Separate Tables

Separate Tables

A major player back in its day, but largely forgotten today, SEPARATE TABLES tells the stories of the long-term residents at an English seaside hotel during the off-season. The cast of characters includes a retired British military official (David Niven) harboring a dirty secret, a mousy woman (Deborah Kerr) who is secretly in love with him, her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper), a former model (Rita Hayworth) trying to win back her alcoholic ex-husband (Burt Lancaster), and the hotel manager (Wendy Hiller) who is engaged to him.

On Broadway, Terence Rattigan’s play was divided into two different stories, “Table by the Window” and “Table Number Seven”, with Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton (in a Tony Award-winning performance) playing the dual roles portrayed by Lancaster/Niven and Hayworth/Kerr in the film. The two acts of the play were combined for the picture so that all of the lives intertwine.

The film boasts wonderful acting and memorable characters. If the dirty secret that is at the core of the film isn’t as shocking today as it was in 1958, that doesn’t make the pain felt by these characters any less real.

Against the advice of producers Harold Hecht, James Hill, Burt Lancaster, and director Delbert Mann, David Raksin was hired to compose the score. In Raksin’s words, the producers considered his original score “too contemporary in style,” and they required him to rewrite major portions of the music. Pouring salt on the wounds, Harry Warren was brought on to write an insipid title song to go with the credits instead of using Raksin’s original music.

A full-blown analysis would be necessary to delve properly into the differences between the original and the final product. But no matter how compromised, the score that made it into the finished film is still a beauty.

A forlorn, “rather wistful,” theme on the oboe d’amour conveys the stunted emotions of Sibyl (Kerr). For Major Pollock, Raksin provides a bassoon chanty based on an old Scottish tune, “Wha Wadna Fecht fer Charlie” (Who Wouldn’t Fight for Charlie). “Niven was so wonderful in that role,” said Raksin, “it broke my heart. And there was something so vulnerable about the character who had to pretend to be a high-ranking officer, having fought battles and all that, and who could only approach sex in the dark, that I felt it needed something that would combine these elements.”

The lushest theme in the score also sparked the most controversy. First heard as we see Mrs. Shankland (Hayworth) arrive through the hotel window, the strings soar and Miss Meacham (May Hallett) states she doesn’t look “a day over 30”. Well, maybe not quite that young, but Raksin’s theme is certainly every bit as glamorous as Rita herself.

Separate Tables poster
“Verklerhte Nacht”
“Unravelled Knight”

During the memorable terrace scene with Rita and Burt, Raksin began the scene with a free fugato using the theme “to assure that the purposes of the film rather than the constrictions of the musical form took precedence.” However, the revised scene “has almost none of the involuted counterpoint of the original version; and with that we lost the undercurrent of bitterness and passion that made the first version right for the scene, and the absence of which fatally reduced the contribution of the score. What remains in that sequence might just as well have been composed for one of those redundant, sexually motivated torn-shirt scenes in just about anything.” Whatever Raksin’s viewpoint, the scene is enriched by his beautiful contribution.

Even though the score may not have turned out as he had hoped, Raksin considered SEPARATE TABLES one of his best scores–and he was right. Tony Thomas said that in writing for the score, “Raksin was possibly writing music he would not have been ashamed to show his celebrated mentor, Arnold Schoenberg.” Here’s hoping Raksin’s Oscar-nominated score, which has never been released, doesn’t remain separated from us forever.

One of my favorite films, though it’s tough to get an idea of just how good this film is from its odd theatrical trailer. A winner all the way.

  1. I’m amazed this score hasn’t been released on CD, because it is so wonderful, and it did make an appearance on vinyl. I had a double LP set that contained most of Raksin’s cues for this movie. It was called WONDERFUL INVENTIONS, and it was included as a supplement to a large, LP-sized hardcover book about the development of sound recording. A major portion of the book contained Raksin’s detailed score sheets and notes on the compositions; the LPs were essentially a monaural recording of the soundtrack. Sadly, I sold the book and LPs to a collector in Europe, but did burn the music from the LPs on a CD before I did.
    My favorite Raksin score is the work he did for Vincente Minnelli’s underrated, mid-century melodrama, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, a film more intense and gratifying than it’s predecessor, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
    I once read an article saying that Raksin’s theme for LAURA was cited by many prominent composers as a piece of film music so envied that most wished it was their own.

    1. A) Jealous that you ever had that book, Gary. B) So sad you still don’t have it. C) Back to jealous again that you have that music.

      I don’t think I’ve ever gotten all the way through TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, but both scores are great.

