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Another Nice Mess: The Laurel & Hardy Music Scores

Published May 9, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

5-laurel-and-hardy-granger

When we think of the all-time great movie theme tunes, what immediately springs to mind? Star Wars? James Bond? The Great Escape? All durable classic themes, to be sure, but what about movie themes of an earlier vintage? Could any of us casually whistle a title tune dating, say, from the earliest days of soundtrack recordings? It sounds like an impossible task, but actually it is quite easy. No theme tune in celluloid history has endured as well as “The Dance of the Cuckoos” (aka “Ku-Ku”) – universally recognised today as the ‘Laurel and Hardy’ theme tune. Indeed, it is quite possibly the only piece of music in 20th Century popular culture that could rival the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in terms of instant worldwide recognition.

“Ku-Ku” was originally written in 1928 as an hourly time signal for KFVD radio station, which was located on the Hal Roach studio lot in Culver City, California. Upon hearing the tune one morning, comedian Stan Laurel immediately recognised its potential and decided it would be a perfect way to open Laurel and Hardy’s new brand of ‘talkie’ short subject comedies. The rest, as they say, is history. The music is first believed to have been used at the start of the duo’s seventh ‘talkie,’ Night Owls (1930), and the theme would consequently launch the majority of Laurel and Hardy films for the rest of their career. The composition’s originality stems from its two disparate melodies played together in dissonant counterpoint – a bold, sprightly ‘bugle call’ melody representing the assured, confident persona of Oliver Hardy, and a descending two-note ostinato signifying the “cuckoo” world of Stan Laurel.

The timeless popularity of “The Dance of the Cuckoos” has ensured that the name of the tune’s composer, Thomas Marvin Hatley, will forever be associated with Laurel and Hardy. Born in Reed, Oklahoma, on April 3, 1905, Hatley would play a crucial role in the creation of Laurel and Hardy soundtracks throughout the 1930s, serving as musical director for the duo’s work at Hal Roach studios. His duties would involve providing musical sound effects heard during the movies, such as the crashing piano sounds from The Music Box (1932), as well as performing off-screen instrumental duties, such as the parping tuba accompaniment to Oliver Hardy’s vocal rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” in Swiss Miss (1938). Hatley was also a skilled composer, writing a large amount of special material for the boys’ feature length movies. His irresistible song “Honolulu Baby” proved to be a highlight of their classic movie Sons of the Desert (1933), with a tune so memorable that even Stan and Ollie couldn’t stop singing it throughout the film.

T. Marvin Hatley

T. Marvin Hatley

However, although Hatley contributed a great deal to the duo’s musical efforts, it is the music of another composer, Leroy Shield, which features most prominently in the team’s legendary work from the early 1930s. As the man responsible for creating dozens of catchy, memorable melodies, Shield’s music saturated the Hal Roach studio’s output between 1930 and 1937, dominating hundreds of short subjects from the first minute to the final frame almost as if it were aural wallpaper. The effect was twofold: on a practical level, the use of wall-to-wall music helped minimize the sound of hiss that was inherent during the film recording process at that time; on an artistic level, the music also served to create a jovial, spirited atmosphere for each movie, frequently supporting and enhancing the on-screen action. For modern audiences in particular, this constant barrage of music has ensured that the work of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase and The Little Rascals has aged considerably well. In contrast to many other productions from the early 1930s, which now appear slow and dated due to the distinct lack of musical scores, the toe-tapping tunes of Leroy Shield continue to keep viewers enthralled and entertained, adding a dash of sparkle and life to every moment of these treasured productions.

Leroy Bernard Shield was born in Waseca, Minnesota, on October 2, 1893. A child prodigy, Shield seemed destined for a life as a touring concert pianist, but his career changed track when he enlisted to join the Army during the First World War. He served as band-leader and soon developed a taste for conducting, and upon his return to civilian life Shield found employment as arranger/conductor at the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming head of A&R for the organisation’s Western Union states. By 1929 his path to Hollywood was secured when Hal Roach studios negotiated a deal with Victor to assist in the creation of talking picture soundtracks, including the musical scores. Shield was duly sent to Culver City and he wasted no time in getting to work, writing 68 compositions within a two year period, while simultaneously pioneering the development of a unique film scoring process. It was his inspired idea to create short musical cues, often under sixty seconds in duration, which could then be looped and edited to synchronise perfectly with the visual action on screen. It is a recording process still in practice to this day, particularly in the world of television.

In keeping with the established traditions of silent movie accompaniment, Shield would create memorable themes, catchy riffs, and generic mood music to complement every conceivable on-screen action, whether it be a high speed chase scene, a slapstick joke, a tearful farewell, or a dramatic cliff-hanger. Once recorded, these themes resulted in a body of work available for use across the whole spectrum of Hal Roach studio productions, with editors Richard Currier, William Terhune and Elmer Raguse able to pick and choose from a vast array of themes to accompany specific scenes in any given movie. The cues could be used in a variety of ways – to punctuate a gag, to help improve the pacing of a scene, to establish a mood, or to serve as ironic commentary on the storytelling process.

Leroy Shield

Leroy Shield

But just why were Shield’s melodies so popular? What made his compositions so unique that nobody else could match the quality of his work? Quite simply, Leroy Shield’s primary talent lay in his effortless ability to create irresistibly happy melodies – jaunty and catchy, and invariably fizzing along in upbeat fox trot tempos. He could create melodies of incredible lightness and delicacy, such as the airy, flute driven “Colonial Gayeties” (Blotto, 1937 reissue version), with its bouncy rhythms and jaunty 2/4 accompaniment. This lightness of touch would also extend to his up-tempo numbers, giving tunes such as the exuberant “Give Us a Hand” (One Good Turn, 1931) a graceful flow and balance, even as the melody rapidly cascades over a succession of quick-fire quarter notes.

Call and response phrases pepper his work too, as if a musical dialogue were taking place between Laurel and Hardy themselves in the scores. “If It Were Only True” (One Good Turn, 1931) and “Beautiful Lady” (Another Fine Mess, 1930) contain prime examples of this style, with phrases passed to-and-fro between trumpets and saxophones, and brass and woodwind. The predominant use of major keys and stately lead trumpet also adds a degree of grandiose nobility to many of the cues, particularly in “We’re Just a Happy Family” (Our Relations, 1936). Shield also makes great use of repetitions, gaining maximum usage out of small kernels of melodic motifs. In many instances, he achieves this by latching onto a simple phrase and developing this motif through variations, key modulations and cadences, as heard in numerous cues such as “Here We Go” (Laughing Gravy, 1931), “Dash and Dot” (Any Old Port! 1932) “Nothing at All” (Chickens Come Home, 1931), “Little Dancing Girl” (Busy Bodies, 1933), and Shield’s signature tune, “On to the Show” (Me and My Pal, 1933). By the time each tune has ended, we find ourselves singing along, already comfortably familiar with the recurring themes.

Leroy Shield was also a master of the mood cue. Just a cursory glance at his list of compositions tell us all we need to know about each specific cue: “You Are the One I Love” (Me and My Pal, 1933) is an earnest love theme, though invariably used with great irony in the Laurel and Hardy short subjects; “Drunk” (Helpmates, 1932) is a fittingly skewered, off-centre melody, meandering from key to key; “Cops” (The Chimp, 1932) was based upon a tune written by Ewing, but would invariably be played every time a policeman appeared on screen, poking fun at the figure of authority with its playful march music. Along with other obviously titled cues such as “Hunting Song” (Pardon Us, 1931), “Funeral March” (Laughing Gravy, 1931), “Goof” (Our Wife, 1931) and “Fastie” (Bonnie Scotland, 1935), this wealth of appropriately titled music tracks would aid the sound editors considerably in their efforts to compile a coherent, consistent soundtrack from the ‘jukebox’ of available recording loops.

