One of the great things about the Film Score Monthly label has been its championing of lesser-known composers like Oscar-winner Bronislau Kaper. Prior to FSM, Kaper’s output on CD was basically nonexistent. Since the release of the soundtrack of THE PRODIGAL in 2002, FSM has released approximately 25 Kaper scores, most of which have never been heard outside of their respective films. While I’m sure Lukas Kendall’s lucrative deal with the studio (which also provided him and us with all those great Miklós Rózsa releases) had something to do with this, I doubt Kaper made him much money.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Bronisław Kaper (the immigration officials misspelled his first name with the more commonly known Bronislau) (1902–1983) was a child piano prodigy, graduating from The Chopin Music School. (The Film Music of Bronislaw Kaper Played By the Composer provides a rare glimpse into the composer’s pianistic talents.) He was a cabaret songwriter in Berlin before leaving Germany in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power. Kaper signed with MGM in 1935, writing the classic title tune for SAN FRANCISCO (1936) and composing songs for the Marx Brothers. In a career that spanned over 30 years at the studio, Kaper worked on over 150 films, and his themes from GREEN DOLPHIN STREET and INVITATION have become jazz standards.
Hopefully, the dissolution of FSM doesn’t mean that Kaper will go back into the vault. While other labels have stepped up and re-released some of the out-of-print FSM titles, in today’s soundtrack collector mentality I’m not sure an unfamiliar Golden Age composer is a viable moneymaker for them. Still, I’m thrilled that this prolific composer has been introduced to a new generation of film score fans and for that, all credit should go to Lukas Kendall.
Kaper’s talents are on full display in these nine scores. Now, everybody, join me in a rousing encore of “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo”! (Good luck getting that out of your head now! You’re welcome.)
9. THE WAY WEST (1967)
Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark star in this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie, Jr.’s 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (itself a sequel to Guthrie’s The Big Sky). Kaper provides a memorable main theme and a harmonically traditional Western score that captures all the excitement of life on the Oregon Trail. With accordion, harmonica, banjo, and do-si-do strings, Kaper’s score is everything a Western score should be—warm and comforting as a night by the campfire.
8. LORD JIM (1965)
Peter O’Toole plays Joseph Conrad’s coward seaman bent on redemption. Kaper’s score is appropriately dark with a memorable yearning main title. Jim’s travels give Kaper the opportunity for exotic Asian harmonies and gamelan-flavored orchestrations while the story’s epic sweep allows the composer to musically portray the tempest without and within.
7. QUENTIN DURWARD (1955)
IVANHOE director Richard Thorpe and star Robert Taylor reteam for another swashbuckling adaptation of a Sir Walter Scott novel. Much like Miklós Rózsa’s memorable effort for the earlier film, Scott once again provides the perfect backdrop for a rousing Scottish-flavored score from Kaper. The score gallops and swoons much like Taylor’s Scottish knight while Kaper once again displays his musical wit.
6. THE SWAN (1956)
This remake of a 1925 film (based on Molnár’s 1920 play) finds Alec Guinness suitably bored having to woo any life out of Grace Kelly’s limited acting prowess. No matter. Kelly looks every inch the potential princess that she is destined to become in real life while Kaper’s melodic score provides a suitably fairy tale atmosphere—regal, frothy and sweet—featuring a heartbreaking main theme and quotes of the “Rakoczy March” to provide a bit of pomp and circumstance.
5. A FLEA IN HER EAR (1968)
Not even a cast headed by Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris can breathe much life into this stale adaptation of Feydeau’s classic farce. However, Kaper’s final score is a joyous romp that displays energy and wit, providing the perfect melodic capper to a wonderful career. Here’s hoping some label picks this up for release someday, whether the original LP or preferably the full score, with Claudine Longet’s sweet, distinctive rendition of the title tune included.
Leslie Caron stars in this adaptation of the Cinderella story. Caron is, as usual, lovely and the story retains its charm but it can’t hold a candle to the 1950 Disney animated version. Casting Caron once again allows Kaper to compose extended ballet sequences, like he did for LILI. The main waltz—”Take My Love”—is a heartbreaker and the score is magical from start to finish.
3. AUNTIE MAME (1958)
Bubbly and effervescent, Kaper’s sparkling score is the perfect complement to Rosalind Russell’s classic portrayal of everybody’s favorite screwball aunt. The score swirls along with a sweeping main title waltz, a tender melody for young Patrick, and a rousing, memorable fox hunt. Like Mame herself, Kaper’s score has life, energy and, most of all, heart. FSM’s release is the brief rerecorded studio album, while the DVD has the full score as an isolated track. I’m not sure why that wasn’t released instead, but no matter. Any version of AUNTIE MAME is a welcome addition to your collection.
2. LILI (1953)
As I said, there’s far more to Kaper than “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo”. But outside of “San Francisco,” that tune is, for better or worse, Kaper’s musical signpost. But there’s also far more to this Oscar-winning score than that signature tune. From dramatic underscore to dance numbers and a lengthy ballet, wrapped in a charming accordion-based carnival atmosphere, LILI never fails to bring a smile to my face. Short, sweet and oh-so memorable, why this film has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray is beyond me.
1. MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962)
Kaper’s magnum opus is one of the great treasures of film music. Because of his work on EL CID, Miklós Rózsa had to bow out of BOUNTY. That gave Kaper the assignment of his career. But it came with a price. Marlon Brando’s eccentricities and budget overruns that nearly bankrupted the studio caused constant delays and recutting of the film, resulting in numerous versions of various cues. FSM’s hefty 3-CD set is a fascinating look at how a score can change—and improve—over the course of the film. Sweeping and epic, Kaper’s inspired score belongs in every film music collection.