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A brief history of Film Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

Film Music


Hollywood: Film Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Charlie Chaplin composed his own music for City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and Limelight (1952). That was the exception, and few film-makers would imitate him. He wasn't clear at all whose job was to score the soundtracks.

German cabaret pianist Friedrich Hollaender scored Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel/ The Blue Angel (1930), which included Marlene Dietrich's signature tune Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe Eingestellt/ Falling In Love Again. Von Sternberg kept changing musicians: Karl Hajos scored Morocco (1930) and Franke Harling Shangai Express (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934).

In the 1930s, after a few years of experimentation, scoring film soundtracks became an art in earnest thanks to a small group of foreign-born musicians, first and foremost two Austrian-born and classically-trained composers. Erich-Wolfgang Korngold's coined a lush, overwhelming, operatic style with Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood (1935) and especially The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940), as well as Charles Gerhardt's Anthony Adverse (1936) and Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942).

Max Steiner explored many different moods, sensational in Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong (1933), one of the first soundtracks to rely heavily on sound effects, pathetic in Victor Fleming's Gone With The Wind (1939), including Tara and countless references to traditional songs, exotic in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), melodramatic in Irving Rapper's Now Voyager (1942), gloomy in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), epic in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), romantic in Delmer Daves' A Summer Place (1959), whose instrumental theme was a massive hit for Percy Faith's orchestra, etc. He also scored Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946), John Huston's Key Largo (1948), Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949).

Roy Webb (the New Yorker among all these foreigners) invented the musical language for the light comedy with the soundtracks to George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Rene` Clair's I Married A Witch (1942). Then he turned to Jacques Tourneur's horror movies, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Out Of The Past (1947), and to psychological thrillers such as Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Siodmak's Spiral Staircase (1946) and Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

The master of horror was Austrian organist Hans Salter who developed a new language for trivial suspense vehicles such as Frank Skinner's The Son of Frankenstein (1939), Christy Cabanne's The Mummy's Hand (1940), George Waggner's The Wolf Man (1941). The soundtracks for Jack Arnold's The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) were more accomplished but simply recycled the vocabulary he had devised in the 1940s.

A master in the grand lush orchestral style, and a veteran vaudeville pianist and conductor of Broadway musicals, Alfred Newman scored jazz-tinged and classical-tinged soundtracks for King Vidor's Street Scene (1931) and William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939). His frequently colorful and exuberant scores taught a whole generation how to write music for films: John Cromwell's The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939). The success of his score for Henry King's The Song Of Bernadette (1943) convinced the record labels that soundtracks were a viable product (until then, very few scores had been released on record). He then scored some classics such as Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950), Henry Koster's The Robe (1953), the first Cinemascope film, Jean Negulesco's How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch (1955), and went on to compose Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955),

The western movie developed its own musical language, thanks to Ukrainian-born Dmitri Tiomkin. After working on magniloquent music for Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and It's A Wonderful Life (1946), as well as for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt(1943) and Dial M For Murder (1954), Tiomkin focused on the western in a series of breathtaking scores: King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Big Sky (1952), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), the first movie to be promoted by its theme song (originally titled Do Not Forsake Me) rather than viceversa, and George Stevens' Giant (1956). Having become the darling of Hollywood producer, he applied his hit-oriented language to John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), but also to the tv themes Rawhide (1959) and Gunslinger (1961), as well as to Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1953) and Dial M for murder (1954). Each of them contains at least a song that was meant to be just that, a song, and a catchy one, as opposed to music that underpins the story.

Hungarian-born Miklos Rozsa helped develop the musical language of the film noir with his ominous scores for Zoltan Korda's Jungle Book (1942), which was re-recorded with a symphonic orchestra and issued on a three-record album, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946), whose theme song became the theme for the tv series Dragnet, scores that sometimes utilized the theremin (for the first time in Lost Weekend, played by Sam Hoffman); Vincent Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949), the first film soundtrack (other than cartoons and musicals) to be released in its original format on record; and the epics of Mervin LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951) and William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959).

Another poet of the film noir was German-born Franz Waxman, who scored Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941) and Rear Window (1954), as well as Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) and George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Austrian cabaret composer Anton Karas (basically an amateur) ended up composing one of the most famous themes, the one for Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), containing Harry Lime Theme.

Hugo Friedhofer, who had assisted Korngold and Steiner, applied their late-romantic lesson in his moving and nostalgic soundtrack for William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

The prolific Adolph Deutsch scored several of cinema's masterpieces: Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941), John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).

Joseph Kosma, who set Prevert (Les Feuilles Mortes, Barbara, En Sortant de l'Ecole, Les Enfants qui s'Aiment, La Peche A la Baleine, Inventaire, 1956) and other French poets to music, was the musical hero of French cinema before World War II: Jean Renoir's Le Crime de M Lange (1936), La Grande Illusion (1937), La Bete Humaine/ Human Beast (1938), La Regle du Jeu (1939), as well as Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis/ Children of Paradise (1945).

