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Two of a Mind: Friedhofer and Raksin

Although an abundance of great film music was created during the late ’40s and throughout the 1950s, the art at the time was unfortunately paid much less attention by critics and the general public than it had been during the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age, or would subsequently be under the recent surge of interest in classic scoring. As a result, some of that period’s most prolific and imaginative composers, while greatly appreciated today in retrospect; have yet to receive the full degree of discussion and exposure they so rightfully earned.

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions (1958)
Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Hugo Friedhofer and David Raksin are perhaps the two most unjustly neglected victims of that era, as well as its most brilliant innovators. American born (Friedhofer from San Francisco, Raksin from Philadelphia), both were exposed to, and fascinated by, silent film scoring during their early years. Their later transition to sound film scoring was substantially aided, in each case, by Alfred Newman’s interest and influence with the Goldwyn, United Artists, and 20th Century-Fox studios. Both made their first major mark in films as orchestrators: Friedhofer for Warner Brothers and Raksin with Charles Chaplin’s renowned score to MODERN TIMES. This phase of their respective careers is of particular interest to devotees of Max Steiner: Friedhofer, of course, was the master orchestrator who worked on virtually all of Erich Korngold’s scores, plus most of Steiner’s massive Warners output, beginning with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE through the early ‘40s, encompassing THE LETTER, NOW, VOYAGER, MILDRED PIERCE, and many others. And according to a 1977 “Film Music Notebook” interview, when Friedhofer left Warners to become a full-time composer, it was Raksin whom Steiner initially sought as replacement orchestrator (though he respectfully declined, and shortly thereafter, established his own immortality as a full-time composer with the score to a 20th Century Fox melodrama starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews).

As composers in the mid-40s, both men won enormous acclaim at the outset: Raksin with the enduringly popular LAURA and Friedhofer with the Oscar-winning score to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Subsequently, however, their integrity in confronting the individuality of each new assignment and their refusals to ride on their past successes resulted in much of their finest work passing unnoticed alongside more flamboyant strokes of other film music geniuses, both new and established.

Fortunately, their talents were greatly appreciated within the film music community, and for well over a decade, they were among the most active composers. In the ‘50s, a good number of Friedhofer’s diverse assignments, ranging from THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA to THE EARTH IS MINE, were issued on record, and while most are now long out of print, several have been recently reissued by the Japanese MCA label, among them THE YOUNG LIONS, THE SUN ALSO RISES, BOY ON A DOLPHIN, and ISLAND IN THE SKY. An especially interesting and representative score in ONE EYED JACKS, for the 1960 film starring and directed by Marlon Brando (although it is also out-of-print, the Liberty Records album, particularly in mono editions, can still be readily and inexpensively found, at least in the New York City area).

This score most expertly fuses stark modern dissonance, portraying the psychologically complex motives of betrayal and revenge, with one of the most passionately lyrical love themes ever written for a film – Friedhofer’s thorough knowledge of authentic Mexican music (the Western takes place in Baja California) is evinced by the subtle rhythmic undercurrents of this exquisite melody. At the same time, the theme itself, as it expresses the young woman’s honesty and innocence in contrast to the surrounding violence, transcends any regionalistic connotations; embracing both classical and contemporary emotions, it is truly universal in its musical language.

Prior to ONE EYED JACKS, the composer earned a reputation as preeminent “anti-war” composer, with his scores to BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL, THE YOUNG LIONS, and IN LOVE AND WAR. Excerpts from the last newly conducted by Fred Steiner, on Entr’Acte’s “Great Americana Film Scores” album, reveal Friedhofer’s insight and power in echoing the desolate and irretrievable human losses of battle. THE YOUNG LIONS is truly a masterwork of war-film scoring as it focuses upon the physiological hardships of the common soldier as well as his nostalgic and emotionally intimate tries to peace-time life and loved ones. The consummation of Friedhofer’s labors in this genre came in 1971 with VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (a comprehensive suite conducted by Kurt Graunke is available on Delos Records): here, the naive, yet ultimately decadent, romanticism of aerial combat of World War I is resounded by ironically juxtaposing opulent symphonic textures upon the jagged and incisive anguish of modern dissonance and some of the most devastatingly accelerated martial percussion which your ears are likely to encounter.

