The Bad and the Beautiful

CD Review: David Raksin Conducts His Great Film Scores

When lists are made of the pantheon of Golden Age composers, you’ll always find the usual suspects–Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, etc. Seldom is David Raksin among them. No doubt his cooperation with the House on Un-American Activities Committee kept him from securing some major film projects that would have bolstered his reputation. But Raksin’s mentorship with the legendary composer Arnold Schoenberg gives his music an often risky harmonic richness that still feels fresh today. Thankfully, Sony released one of the classic Raksin recordings in their recent batch of Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores reissues. Produced but not conducted by Gerhardt, DAVID RAKSIN CONDUCTS HIS GREAT FILM SCORES features selections from three of Raksin’s most famous works and the album is another jewel in the crown of this legendary series.

During his lifetime, Raksin’s theme from the 1944 film noir LAURA was the second most recorded song, following Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” The theme has been recorded by more than 400 artists, including jazz greats like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and in its popular song rendition (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) by vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Not surprisingly, I’m partial to the instrumental film music version. The tune’s lugubrious 3/4 meter is a waltz of lost love as Clifton Webb and detective Dana Andrews pine over the mysterious murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura.

Director Otto Preminger wanted to use Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” as the primary theme, but Raksin balked at the idea of using so familiar a tune. Alfred Newman convinced Preminger to give Raksin the weekend to come up with something more appropriate. Over the weekend, Raksin opened a letter from his wife asking for a divorce. From that pain and heartache, and with the letter sitting on the piano staring at him, came the inspiration for one of the most beautiful themes in all of film music.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) is one of the true masterpieces of film music. The still-pungent roman à clef of filmdom stars Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Walter Pidgeon and Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous producer who alienates them all. Raksin’s lush score captures all the glamor of old-time Hollywood in its sweeping and memorable main theme, giving producer John Houseman exactly what he asked for–a “siren song.” Raksin keeps the melody interesting with constantly changing directions (and a stunning octave leap), while the unstable chromatic harmonies underneath morph and modulate. A saxophone solo adds sultriness and a muted trombone pulls us back in time.

Raksin composed “The Acting Lesson” for a scene between Douglas and Turner that got cut from the film. Because of the film-within-a-film’s Anna Karenina overtones, Raksin composed the sequence a la Russe in the manner of Anton Arensky’s string piece, Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky. In the liner note, he candidly reflects on the practice of having his music eliminated: “One never gets used to it.”

“The Quickies and the Sneak Preview” combines two separate scenes in frantic music in which all of the thematic material is taken from the main theme. “Nocturne and Theme” also combines selections from several scenes. The suite ends not with the bold statement of the theme as in the film, but in an arrangement originally played by saxophonist Stan Getz and the Boston Pops at Tanglewood.

David Raksin Conducts CD
“Love Is for the Very Young (Main Title Theme)” from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
“Amber (Main Title)” from FOREVER AMBER

Set in 17th century England, FOREVER AMBER stars Linda Darnell as the beautiful Amber who sleeps her way up through English society. Kathleen Windsor’s notorious 1944 novel was condemned by the Catholic Church and banned in 14 U.S. states as pornography, which only helped fuel sales to propel it to become the bestselling book of the year. For all the novel’s salacious overtones, the film is not much more than a stodgy costume drama, except for Raksin’s Oscar-nominated score.

Beginning with a rousing fanfare, Raksin based the constantly changing meters of the main title music on “the kind of free melodic flow found in music arising from plainsong (a kind of rhythmically unmeasured melody).” The violins surge in the passionate embrace of the first of Amber’s two themes. “The King’s Mistress” brings English pomp and circumstance to the fore in a lively processional with echoes of piccolo trumpet, while the five note-melody in the oboe and strings is based on a harpsichord sonata by Scarlatti. Raksin bases the score on numerous musical formulas and the music has a delightful “classical” feel to it, all of which is filtered through Raksin’s own contemporary sensibilities.

As always, the splendid performance by the New Philharmonia Orchestra brings out every bit of nuance in Raksin’s marvelous music. And to have the composer himself at the podium makes this collection all the more special. Raksin always had a way with words and his candid liner notes are a delight to read. His lengthy essay on film composing alone is worth the price of the CD. With the original soundtracks for all three films out of print, this CD is welcome and deserves to remain in print.

You’ll find no finer album as a primer on Raksin’s music. The album shows a wide range of Raksin’s talent and belongs in the collection of every film music fan.

  1. You have once again introduced me to an amazing album, Jim :-) Amazon should seriously pay you royalties my friend…..

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