Shield also possessed the uncanny knack of making instruments ‘sing,’ giving them a human characteristic that becomes irresistible when paired with Stan and Ollie’s on-screen antics. The lazy, laughing clarinet as heard in “Rockin’ Chair” (Chickens Come Home, 1931) is a prime example, as are his many ‘Laugh’ tracks featuring giggling woodwinds and trumpets. Indeed, his talent for orchestration is evident throughout his work, whether producing beautiful woodwind combinations (“Antics” Any Old Port! 1932), gentle brass effects (“Riding Along” Pardon Us, 1931), or orchestral tone poems (“Slouching” Be Big! 1931). He could also spruce up old tunes with a new set of clothes, re-orchestrating cues such as “Colonial Gayeties” (County Hospital, 1937 reissue version) by replacing the fluttering flutes with strident strings. Waltz tunes were also a constant source of inspiration to Shield, who produced some of his most memorable music with ¾ measure themes such as the irrepressible “Candy, Candy” (Laughing Gravy, 1931) and the beautifully melancholic “In My Canoe,” which can be heard during the memorable scene in County Hospital (1932) where Stan brings the ailing Ollie a thoughtful gift of hard boiled eggs and nuts.

laurel-and-hardy-vacation

Over time, a number of individual cues became perennial favourites of Laurel and Hardy fans, due to their repeated use in the short subjects. “Bells” (Our Wife, 1931) appears no less than 24 times in the Laurel and Hardy oeuvre, and opens with a distinctive arpeggio down the scale performed, quite appropriately, by tubular bells, before leading to a typically melodic response from the orchestra. “The Moon and You” (Come Clean, 1931) showcases one of Shield’s greatest melodies – a classic example of his ability to conjure a distinctive tune out of a short two bar dance band riff, with the middle section again expanding a two bar theme via his favourite devices of repetition and modulation. “Look at Him Now” (Towed in a Hole, 1932) is heard 23 times in the Laurel and Hardy movies, and displays Shield’s music at its ebullient best, with swaggering brass answered by echoing strings and stop-start reeds. And has there ever been a sprightlier tune than “We’re Just a Happy Family” (Our Relations, 1936), so optimistic in its outlook that you just know things will go terribly wrong soon. The fast paced “Give Us a Hand” (Helpmates, 1932) was also a perennial favourite, appearing in an incredible 50% of all Hal Roach produced short subjects during the 1930s.

As well as the Laurel and Hardy films, the music of Leroy Shield would also grace the short subjects of Our Gang, the Little Rascals, and dozens more comedies produced by Hal Roach studios throughout the 1930s. Indeed, many of Shield’s earliest cues were originally written for movies that did not feature Laurel and Hardy. With the studio’s sound editors able to pick and choose from a recorded archive of hundreds of cues, Shield’s music subconsciously became synonymous with the studio’s entire output, as immediately identifiable as any of the comedians on screen. For Shield, this was bittersweet, as he received a flat rate of $200 for every recorded composition, but no further payments for the repeated re-use of his work. However, audiences clearly adored his music from the very beginning, as proven by the release of the Leroy Shield Song Album sheet music folio in 1931, featuring piano arrangements of Shield’s most popular melodies. Shield would also compose lengthy classical tone poems, similar to the work produced by his contemporary George Gershwin, with one of his most avant-garde compositions, “Cascadia,” included in the aforementioned folio.

Although his initial involvement with Hal Roach studios had ended by 1931, Shield would return to assist with the musical score for the ambitious operatic production Fra Diavolo (1933). He would also record a number of new compositions in 1935, after production manager William Terhune was forced to admit that, after five years of constant reuse, the studio’s reliance upon Shield’s 1930 recordings had “become a bit tiresome.” Therefore, the studio commissioned Shield to compose “20 new and original numbers, mostly lively fox trots with perhaps a waltz or two,” and the following year also saw Shield produce a full score for the feature-length movie, Our Relations (1936). His last work for Hal Roach studios came in 1937, writing music for Our Gang Follies of 1938.

However, it was not Shield’s intention to abandon his work in Hollywood. Having enjoyed his time creating the score for Our Relations, he had openly expressed his desire to move to Hollywood and take up residence in Hal Roach’s new music division in 1936. Unfortunately for Shield, it was Marvin Hatley who was granted the job of scoring the duo’s next feature-length movie, Way Out West (1937). Arguably the peak of Laurel and Hardy’s career, Way Out West is best remembered today for Stan and Ollie’s charming rendition of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” which features pleasing vocal harmonies between the duo, before Stan Laurel’s voice morphs into the vocals of bass singer Chill Wills and female soprano Rosina Lawrence. Of course, Oliver Hardy’s sweet tenor voice had been showcased many times before, most notably during the gospel ballad “Lazy Moon” in Pardon Us (1931), and his singing would later provide the only high spot of their 1939 film The Flying Deuces, charming audiences with his plaintive version of “Shine On Harvest Moon.”

Marvin Hatley received a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his work on Way Out West, with his score particularly notable for its “Donkey’s Ears” theme – upon hearing this tune for the first time, producer Hal Roach was said have enthused, “Cute music! Cute music!” Hatley would continue to score the boys’ subsequent features, Block-Heads (1938), A Chump at Oxford (1940), and Saps at Sea (1940), before leaving Hal Roach studios in 1939 to start a new life as a cocktail lounge pianist. Unlike Shield, Hatley lived long enough to see his music rediscovered and acclaimed by a new generation of fans, and he enjoyed his belated celebrity status up until the time of his death, aged 81, on August 23, 1986.

"Laurel and Hardy's Music Box" by Ronnie Hazlehurst

“Laurel and Hardy’s Music Box” by Ronnie Hazlehurst

For the remainder of his career, Leroy Shield would focus his efforts on his acclaimed conducting work for NBC Radio, where he had worked for a number of years, scheduling his workload in tandem with his Hollywood commitments throughout the 1930s. He had relocated to Chicago in 1931 to work as manager of NBC’s music division, and by the time of his exit from Hal Roach studios in 1937, his reputation as an orchestra leader was without peer. Writing in the February, 1939 issue of The Orchestra World, reviewer Al Payne had no qualms in proclaiming Shield’s work to be “radio music at its very highest peak.” To cap his glittering career in Chicago, Shield and his Orchestra played their part in a series of historic broadcasts during the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944, providing the musical interludes in between the momentous live news reports. Between 1945 and 1954, Shield uprooted to New York where he served as Contractor of the NBC Orchestra. Often acting as stand-in for the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, he even embarked on a nationwide tour with the maestro in 1950. Meanwhile, his compositional skills would continue to be put to good use, writing a large amount of music cues for assorted radio dramas up until his eventual retirement in 1955.

Leroy Shield died on January 9, 1962 aged 68. His obituary in Variety magazine failed to mention his work in Hollywood, focusing instead upon his acclaimed career with NBC. With the passing of Hollywood’s golden age, it appeared as if his contributions to the movie industry would remain largely uncredited and unacknowledged. Fortunately, a huge resurgence of interest in his Laurel and Hardy movie scores during recent years has confirmed his genius to modern audiences. The original recordings of Shield’s cues have regrettably vanished without trace, but thanks to the efforts of BBC TV theme composer Ronnie Hazlehurst and the subsequent scholarly research conducted by Piet Schreuders and the Beau Hunks Orchestra, we can now enjoy pristine, faithful renditions of Shield’s timeless, effervescent music on numerous CD recordings. His work is now rightfully regarded as one of the cornerstones of early Hollywood soundtrack history – as fresh and original as the day they were first created. And, so long as audiences continue to enjoy the slapstick antics of Stan and Ollie, Our Gang, and the Little Rascals, his music will live on forever.

"The Beau Hunks Play The Original Laurel & Hardy Music"

“The Beau Hunks Play The Original Laurel & Hardy Music”

 

Sources

Brennan, John V. Steppin’ Along with a Song, (Laurel and Hardy Central, 1998)

Louvish, Simon. Stan and Ollie, (Faber & Faber, 2002)

McCabe, John. Laurel and Hardy – The Sound Shorts, (Southbay Publishing, 2008)

Mitchell, Glenn. The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, (Batsford, 1995)

Schreuders, Piet. Liner notes for CD release “LeRoy Shield’s Our Relations” by The Beau Hunks, (Basta, 2000)

Schreuders, Piet. Liner notes for CD release “On to the Show” by The Beau Hunks, (Basta, 2007)

Schreuders, Piet. Liner notes for CD release “Roy Shield’s Musical Transitions for Radio,” (VPRO, 1996)

Schreuders, Piet. Liner notes for CD release “The Beau Hunks Play the Original Laurel and Hardy Music” by The Beau Hunks, (Basta, 1992)

Schreuders, Piet. Liner notes for CD release “The Beau Hunks Play the Original Laurel and Hardy Music Vol. 2” by The Beau Hunks, (Basta, 1993)

Shadduck, Jim. The Ku-Ku Song Man! (Way Out West.org, 1972)

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With A Little Help From Their Friends: The Beatles At The Movies

Published April 11, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It’s the most famous chord in popular music – a clarion call of Technicolor dissonance heralding the birth of a bright new era in pop music. The clanging chord that launched The Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964) has been the focus of endless debate and analysis for over fifty years. Inscrutable and impossible to duplicate, even guitarist George Harrison could not quite capture its power in live performance, and with very good reason. As with most of The Beatles’ best work in the recording studio, its magic was partly due to the hidden efforts of their legendary producer and arranger, Sir George Martin.