Perhaps the greatest measure of originality and inventiveness from the man who orchestrated Korngold’s ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD can be heard in the 1946 score to THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST. Here, Friedhofer not only declined to imitate, but also provided a most logical counterpart and successor to, the robust operatic approach of 1938s Academy Award winning score. The intimate impressionism of Friedhofer’s music, drawn from authentic English folk material, deserves much scrutiny and re-recording. A three movement suite for radio broadcast, transcribed with limited fidelity, was included on the “pirated” Premiere Radio Performances album, which spotlighted “pirated” recordings of Miklos Rozsa’s TIME OUT OF MIND and A Double Life, as well as Raksin’s Nocturne from FORCE OF EVIL.

David Raksin

This 1947 film, written and directed by Abraham Polonsky, starring John Garfield and Thomas Gomez, features one of Raksin’s very finest works, which also cries out for comprehensive legitimate recording and analysis. Polonsky’s film deals uncompromisingly with the post-World War II degeneration and corruption of urban lawyers (as epitomized by Garfield’s dynamic portrayal) with their ties to local politics and gambling rackets. For this cynical and intense milieu, Raksin’s music anticipates and foreshadows the modern scoring techniques which Alex North and others would officially innovate in the early 50s. At the outset, Garfield’s character is so willfully manipulative that he will readily sell out his paternal older brother (Gomez), who is content to run a small, unpretentious numbers game, to the power-hungry underworld leaders. Yet as the lawyer begins to rather obnoxiously flirt with his brother’s secretary, Raksin’s poignant nocturne, with its repressed, plainsong impulses, subtly and gradually directs our attention to the genuine emotions which lie at the foundations of this character’s present facade, self-constructed as he pursued his blind ambitions for success. It is only when the brother is killed by that mob that Garfield realizes the degree of evil involved as well as his obligation to renounce and fight against it. The finale of Garfield desperately running down an endless flight of stairs to find his brother’s body hidden among riverside rubble is Raksin’s emotional coup-d’état, recapitulating the score’s appropriately stark, malevolent elements and aligning them tragically to the now unleashed yearnings and affectionate aspirations of the nocturne themes. Also not to be overlooked in this boldly incisive score is the sequence wherein Gomez, after lamenting the current state of affairs, is abruptly and unexpectedly annihilated. Raksin’s approach here is about as indescribable as it is unprecedented and unsurpassed – technically, this is implied “source” music that may be emanating from the quiet restaurant’s radio or juke box. The piece itself might be classified as “ethnic abstractionism” in that there are subtle undertones of New York’s “Little Italy” in the content and instrumentation. The melody itself, however, is literally – and brilliantly – droned out so as to embalm Gomez’ dialog and create an emotional “slow motion” which makes the ensuing murder all the more tragic and monstrous. For through the music, we can thoroughly feel both the character’s total vulnerability and his executioners’ perfunctory indifference to human life.

Fortunately, three of Raksin’s milestones – the infinitely evocative LAURA, the unabashedly romantic, yet rigorously constructed FOREVER AMBER, and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL with its perfect union of satiric irony and empathetic passion – have been spectacularly recreated on RCA ARL1-1490, conducted by the composer. About the last of these three, much acclaim has (and should have) been expressed about the main theme’s singular melodic duration and depth. It remains to be noted that the double-edged use of this theme for individual scenes in the film is as uniquely complex as the melody itself – e.g., the most romantically profound statement of the theme is heard as an abruptly terminated build-up to the film’s most overtly comic moment (i.e., when Kirk Douglas literally dumps unconscious Lana Turner into his swimming pool), but of course, it is precisely a composer of Raksin’s acumen who can see and feel beyond the obvious, to correctly identify Douglas’ passion as a kind which is impervious to and transcends any of its immediate consequences. Likewise, after Charles Schnee’s ultra-literate script and Vincent Minelli’s incisive direction have gone to great lengths to show us how that passion has made Douglas hated by Turner, Dick Powell, and Barry Sullivan, it is Raksin’s summation which reveals why they can’t quite refuse (much as they’d like to) his comeback offer. In 1962, Raksin met the challenge of reworking THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL’s thematic materials into the expanded context of a new, retrospective title theme for Douglas-Schnee-Mineili’s follow-up film TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN.

