I first encountered Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘s Oscar-winning music for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in a 3-LP box set dedicated to 50 years of Warner Bros. films. The set included such various treasures as musicals numbers from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and CAMELOT, and scenes from CASABLANCA and NOW, VOYAGER. But it was Korngold’s music that made the biggest impression on me.
ROBIN HOOD is the quintessential Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Pitch-perfect casting begins with Flynn as the lord who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, Olivia de Havilland as the lovely Maid Marian, and Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone as the heavies. Stunning Technicolor cinematography and snappy direction and editing add up to one of the grandest entertainments in film history.
A critic at the time wrote that Korngold’s score makes “the leaves of Sherwood Forest even greener…virtually bringing Robin and his Merry Men to life!” Biographer Brendan G. Carroll calls Korngold’s work “the high-water mark of motion picture scoring.”
Korngold originally rejected the commission to write the score. He wrote to producer Hal B. Wallis, “ROBIN HOOD is no picture for me. I have no relation to it and therefore cannot produce any music for it. I am a musician of the heart, of passions and psychology; I am not a musical illustrator for a 90-percent action picture. Being a conscientious person, I cannot take the responsibility for a job which, as I already know, would leave me artistically completely dissatisfied.”
And yet those action cues remain some of the finest scoring in motion picture history. Thankfully the studio mixing crew favored the music over the sound effects, allowing Korngold’s score to be heard to its best advantage.
The cue that remains my favorite was the cut I first heard on that Warner Bros. LP set—Robin Hood’s attack on Sir Guy’s (Rathbone) entourage in the forest. Beginning with the march of the Merry Men as they ready their attack, the cue is one long intake breath of anticipation as the music alternates between rousing action music and Sir Guy’s theme. Once the men swing down from the trees, Korngold single-handedly propels the action forward in a feverish musical rush.
When Korngold won the Oscar in 1936 for ANTHONY ADVERSE, the award went to Leo Forbstein, the head of the Warner Bros. music department. Thankfully because of the rule changes in 1938, when Korngold won again for ROBIN HOOD, he was finally able to receive a richly deserved Oscar.
For years, except for a cue here and there, fans had to be content with a 43-minute representation of the score on Varese Sarabande with Varujan Kojian conducting the Utah Symphony and produced by Korngold’s son, George. George had produced the legendary Charles Gerhardt Classic Film Scores series for RCA in the 1970s, but CD production was still relatively new and the Varese recording sounds thin. In 2006, William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra recorded a more generous representation of the score for Naxos. The sound was much fuller but it missed the drive of Korngold’s original.
Thankfully, when the film was released on a 2-DVD special edition in 2003 (and with the later Blu-ray and digital editions), Warner Bros. generously included an isolated score track. Not only can we hear how crucial the music was to the pacing of the film, but nothing beats Korngold’s vibrant conducting of his own music.
Korngold’s music for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD displays the best of Golden Age film music in all its Technicolor glory. One of the all-time greats!