As I sit here listening to Film Score Monthly’s new LASSIE COME HOME: THE CANINE CINEMA COLLECTION, not surprisingly—or maybe surprisingly—barking interrupts the music. I say “surprisingly” because we usually don’t expect our CD releases, not even archival ones, to have sound effects on them.
I remember the furor surrounding FSM’s release of Jerry Goldsmith’s THE SATAN BUG back in 2007. Fans were incensed that they were paying for a release that contained sound effects, even though producer Lukas Kendall was upfront about the use of the music-and-effects (M&E) track to complete what was missing from the score. The same situation happened with the LASSIE scores.
Originally the 5-CD set was only going to be a 3-CD release, which would have included LASSIE COME HOME (which has minimal sound effects) and the other scores that contain no sound effects. Since I had been hired to write the essay booklet that would accompany the set, I needed to watch all seven LASSIE films, as well as IT’S A DOG’S LIFE, which features an Elmer Bernstein score that rounds out the collection.
The turning point for me came while watching THE SUN COMES UP, a truly uninspired film in the series starring Jeanette MacDonald in her final role and written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (THE YEARLING). What was inspired was the stellar score by 18-year-old André Previn, who was receiving his first screen credit. The quality of the music was so impressive (I’m a Previn fan anyway) that I pressured Lukas to go back and see if he could find the score. Lukas has been instrumental in releasing much of Previn’s work over the years, and as this was Previn’s first score, I thought it was important for FSM to find this lost gem and continue that tradition. Unfortunately, the masters are completely lost and the score exists only as an M&E track. But this find soon turned up M&E tracks for nearly all the remaining films.
M&E tracks present a challenge for today’s listeners. I’m sure audio purists cringe at the thought of listening to barking and sound effects on top of the other hisses, clicks, pops and groove wear that comes from scores of this age. But I personally don’t have a problem tuning out even the most egregious wear and tear in music. Maybe it’s because growing up in the age of the LP, it was next to impossible to get away from needle noise and other surface anomalies, especially when you treated your albums as roughly as I did mine. Also, since I spent a good portion of my time sticking a tape recorder up against the TV speaker to record film music, I learned to ignore the layers of dialogue and other noise.
Plus, on the whole, my hearing is spotty at best. I usually can’t hear compression and other audio maladies that bug other film music fans, like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and the La-La Land rerelease of BATMAN. And trust me, I have a copy of the original tracks to THE HEIRESS (housed at the University of Texas) and some old recordings from the now-defunct Max Steiner Society that are particularly difficult to listen to. But this ineffectual set of appendages sticking out from my skull, which may be overly accepting of some contemporary film score mastering processes, can somehow dig deep beneath the layers of age and audio decay in archival scores to find the musical treasures beneath.
I won’t be officially reviewing the LASSIE set because of a conflict of interest. I doubt my nagging of Lukas had anything to do with completing the set, but if it did, then I’m doubly proud of it. For me, everything comes down to the music—saving it, archiving it. If it means that I have to listen to dogs bark and birds chirp, then so be it. Otherwise, the music sits in a vault, disintegrating into nothingness and our film music history suffers irreplaceable losses.