Faced with a last-minute deadline to write the title song that would begin their debut movie, composers John Lennon and Paul McCartney quickly brought their new composition to the recording studio and played the tune for their producer. Immediately, George Martin sensed what was needed to enhance the song, as he recalled in a 2002 interview: “I said, ‘If this is going to be the opening music for the film, we’ve got to start with something fairly sensational. It’s got to attract everybody’s attention.’ So John said ‘What do you reckon?’ I said ‘How about one single chord that’s gonna knock people’s socks off.’ Suddenly he did this ‘twaaaaang!’ I said ‘That’s it! Great! We’ll stick that on the front.’ And, do you know, to this day I still don’t know what that chord was, but it’s a very good one.”

As ever, Martin was being modest in downplaying his own contributions. Listen closely to that chord and what do you hear? A G major guitar chord perhaps, with a suspended fourth or minor seventh added to the mix? In truth, Harrison’s Rickenbacker 360 twelve string electric guitar and Lennon’s Gibson J-160 acoustic are actually both playing a traditional first position F chord with G added as top note (Fadd9). With McCartney’s Hofner bass contributing a sustained high D note, we can hear the familiar sound taking shape, but the real magic comes from producer Martin’s musical input. By taking that simple Fadd9 guitar chord and subtly overdubbing a simple piano triad consisting of D-G-D played below middle C, Martin succeeded in baffling thousands of musicians for almost half a century. His contribution as phantom pianist on A Hard Day’s Night (he can also be heard doubling the low register guitar solo note-for-note on piano) perfectly encapsulated the crucial, unheralded role he played as producer of The Beatles. As he later acknowledged about the killer opening chord: “It set the tone for the song, and for the whole film because we (the audience) knew that what was going to follow was going to be dramatic, wonderful, funny, exciting, and everything else.”

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The role George Martin played in guiding The Beatles’ careers during their early years cannot be overestimated, and his involvement with their material produced for A Hard Day’s Night exemplified his approach and his value to the group. “My job was to parcel the thing up, make it tidy, and tell the boys how long (the recording) had to be,” he remembered, as well as determining other important issues such as “where we would put the song (in the movie), how many times we would do it, where we would have a solo, how the beginning should start, and how to make it finish.”

In one of the key scenes of A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles finally manage to break free from their perennial confines of hotel rooms, transportation and TV studios, and playfully relish the freedom of an isolated field, away from the pressures of fans, managers, and work commitments. Here, McCartney’s classic tune Can’t Buy Me Love provides the perfect musical accompaniment, and offers another instance of George Martin’s musical nous coming into play, where he devised a clever way to open and close the song. “In the case of Can’t Buy Me Love, I didn’t like the idea of going straight in as Paul did (into the verse),” he explained. “I said, ‘You know, you’ve got a good hook here’ (sings chorus). I said ‘Let’s use that and make that an introduction.’ And that makes a beginning – people want now to hear more, so that’s exactly what we did.”

The melodic appeal and harmonic sophistication of The Beatles’ music reached new heights in A Hard Day’s Night. The harmonic friction of the title tune, with its discordant opening and Mixolydian ambiguities (performed in the key of G but littered with F major chords throughout) typified the ear-catching nature of their compositions. Lennon’s If I Fell also demonstrated their appreciation of advanced chords and intuitive musical knowledge. Opening with an eight bar introduction in the key of Db, the composition gradually resolves into the key of D for the verse, and then easily incorporates a vast array of diminished, ninth, and minor seventh chords – unheard of at the time for a pop group writing their own material.

Similarly, McCartney’s And I Love Her continued his favourite device of writing a tune in the key of E major but starting the song with an F# minor chord (as also heard in All My Loving from the band’s previous album, With the Beatles). Here, the verse resolves with an E6 chord, incorporating the C# note from the first chord of the song and leading the way to the interlude in C# minor. The song’s imaginative arrangement, favouring classical guitar and claves over electric guitars and vocal harmonies, also reaffirmed the important role George Martin played in providing the perfect setting for each individual composition.

Aside from his crucial role as producer and musical soundboard to his prodigious young band, helping to bring shape and structure to their cache of irresistible songs, George Martin also scored a handful of memorable underscore cues throughout A Hard Day’s Night. Using the melodies and songs of The Beatles as his working material, Martin’s aim was to showcase their music in the best possible light. “I remember talking to some mums and dads who didn’t like The Beatles,” he recalled. “They didn’t like the moptops image and the raucousness… and they couldn’t hear the music for the noise. So if they got a song like All My Loving, they wouldn’t even start to listen to it. We had to convert them – we had to make them aware that this music was great. And one of the ways of doing that in the film was to underscore with the tunes. “

The eclectic nature of Martin’s fully orchestrated cues proved how flexible The Beatles’ music could be when handled with respect and sensitivity. He transforms A Hard Day’s Night from a 4/4 driving pop song into a jazzy waltz for tenor saxophone, reverting to 4/4 only occasionally to increase the excitement levels. Switching between time signatures with consummate ease, its relaxed manner and rhythmic pulse bears more resemblance to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five than a typical Beatles tune, such is the extent of the makeover.

Conversely, Lennon’s I Should Have Known Better is turned into a brass driven twist number, with pounding, frenetic rhythms and an electric guitar taking the place of the lead vocals. Martin’s underscore treatment of And I Love Her – the major ballad of the movie – sees him retain the classical guitar motif and the clave and bongo percussion from The Beatles’ original arrangement. He also adds a touch of dramatic colour by incorporating shimmering string flourishes, rhapsodic melodies, harp glissandos, and most notably a distinctive high register descending piano arpeggio which dominates the new orchestration.

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In the most acclaimed sequence of A Hard Day’s Night, we find drummer Ringo Starr meandering alone by a canal, accompanied by George Martin’s popular arrangement of This Boy, (subtitled ‘Ringo’s Theme’ for the movie), and scored for orchestra and electric guitar. As he recalled: “(This Boy) was a strange one to choose (for the underscore) but we needed a mood piece for Ringo going off by himself – slightly melancholy. I think it was Dick (director Richard Lester) who suggested using This Boy as a theme song, and I just scored it for orchestra and I used electric guitar – rather like the James Bond (Theme) guitar. In fact we had Vic Flick playing it, who played the original James Bond (guitar theme) – very low down. It seemed to work, I think.”

The James Bond connection is well founded, with guitarist Flick employing a similar tone to his famous work with Bond theme composer Monty Norman. However, the mood here is more subdued, with the long sustained notes – devoid of vibrato – establishing a more plaintive mood, a feeling of isolation and dejection. The guitar is shadowed initially by a brass trio, echoing the original harmonies of The Beatles’ vocal arrangement, when suddenly the chorus arrives and the clouds disperse, the guitar fades away and the brass emerge to lift the melody to higher and higher levels, spurred on by some beautiful rhythmic support from the string section.

This Boy (Ringo’s Theme) is also notable for the identity of the second guitarist who plays on the recording alongside Vic Flick. We all know of Eric Clapton’s famous participation on The Beatles’ 1968 recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, but who could have guessed that, four years earlier, another guitar god had featured on a Beatles soundtrack recording – Led Zeppelin maestro Jimmy Page. Then working as a session musician, the 20 year old Page had entered Abbey Road studios with no prior warning of his assignment, as he recalled with astonishment during an interview in 2010: “I turned up and, lo and behold, there was George Martin.” Driving the performance with a propulsive acoustic rhythm guitar part, Page gratefully acknowledged: “I recognised the music and realised what it was.”

