Books about film music are rare. Entertaining books about film music are even rarer. And entertaining books about film music written by those who are actually down in the trenches are practically nonexistent. That alone is reason enough to read André Previn‘s 1991 memoir, No Minor Chords: My Days In Hollywood. What makes the book even more important as a historical record is that Previn bristles in interviews when asked to speak about those years, perhaps feeling that he has already covered everything in the book. And while the book doesn’t contain much on Previn’s original film, it’s always fun to spend 141 pages in Previn’s witty company.
These self-described “ramshackle reminiscences” describe “the final days of true excess, a time when every film made money, when the stars were above and beyond normal criticism. Premieres were right out of Nathanael West, executives were ferocious tyrants, and way way down the list, seated well below the salt, were the writers and musicians, a beaten lot, whining and bitching about everyone else’s illiteracy.” Previn describes a world long gone with “Indians in the lunchroom, and Romans making phone calls, and the highly charged and technically dazzling music making on the recording stage.” These were days of playing Ping-Pong with Arnold Schoenberg and receiving word of his first Oscar nomination for THREE LITTLE WORDS from an officer in the Army while on duty during the Korean War.
He has praise for the studios musicians and many of his colleagues, plus candid stories about Herbert Stothart, Korngold, Steiner and more. A favorite includes Miklós Rózsa, “the most European of gentlemen” who was “knee-deep in his religious phase,” who one day emerged from the projection room and complained, “I just don’t know what else to write for that scene in which that fella carries the cross up that hill.”
Previn’s outlook on that part of his career was as a job: “I had to make a living, I had to help my family.” But he continued to study and learn “serious music” while “fashioning harp glissandos for Esther Williams’s high dives.” Such “serious music” sometimes necessitated calling Shostakovich in the U.S.S.R. to get proper metronome markings.
What few stories he includes of his own films concern mostly the musicals, including GIGI, MY FAIR LADY and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, for which he “loathed the music.” Occasionally he will delve into films with original scores, such as his first, THE SUN COMES UP, starring Jeanette MacDonald in her final screen appearance. He called the story “pure insanity, some sort of goulash involving a world-famous soprano driven to seclusion in the Ozark Mountains by the loss of her child, and the subsequent renewal of her faith, her high C, and her love of mankind, all by way of the wise ministrations of Lassie.”
Previn was 18 years old when he signed his contract at MGM, “and suddenly, there within my grasp, was all the tawdry glamour I longed for. I was making quite a bit of money, the work was not seriously daunting, my coworkers were generous and kind, and the chorus girls gleaming in the California sun fit easily into my blue convertible. Who could resist, who would want to? Certainly not I, not yet, not then.”
But leave it he would for a successful career conducting and composing for the concert hall, what he now calls “my other life….Different ambitions, different plans, methods of work I can no longer identify with, triumphs and disappointments that would not cause a twitch on the Richter scale that governs my life today….I had won four Oscars, and I had a pretty house. But I was ambitious for different pursuits, and I wanted to be involved in work which would frighten me. My film work left me relaxed and complacent, and I wanted to be scared and worried about my music.”
“The era I lived through in Hollywood is utterly gone and will never happen again. I doubt that anyone really mourns its demise; it was pretty awful. But I suppose it is worse now, and so the mishaps and mistakes of the past have taken on a kind of glowing patina.” And that patina, along with his trademark wit, makes Previn’s memories such an enjoyable read. If I personally wish he had discussed his film music more in depth (and the book had gone on for at least another 141 pages), Previn is a born storyteller.
My appreciation for Previn’s film music has only grown since I first heard ELMER GANTRY as a teenager in the late ’70s. And until either Previn relents in discussing his scores or someone takes it upon themselves to write a book (hmm…), we’ll have to make do with Previn’s words alone. If his memories of a “simpler time, when the studio was the plantation, and we all worked in the fields,” only leaves the reader wanting to know more of Previn’s music, that’s how it should be.