The Men Behind the Curtain
While you may fly over the rainbow when you think of the classic songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, it took an entire team of musical artists to make THE WIZARD OF OZ sing. The score is rife with melodies and motifs that have lodged in your brain probably more than you realize.
Overseeing the entire musical team was Herbert Stothart, the “dean of the MGM Music Department.” George Bassman, Murray Cutter, Paul Marquardt, and Ken Darby were given screen credit for “Orchestral and Vocal Arrangments,” while George Stoll was listed as Associate Conductor. The MGM conductor score for the film also lists “Additional Composition” by Bassman, Stoll and Robert Stringer.
But just how much impact did Stothart have on the actual background score?
“Stothart had a felicitous feeling for combining background music with dialogue,” said fellow composer/conductor John Green. “He was an effective composer for the screen, though not in the same league as Max Steiner.” Cutter, who arranged and orchestrated the songs for the film, said Stothart was, “above all, a good showman, a gifted musician with very little technical knowledge.”
Cutter, who orchestrated for Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, felt that no film composer at the time could touch the level of Korngold. “Korngold was a real composer,” he said. “There isn’t one thing anyone had to for him…Those other guys were just songwriters.” (A statement that makes my blood boil.)
As for much of the underscore, Ken Darby, who was responsible for creating the voices of the Munchkins and the Winkies, said, “Stothart would conceive the idea and give it to Stoll or Bassman or Stringer to develop. He might just hand them a lead sheet, a two-line piece of music with a melody, a bass line, and some harmony symbols.” Bassman wrote the music for the cyclone sequence, Stringer for the poppy fields. The credit on the MGM cue sheet for Dorothy’s first meetings with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and much of the music in the Emerald City and the Haunted Forest reads “Stothart-Stoll-Bassman.”
The use of pre-existing tunes, classical or otherwise, in the underscoring was a popular practice at the time. If you had 10 films to score in a year, nearly every composer had to dip their pen into used ink on occasion. Stothart, in particular, was known for borrowing from the classical composers.
Dorothy’s lighthearted theme at the beginning of the film was based on a Schumann piano piece for children, “The Happy Farmer.” He incorporated Mendelssohn’s Three Fantasies for Toto’s escape from the castle and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain for Dorothy’s escape from the Wicked Witch.
Arlen’s song melodies were also turned into motifs throughout the score. English horn and muted brass distort the melody line from “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to supply the theme for Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and her fantasy alter egos, the Wicked Witches. Oboe triplets signal Dorothy’s lighthearted trip to the cornfield will appear in various guises as underscoring to the three versions of “If I Only Had a (Brain).” “The Merry Old Land of Oz” was used during the Emerald City sequence and “The Jitterbug,” a song cut from the score,” danced its way through the Haunted Forest.
When all was said and done, 35-40 minutes of songs were elaborated into over 75 minutes of music. With the songs playing such a prominent part of the overall musical landscape, how did the score win the Oscar for Best ORIGINAL Score?
The year before, the Academy had added an Original Score category to the pre-exising Scoring category. The latter would later morph into a category mainly reserved for musicals and adaptations, though the rules have been stretched to accommodate any number of exceptions over the years. Though he is credited with “Musical Adaptation” on the film, Herbert Stothart walked off with the Oscar.
Is Stothart’s sole credit fair? Of course not. The notes don’t just happen without contributions from the entire team–composers, conductors, musicians, arrangers, orchestrators, sound mixers and editors. And is THE WIZARD OF OZ truly an “original” score?
Considering the film has so many songs, it can be argued that is should have been placed in the Scoring category, opening up a slot for Max Steiner to win for his immortal GONE WITH THE WIND. As such, Stothart’s Oscar has been debated for years. Certainly Bassman, Stoll, and Stringer should have shared in the glory. But Oscars seldom go to the musical worker-bees behind the scenes.
Either way, the passage of time pays greater tribute to these talented individuals more than a gold statuette. For 70 years, there have been musical riches for those who choose to “follow the yellow brick road.”
What do you think? Should THE WIZARD OF OZ have won the Oscar?