David Raksin

Requiem for Raksin

On August 9, 2004, still reeling from the loss of Jerry Goldsmith, the film music world suffered a second blow–the passing of David Raksin. The event didn’t get nearly the coverage in the press or on the message boards that Goldsmith’s death did. Every obituary mentioned his haunting theme for LAURA, but there is more to Raksin’s career than that one famous melody.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1935 at the age of 23 to work with Charlie Chaplin on the score for MODERN TIMES. Chaplin couldn’t write music, so he hummed the tunes and left it up to Raksin to take those melodies and orchestrate them.

But it was Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944) that gave Raksin his big break. The haunting, famous theme was written a day after his wife had left him. Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to the theme after the film proved to be a hit, and the song went to the top of the Hit Parade and would go on to be recorded over 400 times, with only Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” being recorded more. But Raksin wasn’t merely a great tunesmith.

Raksin introduced a striking innovation into the film for the shimmering chords heard when Dana Andrews first stares at Laura’s portrait and falls under her spell. Raksin—as he explained in an interview with Roy Prendergast, author of Film Music: A Neglected Art—recorded a series of piano chords with the initial attacks omitted. The engineer turned on the microphones only after each chord had been struck, and continued bringing up the levels until ambient noise saturated the ringing tones. Raksin then made tape loops from the disembodied sound. “It was the interplay of the partials without the ictus,” he explained. Some years later, the Beatles used the same trick to create the massive piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

“Main Title” from LAURA

Raksin had studied with Arnold Schoenberg and, as such, much of his music may have been too “avant garde” for the Hollywood suits. But that quality gives Raksin’s music a freshness that eluded lesser composers and often caused problems on the set.

Raksin wrote one of his most famous scores for Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952). Stephen Sondheim said the main theme was “one of the best themes ever written in films.” However, when Raksin first played the theme for Minnelli and producer John Houseman, Raksin said they “looked bewildered as if to say, wow, what in God’s name is this?” Without the support of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were in the room at the time, “the piece would have been out in the rain.”

“The Spellbinder/End Title” from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL

The producers of SEPARATE TABLES (who had not wanted to hire Raksin in the first place) felt his music was “too contemporary in style.” So they substituted his main title music with an insipid title tune by Harry Warren and Harold Adamson and required Raksin to rewrite major portions of the score. But no matter how compromised, the score in the finished film is still a beauty, particularly the theme for Rita Hayworth, a melody every bit as ravishing and glamorous as Rita herself.

“Unravelled Knight” from SEPARATE TABLES

Though much of Raksin’s music still collects dust in the vaults, Film Score Monthly has done what it can to remedy that situation. Yet Raksin is still a tough sell, even among Golden Age fans.

Years ago, when FMS released the score for TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, a sort of sequel to THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, I seem to remember a plea from Lukas Kendall to give the score a try. And the release this year of the 5-CD DAVID RAKSIN AT M-G-M set was met with a thud. Even at 1,500 units, it still hasn’t sold out. Among the many riches in the 13 scores represented on this marvelous set is the “Toy Concertino” from GROUNDS FOR A MARRIAGE (1950), a relatively forgotten romantic comedy with Van Johnson and Kathryn Grayson. With its quasi-Baroque stylings, bird chirps, and nary a 12-tone row in sight, it’s an utter delight.

“Toy Concertino” from GROUNDS FOR MARRIAGE

In 1951 Raksin was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his brief involvement with the Communist Party in the late 1930s. Raksin gave the committee the names of 11 party members who were dead or had already been named by other witnesses. In 1997 he told The Los Angeles Times: “What I did was a major sin, but I think I did as well as most human beings would’ve done under torture. It wasn’t an abject capitulation. I told the committee they should leave the Communist Party alone, not try to crush it. But there I was, a guy with a family to support and a fairly decent career that was about to go down the drain.”

Whether it was his outspoken manner or his brush with HUAC in the ’50s, Raksin never attained the level of appreciation with the general public that other film score colleagues did. Though his feature film career ended in the 1970s, his influence can be felt today from the generations of aspiring film composers who passed through Raksin’s film music composition courses at the University of Southern California. Raksin lived decades beyond many of his Golden Age contemporaries, yet his remembrances—David Raksin Remembers His Colleagues—give us an insight into the composers who populated the Golden Age.

In addition to his prodigious musical gifts, Raksin was known as a raconteur. And what better way to close this post in remembrance of this remarkable composer than with one of Raksin’s peerless bon mots.  On the 1965 Biblical drama, THE REDEEMER, a film about the last three days of the life of Christ, Raksin had just watched a rough cut of the film when the projectionist said to him, “I don’t get it. Everybody on this picture is Catholic—except you, and you’re Jewish. How do you explain that?” Raksin replied, “Influence. I’m a relative of the deceased.”

  1. I can listen to that FSM Raksin set from beginning to end. It’s not films or the music themes that I like, it’s the Raksin flow. The orchestra/group becomes a whole organism passing you the atmosphere of the screen. I think Raksin will remain a film MUSIC appreciator’s composer. He was too good for the Hollywood movie business.

    1. Perhaps you’re right, Jo. Perhaps he’s just a bit too far to either side of the mainstream and will continue to remain a composer for a more select few who appreciate his music. But I’ll keep trying to convert the uninitiated. And while I do, I’ll keep appreciating his music more and more.

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