Zing Went the Newman Strings of My Heart!
Alfred Newman—my guide, guru and guardian angel, at least when it comes to film music. Why? Three words—the Newman strings. Nearly everything you want to know about Newman’s film music can be found in his treatment of the string section of the orchestra. And no string section ever sounded quite like the one that Newman perfected over his 20-year career at 20th Century Fox.
What made the Newman strings so exceptional? No doubt, it had a great deal to do with Newman’s talent as a composer. But kudos should also be shared by his orchestrators, particularly Edward Powell. But arguably Newman’s greatest effect on the strings came from his position on the podium.
By all accounts, Newman was one of Hollywood’s finest conductors. And his position as head of the Fox music department gave him unprecedented power to shape and mold his studio’s orchestra to his liking. Like the orchestras of rival studios M-G-M and Warner Bros., the Fox orchestra had a unique sound, and the lion’s share of the praise rightfully goes to Newman.
For this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I wanted to look at the ways in which Newman worked with the strings—whether conducting his own music or that of another composer—and how his use of violins, violas, celli, and basses defined the musical timbre over at Fox. There are many more examples than the nine I’ve listed here, but this is a good place to start. The scores are listed in alphabetical order.
ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s skewering of the stage contains some of cinema’s finest dialog and arguably Bette Davis’ finest hours on film. Because the dialog zings along with one great line after another, Newman stays out of the way for much of the film, choosing instead to focus on those rare moments of the characters’ internal reflection. In the finale of the film, Newman takes Eve’s (Anne Baxter) tender theme from the beginning of the film and supplies it with as much ferocious drive as the character has shown over the last two hours as she tramples over her “friends” on her way to the top. The theme begins with a reminder of Eve’s earlier sweetness and innocence in the violin solo. As the entire violin section takes over the melody, the theme becomes bolder and a bit desperate as another young ingenue arrives on the scene to take Eve’s place.
The fate of Russia’s Romanov dynasty is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. And the fate of young Anastasia, who supposedly escaped from her family’s fate at the hands of a firing squad, provided even more drama. In this adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s play, Yul Brynner plays a Russian businessman who tries to pass off a mysterious woman as the Grand Duchess. The film brought Ingrid Bergman back into Hollywood’s good graces (and copped her an Oscar) after she ran off with Roberto Rossellini years earlier. In this haunting cue, “Anastasia” walks the banks of the Seine in despair. The first four notes of Newman’s famous theme are passed between the woodwind solos before the violins take over a full statement of the theme proper. Using one of his trademarks, Newman utilizes the entire string section, with all four instruments handing off sections of the theme and countermelody.
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959)
I first fell in love with Newman’s music hearing the “London Calling” cue on Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores compilation devoted to the composer. Newman’s beautiful melody quite simply broke my heart, and still does to this day. The film is Hollywood soap at its slickest in this glossy tale of Madison Ave, but Newman’s music blows away the suds to give the film real emotion. Johnny Mathis’ crooning of the title song is equally smooth, but the melody is even more effective as an instrumental piece. Gerhardt’s handling of the cue is stellar, but next to Newman’s prowess on the podium, it’s sounds like syrupy soup. Forgiving the disparities in sound quality, Newman’s version downplays the sugary orchestrations and still captures the Fox sound, even without Edward Powell’s participation as orchestrator. No one, not even Gerhardt, has been able to replicate that unique quality that Newman brought to the conducting of his own music. While other conductors have performed other Golden Age greats like Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, and even Herrmann in some facsimile of their original recordings, Newman has by and large eluded modern conductors. These two examples show us just how important Newman’s position as a conductor was.
DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951)
The two sides of the Biblical character of Bathsheba (Susan Hayward)—lover and seductress—are given musical voice in this cue. Minor keys and chromatic intervals slink side by side. Flute, oboe and tambourine seductively ooze their way under King David’s (Gregory Peck) skin, but as his passion takes over, the violins bring a yearning desperation to his love. The cue is an excellent example of Newman’s trademarks weaving of woodwind and string solos with sectional work, each one seamlessly building on the other until the entire orchestra reaches an intense, passionate climax.