  2. FSM can do this. Raksin’s original vision for the score first, re-written film versions of cues in the bonus tracks section (an appropriate placement, given that Raksin didn’t want to re-write anything), and bugger the song. Thanks in advance! :D

    1. Yeah, let me get right on that because I have so much influence when it comes to those decisions. LOL But FSM is the only label to do justice to the score when/if it ever comes out. I’m hoping that it’ll happen one of these days. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

      1. I’ve always enjoyed this movie. The characters are such richly drawn wrecks it could have spawned a new genre: The Character Disaster Film. But I never knew David Raksin had to endure the tribulations you’ve described, Jim. And it never occurred to me to question having someone else write a theme song when you’ve got the composer of LAURA doing the score – that kind of thing happened so often, I guess I assumed it had to do with time constraints or something. Altogether this sounds like the case of a rejected score that was used in the film.

        Stories like this impress me with how lucky it is we ever got to hear so much of the fine work some composers produced. A long time ago when I was still a student I almost had the opportunity to meet Jerome Moross at a social event at his home. I was eager to ask him if his experience with William Wyler had been anything like those of Hugo Friedhofer and Aaron Copeland. Alas it didn’t work out and I was told afterward that I was fortunate because the intense verbal altercations that broke out among some of the artistes in attendance had embarrassed Moross and made the whole thing very unpleasant. Like I’d have cared. Oh well…

        Why is it so many filmmakers, especially directors who must have some appreciation for the musicality of actors’ voices, can be so dense when it comes to scoring? The best answer I have from my own experience – aside from how complicated personal tastes can be in general – is that primarily visual people just aren’t wired to appreciate music as much as they do say the color palette and composition of a shot.

  3. Aside from his well know theme to LAURA I’m not very familiar with Raksin’s work. But listening to this excerpt in some ways reminded me of the only music of his I did have an album to, his score for Charlton Heston’s WILL PENNY.

    At the time I was a Heston fan and liked the film and as was often the case in those pre VHS/DVD days, purchased the album as a way of re-experiencing it.

    I remember having very mixed feelings about it. Parts were quite tender and even beautiful yet Raksin’s contemporary voice and harmonies often felt out of place in that end of an era Western and didn’t always sit well with me. But he obviously had a unique voice. I’d like to hear more of it and it’s great that you’re doing what you can to make that happen Jim.

    1. I don’t know WILL PENNY, the score or the film. I do what little I can to add to the talk about Raksin. Hopefully we’ll see more of his music released in the future.

  4. Jim, I realize my comment is appearing five years after your critique, but it’s never too late to stumble upon revelatory writing. Well-done. I found your site after viewing Separate Tables — now permanently on my DVR list — for the fifth time this year alone. Thanks to the TCM channel, I realize that I was born at least three decades too late; I was born seven years after Separate Tables was released. However, on to the point of my commentary here …

    Since my first viewing of Separate Tables several years ago, when I was experiencing the melancholy that single fortysomethings sometimes face, I often mused that the title song of the film Separate Tables ill-suited by genre — while the lyrics are apropos, the music reminds me of a less-character-driven 1950s or early-1960s melodrama such as Rome Adventure (1962) or any other film of that era starring then-heartthrob Troy Donahue.

    The elements of the Separate Tables score, especially the theme that flows into our ears whenever Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale enters a room, evoke for this music aficionada and cinephile everything lush and bittersweet about the score to 1967’s Hotel. My eyes well up just recalling the variations on “This Year” in Hotel — first heard through the virtuosic pipes and cynical phrases of jazz chanteuse Carmen McRae and later through trickling piano and torchy sax when characters portrayed by Rod Taylor and Catherine Spaak wind up in the same space and dare to glance at one another.

    1. Hi Chantel. Thanks for commenting. SEPARATE TABLES is a great score. I keep hoping that one of the boutique labels will release it. Raksin isn’t a big seller so the odds are slim (even if the tracks still exist). But I keep hoping.

  5. I have seen Separate Tables movie long back but also borrowed its DVD from the local library and thoroughly enjoyed it again including its controversial theme song. I wanted to have the wording of this song, and guess what, while searching it, I got the above interesting write-up plus equally informative comments from various experts.

    I will appreciate if someone could guide me or provide me the write-up of this controversial yet wonderful theme song of this outstanding good-old movie “Separate Tables”. Thanking for that in advance!

  6. I studied composition for film under Mr. Raksin at USC in the 60’s and loved the man, his immense talent and his friendship for the two years in his class. He helped me and got me in to ASCAP at that time. If memory serves me, he had 16 studio musicians record a documentary score I did for a very, very, very lost film: “The Legend of Soup Spoon”. Mr. Raksin’s intense, so personal scores get at the very heart of subject matter that he musically describes. I can’t relate my feelings in words about this great man, even after so many years.

    I believe that his masterpiece is the remarkable score for “Forever Amber” recorded by the 20th Century Fox Studio Orchestra under the direction of it’s leader: Alfred Newman. The four movement suite, in stereo, is put together in such a way as to make the listening experience just thrilling. (I don’t know if the CD is currently available).

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