In 1953, Oscar decided to make up for the embarrassment of 1952’s Best Picture THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (though a guilty pleasure) by awarding its top prize to the stellar FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. The film was only the second film since GONE WITH THE WIND to receive 13 nominations, yet fell just short the record set in 1950 by ALL ABOUT EVE with 14. So there was no doubt which film was going to emerge triumphant at the awards.
Fred Zinnemann (himself an Oscar winner) directs the taut story based on James Jones’s bestseller about life in an Army infantry unit in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor. And the cast couldn’t be better–Montgomery Clift as Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, Burt Lancaster as a sergeant who is romancing the captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr), and Oscar winners Frank Sinatra as Prew’s best friend and Donna Reed as a hostess at a local social club who falls in love with Prew.
Head of the Columbia Music Department Morris Stoloff musical directs with his usual sensitivity as well as contributing top-notch big-band source music for the social club and the local Army bar. There is plenty of steel guitar and ukelele to give the proper Hawaiian feel as well as the inclusion of several Hawaiian dance pieces. But it is George Duning’s background music that underscores the emotional lives of the characters. In the hands of a lesser composer, the score could have been overly sentimental, but Duning never succumbs to that level.
The orchestral underscore is used sparingly. Duning’s biggest moments occur during the scenes between Lancaster and Kerr, especially during their famous, once-scandalous, and now much-parodied love scene on the beach with its lush, yearning theme in the violins. The theme for Prew and Loreen (Reed) is the melody for a title song (later recorded by Sinatra) written by Fred Karger and Robert Wells that was never actually used in the film. Another song by Karger and Wells (with additional lyrics by Jones), “Re-Enlistment Blues,” serves as the theme for the soldiers. It is first heard instrumentally during the opening credits accompanied by snare drum and later sung by members of the outfit.
Snippets from the score have appeared here and there over the years and there was a 10″ LP of the Hawaiian music released. The 7-minute suite above comes from an LP that sounds like it was taken from scratchy acetates.
With very little overt dramatic underscoring in the film, Duning’s nomination (shared with Stoloff) is all that much more impressive when more obvious choices like Victor Young’s SHANE and Alfred Newman’s THE ROBE were on the shortlist. Yet no matter the power behind the movie, the score couldn’t compete with the lilting loveliness of Bronislau Kaper’s LILI. Still, it’s a fine nomination for an underrated composer and Duning adds just the right amount of emotion to the film. Here’s hoping we see a proper release of the score someday. More Duning is always welcome.