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?

Herbert Stothart conducting THE WIZARD OF OZ
Herbert Stothart conducting the studio orchestra for a scene cut from the film.

“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.)

According to Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of The Wizard of Oz, Stothart held a very loose rein on his arrangers. Cutter was told, “This song should be two choruses, this song three, this song is for the Tin Man, so make it sound metallic.”

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?

13 comments

  1. Absolutely. I think it is one of the most brilliant scoring jobs. It is part of the timeless appeal of the film. I am prejudiced as i’ve been enamored with this film since i was four years old. Steiner’s score is landmark, but lest no one forget, he recycled some of his own work there too…Mildred Pierce is full of the themes from Now Voyager…Since You Went Away(for which he did deservedly win) takes themes from A Star is Born, as well as using things like the song Together.

    I was lucky enough to be at a screening of Oz when I was a freshman at USC back in 1984, complete with a Q/A with at least three of the orchestrators/arrangers, probably Bassman, Marquardt and either Cutter or Stringer, would have to check who was still living then.

    Finally, not enough credit is given to Georgie Stoll, who, if you listen to the recording sessions, conducted most, if not all of the song sessions (with Stothart at least partially supervising from the booth)…Stothart (again in the booth) has some humorous direction of Judy Garland during a take of “We’re off to See the Wizard…” Judy, don’t force it so much, it’s getting a little LOUD up here!” Priceless…

    But Stothart was master over the score cues. If you have access to the DVD and the “jukebox” of recordings on there, take a listen to the instrumental bridge for If I Were King of the Forest, or the introduction to Over the Rainbow for a bit of his verbal direction of the orchestra.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Allan. The phrase “It takes a village…” comes to mind when I think of this score. It’s amazing that all those different composers, arrangers, orchestrators, etc. came together to create something so magical. And that is due in no small part to Stothart overseeing the whole thing.

  2. one more note and this would need to be confirmed with a Stothart biographer, but I was told that he was at least partially incapacitated with cancer during this time, hence his sporadic conduction of the music, possibly not well enough to handle ten hour sessions standing in front of a sixty piece orchestra…

  3. I’m not sure this article mentions the proper composer (among the team) who wrote the Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch theme, but until 1975, when “Jaws” came out, I don’t think there was a more recognized theme from a music score. I don’t even thing Hermann’s score for the shower scene of “Psycho” is more recognized and appreciated.

    I’m also amazed at the interweaving of the Mendelssohn–that’s obscure Mendelssohn by most standards, and to have “known” that piece at all–and to have incorporated it so seamlessly (with further variations and development) shows that this team was very well educated as serious musicians.

    1. Hi Bill, thanks for commenting. According to the Rhino 2-CD set of the score, Stothart arranged the “Miss Gulch” theme and Murray Cutter orchestrated it.

      And your’e right about “obscure Mendelssohn.” I’d certainly never heard of it in all my years of musical education. But it sure works in the film, doesn’t it? :)

  4. After spending MANY hours these past two weeks with the Oz scoring sessions(working on something for my sanity for myself),I think i’ve deciphered why Stothart conducted certain cues and not others, at least partially. I believe he conducted the cues he composed, such as the main title, threatening witch,the crystal gazing cue, etc…More useless trivia for those who are interested…

      1. In Max Steiner’s biography, why is he given credit for Wizard of OZ and then in parentheses notes that Stothart replaced him?

  5. No idea, the only connection around that time I know is that as “insurance” MGM was going to hold Stothart in reserve for Selznick to compose the GWTW score in case Steiner couldn’t deliver. In fact, the music for the Atlanta fire sequence was composed by someone at MGM, no? or was it Forbstein?

Leave a Reply to DJM Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *