The success of Dimitri Tiomkin’s title song for HIGH NOON prior to the film’s release helped the box office (and no doubt helped him win the Oscar). Popular songs like “Moon River” (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S), “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), and “The Way We Were” undoubtedly assisted Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, and Marvin Hamlisch to double wins on Oscar night. Only twice in Oscar history has a song by one composer and a score by another from the same film both won. In 1994, Elton John and Tim Rice’s treacly “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from THE LION KING shared Oscar gold with Hans Zimmer’s excellent African-flavored score. And back in 1955, Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s popular title song from LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING helped Alfred Newman win his second and last Academy Award for Original Score.
Based on the bestselling memoir, Jennifer Jones stars as author Han Suyin, a Eurasian doctor in World War II Hong Kong whose affair with a married foreign war correspondent (William Holden) puts her job and life in jeopardy. Holden’s cynicism helps offset Jones’ overly sincere performance, and I don’t buy her as a Eurasian particularly. But it’s hard not to get swept up in the doomed love affair and the romantic clash of cultures, thanks in no small part to the music.
The song stayed atop the charts for six weeks and over 250 versions have been recorded. Fain’s melody may be the most well-known element in the score, but Newman’s peerless strings create a lush, romantic bed upon which the love story rests.
The melodic fragment for Han and Mark was borrowed from Newman’s own Oscar-nominated score for THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM a decade earlier. Surprisingly, Richard Rodgers also seems to have “borrowed” the theme’s melodic elements as the basis for the song “I Have Dreamed” in his 1951 musical THE KING AND I.
The other main theme is the “Hilltop” theme. Ascending strings and trilling winds stir the winds of passion as Suyin meets Mark atop a hill overlooking the harbor–their private “spot”–culminating in a tender rendition of the title song. The butterfly’s flutes and English horn capture the fragility of their love.
Pentatonic scales and ethnic percussion and orchestrations give an Asian flavor to the score, in particular for the Moon Festival and fortune teller cues, as well as Suyin’s trip back to China. Newman also incorporated these instrumentations in his Oscar-winning work for the film version of THE KING AND I, which he was working on at the same time as LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING.
When the chorus finally takes up the song in the finale, Webster’s lyrics–“Once on a high and windy hill/In the morning mist two lovers kissed/And the world stood still”–combined with Fain’s haunting melody and Newman’s peerless scoring of the moment brings a tear to my eye every time.
Though undoubtedly the score won on the strength of the famous title song, there’s much more to the score, as expected of someone of Newman’s caliber. Without Newman’s matchless talent on and off the podium, the music could have easily have turned the film into a syrupy, gooey mess.