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959)
In 1956, playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett turned Anne Frank’s famous diary into a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning stage hit, which they later adapted for George Stevens’ 1959 film version. Since Steven wanted to escape the subject’s doom and gloom, Newman’s music “attempted to evoke the memory of a happier past, the hope for a happier future, the longings of oppressed people and the love of family, one for the other, and most of all, the great dignity and courage of the Frank family and their friends in the face of disaster.” Arguably, the most emotional moments occur between Anne (Milly Perkins) and Peter (Richard Beymer) as they explore young love. Knowing what we do about their outcome makes those scenes painfully poignant and Newman’s music wrings every last tear out of us in the process. In the heartbreaking climax, the two young lovers kiss as the strings yearn heavenward to a full-blown statement of “Anne and Peter’s Theme,” and the French horns seem to cry out a gut-wrenching “Peter, Peter” as approaching Nazi sirens cut off all hope of a future together. In moments such as these, Newman extends the original melody into new thematic and harmonic territory, prolonging our pain and empathy into an orchestral cry of frustration and anger at the senselessness of it all. If any film embodies the best of the Newman strings, this is it.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
The filming of George Stevens’ big-cast telling of the life of Christ was not a happy one. Weather conditions made filming difficult, the film moved from Fox to United Artists, Stevens spent the entire budget before filming even began and it eventually became the most expensive movie ever filmed in the U.S. up to that time. Stevens, who had so famously maligned Franz Waxman’s music on A PLACE IN THE SUN, created even more havoc for Newman and choral supervisor Ken Darby on this film. (Check out Darby’s fascinating memoir of the experience, Hollywood Holyland, for all the inside dirt.) By this time, Newman was no longer at Fox and the sound of the orchestra, particularly in the hands of orchestrators Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken is decidedly different. Arguably more attuned to today’s contemporary ears than some of Newman’s earlier work, the strings perform the passionate main theme in a typically straightforward manner with Newman, by and large, eschewing excess emotion and grandiose religiosity. Instead, the music, no matter how many instruments are performing it, conveys one man’s personal vision of the story—intimate and non-judgmental, as all religious feeling should be.
A MAN CALLED PETER (1955)
Whether biblically based (DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD) or fictional (THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, THE ROBE), Newman scored his share of religious films over the course of his career. PETER is a religious biopic based on the life of preacher Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), who later served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Newman weaves in quotes of hymns and other period tunes among the lilting music for Peter’s Scottish upbringing. But it is the love theme for Peter and Catherine (Jean Peters) that embodies Newman at his best. Even when repeating the same thematic patterns, once again alternating between solo and tutti passages, Newman generates forward movement and passionate tension through his sudden modulations and subito pianissimo dynamics.
THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
While I’ve focused primarily on Newman’s more lyrical examples, occasionally the strings were asked to express something more mentally and emotionally challenging. In this raw look at one woman’s (Olivia de Havilland) experiences inside an insane asylum, Newman was called upon to portray the searing effects of electric shock in music. The harmonies are unsettled and the strings dig into their bridges, wailing at the top of their tessiture, while the woodwinds likewise scream in horrifying pain. The sound is mighty unpleasant, as it should be, and incredibly powerful when matched with the visuals. There must’ve been a run on rosen by the end of that recording session.
Darryl Zannuck’s big-budget biopic of the controversial 28th President was a flop at the box office. But the larger budget gave Newman the opportunity to do prodigious research into recreating the period musical aura of Wilson’s (Alexander Knox) political campaigns. The score is chock full of arrangements of period tunes. But amid the expected political posturing of the brass sits an exquisite moment for the Newman strings. As Wilson’s wife (Ruth Nelson) lays on her deathbed, Newman arranges “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” into a heartbreaking elegy for the dying First Lady. In the hands of a master like Newman, even the happiest of tunes take on a whole new character—one of memory, pain and unbearable sadness.