Today, A Hard Day’s Night is considered to be one of the greatest – and most influential – movies of all-time, inspiring countless musicians and film-makers alike from its moment of release. The quality of the music in the film is reflected by the continued success of its accompanying album by The Beatles, which is rightly recognised as one of the seminal albums of their illustrious career. Meanwhile, George Martin’s underscore cues from A Hard Day’s Night proved so popular that his work was nominated for an Academy Award, and the tracks were also given their own release as vinyl singles in August 1964, shortly after the movie’s successful opening. Long out of print, the recordings received a welcome re-release in America last year. As well as producing The Beatles’ regular albums, George Martin would later collaborate with the band on the silver screen again in 1968, writing a celebrated score to accompany their classic animated movie Yellow Submarine.

help poster

As for The Beatles, the success of A Hard Day’s Night quickly led to the filming of a second movie the following year, titled Help! (1965). This time George Martin was not asked to provide underscoring for the new film, even though his work on A Hard Day’s Night had been received with considerable critical acclaim. In spite of producing all The Beatles’ new tracks for Help!, Martin was overlooked by director Richard Lester in favour of rising composer Ken Thorne. It was a decision that would mark the start of an enduring professional association between composer and director, lasting well into the 1980s and including such movies as How I Won the War (1967), The Magic Christian (1969) and Superman III (1983).

In keeping with Martin’s earlier work for A Hard Day’s Night, Thorne made special use of The Beatles’ melodies when creating many of his underscore cues for Help! His From Me To You Fantasia playfully takes the group’s hit pop song From Me To You and reinterprets it as a mood piece of mystery and suspense, with pizzicato strings, droning sitars, hanging celeste chords and atonal brass flourishes. His score is also notable for a number of James Bond pastiches (echoing the plot of the movie), including The Bitter End, where he first creates an atmosphere of espionage by incorporating tremolo violins, pedal point strings, vibraphone arpeggios and celeste glissandos, before the whole work takes off with a James Bond-style guitar arrangement of Lennon’s You Can’t Do That played on the low strings over a jaunty rhythmic accompaniment and piercing brass fanfares.

ken thorne

In a move that would have far reaching consequences upon The Beatles’ later development, Thorne also incorporated an orchestra of Indian instruments into his score, producing a frenetic raga as accompaniment to The Chase, with sitars intertwining improvisational melodies over a single chord drone. Most memorably, he also devised Another Hard Day’s Night – an ingenious medley of Beatles tunes as played by sitars, bansuri, tamboura, and tabla percussion. With A Hard Day’s Night segueing into Can’t Buy Me Love and I Should Have Known Better, it is perhaps the high point of the movie’s clever, eclectic underscore. The filming of the accompanying scene in the movie, featuring Indian musicians performing in a London restaurant with their native instruments, would also indirectly pique George Harrison’s interest in Eastern music and gradually bring about a fundamental change in the direction of The Beatles’ music.

The handful of new songs contributed by The Beatles to Help! illustrate how the band continued to hone their song-writing abilities, with Lennon borrowing a trick from McCartney’s earlier efforts by launching the title song with a supertonic chord (B minor), before resolving to the tonic chord of A major by the start of the verse. Their love of flatted sevenths led to further usage of Mixolydian modes in the vocal harmonies of songs such as Ticket to Ride and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, while the latter’s arrangement also demonstrates the band’s widening appreciation of orchestral instruments, making novel use of two flutes performing the closing theme in octave unison.

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Over a half-century on from the creation of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the musical legacy of The Beatles remains as fresh and inventive as ever. Time has not dimmed the appeal nor diluted the quality of their work, and it is hard to imagine how the world would be today without their pervading influence. It is somewhat unfortunate that the vast musical contributions of George Martin and Ken Thorne to these two classic movies have been neglected through the years, but at least they can take consolation in the knowledge that their work will live on in the hearts and minds of generations to come. For as long as people continue to watch classic movies, and continue to listen to timeless music, then their place in movie and music history is assured.

Sources:

A Hard Day’s Night”, Buena Vista DVD Documentary, 2002

The Beatles Complete Scores. Wise Publication. Print.

“Jimmy Page Interview by Tony Barrell from 8/22/10 in the Sunday Times.” *. Web.

New book! The Legend of Booker’s Guitar

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

The Legend of Booker's Guitar book

It’s been quite a while since I added any fresh content to this blog – and for good reason.

Since April 2012, I have been working on a book about a famous blues musician named Booker White – more commonly known as Bukka White.

To say he led an eventful life would be something of an understatement: he was a farmer, a nomadic wanderer, a boxer, a baseball player, a murderer, a convict at the notorious Parchman Farm prison, a pioneer of slide guitar, a recording star, a 9-to-5 manual labourer, a lifelong inspiration to his cousin B.B. King, a kindly grandfather, a world-renowned legend of the blues, and many more things besides. Let’s just say his story would make one hell of a movie.

Anyway, my book is now finally available to buy. It is titled The Legend of Booker’s Guitar and more information can be found here.

Record Collector magazine recently published a short review of the book – click here to read their verdict.

Eric Bibb, who plays a key role in The Legend of Booker's Guitar

Eric Bibb, who plays a key role in The Legend of Booker’s Guitar

When I started writing the book, I did not know a thing about Booker White. I’d never heard any of his music, nor read any books or articles about his life. Three years on, my knowledge of blues music remains patchy to say the least, but the whole experience of researching and writing about such an unfamiliar subject was richly rewarding – full of unexpected discoveries and endlessly fascinating.

Now if only I could write the biography of Conrad Salinger – ah, wishful thinking!

AC/DC star Brian Johnson with his copy of The Legend of Booker's Guitar. "Buy this book," says Brian. "It's cheap and it's fun!"

AC/DC star Brian Johnson with his copy of The Legend of Booker’s Guitar. “Buy this book,” says Brian. “It’s cheap and it’s fun!”

M-G-M’s Folly: The Ice Follies of 1939

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It is stating the obvious to say that 1939 was a banner year in the history of Hollywood cinema. Producing three of the greatest movies of all time – The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind – we can also add to that list such stellar works as Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Wuthering Heights. And we haven’t even touched upon Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dark Victory, The Roaring Twenties, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yet amongst the scores of legendary titles from that monumental year, there is one particular movie that stands out from the crowd – a movie that achieved such immediate notoriety that not even its stars had a kind word to say about it: The Ice Follies of 1939.

Christ. Everyone was out of their collective minds when they made ‘Ice Follies,’” recalled leading lady Joan Crawford. “Me, Jimmy Stewart and Lew Ayres as skaters – preposterous. It was a catastrophe. The public thought so, too.” Contemporary reviews at the time of the movie’s release in March 1939 were just as scathing. “Far be it for us to rap one of Mr. (Harry) Rapf’s more glittering productions,” wrote The New York Times, “(but) the glitter does not extend to the dialogue, the incidents, the characters (for whom “fictitious” is an understatement) or the story, which is the one about the matrimonial clashing of two careers.”

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Over the years, The Ice Follies of 1939 has continued to be derided and ridiculed. It is not a coincidence that Mommie Dearest (1981) opens with Crawford preparing to shoot that particular movie. Yet can the film really be that bad? Surely any “spectacle picture” made at the height of M-G-M’s Golden Age must have something worthwhile to recommend it? Well, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of the movie on DVD, we can see that – yes – the whole concept of the film and its hackneyed plot is indeed flawed, and it can certainly be viewed as the nadir of both Joan Crawford and James Stewart’s illustrious careers. However, the film is not without merit. The two stars both put in admirable performances, and there is an appealing chemistry between the pair that transcends the poor material they are given to work with. And of course we can always rely upon those two great character actors, Lewis Stone and Lionel Stander, to enliven proceedings, along with the typically outrageous costumes designed by Adrian. But the real discovery when watching the movie today is to find that the musical score offers a treasure trove of forgotten delights. We can even hear the exact moment that triggered the birth of the legendary Freed Unit and the classic M-G-M musicals of the 1940s and 50s that followed.

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With a score composed by Franz Waxman, special material adapted by Roger Edens, a theme song written by the ”Queen of Tin Pan Alley” Bernice Petkere, orchestrations by Leo Arnaud and additional contributions from Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the quality of the music throughout The Ice Follies of 1939 was always guaranteed to be first rate. The illustrious composer Waxman, listed as Musical Director along with George Stoll, contributes a handful of crucial incidental music cues at key dramatic points in the movie. “The Drunk Scene” features a haunting melody line consisting of long sustained notes accompanied by a bed of string tremolos, beautiful woodwind trills and judicious use of harp arpeggios, to create a magical mood of mystery and enchantment. “Next Morning” continues with the same combination of melancholy solo violin and rippling orchestral flourishes, while “On A Park Bench” includes a gorgeous, fully orchestrated dance band tune with a lilting string melody and prominent string bass accompaniment.

