction that took a while to solve. These early movies with sound were a disaster for some actors who sounded “wrong”, of course. For others it completed their appeal, and now audiences could watch their favorite larger-than-life stars whose image, and maybe even acting, could be reinforced by at least a little music while they talked or said nothing at all. A director could do a scene and perhaps hear in his own ear how some musical effect could complement (or even save) what he was directing.

Scene from The Grand Hotel.jpg

In any discussion of the early history of movie music, one film that looms above the others of its time—the 900 pound gorilla in the room, so to speak—is King Kong, the 1933 monster movie that never goes away. The score by Max Steiner underlined the action, highlighted big moments, moved the drama along more than anything on a soundtrack ever had before. Music served the drama as only it could—such as when it conveyed the feelings of the lovesick eponymous hero. Dated as it may seem now (though it continues to be “aped”), it was ahead of its time—and it did boffo business at the box office. Movie music would never be the same because of it.

Max Steiner came to Hollywood after having made his reputation on Broadway. He grew up in a highly musical family in Vienna before emigrating to America to make his own way, and he was not the only composer with such a background who would wind up at a movie studio in Hollywood in the 1930s. It was almost the model. Steiner, in years soon to follow, would go on to write the music for some of the most famous films in history, including The Informer, Gone With the Wind and Casabanca.

America has produced no greater composer than a child of non-musical immigrants, George Gershwin, a true Golden Boy whose touch was the same—gold—in everything musical that he tried. At the height of his success as a composer of songs and musicals and concert music, Hollywood called. He came and did, though not without setbacks, conquer. We don’t think of him as a composer of movie music per se—music that moves the drama along, that is—but he knew the importance of such music, and when he found out that another composer was going to write the “background” music for the musical Shall We Dance? (the studio thought it would be beneath his interest), Gershwin insisted on doing that, as well as the songs, himself. It backs up one of Fred Astaire’s most charming and memorable film moments—and he’s not dancing!

George Gershwin

George Gershwin


What would that scene be like without Gershwin, just Astaire, in it?! Gershwin’s tragically early death in 1937 robbed the movies of an innovative genius who might have worked new wonders in time—but his melodies have lingered on and made their way into Hollywood musicals long after his passing.

Another child of immigrants began to compose in Hollywood about the same time as Steiner and would go on to just as long and productive a career (and win more Oscars than any other composer)—Alfred Newman. And he wasn’t the only Newman to labor in the studios scoring films. There were his brothers Lionel and Emil. Then their children and grandchildren. A virtual spreading tree of Newmans writing music. (My friend and associate Marleen M. Quint has a complete rundown of this remarkable musical dynasty in the piece that follows.) Here I would like to draw attention to a short bit of music by Alfred Newman that is as familiar as anything we’ve ever heard in the movies. It is an instant evocation of Hollywood, or even of a kind of abstract power and glory, whenever we hear it. It’s something you might be amazed to know was written as long ago as 1933.


Yes, it’s the trademark fanfare for 20th Century Fox, and, though they may change the century in their name one of these days, we can hope they won’t change that sound of their identity.

It’s conventional to speak of a Golden Age of film music, and, like most Golden Ages, it’s located in a distant and perhaps irretrievable past. Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s usually gets that golden nod, and it is a recognition of several things: the kind of Romantic music that was written, its effect on the movies in which it was heard, the way the music remained in the memory of audiences, the quality of the scores even apart from their filmic function, the caliber of musicianship on the part of its creators.

Steiner and the first Newmans were early important figures of this age, and as the thirties went on new luminaries, refugees from Nazi tyranny, joined their ranks. Indeed, Hollywood during this time became an amazing gathering place for some of the best musicians in the world—for composers such as Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Schoenberg but also performing musicians of the highest quality who even filled studio orchestras. One of the greatest string quartets in history would form in their midst and take the name Hollywood.

So it was, in a remarkable historical irony, that a generation of musicians who had been at the core of upholding the high musical culture of Europe would now play an important role in shaping the popular culture of their new home America through their work in movies. Perhaps the most emblematic figure of this period was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, composer of opera and orchestral works at the center of the musical life of Vienna, who’d earlier come to Hollywood and done well, then in January 1938 escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis, crossed the ocean and then took a train to California where, immediately on arrival, he set to work on one of the most popular and influential scores of all time. It was The Adventures of Robin Hood!

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold


It’s a little strange that Korngold, least swashbuckling of men, was, as in his Errol Flynn movies, a master of scoring for the romantic adventure film. What made him a success was both his richly symphonic style—he showed how it could be done in the movies—and his integrity and authority as a musician. He was liked and respected by everyone in the studios, but he chose to cut short his career in Hollywood and was hardly as prolific as the other important composers of his time there. Another composer of operas and concert music arrived in Hollywood late in 1939, and he would prove to be as influential a writer of film scores as anyone who ever worked there. This was Bernard Herrmann—and the movie he started out with was also the first for its director, namely Orson Welles. The two had worked together in radio, including the famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast, so it was almost a given that Herrmann would compose the music for Citizen Kane. The opening of the movie and its music are famous.

Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann


Herrmann revealed new possibilities of sound for enhancing dramatic effect in movies and exploited the widest range of color and expression from traditional instruments. This served him well during his ten-year collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock—he became a master of scary effects, and Psycho, for better or worse, is his main claim to fame.

Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock ended unhappily, as did most of his professional associations. But for his notoriously unpleasant temperament, he might have become the great conductor he wanted to be. He was a complicated man—I’ll want to say more about him.


Now for another look at Miklos Rózsá, whose love theme set me off on that wonderful reminiscence at Disneyland. No look at a Golden Age of film music would be complete without consideration of the long and varied career of this composer, another European expatriate by way of England to Hollywood in 1940. His career would last almost another forty years during which he displayed perhaps as wide a range of style and sound as any composer who ever wrote for the movies. At the start he took on film noir assignments and by his music helped to establish a genre—yet at the same time he could come up with a sound for exotic fantasy drama or historic period pieces. He gained a place in film history as the composer whose score saved a movie that without his music flopped in previews, but, after it was added, went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture - The Lost Weekend.

Miklos Rózsá

Miklos Rózsá


Rózsá’s success with this 1945 movie score raises old questions. Can music save bad cinematography? Bad dialogue? Bad acting? Can it carry a scene that otherwise would die of its dullness? These are questions that will be considered in future articles. One more note about Rózsá: he is best known, of course, for his work on epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and El Cid. But in these movies that are so easy to dismiss as costume dramas with the actors speaking lines that are all wrong for their time and place, Rózsá always made a point of seeking out whatever historical and musical materials existed that would enable him to come up with a passable, authentic sound for the period. He had that sort of integrity, and it served him long and well.


This has by no means been an exhaustive look at Golden Agers of Hollywood film music. Wildcelt is only introducing a topic I want to come back to and mentioning some of the composers I want to consider later on. One additional composer I do want to say something about here is Elmer Bernstein, whose long career spanned the romanticism of old and a more varied, experimental, daring style suited to our own times. He was also a master of main title music,the overture that sums up the movie that is to come. Or can make the title sequence itself into a little movie.


I look forward to listening to the movies with you. Marleen Quint will tell us a lot more about the Newman Dynasty next.

But let me sign off with a tribute to the 20th Century of a different kind…

Thank you, Richard Strauss, you were a great movie composer!