Though you may not know Roy Webb’s name, his influence is felt even today as a signer (along with his brother Kenneth) of the original charter that formed The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (better known as ASCAP) and as the author of the official football fight song for Columbia University (his alma mater). But it was his position as the head of RKO Studios music department from 1936 until the studio’s demise in 1955 for which film score fans give thanks.
Though he became best known for brooding psychological dramas and Val Lewton thrillers, I am partial to his charming, classically tinged score for J.M. Barrie’s drawing-room comedy of errors, QUALITY STREET (1937). The film stars Katharine Hepburn as an old maid in 1805 England, who impersonates a fictional cousin to get even with the man (Franchot Tone) who left her ten years earlier to war and has now returned with pity in his eyes for the beautiful woman she once was. The story is charming and quaint and the two leads pull it off beautifully with solid support from Fay Bainter as Hepburn’s sister.
The main titles set the mood perfectly. Coming out of the Morse code of the RKO logo is a tinkling celeste that is taken over by a gavotte before the love theme is stated. Scored mainly for strings, woodwinds and harpsichord, the classically-tinged music conveys the upper-crust, gossipy residents of Quality Street where, as the title card says, “a gentleman passerby is an event.”
Unfortunately for fans of this underrated composer, when Webb’s home burned to the ground in 1961, all of his written and recorded film scores and unpublished concert music were lost, leaving us with very little recourse to study his scores outside of the films.