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The score also expertly incorporates a handful of traditional standards and contemporary pop songs of the era. A kiss at a park skating ring in New York is accompanied by the strains of the 1894 classic “The Sidewalks of New York” while the standout “Ice Follies 1939” segment in the middle of the picture incorporates a medley of popular Scottish tunes including “Comin’ Through the Rye” and “Loch Lomond,” plus a welcome reprise of “Hey, Babe, Hey!” an overlooked Cole Porter waltz that originally appeared in an earlier James Stewart movie, Born To Dance (1936). The 12 minute Follies segment also benefits from a number of tailor made compositions by the multi-talented Roger Edens, with each individual work complementing a specific type of dance on screen whether it be an Indian war dance, a Russian ballet or a Circus parade.

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Although the initial idea behind The Ice Follies of 1939 was to showcase Joan Crawford singing half a dozen songs throughout the picture (the original advertising campaign was intended to proclaim “Crawford Sings!”), in the end we hear her warble only a solitary line from the movie’s theme song “It’s All So New To Me” as she stumbles home drunk following a late night party. The performance of the song at the end of the film was dubbed by an unknown singer, while the rest of Crawford’s singing efforts were left on the cutting room floor. The majority of these rare outtakes are still awaiting an official release, but one notable outtake emerged on the 2006 compilation “That’s Entertainment!,” with Crawford singing a new Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song called “Something’s Gotta Happen Soon.” Her vocal limitations and affected delivery do not detract from a fabulous arrangement by master orchestrator Conrad Salinger, who contributes a delightfully jaunty counter melody and a typically light, soaring string coda that foreshadows his classic treatment of “But Not For Me” in Girl Crazy (1944). Crawford also re-recorded two of the deleted songs for commercial release in 1939, “It’s All So New to Me” and “I’m in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So.”

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The highlight of the movie is unquestionably the 14 minute Technicolor finale, “A Song for Cinderella.” Featuring an ambitious, eclectic suite of music composed by Franz Waxman and Roger Edens, with special contributions by Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the centrepiece of the suite arrives with a stunning piano scherzo comprised almost exclusively of dizzying sixteenth note runs. The virtuoso performance by M-G-M Orchestra pianist Lela Simone was all the more remarkable considering she had only been granted one hour to learn the piece, as Simone later recalled to biographer Hugh Fordin: “I said to Waxman, if you gave this part to Rachmaninoff he would have to go home and practice it for three months. Waxman replied, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous; there’s a piano set up for you on Stage 2. Look at it and at one o’clock we record.’ I thought I’d die! Presto! Nothing but runs.”

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Simone rose to the occasion admirably and her performance would have far reaching consequences: “I somehow got it going and came to the stage. It was the first piece to be recorded and Waxman started with ‘Now follow me here and follow me there.’ I said, ‘Mr. Waxman, there is only one way to record this piece. You conduct and I play.’ I got through the first take by sheer nervous energy. After we finished somebody in the back of the stage screamed. Everybody looked. Then a man came up to Waxman and said, ‘Who is this girl?’ Waxman said, ‘This is Mr. Edens, this is Miss Simone.’”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

Edens was instantly smitten by the waif-like, virtuosic pianist. “I knew then and there that this incredible girl had a special talent,” he remembered, and in due course he would invite Simone to work exclusively for the Freed Unit, making the most of her myriad talents by using her as a piano tutor, vocal coach, language translator, music supervisor, sound editor, and general sounding board. She quickly became an indispensible member of the team and was widely considered to be the backbone of the Unit until her departure in 1958, after which the Freed Unit collapsed and Simone went on to marry Franz Waxman.

It is therefore surprising to learn that the celebrated Freed Unit quartet that eventually came to be known on the M-G-M lot as “The Royal Family” – Freed, Edens, Simone, and Conrad Salinger – all made significant contributions to The Ice Follies of 1939, albeit individually and not as the collective team that they would soon become. It serves to demonstrate the huge wealth of talent that contributed to the movie both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And if the movie itself is still considered to be one of the biggest flops of all time, then at least we should take a second look at the many musical delights it still has to offer, and the significant role it played in the creation of the greatest production unit in Hollywood history. And for that, we should all be thankful for The Ice Follies of 1939.

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The Ice Follies of 1939 is available to buy on DVD from Warner Archive:

Bibliography

Hollywood Rhapsody” by Gary Marmorstein

M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals” by Hugh Fordin

Conversations with Joan Crawford” by Roy Newquist

James Stewart” by Marc Eliot

Catalog of Copyright Entries – Part 3: Musical Compositions 1939” (Library of Congress)

Special thanks to John Waxman

Judy, Judy, Judy! M-G-M Musicals on Laserdisc

Published August 12, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Has there ever been a better home video release than “Judy Garland – The Golden Years at M-G-M”? This gorgeously packaged laserdisc set was lovingly produced by the titan of home video marketing, George Feltenstein, assisted by Allan Fisch and John Fricke in 1995. The set features three of Garland’s greatest movies – The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, and Summer Stock – along with dozens of glorious supplementary features, including rare short subjects, dozens of original theatrical trailers, and new stereo remixes of classic performances. Many of these features have been reissued on DVD, but the set remains unique for the treasure trove of rare audio tracks capturing the pre-recording sessions in all their raw splendour. Here we find Judy and her many co-stars on M-G-M’s fabled Soundstage One, having fun and displaying their musical talents as they record the soundtracks to over a dozen legendary movies. You can read more about these sessions in an article I wrote here http://bit.ly/R3hXfg but suffice to say they make for essential listening. There is so much to say about this release. Do whatever you can to find a copy, buy it, and then get yourself a laserdisc player. You won’t regret it.

Following in the footsteps of the Judy Garland collection, a similar set was released in 1996 paying tribute to another of M-G-M’s musical stars. “The Gene Kelly Collection” again featured three timeless movies – On The Town, Brigadoon, and It’s Always Fair Weather – plus an assortment of classic performances, original theatrical trailers, interviews, and rare pre-recording sessions. Once again, the presentation was top notch, featuring an outstanding illustrated cover in the best MGM/UA tradition.

The third star in the M-G-M Musicals triumvirate was, of course, Fred Astaire. And although MGM/UA did not follow-up the Gene Kelly collection with a special Astaire set, Image Entertainment had already paid tribute to the Astaire/Rogers RKO musicals with a four disc box set titled “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Collection” in 1994, featuring four of their best collaborations. Once again, the set came replete with glorious artwork and bountiful liner notes. Ah, those were the days.

The M-G-M Musicals of the 1930s were well represented on laserdisc, with many titles released in special “double feature” discs. Here are a selection of ’30s classics featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with the MGM/UA discs displaying some typically sumptuous covers by graphic artist Mike Baggetta.

But box sets were MGM/UA’s specialty, and they delivered in spades with “The M-G-M Composers Collection,”  released in the twilight of the laserdisc era in December, 1996. Focusing upon three composer ‘biopics’ – Till The Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, and Deep In My Heart – the package was notable for sparkling remasters of the three movies, copious liner notes, rare outtake sequences, and a plethora of pre-recording session audio tracks that remain unavailable elsewhere.

1995 proved a banner year for fans of M-G-M Musicals, with the release of dozens of classic movie scores on CD thanks to a partnership between Turner and Rhino Records. For the first time, movie fans could hear the original recordings in pristine sound – direct from the original scoring session tapes and remixed in glorious stereo. To mark this auspicious event, the three That’s Entertainment! movies were packaged into a stunning laserdisc box set in April, 1996, titled “That’s Entertainment! The Ultimate Musical Treasury.” Just look at that cover! With each musical segment carefully listed in the annotated booklet, we could finally discover the source of each clip, and use the chapter marks to skip to our favourite sequences. And the extras! A full disc of additional performances titled That’s More Entertainment! – introduced by Michael Feinstein and still unreleased on DVD! Over an hour of rare pre-recording sessions, featuring the likes of Jean Harlow, Jeanette Macdonald, Judy Garland, James Stewart and Groucho Marx! Rare documentaries! Outtakes! Surprise bonus clips! Stereo remixes! Wow!!

But even that set did not compare with the special “That’s Entertainment! III: Collectors Edition,” released in 1994 and literally overflowing with goodies. Inside we find four discs crammed full of special treats, including documentaries, audio pre-recordings, and an additional programme featuring an hour of unreleased musical outtakes from classic M-G-M movies. But wait – there’s more. Also included is a special collector’s souvenir program that is chock full of information and classic images, plus a deluxe set of six classic lobby cards. A collection not to be missed.

