1934: The Year Oscar Scored
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first Academy Awards in Music. While the Best Song category has remained essentially unchanged since its inception (except for those continually bizarre behind-the-scenes nomination rules), the Best Scoring category has been subjected to numerous permutations and title changes over the years as the Academy rethinks and bends the rules to suit its needs during any particular year. Film music as we know it was still in its infancy in 1934, so the first Best Scoring nominees were culled from a mixture of original scores and adaptations of pre-existing material.
ONE NIGHT OF LOVE
The inaugural winner for Best Scoring, ONE NIGHT OF LOVE, was a showcase for the vocal talents of Metropolitan Opera star Grace Moore. Moore stars as Mary Barrett, a feisty young soprano who falls in and out and back in love with her vocal teacher, Guilo Monteverdi (Tullio Carminati), as she rises to the top.
The film earned big bucks at the box office and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture (losing to IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT). It turned Moore into a movie star and a Best Actress nominee, though her subsequent films never matched the popularity of this one. The film was considered a major step forward in bringing “highbrow” culture to the masses, and its success opened the door for other filmmakers to feature opera singers in lead roles, often with less successful results. As Films In Review stated, the music was “more a job of arranging than scoring” and the “thematic music” (as it is listed in the credits) consists mainly of the theme for the title song, composed by Victor Schertzinger (also nominated as Best Director) with lyrics by Gus Kahn.
Schertzinger (1890-1941) was a former concert pianist who contributed scores to numerous silent films (including Rudolph Valentino’s screen debut) before making his directorial debut in 1917. Schertzinger’s biggest hit as a composer, “Marchéta (A Love Song of Old Mexico),” written when he was 25, sold over four million copies. With over a hundred films to his credit, including two of the popular Bob Hope–Bing Crosby “Road” pictures, he is relatively forgotten today.
Lyricist and vaudeville entertainer Gus Kahn (1886-1941) was one of the stars of Tin Pan Alley, penning such classics as “Mammy,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “It Had to Be You,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “My Buddy,” “San Francisco,” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” In 1951, M-G-M produced the biopic I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, starring Danny Thomas as Kahn and Doris Day as his wife. Kahn received a second nomination in 1934 for the popular dance song, “The Carioca,” from FLYING DOWN TO RIO, which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first film pairing. Kahn would receive one more nomination for the song “Waltzing in the Clouds” from the 1940 Deanna Durbin vehicle, SPRING PARADE.
The title song is sung at the end of the opening credits by Mary, who is competing on a weekly radio contest for up-and-coming opera singers, and the tune later serves as the underscoring of her blossoming love for Monteverdi. The melody begins with the same first four notes that Puccini wrote for the entrance of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly. Unfortunately, the tune is used under almost every “love” scene, diluting its effectiveness until the climax of the film as Schertzinger weaves his own melody with Puccini’s as Mary and Monteverdi finally express their love, which (not so coincidentally) happens to occur during a performance of Butterfly. Much of the rest of the underscoring consists of transitional travel montages that blatantly (and for the most part appropriately) crib from well-known opera melodies. From the very beginning, Oscar has been impressed by the “snob appeal” of classical music and Moore’s performances of operatic arias from Butterfly, La Traviata and Carmen no doubt contributed to the win.
Though Moore’s singing can sound shrill to modern ears, it is understandable given the constraints of 1930s sound recording techniques (which, incidentally, won an Oscar, as well as a special technical Oscar for the application of the Vertical Cut Disc Method). Still, thanks to her performance, the film holds up quite well. But because of the arcane rules of the category at the time, Columbia Studio Music Department head Louis Silvers was awarded the Oscar while Schertzinger and Kahn went home from their “one night of love” empty-handed.
THE GAY DIVORCEE
THE GAY DIVORCEE marked the first star billing for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred stars as Guy Holden, an American dancer on vacation in England who falls for Mimi (Ginger) and feigns an illicit affair with her to help her secure a divorce from her geologist husband. The film’s title started out as THE GAY DIVORCE when it was a hit Broadway musical in 1933, but was changed for the film. In 1930s Hollywood, the idea of a happy divorcee was palatable. The idea of a happy divorce? Not so much.