The most important, and most prolific, of the classical composers who wrote for the cinema was Dmitri Shostakovich, who scored 34 films. They are mostly bombastic and celebratory, for example: Grigori Kozintsev's and Leonid Trauberg's Novyj Vavilon/ The New Babylon (1929), Odna (1931), Maxim (1935), The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda (1936) and Vyborg District (1938), Sergei Yutkevich's Zlatyye Gory/ Golden Mountains (1931) and Vstrechnyj/ Counterplan (1932), Lev Arnstam's Zoya (1944), Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Michurin (1949), Mikhail Chiaureli's Fall of Berlin (1949), Alexander Faintsimmer's The Gadfly (1955), Grigorii Roshal's God Kak Zhizn/ A Year Is Like A Lifetime (1965). Shostakovich found a more personal cinematic language for Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet/ Hamlet (1964) and Korol Lir/ King Lear (1969).

French composer Georges Auric employed classical melody in a slightly oneiric way for Jean Cocteau's cinematic poems Le Sang d'un Poète (1930) and La Belle et la Bète (1946), Henry Clouzot's Le Salaire De La Peur/ Wages of Fear (1953), Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1957), Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), and with a light touch for British comedies such as Henry Cornelius' Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

British classical composer Arthur Bliss crafted one of the most original of the early soundtracks, for Alexander Korda's science-fiction movie Things to Come (1935).

The scores of Armenian classical composer Aram Khachaturian for Amo Bek-Nazarov's Pepo (1935) and Zanzegur (1936) were among the most celebrated of Soviet cinema.

Among the most popular scores of the 1930s were the soundtracks for Walt Disney's series of Silly Symphonies, shown between 1929 and 1939. These included Frank Churchill's Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?, off Three Little Pigs (1933), Lullaby Land of Nowhere (1933) and Somebody Rubbed Out My Robin (1935), as well as Leigh Harline's Help Me Plant My Corn (1934) and The Penguin Is a Very Funny Creature (1934). Walt Disney's Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), whose best numbers (I'm Wishing, Whistle While You Work, Heigh Ho, Some Day My Prince Will Come) were composed by Frank Churchill, was even more important, both because the songs were an organic whole and because, for the first time, a label (Victor) released original soundtrack music (not the same songs interpreted by other musicians) as a an "album" of three 78 RPM records (of which at least two, Whistle While you Work and Heigh Ho, became extremely popular). By the same token, Pinocchio (1939) featured one of the era's most famous songs, When You Wish Upon A Star, again by Leigh Harline. Walt Disney's films turned the animated cartoon into a musical. They also legitimized the soundtrack as a commercial product. In fact the expression "original sound track" was coined by the Disney studios for the release of music from Pinocchio as a three-record album in 1940.

But the first truly original composer of cartoon music was Carl Stalling, who, after scoring Walt Disney's The Skeleton Dance (1929), composed soundtracks for the cartoons of "Bugs Bunny", "Daffy Duck", "Tweety", "Sylvester" and many more from 1930 till 1958. He was given access to a vast library of recorded music and took fully advantage of it. He was, in fact, the first composer to rely on the recorded works of other composers. His scores were frenetic collages of jazz (especially Raymond Scott's instrumentals), folk, pop, classical music and commercial jingles, as well as his own music. They indulged in fractured rhythms, truncated melodies, dissonant orchestration, demented timbres, hysterical tempos and distorted instruments.

Harline's hit, outside the Disney cartoons, was Hal Walker's Road to Utopia (1945), a very popular musical comedy for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

In Italy, Alessandro Cicognini scored several classics of Neorealism, such as Alessandro Blasetti's Quattro Passi Fra le Nuvole (1942), Vittorio DeSica's masterpieces Sciuscia/ Shoeshine (1946), Il Ladri Biciclette/The Bicycle Thief (1947), Umberto D (1955) and Miracolo a Milano/ Miracle in Milan (1951), but also comedies such as Mario Camerini's Grandi Magazzini (1939) and Mario Monicelli's Guardie e Ladri/ Guards and Thieves (1951).

American composer Aaron Copland scored a few films in his typical orchestral style overflowing with references to the American tradition, notably Lewis Milestone's The Red Pony (1949) and William Wyler's The Heiress (1949).

Allan Gray (born Joseph Zmigrod in Poland) was one of the main British composers of soundtracks, and also scored John Huston's The African Queen (1951).

Alex North wrote some memorable melodies, such as Unchained Melody (1955), sung by gospel singer Roy Hamilton for Hall Bartlett's Unchained (1955), as well as disturbing "mood music", such as the soundtracks for Elia Kazan's cinematic adaptation of Tennesse Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the first major score to be based on jazz, Kazan's Viva Zapata (1952), almost a medley of Mexican folk songs, John Huston's The Misfits (1961), and John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn (1964), one of the first subdued scores for western films, and the unreleased score for Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), possibly his technical peak.

David Raksin created a score for Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) that kept repeating the same theme whenever the title character was referred to (the theme was going to be recorded by more than 400 artists). A more elaborate score met Otto Preminger's Forever Amber (1947), and probably remained his best one. After these two milestones, his most original soundtracks were Abraham Polonsky's Force Of Evil (1948), Vincent Minnelli's The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) and John Cassavetes' Too Late Blues (1962), each in its own style.

Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the most celebrated of the "symphonic" composers of soundtracks, revealed his subtle psychological talent with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as well as John Brahm's Hangover Square (1945), basically a pretext to write his own piano concerto, Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), built around the sound of two theremins juxtaposed to electric instruments, and went on to become the quintessential Hitchcock composer, penning the surrealistic scores for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Trouble With Harry (1956), North By Northwest (1959), permeated by the rhythm of fandango, Psycho (1960), one of the most famous of all times, a cubist clockwork of deconstructed string-based melodies and sound effects, Vertigo (1958), perhaps his tour de force, The Birds (1963), with its harrowing orchestration of dissonance (mainly created by Oskar Sala's "trautonium"), these three being the most original ones, and Marnie (1964), soundtracks that rely on strident passages as metaphors for the horror of the scenes. The music for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) was existential noir at its best. His soundtracks sounded violent because they indulged in sudden contrasts as opposed to smooth melodic flows. Herrmann did not write leitmotifs, he toyed with them as if engaging in a slow, endless semiotic torture.

By the mid-1940s, cinema's composers had become a well-established category, many of them churning out dozens of soundtracks per year. Nonetheless, only Walt Disney had released "original soundtracks" (not modified for the phonographic medium). The first non-Disney album of original soundtrack music was the musical Richard Whorf's Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), based on standards by Jerome Kern, but it was essentially a parade of stars singing Kern's hits. "Tribute" musicals of this kind followed, such as Vincent Minnelli's The Pirate (1948), a tribute to Cole Porter, and were released unadulterated on album.

The style of western soundtracks crystallized with Richard Hageman's scores for John Ford's Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and with Victor Young's scores for John Ford's Rio Grande(1950) and George Stevens' Shane (1953). Young's opulent and romantic style, best represented by For Whom The Bell Tolls (1944), was the quintessential Hollywood style of the era. Young also composed songs such as Stella by Starlight (1947) and My Foolish Heart (1950).

Another master of the western soundtrack was Elmer Bernstein, who scored John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), the quintessential western soundtrack before Morricone, Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1968) and Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976), but who was also a master of highlighting neurotic characters, such as in Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), for jazz band and orchestra, and in Robert Mulligan's To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), a powerful suite of roots-inspired music for chamber ensemble, and a master of creating claustrophobic atmospheres, as he proved with Vincent Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). Other jazzy scores of his include Alexander MacKendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side (1962).

The other great western soundtrack of the Fifties was composed by Jerome Moross for William Wyler's The Big Country (1958).

Jerry Fielding had a long career crowned by two sensational soundtracks, Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) and especially Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), an abullient western and Latin score, as well as Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and Michael Winner's The Mechanic (1972), two scores that flirt with avantgarde music.

Kenyon Hopkins scored Elia Kazan's Baby Doll(1956) and Wild River/ Fango sulle Stelle (1960), as well as Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961).

Daniele Amfitheatrof (the son of a Russian composer) scored Max Ophuls' Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953).

A passion for lushly-orchestral neoclassical melodies is also found in British composer Malcolm Arnold, whose main achievements were David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with a main theme derived from the traditional Colonel Bogey, Mark Robson's Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), with Children's Marching Song, and Bryan Forbes' Whistle Down the Wind (1962).

Classical music conductor Andre Previn composed the eclectic and exuberant soundtrack for Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry (1960) and recreated the sounds of Paris for Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce (1963).

Legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein scored Elia Kazan's films On The Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1954).

Johnny Mandel wrote one of the three or four best jazz scores of the 1950s, for Robert Wise's I Want to Live (1958), and the suspenseful score for John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), as well as hits such as The Shadow of Your Smile, from vincent Minnelli's The Sandpiper (1965), and the theme song Suicide is Painless, from Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. (1970).

The event that symbolically closed the age of classic Hollywood soundtracks was Vincent Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955), scored by Leonard Rosenman, who had debuted on Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955): it was harsh, dissonant, unnerving music a` la Schoenberg, introducing avantgarde music to the crowds of moviegoers. Rosenman's psychological and non-melodic approach yielded the music for Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Richard Fleischer's Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Ted Post's Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

Rock Around The Clock (1954), written in 1953 by James Myers and Max Freedman, was the first rock song used in a movie soundtrack, Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955), and the movie turned it into a hit song. But Hollywood consciously capitalized on rock stars, and perfected the symbiosis between film and record, only with Elvis Presley's musicals. The soundtrack albums for the Presley vehicles that Norman Taurog directed, G.I. Blues (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961) and Girls Girls Girls (1962), were the best-selling albums of the early Sixties. The songs were both old and new, composed by a variety of white and black songwriters. Those films were terrible collections of stereotypes, both as cinema and music, but immensely successful. In a sense, they were the first "music videos", because the film per se was only a pretext: people watched the film to see Presley sing the song.

Hollywood: The New Wave of Film Music


See my list of the Best film soundtracks of all times.
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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