Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Greatest Film Scores of All Time

Today we tend to take film scores for granted. There should be little wonder that this should be the case. Many may not realise this, but film scores existed even before the advent of sound. Such silent films as Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) actually had full length, original scores written for them, which would be played in the cinema during the showing of the films. Naturally, with the advent of sound, original film scores would continue to be composed for movies.

Indeed, many film scores over the years have become very notable. Even if an individual has never seen a film, he or she can often recognise its score. More so than during the Silent Era, film scores have become an integral part of film. Many of us have our favourite film scores and I am no different in this. Here is my short list of what I consider some of the greatest film scores of all time. It is by no means comprehensive, as it would actually take a whole book to cover the subject! Here I must also note that I have excluded musicals from this list (otherwise the first three spots would be occupied by Beatles movies....). I have also excluded films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, that largely relied on pre-existing music for their scores.

King Kong (1933): Despite the fact that original film scores had been composed for Silents, the advent of sound saw music being used very little in movies. One thing modern audiences will notice about early talkies is often the lack of any sort of background music. When music does occur in very early talkies, it is often merely in the background and not particularly integral to the plot. All of this would change with Max Steiner's original score for King Kong. Indeed, reportedly it was the first full length score composed for an American talkie.

Amazingly enough for a film score that would prove so influential, it almost never came to be. Max Steiner, who had composed music for Cimarron (1931) and Merian C. Cooper's classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932). With such credits and having worked with Mr. Cooper before, it was perhaps natural that he was brought in to provide music for Mr. Cooper's own King Kong. Unfortunately, as King Kong neared its final stages of editing, RKO president B.B. Kahane told Mr. Steiner that RKO had its doubts about the possible success of King Kong and did not wish to spend additional movie on an original film score. He told Mr. Steiner to then use music tracks already owned by RKO. Max Steiner, who was perfectly aware that King Kong was a film like no other before it, simply replied, "What am I going to play, Little Women?!" Fortunately, Merian C. Cooper agreed with with Mr. Steiner that the movie needed an original score. In fact, Mr.Cooper paid $50,000 out of pocket for an orchestra and any other expenses Mr. Steiner might accrue in writing an original score for King Kong.

The end result was one of  Max Steiner's greatest scores and possibly the most influential score in the history of movies. Max Steiner and Merian C. Cooper worked closely together. They agreed that it was best not to score the scenes in New York City (then deep in the Great Depression), so as to maintain the reality of those scenes. The score would not begin until the S. S. Venture arrived at the thick fog surrounding Skull Island, when reality gave way to a flight of fantasy. Afterwards music was present for the rest of the movie. It took about eight weeks to compose and perform the score for King Kong. The score utilised an orchestra of 46 musicians, far larger than the orchestras used for most films. After the score was completed, sound effects man Murray Spivak changed the film's sound effects to compliment the music, the first time this was ever done in a film. The score would also be innovative in that it utilised specific themes for characters, the first time this was done in film. RKO, who had not wanted to pay for an original score, would re-use the score to King Kong in its sequel Son of Kong (1933) and even in such movies as The Last of the Mohicans (1936).

The score to King Kong would prove extremely influential.It was perhaps the first time in a film that the music was truly an integral part of the movie, emotionally underscoring key points in the film. In composing the score to King Kong, Max Steiner would set the rules for movie music for decades to come.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Universal's classic film Frankenstein (1931) did not have a music score. For Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale asked composer Franz Waxman to write a score for the much anticipated sequel to the smash hit Frankenstein. In the end Mr. Waxman a score that was much more sophisticated than many of the film scores of the time. Indeed, a relatively large orchestra of 22 musicians would perform the score in a recording session that took nine hours. What made Mr. Waxman's score revolutionary for the time is that he composed leitmotifs for Frankenstein's creature, the Bride, and the villain of the film, Dr. Pretorius. It was one of the first times other than Max Steiner's score for King Kong that specific themes were composed for characters in the movie.

Unfortunately, Universal would not go to the effort with Bride of Frankenstein that RKO had with King Kong in re-recording and re-editing the sound effects to compliment the film's score. Indeed, there are times when the sound effects drown out the score, particularly in the sequence in which the Bride is created. The film score would suffer even more indignities after a preview of Bride of Frankenstein. After the preview, the film was cut by perhaps as much as fifteen minutes. Along with the footage that was cut from the movie went portions of the score as well. In fact, nine of the seventeen total musical sequences in the movie were either shortened in length or cut entirely.

Despite the indignities the score of Bride of Frankenstein suffered in post-production, it remains one of the most influential scores in film history. It would help establish the tradition of composing themes for specific characters. It would also prove extremely useful to Universal, who would not only recycle the theme in horror movies, but in everything from Westerns to thrillers.

Gone with the Wind (1939): Gone with the Wind was halfway through filming when David O. Selznick sent a memo to his studio's general manager that it was time to hire a composer. Mr. Selznick suggested the already legendary Max Steiner. By March 1939, when Mr. Selznick issued the memo, Mr. Steiner was already an experienced film composer, having composed the scores of several films, from the ground breaking score for King Kong to Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). If there was any man who could compose the score for David O. Selznick's epic Southern, it was Max Steiner.