Laura

In the ‘50s, Raksin’s uncompromising sense of emotional tension put him into conflict with producers and directors whose own knowledge of what they wanted their films to communicate was somewhat more ambiguous. CARRIE (1951) and SEPARATE TABLES (1958) are two widely publicized instances of major tampering with this composer’s work. That both scores, despite the substantial cuts, still make such a strong impact with their respective films can only cause one to hope that the composer will soon be able to preserve on record both the music which was retained and the additional artistry that was denied to us.

By the end of the 50s, Raksin was also associated with several contemporary, jazz-oriented films, notably TOO LATE BLUES and SYLVIA (which re-uses material from the earlier film along with its own theme). Along with the out-of-print Mercury recording of Sylvia, the also now deleted Will Penny album on Dot features a side devoted to new and versatile arrangements of the music from these films. This composer’s skill at evoking jazz through his intricate and highly personal melodic style was also displayed in the concert performances by saxophonist Stan Getz with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston “Pops” of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and TOO LATE BLUES themes, both included on their RCA Victor “Tanglewood” album (also out-of-print, lamentably).

In a non-jazz, but no less American, and even unexpectedly contemporary, vein came WILL PENNY, an understated, realistic Western which starred Charlton Heston in 1968. The Dot recording spotlights the score’s mature and bittersweet love theme, as well as the atonal music associated with the supporting character of a fanatical revivalist. Of particular interest is Raksin’s inspired and expansive title theme, evoking the loneliness, rather than the liveliness, of the American West, with a musical procession unlike most traditional approaches to Western scoring, and ironically, more akin to Russian classicism as well as to Raksin’s own more urbane 20th century perspective. Impressively enough, these anachronistic elements merge to emphasize the feeling that Heston’s cowboy, by virtue of his livelihood, can never find a real home in his own environment.

Unfortunately, recent assignments for both Raksin and Friedhofer have been all too few, though occasionally, they’ve added insight and stature to television films and some under-touted features. In the early ‘70s, both transcended the limitations of two otherwise now forgotten horror films – Raksin with WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (issued as a limited edition private recording, Dynamation DY-1200) and Friedhofer with PRIVATE PARTS (on the Delos album with VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN). Both scores involve the interpolation of pre-existing tunes with the wealth of original composition. Comparing the scores, one can especially appreciate the individuality of each composer’s style: Raksin, the bold iconoclast, hurls the listener into a vortex of pathos and psychosis with abruptness and orchestral economy, daring to give us an ingeniously appropriate non-ending by terminating the “Goody, Goody” piano solo in mid-phrase; Friedhofer, the meticulous classicist, treads softly so as to only gradually reveal just how big the stick he’s wielding is, balancing the deliberately squalid texture of his abstract material with the ironic nostalgia (in contrast to the ironic immediacy of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, which he orchestrated for Steiner) he imposes upon “There Is A Happy Land, Far, Far Away”, and “Rock of Ages”. Notwithstanding their respective differences, both scores, like their respective composers, have an abundance of excellence in common. The Max Steiner Music Society applauds Hugo Friedhofer and David Raksin for refusing to settle for less.

Mike Snell
A Tribute to Hugo Friedhofer and David Raksin
Originally published in The Max Steiner Journal #1, 1978
Official Publication of the Max Steiner Music Society © 1978

2 thoughts on “Two of a Mind: Friedhofer and Raksin

  1. Richard Rodney Bennett and Leonard Rosenman agreed that Raksin’s “Love is for the Very Young” from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL was the finest melody ever composed for a motion picture. High praise indeed.

  2. David was my mother’s first cousin. I spoke with him on many occasions. Of course, Laura is the tune he is best known for. He told me that he thought The Bad and the Beautiful was his best work. An aside, my mother’s brother Herb Blayman was principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera for nearly 30 years. Sadly I missed those genes.

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