Tell Mama, Tell Mama All

FRANZ WAXMAN made history when he won for the Academy Award for his score to A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). Following his win the year prior for SUNSET BOULEVARD, Waxman became the first composer to win the Oscar for Best Original Score (to use the common phrase) two years in a row.

Based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel, An American Tragedy, Montgomery Clift stars as George Eastman, a young man from the poor branch of the powerful Eastman family, whose affair with a mousy factory worker (Shelley Winters) and love for the rich and beautiful Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) get him in some serious trouble.

Though slickly directed (George Stevens won an Oscar), the film is basically just a glossy soap opera. However, due to the chemistry of Liz and Monty (at their most beautiful) and Shelley’s raw performance, the film is watchable, though these are some fairly unlikeable people. Backing the central love story is Waxman’s lush, romantic score.

A Place in the Su

From the beginning, the score soars on the notes of his sweeping theme for Angela, which occurs anytime George merely even thinks about her. The use of a bluesy saxophone was an interesting choice for the theme. Waxman apparently auditioned nearly a hundred musicians in order to find one who could give the right inflection to the melody.

Stevens would become notorious for his tinkering with composers’ scores (especially with Alfred Newman’s THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD in 1965). The director felt that Waxman’s score was too “Teutonic” and brought in Victor Young and Daniele Amfitheatrof to rescore approximately forty percent of the film. A practice that’s probably not distinctly American, but a tragedy nonetheless.

Many feel that Alex North‘s groundbreaking music for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE should have taken home the Oscar. But Hollywood wasn’t ready for jazz and Waxman’s score was much more along the traditional lines of film music past. Either way, Waxman’s┬ámusic is intensely romantic, a fine score, and one of the few aspects of the film that is still fresh today.

1 comment

  1. I disagree that the movie is “a glossy soap opera,” as it deals with the very fundament of American society at the time and shows it up for all it was. “Soap opera” suggests syrup. Stevens made sure that the detached direction provided anything BUT treacle, and succeeded in keeping things tasteful, objective and classically filmed, with some almost Rashomon-like passages.

    If the author was right, then why did the Academy honor the film the way it did? Why did the Director’s Guild? Why did the Globes?…… They can’t all be wrong simultaneously about one and the same thing……. Not when there is a consensus among all those voters.

    Waxman’s score is academic, in the best sense of the word, and the Academy searches precisely for that to reward every year – a multi-faceted, well-developed, comprehensive, emotionally all-encompassing piece with a central theme. Which North’s wasn’t, as much as I like his work on the film. Waxman’s was that, to a T. Plus the sultry, tasteful, jazz-y sax (and yet the author maintains that the Academy wouldn’t appreciate jazz….??).

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with academic tastes and approaches to an accomplished, classically structured piece of music like Waxman’s score. It conveyed what it was called upon by the screenplay to convey – tension, romance, fear, horror, joviality, surrender, beauty, etc., etc. North’s score wasn’t anywhere near as emotionally encompassing as this but more one-sided. Waxman’s score deserved to win because of the way it aided the emotionality and intellectual perception. Which is what a film score is supposed to do. From Max Steiner to Ludovic Bource.

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