For this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, we focus on one of my favorite film composers, Golden Age or otherwise—Franz Waxman . Waxman got his start in Germany scoring films like Marlene Dietrich’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1932) before he was forced to flee the country when the Third Reich came into power. He composed his first Hollywood film score for James Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Over the years, Waxman worked with legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, and in 1952, became the first composer to win back-to-back Oscars—SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951).
All during his years in Hollywood, Waxman continued to work in the concert hall, with chamber music and choral works like Joshua. He converted his violin fantasies based on Tristan und Isolde and Carmen from his score for HUMORESQUE (1946) into concert works, and the virtuosic Carmen Fantasie has since become part of the standard violin repertoire. In 1947 Waxman founded the Los Angeles International Music Festival, which he headed for 20 years.
When marvelous scores like THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, MR. SKEFFINGTON, THE NUN’S STORY, OBJECTIVE BURMA, and THE SILVER CHALICE didn’t make the list, that should tell you something about the quality of the music from this amazing composer.
9. SAYONARA (1957)
Waxman weaves in Japanese orchestrations, pentatonic scales, and the melody from Irving Berlin’s haunting title song into a score that deserves to be better known. My favorite theme is one of Waxman’s, for the secondary character of Eileen, the spurned fiance of Marlon Brando’s Major Gruver. The RCA LP and subsequent CD leaves out much of the music and leaves even more to be desired in its sound quality. I keep hoping one of the specialty labels rescues this score from relative obscurity to do it justice.
This remake of the 1931 Best Picture winner is not necessarily any better than that creaky old film, but it does give Waxman the chance to cut loose with a full-bodied Western score. The title song provides the main theme for the score with a melody that is expansive and full of hope. But it is the thrilling Oklahoma land rush sequence that gives Waxman his greatest opportunity to score a true action sequence. Snippets of the main theme sing out above the steady pulsing rhythm, spurring on the settlers to grab their piece of the American dream. Film Score Monthly’s release rescued this exceptional score from the dust of the Old West.
PRINCE VALIANT was my first exposure to Waxman’s music in the late 1970s as the first track on Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores Waxman compilation. Here Waxman channels his inner Korngold and composes an A-list score for this B-level swashbuckler starring Robert Wagner in one of the most unflattering wigs this side of Javier Bardem. The score bristles with energy, a rousing main theme, a soaring love theme, and one thrilling cue after another. Hail to FSM for rescuing this one as well.
6. REBECCA (1940)
For this Best Picture winner, Waxman’s composed the first of four scores for Hitchcock and the first of two Daphne du Maurier stories. Part murder mystery, part love story, Waxman’s music captures Hitchcock’s wicked wit and humor, as well as the Gothic murder mystery at the heart of the story. The lower strings churn with unexpressed passion until the violins and French horns burst for with a soaring main theme for the mansion at Manderley that conveys the dark undercurrents running through the film. This is Waxman’s first truly great score and a foreshadowing of more greatness to come.
5. MY COUSIN RACHEL (1952)
For the second du Maurier adaptation in his canon, Waxman once again utilizes a dramatic main theme and swirling winds, this time to convey the tale’s Victorian sturm und drang. The music bears much of the same harmonic language of REBECCA, but gone are the lighter, humorous touches of the earlier score, replaced by a richer musical maturity that plumbs the dramatic, psychological depths of this Olivia de Havilland-Richard Burton Victorian murder mystery.
Even though director George Stevens butchered the score in the final print, bringing in Victor Young and Daniele Amfitheatrof to rescore approximately 40% of the film, Waxman went on to win his second Academy Award. This glorified soap opera stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor at their most beautiful and Shelley Winters at her most homely as the mousy factory worker he murders. Waxman’s lush, romantic score soars on the notes of his sweeping theme for Angela (Taylor). This is a score that cries out for a proper release of the original tracks (preferably) or a re-recording, with liner notes that detail the travesty behind the scenes with the music. (Ahem, I’d be happy to accept that challenge.) That the score survives relatively unscathed in the film is a tribute to Waxman’s genius.
3. TARAS BULBA (1962)
Based on a short novel by Nikolai Gogol about the fight between the Cossacks and Polish troops, the film is mainly remembered today for Waxman’s stellar score. The main title music contains two of the highlights of the score including the thrilling “Ride to Dubno” and the haunting waltzing love theme. The score bears the hallmarks of lush, Russian harmonies, all filtered through Waxman’s brilliant handling of the orchestra.
2. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
What can I possibly say about SUNSET BOULEVARD that hasn’t already been said? This caustic take on Hollywood is a bona fide classic in every way. Waxman’s masterful score is every bit as biting as Billy Wilder’s caustic direction and script. Waxman’s first Oscar-winning score has it all—pulsating chase music, bebop piano, a slow, sinuous tango for Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen, and a hint of Richard Strauss’ Salome.
1. PEYTON PLACE (1957)
SUNSET BOULEVARD may be his masterpiece, but no Waxman score affects me like PEYTON PLACE. Grace Metalious’ scandalous bestseller about the secrets hidden (or not) behind the white picket fences in a gossipy small New England town turned the film into a huge hit. The film racked up an unexpected nine Oscar nominations and yet inexplicably nothing for Waxman’s ravishing score. Chimes, a brass fanfare, and French horns call the flock to Sunday services, while the strings soar with a melody that is so heartbreaking, so full of love and loss of innocence, that I cry each and every time. Waxman later retooled many of the themes for the tepid sequel, yet still musically enjoyable, RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE (1961). It was a tough choice between this and SUNSET BOULEVARD as to what would occupy the top slot. But my overactive tear ducts win out every time.