In the end Max Steiner composed what may be his most sophisticated film score of all time. The score is underpinned by "Tara's Theme," the theme recognised as most simply as "the theme to Gone with the Wind." In addition, Mr. Steiner composed themes for each of the eight major characters, two separate love themes (one for the love between Ashley and Melanie and another for Scarlett's infatuation with Ashley), and sixteen different subsidiary themes. In all, Mr. Steiner composed three hours worth of music. Two hours and 36 minutes worth of that music made its way into the film. The end result was the longest score ever composed for a motion picture.

The score for Gone with the Wind would prove to be one of the most memorable scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Over the years the complete score has been performed by a number of symphonies. Indeed, "Tara's Theme" can be recognised even by those who have never seen the movie. Strangely enough, while Gone with the Wind would sweep the Oscars, Max Steiner would not take the Academy Award for Best Original Score. It would seem that Gone with the Wind was beat out in that category by the other mega-classic released in 1939, The Wizard of Oz!

The Magnificent Seven (1960): Prior to The Magnificent Seven, scores to Western movies came in two basic varieties. They were either broad, sweeping scores meant to capture the vastness of he landscape or scores derivative of folk songs from the era of the Old West. Elmer Bernstein changed all of that with The Magnificent Seven. To do so he drew upon his experience in scoring The Ten Commandments (1956). When he first started to score the film, Mr. Bernstein tried matching the pace of the movie. While scoring the film's lengthy sequence of the Hebrew leaving Egypt, the film's director Cecil B. DeMille advised him to use the music to help add excitement to the scene. Elmer Bernstein saw The Magnificent Seven as similar to The Ten Commandments in being very deliberately paced. He then composed a score that would capture the sensation of brisk action. Unlike the scores to previous Westerns, the score to The Magnificent Seven was often dominated by brass instruments and percussion. It was also very rhythmic, utilising flamenco style rhythms to highlight the film's setting in Mexico.

The score to The Magnificent Seven would prove immensely popular. In addition to the smash hit official soundtrack album, it has been recorded many times over. It would also prove immensely influential, not only reshaping the music scores of several Westerns in the decades to come, but even of action films. Mr. Bernstein's own score for The Great Escape, as well as the score to The Dirty Dozen (composed by Frank De Vol) and many other action films in the Sixties and Seventies, owe a good deal to the score to The Magnificent Seven. Although immensely popular and instantly recognisable even to those who have never seen the movie, the score to The Magnificent Seven lost the Oscar for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score to Exodus (1960).

Pyscho (1960): Perhaps no composer is as identified with the films of Alfred Hitchcock as Bernard Hermann. Mr. Hermann first worked with Mr. Hitchcock on The Trouble with Harry (1955). So impressed was Mr. Hitchcock with Mr. Hermann's work that the composer would collaborate with the director on every film until Marnie (1964). The collaboration produced some of the greatest scores of all time, including the scores to Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and The Birds (1963). Arguably the crowning achievement of this collaboration was the score to Psycho.

Amazingly, Bernard Hermann was resistant to Alfred Hitchcock about scoring Psycho, as the film's lower budget also meant a reduced fee for the composer. Mr. Hitchcock persisted, and in the end Mr. Hermann wrote the score. Even so, Mr. Hermann was independent as ever, going against the director's wishes for the score. Alfred Hitchcock request that Bernard Hermann compose a jazz score for the movie. Instead Mr. Hermann, ever mindful of the small budget, wrote the score for a string orchestra instead of a full symphony. According to Bernard Hermann, Alfred Hitchcock had told him that he could do anything he wanted with the score, but he should write no music for the shower scene. Again, Mr. Hermann went against the director's wishes, providing the scene with the sound of shrieking violins to symbolised the violence of the stabbing in the scene. When Bernard Hermann played the music to the shower scene for Alfred Hitchcock, he had to admit that he was wrong.

In not providing the film with a jazz score or using a full orchestra, Bernard Hermann found a means to musically compliment the black and white photography. The stringed instruments gave the score a single tone musically to match the monochrome of the film. The stringed instruments also proved more versatile than either a jazz band or a full orchestra would have been. Indeed, the effects of the violins in the shower scene would not have been possible otherwise.

The score to Psycho would prove very influential. It would be imitated in may horror and suspense movies for decades to come. Indeed, its influence is notable in the scores for such movies as Jaws (1975), Carrie (1976), and The Re-Animator (1985) among many others. One of the most effective scores for any movie and one of the most influential scores of all time, amazingly enough Bernard Hermann's score for Pyscho was not even nominated for an Oscar!


Jonas Nordin said...

Great write-up! My two favorite scores for classic films are of course Metropolis by Gottfried Huppertz, much because of its utter grandeur and almost Strauss-like handling of the orchestra. But also because it is one of few silent scores that has survived in extenso into modern day.

The other one is Bernard Herrmanns brilliant score to Citizen Kane. It was his first but also probably his most detailed score. I am very fascinated whith newcomers who are put before an almost insurmountable task and simply pulls it off. My favorite part is Salammboo's Aria, an exquisite pastiche of an early 20'th century opera aria created by Herrmann exclusively for the movie, just to make it as realistic as possible. That is commitment to a score!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I love the Metropolis score. It's one of the very few silent scores I am somewhat familiar with. And I must say Bernard Hermann's score to Citizen Kane is very impressive. I think in many ways his scores to Citizen Kane and North by Northwest are as notable as those he did for Vertigo and Psycho, which seem to get the most press!