Another alteration in the transfer to celluloid was the axing of all but one song—”Night and Day”—from Cole Porter’s score. To fill out the rest of the movie, songs were added by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel (“Don’t Let It Bother You” and “Let’s K-nock K-nees”), and Con Conrad and Herb Magidson (“A Needle in a Haystack” and the first Best Song winner, the 22-minute dance number, “The Continental“). The score is credited to adaptors Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein.
Webb (1892-1966) began his career in movies directing silent films. He and his younger brother, fellow composer (and later Oscar nominee) Roy, also signed the original charter that formed The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Webb later became a writer and advertising executive in Hollywood.
Known more as a screenwriter than a musician, Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947) received a nomination in 1932 for his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which won a Best Actor Oscar for Fredric March (who tied with THE CHAMP’s Wallace Beery). Hoffenstein later did uncredited work on THE WIZARD OF OZ and scripted films such as PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943) and Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir classic, LAURA.
The film’s replacement songs are charming, if not up to the standard of Cole Porter’s original Broadway score. But Webb and Hoffenstein’s musical adaptations sparkle, enhanced by the nominated sound recording. Max Steiner, who served as music director on the film, as he did for most of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, actually received the nomination as head of the RKO Music Department.
Not only did THE GAY DIVORCEE and ONE NIGHT OF LOVE benefit from their musical storylines, they also started two trends that continue to this day. Oscar voters are often easily impressed if a film exhibits a high musical cache (i.e., if it features live music or is about music). And having a Best Picture nomination attached never hurts your chances in other categories.
THE LOST PATROL
When he wasn’t composing, conducting, or serving as the head of RKO’s Music Department (on a month-to-month basis), Max Steiner was changing the face of film music. Following the success of his groundbreaking score for KING KONG in 1933, Steiner furthered the art of film scoring with his next major project, experimenting with unique techniques to enhance the onscreen images.
John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL was a remake of a 1929 British silent and starred Victor McLaglen (whose brother Cyril starred in the original) as the sergeant of a group of British soldiers lost in the Mesopotamian desert. After setting up camp in an abandoned oasis, the soldiers are picked off one by one by unseen Arab snipers until only McLaglen is left.
Originally Steiner was contracted to compose only the main and end titles. But previews of the film left audiences cold and the film’s December release date was pushed back so that Steiner could supply some much needed musical tension and emotion for the characters. The main titles begin with a military trumpet call that leads immediately into a syncopated Arab theme, which Steiner would later recycle in his score for CASABLANCA. The march that accompanies the soldiers across the desert changes musical colors as the film progresses. What begins as up-tempo and upbeat slows down and takes on a more desperate tone as the soldiers’ situation worsens. Steiner uses eerie piano chords to echo the disbelief of the soldiers at the sight of the oasis, while a wordless chorus (singing “in cupped hands,” according to Steiner’s notes) howls like the wind blowing across the sand.
The score for THE LOST PATROL was composed and recorded in a feverishly fast eight days and is especially accomplished given the time restraints, the composer’s own lack of much previous composition experience, and the state of original film music at the time. Steiner would reteam with Ford again in 1935 and take home the first Oscar for a true dramatic score for his work on THE INFORMER.
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In 1938, following musical director Charles Previn’s controversial award for 1937’s ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL (a film that doesn’t even list a composer in the credits, and a “score” that consists of pre-existing, diegetic classical music), the Music Branch added a “Best Original Score” category. It often didn’t make the scores any easier to categorize or their nominations any more intuitive, and to this day the Music categories are plagued by out-of-place nominees and winners. But I’ll continue to champion any organization that seeks to bring global recognition to film music, even when the telecast segment is mistakenly accompanied by asinine break dancing. Because over the last 75 years, they’ve occasionally gotten it right.