Judy Garland’s career at M-G-M was particularly well presented on laserdisc, with obvious care and affection devoted to every release. Deluxe multi-disc box sets showcased her greatest work in the best possible light, while even the weakest of her movies were afforded the luxury treatment, often being issued in special double feature presentations and featuring MGM/UA’s typically classy artwork. The laserdisc below remains the only source where you can find pre-recording sessions for Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry and Listen, Darling. And just look at that beautiful gatefold layout.

The Daddy of all laserdisc box sets arrived in 1993 with the release of MGM/UA’s “The Wizard of Oz: The Ultimate Oz.” Nowadays, we can find all the content on a single blu-ray disc for a fraction of the original price. But really, it’s just not as much fun is it. Opening this original laserdisc set is akin to entering an Aladdin’s Cave of vast treasures. There is just so much to discover. But – importantly – the invaluable liner notes help your journey and educate your progress during each step of the way. Classic film? Check. Informative documentaries? Check. Stunning visual artifacts? Check and double-check. Audio treasures, posters, continuity script, and a whole lot more besides all add up to a set that cannot be beaten for presentation, content, and quality.

The early 1940s heralded the arrival of two more stars to M-G-M’s unsurpassed roster of musical talent. Gene Kelly made an instant impression with his smash-hit performances in For Me and My Gal and Cover Girl, but his other work from this era was well represented on laserdiscs featuring some eye-catching cover artwork by the ever wonderful Mike Baggetta.

But if Gene Kelly was still finding his feet (so to speak) during the mid-1940s, then the reigning king of the M-G-M Musical was unquestionably Fred Astaire. He forged a fruitful partnership with Lucille Bremer in two classic movies – Yolanda and the Thief, and the incredible Ziegfeld Follies.

The “Ziegfeld Follies” laserdisc box set produced by MGM/UA in 1994 remains the definitive edition of this timeless movie, gloriously presented with jaw dropping artwork and an array of special features unavailable elsewhere. The audio pre-recordings – although restricted to outtakes from the movie – are plentiful and include such rarities as Kay Thompson singing “‘E Pinched Me,” an alternate arrangement of “Here’s To The Girls,” and an extended version of the “Limehouse Blues” ballet, masterly orchestrated by the great Conrad Salinger. The box also contains a unique document – a replica script of an unused number intended as a duet for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, titled “I Love You More in Technicolor Than I Did in Black and White.”

Such a shame that this number never made it on to the screen… However, we should be thankful for the movies that Mickey and Judy did leave behind for posterity, including these two wonderful laserdiscs. Did I mention just how much I love these MGM/UA covers?

The 50th anniversary of Meet Me in St Louis heralded the release of another superb MGM/UA laserdisc box set in 1994, celebrating the classic musical in style with a wonderful digital restoration and a brand new CD soundtrack release in true stereo. The set also included a special documentary, a music-only audio track featuring Conrad Salinger’s sublime orchestral underscore, and – unique to this release – thirty minutes of excerpts from the pre-recording sessions, notable for alternate versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the Freed-Brown ballad “You and I.”

If you love Meet Me in St Louis, (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), then be sure not to overlook Judy’s next film. The Clock is a minor masterpiece, directed with typical flair by her husband-to-be Vincente Minnelli. Even if you don’t own a laserdisc player, this disc is worth buying for the cover alone…

And have you ever seen a more elegant cover than the one that graces this laserdisc issue of Easter Parade? The interior art design isn’t bad either….

Judy’s stellar career at M-G-M came to a close with the bucolic Summer Stock, but before then she had a chance to partner Van Johnson in a charming musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, titled In the Good Old Summertime.

One project that Judy did not work on during her time at M-G-M – even though it was initially purchased with her in mind – was the successful 1947 musical Good News. Released on laserdisc in 1993, the cover featured another wowzer illustration. This stuff should be hanging in an art gallery, I tells ya!

If the 1940s belonged to Judy Garland, then the M-G-M Musicals of the 1950s were dominated by the presence of Gene Kelly. In tandem with Stanley Donen, Kelly’s hit movie On the Town triggered a string of classic M-G-M Musicals beloved by audiences to this day.

This special laserdisc issue of An American in Paris, released in 1992, is notable for its audio-only music track and a short selection of pre-recording outtakes – both features are unique to this release, inexplicably dropped from subsequent DVD and Blu-ray reissues. And just look at that amazing booklet artwork.

Two more examples of Gene Kelly’s laserdisc magic, post Singin’ in the Rain: the wistful Brigadoon, and – Kelly’s final feature for M-G-M – the exuberant Les Girls.

Finally, lets end with tributes to two unsung leading ladies, Esther Williams and Jane Powell, and more movie musical magic from the 1950s. No words are neccessary – the eye popping colours and gorgeous illustrations speak volumes. Ah, the joys of laserdisc!

And a special bonus! Even though it is widely available on DVD, “The Busby Berkeley Disc” compilation still shines on laserdisc. Artwork like this should be cherished for life. You’ll never get this kind of magic from a wmv. download.

Conrad Salinger – Master of the M-G-M Musical

Published July 17, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis, The Band Wagon, On the Town, Easter Parade…

The overwhelming resurgence of interest in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musicals, as spearheaded by young British conductor John Wilson and his Orchestra, is one of the great success stories of recent years. With sell-out UK tours, huge record sales, and an annual televised showcase during the BBC Proms season, Wilson’s achievements have led to an increased awareness and appreciation of the talented craftsmen that originally created this timeless music back in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Chief among these talents was M-G-M’s resident musical genius – master arranger and orchestrator, Conrad Salinger. Regarded by his esteemed colleague Sir Andre Previn as being “the greatest arranger who ever worked in the movies,” Salinger’s signature style of orchestration helped establish the classic, lush M-G-M sound, which is still wowing the crowds over 60 years later. “He made those musicals sound his way, no matter who the songwriter was,” acknowledged Sir Andre to radio producer Steven Paley, leaving us in no doubt as to where the credit lay.

“There were really so many orchestrators in Hollywood that were superb,” says historian John Waxman, the son of legendary composer Franz Waxman, “but certainly above them all was Salinger. I think among his peers everyone acknowledged that he was the greatest orchestrator.” Acclaimed music supervisor Saul Chaplin agreed, telling writer Donald Knox: “It’s my considered judgment that Hollywood’s major contribution to the American musical film is Connie Salinger. He’s the most imitated, and was simply the best for the kind of thing he did. Connie was incredible, incredible.”

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse perform to Salinger’s timeless arrangement of “Dancing in the Dark” in The Band Wagon (1953)

However, much of Conrad Salinger’s life remains a mystery. His death in June, 1962, at the age of 60 received scant news coverage; a cursory report in the Los Angeles Times noted only that he “wrote the music for the Bachelor Father TV series.” Yet there is so much more to discover about this unheralded giant of 20th Century orchestration, whose work – on the 50th anniversary of his death – is more popular now than ever before.

Los Angeles Times, June 18 1962

Conrad Salinger was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on Friday, 30th August, 1901. His name held a special significance, combining the family name of his father Joseph Salinger with the maiden name of his mother Clara Conrad. The origins of his family roots can be traced to Germany, where all four of his grandparents were born. His paternal grandparents Benjamin and Josephine Salinger settled in New York, where they had two sons, including Conrad’s father Joseph, born in July, 1861. Conrad’s maternal grandparents, David and Hannah Conrad, married in 1862 and made their home in Salem, Massachusetts, where they raised a family of five children, with Conrad’s mother Clara born in December, 1868. When Clara and Joseph married, they settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle thanks to a successful family run merchant business, Conrad & Co, led by Clara’s brother, Sidney. The couple’s first son, Richard Benjamin Salinger, was born on 17th July, 1896, followed five years later by youngest son Conrad.

 A bright student, Conrad Salinger graduated from Harvard University in 1923, and a life on the stage seemed to beckon, with Salinger earning rave reviews for his performance as Talleyrand in the University production of Beranger in May, 1922. “Conrad Salinger ’23, played with an authority and a penetration that often made me forget I was not listening to a professional actor of ripe experience,” wrote Professor Andre Morize in The Harvard Crimson. “Physical appearance, poses, ironical, cynical, often colorless voice, glances that expressed more than his lips dared pronounce, shrewdness and flattery, extreme courtesy and insulting superiority – all these he combined into a whole that does him the greatest credit.”  But Salinger’s future lay in music and he would spend the next six years in France, studying the art of orchestration intensely at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of Andre Gedalge and Nadia Boulanger. It is likely he also took lessons from composer Paul Dukas, who arrived at the Conservatoire as tutor of composition during Salinger’s final year in 1928.

The incredible Nadia Boulanger

Upon his return to America in 1929, Salinger found employment in New York as staff arranger at Harms music publishers, and by the end of 1931 had received his first credit on Broadway for his work on The Laugh Parade. The remainder of the decade would see his reputation soar under the wing of famed orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and he would contribute orchestrations to dozens of legendary Broadway shows, developing a refined, sensual style of writing for pit orchestras that made a lasting impression upon his colleagues, including composer David Raksin. “The theatre orchestra has four violins and one viola and one cello, and Connie did wonderful things with them,” he recalled to Steven Paley. “They sounded as rich as you can imagine. He used to do these arrangements, and I saw one of them with a tempo and style indication that said ‘gently, like my back hair.’”

Salinger finally made the move to Hollywood in 1937, ultimately settling at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1940, where he quickly established an enduring partnership with Roger Edens, the prodigious musical associate of producer Arthur Freed. Together, the pair would form the backbone of the legendary Freed Unit for the next fifteen years, with Edens acting primarily as vocal arranger and music supervisor, and Salinger as principal arranger and orchestrator. They would also pioneer a whole new sound for movie musicals, rejecting the then-popular credo “the bigger the orchestra, the better the sound,” in favour of lush, polished arrangements with delicate, intricate textures. This was particularly well suited to the recording techniques of the time, as well as complementing the tender, intimate voices of star singers Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

Conrad Salinger shares lunch with one of M-G-M’s top singing stars, Lena Horne, in 1945.

Salinger’s major breakthrough at M-G-M arrived with his sublime orchestral score for Meet Me in St Louis (1944), where his gentle, plaintive arrangements added a beguiling layer of romance to the movie. His treatment of Hugh Martin’s classic songs were equally appealing, with rubato tempos employed extensively throughout “The Boy Next Door,” and a propulsive, sumptuous arrangement elevating “The Trolley Song” to legendary status. Salinger’s orchestral score also showcased his own eerie composition “Halloween Music,” which would later be successfully performed at a prestigious Hollywood Bowl concert in August, 1945.

Judy Garland sings “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St Louis served to confirm Conrad Salinger’s peerless position amongst fellow arrangers and orchestrators in Hollywood, and the next decade would see him at his creative peak, producing dozens of definitive arrangements for movies such as Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953). His arranging style was purposely designed to provide both space and support for the singer, and he was especially praised for his wonderful use of counter melodies heard discreetly behind the vocalist, and for the perfectly timed obbligatos he would write between vocal phrases. Reaching a peak of perfection in the early 1950s, his classic arrangement for “Singin’ in the Rain” would lead composer Elmer Bernstein to compare its “effortless perfection” to that of Mozart.

Gene Kelly in a classic pose from “Singin’ in the Rian” (1952)

It was at this time that Salinger’s skills as an orchestrator also paved the way in creating what is now regarded as the classic M-G-M sound: rich, bold and sonorous, with contrapuntal lines and call and response dialogues echoing throughout the orchestra, combining to create a lushly textured, melodic tapestry. It was a sound all of his own making – inspired by the teachings of Nadia Boulanger who encouraged her pupils to write linear, ‘singing’ harmony lines in their counterpoint exercises, but enhanced by his own unique brand of instrumental colours, in particular his outrageous, stratospheric French horn counter melodies, and a multitude of doubled woodwind combinations.

Composer John Williams appreciated the idiosyncratic nature of these scores when studying Salinger’s work at close quarters, paying tribute to his genius during an interview with Films and Filming magazine in 1977: “He’d have the third trombone way up in the tenor clef, and trumpets low down doing some funny thing – as if some Chinaman had written the score! And then you’d go on the soundstage the next day and hear the result … it was like a wonder. No one quite had his touch.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform “This Heart of Mine” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), featuring one of Salinger’s most opulent orchestrations.

Salinger also possessed the technical capacity to take standard pop tunes of the era, such as “Limehouse Blues” and “Broadway Melody,” and magically transform them into fully fledged orchestral ballets, helping to establish balletic sequences in movies such as An American in Paris (1951) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946) as genuine artistic milestones. “The sophistication and the knowledge that he had in some of those numbers for the Freed Unit were really amazing,” marvelled Sir Andre Previn to Steven Paley. “When he wrote a balletic development of a song, it really was a balletic development. When he put them into the orchestra, you thought you were listening to a really first rate French composer.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform the classic ballet “Limehouse Blues” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

As with most great craftsmen, Conrad Salinger’s artistry appeared deceptively simple, yet behind it lay a lifetime of musical knowledge and sheer hard graft. Often working in tandem with his assistant Robert Franklyn, Salinger’s working method would see him sketch his arrangements across four staves, before fleshing out the full orchestration over 32 staves. Music Supervisor Saul Chaplin, who shared a bungalow with Salinger on the M-G-M Music Department lot, recalled the struggles Salinger would endure during the creation process: “When you hear his arrangements they are so smooth, so beautiful and velvety, yet if you heard him working you wouldn’t believe it. He would suffer them out through a piano, he used to bang on the piano and play these chords which the next day with the orchestra sounded glorious, but I would keep thinking ‘no way… this is never going to work’, and it always did work.”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

As the popularity of film musicals gradually declined, the 1950s would see Conrad Salinger compose a handful of dramatic scores for contemporary M-G-M movies, including Carbine Williams (1952), Washington Story (1952), and Dream Wife (1953). Yet perhaps his greatest personal success away from the Freed Unit arrived with A Lovely Afternoon (1957), an album of his own arrangements released by Verve Records under the direction of conductor Buddy Bregman in 1957. As Bregman recalls, “I went out to M-G-M, and I said, ‘Connie, you’re my hero! I love what you do.’ He was a very sweet guy; very nice, very quiet. He was so impressed that I was such a fan of his, and we became good friends. He was a wonderful guy – I loved him a lot.”

“A Lovely Afternoon,” Conrad Salinger’s classic album recorded for Verve Records in 1957

Salinger was by common consent a man of great sophistication and taste – erudite yet humble, displaying impeccable manners, meticulous attire (often dressed head to toe in white), and a total devotion to his work. Sir Andre Previn described him as “one of the most likable human beings I’ve ever met – utterly outrageous and flamboyant and crazy, but generous to a fault and sweet natured,” while lifelong friend Johnny Green fondly remembered how “Connie had one of the most gigantic, monumental, delightful, delicious senses of humour that any human being ever had. He was hysterically funny.”

Conrad Salinger (left) with lifelong friend Johnny Green, dated circa 1937

Although by nature he was an intensely private man, away from the studio Salinger loved to socialise. Tales of him drinking to excess are legendary, yet it is thought by many that Salinger used alcohol mainly as a release to cope with the stress of a heavy workload, and to escape the problems he faced due to his homosexuality. Labelled disparagingly in the film industry as one of ‘Freed’s Fairies,’ Salinger’s open homosexuality in an era of mass bigotry predictably made him the butt of many jokes at the studio.

The final years of Conrad Salinger’s life were littered with minor triumphs and major disappointments. He achieved his final success within the Freed Unit in 1958 with the release of Gigi, after which the Freed Unit dissolved following the loss of key components Roger Edens and musical wunderkind Lela Simone. The new decade would see Salinger launch a fresh career as a successful TV composer, providing musical accompaniment to 65 episodes of Bachelor Father between 1960 and 1962.

Bachelor Father, starring John Forsythe

But the pressures of composing to tight deadlines for TV did not suit Salinger’s working methods, and Johnny Green believed the stress contributed towards his friend’s early death. “He was never able to divorce himself from fright and the inability to cope with tension,” Green told writer Donald Knox. “I think this, with all the other tensions in Connie’s life, is what broke him down.” Salinger’s downward spiral intensified on Monday, 6th November, 1961, when his newly acquired luxury Bel-Air home was amongst 484 residences destroyed by the worst brush fire in the history of Los Angeles at that time. All of his possessions and papers were lost, and Salinger never recovered from this tragic incident.

The LA brush fires, picture dated November 6, 1961

Conrad Salinger was found dead on the morning of Sunday, 17th June, 1962. It is unclear to this day whether he committed suicide or died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He had earlier completed one final orchestration, a typically luxurious arrangement of “Little Girl Blue” for Doris Day to sing in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962). Following Salinger’s death, his name and reputation slowly faded into obscurity, and his legacy was dealt a hammer blow with the tragic destruction of the M-G-M music library in 1969, with all of the classic scores he had worked so hard to create needlessly discarded – thrown away to be used as landfill.

