Great Days of Hollywood Film Music
Gone with the Wind
Reg Otter remembers the Great Days of Hollywood Film Music
Many years ago (68 to be precise!) I was talking to a friend about the wonderful film music to which this article is dedicated. Both of us were 14, both of us had just left school; both of us had saved, diligently, to amass the outrageously high entrance fee of 3/6d for a seat at the Ritz Cinema, Leicester Square, to see what was then promoted as the greatest picture ever made, and as we emerged from the massive 3 hours 44 minutes showing I enquired of my pal…."What did you think of the music?"
He looked at me a trifle puzzled and replied nonchalantly "Not bad, I suppose, but it was the excitement of the battle scenes and the fire of Atlanta that impressed me."
Personally youthful as I was, I sensed that I had been present an historical moment of the cinema. I had witnessed the birth of a genre of classical music that made an impact at the time, but has been largely ignored ever since, and with the massive, overwhelming hypes of so-called ‘rock ‘n roll’ rap, funk and all the other tuneless drivel that has ruled (and pierced!) our eardrums since the ‘liberating’ (from what? melody?) days of the 1960’s, I fell head over heels in love with the gorgeous, dramatic, rapturous music of master melody makers such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Victor Young, Hugo Friedhofer and Ernest Gold to name but a few.
Max was the unique composer of the symphonic-like score for this unforgettable Hollywood epic and he became the creator of just over 350, yes 350 wonderful film-music movies in an age when melody, beauty, drama, adventure, imagination and innovation was appreciated by the public, that is from the early 1930’s to the 1970’s…. "the Golden Age".
I suppose he will always be remembered for the awesome spine-chilling yet majestic music he composed for "King Kong" seventy one years ago but just three years later in 1936, this Master of Harmony, this genius of dramatic, atmospheric sound, joined Warner Brothers Studios where he made an everlasting and colossal impact, and became without doubt the greatest film music composer of all time.
It seemed that the combination of Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, George Brent, Henry Fonda and Miriam Hopkins was a gut-edge winning formula for millions of dollars and the scintillating, imaginative beautiful scores which poured from the creative brain of Max Steiner are much too long to be listed here, but here are a few for contemplation - "Dark Victory" (the tragic finale music is a masterpiece), "Jezebel" (a waltz to rival Strauss!), "The Great Lie" (Max reaches the realms of Tchaikovsky), "In this our Life" (a superbly melodious theme), "Casablanca" (you must remember this!), "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (such sweetness, counter-pointing a story of racial bigotry), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (a terrific unique tale so cleverly accompanied to appropriately dramatic music), "Now Voyager" (Oh, movie fans, let’s not ask for the Moon…we have Max Steiner!), "The Letter" (Maugham, Bette Davis Herbert Marshall and Max…who could ask for anything more?) "Since You Went Away" (such a beautiful score had one wondering how Max was so talented) "Adventures of Don Juan", "Dodge City", "Charge of the Light Brigade", and "Dawn Patrol" (Erroland Max …what a combination)….just a few of the films which had us tendering our hard earned ninepences with enthusiasm to sink into our seats after having queued outside and inside the temple of dreams. Max Steiner died at the great age of 83 in 1971.
I suppose if there had to be a worthy rival for the crown of the king of film music, which rightly belonged to Max, it would have to be one of his three contemporaries, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman or Victor Young.
Curiously enough, due to the shortness of his career - a mere twelve years and only 18 scores, Korngold, my own personal choice, would be that rival. Six films with music by this sublimely melodic composer stand out as masterly achievements in originality, atmosphere, dramatic capability and celestial orchestration and they are "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939) "The Sea Hawk" (1940), (can there be a more stirring overture?) "King’s Row" (1942) a Korngold Classic. "Devotion" (1946) and "Deception" (1946). The very fact that so few words could command the attention and admiration of discerning cinema-goers proves that Korngold was somewhat of a genius.
Film fan enthusiasts of the late 1930’s would have failed to leave the cinema without whistling or humming the haunting Cathy theme from "Wuthering Heights" which was composed by another Steiner contemporary, Alfred Newman. He was one of ten children born in a working-class family in Newhaven, Connecticut. He became a prolific and much honoured (9 Oscars!) composer and arranger, responsible for the world-renowned 20th Century-Fox "Signature" logo and his Street Scene theme from "Sentimental Rhapsody" became not only popular but a happy perennial of the world of film music, in fact I’ll wager everyone reading this would instantly recall the "Manhattany" tuneful, memorable notes once they heard them. And who will forget the dynamic suspense-filled, nerve jangling thrill of Airport, the majesty and tragedy of "The Robe" and the beauty and scenic happiness of "Love is a Many Splendoured Thing"? All contributed by Alfred Newman!
But maybe my final contender for Max Steiner’s exalted crown would be one of my own personal favourites; he was with us for just over half a century, being a mere 56 when he died, after a life of excessive drinking and smoking, yet composing some of the most beautiful, descriptive film music ever conceived - Victor Young. One has only to mention "Love Letters", "Golden Earrings". "My Foolish Heart", "Stella by Starlight", and "Around the World in Eighty Days" to realise that here was a man, who, although resembling a prize-fighting boxer physically, was a renowned sentimental genius of a musician capable of creating happiness, contentment, love and peace to millions of people whom he had never even met.
Almost all of the music I have written about is now just a pleasant memory. All of the composers are dead and the eras only captured on video and audio tape. The primary object of this small essay is to recall and rejoice in what to me was, and still is, the greatest films ever made; to honour the marvellous composers of film music which has largely been ignored by the general public, and to regret the demise of a part of life which was happy, colourful and oh! so satisfying, despite the rigours of war and insecurity.
There was a place of Directors, Producers, Film Stars and Composers called Hollywood. Here in this fascinating world the Land of Make-Believe took its last bow as ‘Reality’ ‘Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Raunchiness’ and ‘Sex’ took hold. Here was the last ever to be seen of glamour, enchantment and spell-binding charm. Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered - a way of life…. "Gone with the Wind".