It is a minor miracle that, 50 years on from Conrad Salinger’s death, we can finally appreciate the amazing legacy he created. Thanks to the devoted efforts of record producers such as George Feltenstein, Marilee Bradford and Bradley Flanagan, we can marvel at restored CD soundtracks of the scores he orchestrated with such mastery during his halcyon days at M-G-M, while acclaimed performers such as Michael Feinstein and Barbra Streisand have lovingly recreated Salinger’s original arrangements for their own recordings.

Ultimate salvation of Salinger’s legacy arrived with the hugely successful BBC Proms concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009, which saw dozens of Salinger’s original orchestrations painstakingly reconstructed by conductor John Wilson, and performed to rapturous acclaim during a celebration of ‘75 Years of M-G-M Musicals.’ Roger Wright, Director of The Proms, admitted to being stunned by the overwhelming reaction in the weeks following the concert, capturing the mood of the public by noting “clearly it touched the hearts of many.” John Waxman found Wilson’s achievements particularly emotional. “The wonderful thing about John Wilson,” he recalled, “is that I saw his concert and I actually started to cry, because it brought back Salinger, and my stepmother (Lela Simone), and Roger Edens, and I only wished that they could have lived long enough to see what he had reconstructed – their music being played in London at The Proms as written.”

John Wilson conducts his outstanding Orchestra during the incredibly successful M-G-M Musical Proms in 2009

As we mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the musical achievements of Conrad Salinger are continuing to enjoy a renewed lease of life. Enthralling fans old and new, his classic scores are now destined to become a permanent fixture on record and in concert halls for many years to come – conclusive proof that the legacy of Conrad Salinger is enduring, enchanting, and – ultimately – eternal.

*An extended version of this article appears in Film Score Monthly Online, Vol. 15, Issues 11/12.

The M-G-M Music Department circa 1950, including Miklos Rozsa, Johnny Green, Andre Previn, Scott Bradley, Bronislau Kaper, David Raksin and Conrad Salinger.

Joan Crawford – the Forgotten Queen of Style

Published July 16, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp
 

Joan Crawford – the Queen of Style

Considering her vast influence over the fashion world for almost three decades, it is an unfortunate quirk of fate that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford is now mainly remembered for a tirade against wire hangers. Quotations from her daughter Christina’s salacious biography, “Mommie Dearest,” have forever enshrined the perception of Crawford in terms of camp excess: “No wire hangers, ever!” “Tina, bring me the axe!” “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Joan Crawford deserves far better than this. Even the most casual survey of her glittering film career, from her debut in 1925 to her final movie in 1970, makes clear that here was a woman who used her workaholic nature and her innate fashion nous to constantly stay ahead of the pack, forever striving to find a new look or a new approach. She was a true original – always a dictator of trends, never a follower. As such, she remains today a timeless icon of fashion, elegance and style.

The secret of Joan Crawford’s prolonged success lay in her ability to capture the mood of the times: from the very beginning, her on-screen image was that of the modern girl. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid 1920s, she quickly rose to fame at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios by personifying the spirit of the “jazz age” on the screen. With her cropped hair, natural style of acting, and her all-signing all-dancing party attitude, she became, in the words of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication … Young things with a talent for living.” Her costumes of the time also immortalised the popular garb of the flapper, with movies such as “Our Dancing Daughters” (1928) and “Our Modern Maidens” (1929) showcasing Chanel-inspired sleeveless, embroidered frocks, with symmetrical lines, slim waists and short hemlines, as well as more ostentatious accessories such as ostrich feathers and rhinestone trimmings.

Crawford struts her stuff in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

With the Roaring Twenties derailed by the sucker punches of prohibition and the stock market crash of 1929, Joan Crawford’s image underwent a significant transformation at the start of the new decade. No more the good-time girl, instead she returned as the atypical working class female, caught up in the depression like the rest of her audience, and seeking a life beyond her limited means. Here, we see the classic Crawford identity take shape – tough, ambitious, determined, yet also vulnerable and radiating enough sex appeal to seduce any man she desires. In tandem with couturier Gilbert Adrian – commonly regarded as the greatest costume designer in Hollywood history – Crawford also establishes her iconic look, both in style and fashion. Using make-up to emphasise her best facial attributes (saucer-wide eyes, broad slashed lips, and chiselled high cheekbones), she treats clothes in a similar manner, incorporating wide padded shoulders into her costumes to accentuate her broad back, which also serves to create a V shaped torso, topping off the effect by wearing a variety of peekaboo and wide brimmed hats to focus attention upon her eyes.

The classic Crawford look, topped off with peekaboo hat

Joan Crawford’s partnership with legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian is without equal in Hollywood history. Over the duration of 31 movies made between 1929 and 1941, the duo achieved a high watermark in the presentation of glamour, style and sophistication, producing an array of dazzling costumes, with many featuring Adrian’s trademark asymmetric patterns, contrasting black and white fabrics, puritan collars, tapered waistlines and diagonal fastenings. Accessories formed an essential part of the overall look too, with wide buckle belts, fur wraps, elbow length gloves and decorative bow-ties all adding to the decadent splendour. Invariably sleek, sexy and sassy, these were clothes with attitude – with the end results leaving women aspiring and men desiring. Typical of their work is the classic white, starched organdy dress with ruffled shoulders designed by Adrian for “Letty Lynton” (1932). Such was the popularity of this particular dress, manufacturers across the land wasted no time in selling budget replicas to the public, with Macy’s department store selling 15,000 copies alone and Vogue reporting how “every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that.”

The classic organdy white dress designed by Gilbert Adrian for Letty Lynton (1932)

Perhaps more than any other actress, Joan Crawford understood that her image was the key to her success. At the height of her career in the 1930s, she strove to mould and cultivate her look, and devoted her life to maintaining her appearance. She was known to endure a punishing exercise schedule and a strict skin-care regimen every day, massaging her whole body with ice cubes. Crucially, Crawford also employed the studio’s top stills photographer, George Hurrell, at every available opportunity. Recognising the importance of projecting herself in the best possible light (quite literally), she would spend countless hours sitting for publicity portraits with Hurrell, while dressed in Adrian’s finest designs. As a consequence, these classic, timeless stills taken during the 1930s are today in many ways Crawford’s most enduring legacy. Even more than the movies she made, the images of Crawford produced by Hurrell convey all the intensity, vitality and magnetism of her personality, while solidifying her reputation as a fashion icon for all-time.

Joan in radiant form – a fashion icon for all time

Following her departure from MGM in 1943, Joan Crawford would never again reach the stylistic heights of her 1930s heyday. Yet she still insisted on portraying modern women, and in keeping with the post-war, downtrodden characters she would play in future, her emphasis switched to plain, simple costumes. Her first role for Warner Bros., “Mildred Pierce” (1945), saw Crawford purchase her own wardrobe from Sears Roebuck department store, in order to achieve an authentically dowdy look – far removed from the glamour and luxury of her MGM years. However, elements of her old style remained, causing director Michael Curtiz at one point to bemoan, “You and your damned shoulder pads!”

Guns and shoulder pads – a killer combination in Mildred Pierce (1945)

In a later twist to her on-screen appearance, Crawford’s apparel in Johnny Guitar (1954) pioneered a new androgynous, sexually ambiguous look, sporting leather boots, high fastening breeches and tight buttoned shirts, and topped off with a severely cropped coiffure. Never willing to play the role of submissive female, here Crawford proves more masculine than any of the male characters, with her clothing visually signalling the dominant authority she displays over the masculine world in the movie.

It’s Joan who wears the trousers in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Her sense of style and choice of attire in “Johnny Guitar” serves to illustrate a crucial point about Joan Crawford and her affinity with fashion and clothing throughout her career: whether using her garments as a means to threaten male sexual identity, or to demonstrate her rise in social status, or merely as a ploy to snare her next man, Joan Crawford relied upon her wardrobe as a constant source of power in her movies. Nobody wore a designer gown or a gun holster with more panache, nor stared down a camera lens with more assertion. She deserves to be remembered for her enduring artistic legacy and for her lasting contributions to the world of fashion, rather than the hysterical, exaggerated caricature that “Mommie Dearest” portrays. No wire hangers, ever? Well, at least the sentiments were correct.

 

Sources:

Cowie, Peter. Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Gutner, Howard. Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941. New York, NY: H. N. Abrams, 2001