George Duning, A Great Film Composer

Novak and Holden dance to Duning's music in PicnicAfter catching, in the space of a week, film composer George Duning’s work in my favorite Kirk Douglas/Kim Novak extramarital affair movie Strangers When We Meet, and then his later work in one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, I remembered how much I loved his music.  Incredibly prolific — hundred and hundreds of movie and television credits as music arranger and composer, often uncredited — and hardworking, George Duning created some of the movies’ most beautiful and memorable scores, yet never won an Academy Award.

Duning was born in Indiana in 1908, and studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but after graduation threw off the shackles of classical music to join swing bandleader Kay Kyser’s very successful orchestra as a Composer George Duning, 1908 - 2000trumpet and piano player.  Working with Kyser, who in addition to his popular radio show also made a series of movies, gave Duning the chance to work on Kyser’s Hollywood films as music arranger and composer, giving him an entrée into the business.  After a stint in the Navy during WWII, during which time he worked in Armed Forces Radio as a conductor/arranger, the talented Duning was snapped up by Columbia Studio’s musical guru Morris Stoloff as one of his protégées.

From 1944 onward Duning virtually belonged to Columbia, working in various capacities from orchestrator to arranger to credited composer to having his short musical themes used countless times in the background of B-movies (along with the work of other composers).  His first solo credit seems to be for 1947’s crime drama Johnny O’ Clock, and he worked non-stop after that, working in every genre, moving easily from domestic dramas like The Duning and Stoloff work on Jolson Sings AgainGuilt of Janet Ames also in 1947, to flip noir like 1948’s I Love Trouble, to a solid western like The Man from Colorado, to swashbuckler-y The Gallant Blade, with lots of tough little Bs with punchy titles like The Dark Past, Shockproof, Johnny Allegro and The Undercover Man to keep him busy.  Duning’s first recognition by the Oscars was a nomination with Morris Stoloff for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture for their work on 1949’s Jolson Sings Again, which they lost to On the Town.George Duning got an Oscar nom for No Sad Songs for Me

In 1950 George Duning was nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for his work on No Sad Songs for Me, a melodrama starring the talented but troubled actress Margaret Sullavan.  The Oscar that year was won by Franz Waxman for his score to Sunset Blvd., and Duning went back to his prodigious output, laboring both on solo efforts where he received credit and contributing anonymously to other films, in addition to being part of the pastiche of musical themes cobbled together as scores to Columbia’s various lesser titles, those not-quite-even-Bs, and serials.  Definitely take a look at his official credits on IMDB to get an idea of where you could have run across his music — it’s almost unbelievable. 

In 1953, after tackling Rita Hayworth as Biblical hot stuff Salome in the movie of the same name and a few other lesser titles, got a plum assignment working alongside mentor Morris Stoloff on the score of director Fred Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster smooch to George Duning's musicZinneman’s adaptation of James Jones’ daring wartime drama From Here to Eternity.  They received an Oscar nomination for their score, but lost to MGM’s Lili (!).  Thanks in part to Duning’s lush scoring, the sea foamy clinch between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on that Hawaiian beach was just a little more erotic, a little more romantic, than it might have been under the influence of a different composer, and it’s impossible to envision that scene without its accompanying musical theme.  Then it was back to work, work, work, with movie after movie — Miss Sadie Thompson, 5 Against the House, The Man from Laramie, My Sister Eileen, Queen Bee, and more — coming out for the next couple of years. 

1955 was a very good year for George Duning.  He was called upon to compose the score for director Josh Logan’s screen adaptation of William William Holden and Kim Novak star in PicnicInge’s hit play Picnic, an erotically-charged slice of Midwestern life starring the ravishing Kim Novak and the almost-too-old (but he pulls it off) William Holden as the two lovers.  In addition to brilliant and evocative underscoring, Duning contributed to one of the most memorable — next to that Kerr/Lancaster beach kiss — and sensuous scenes in 1950s cinema:  the dance on the lantern-lit dock between Kim Novak as Millie and William Holden as Hal, as they move together to the old standard “Moonglow” (by De Lange, Mills and Hudson) intermixed with the luscious theme from Picnic (composed by Duning).  Hubba hubba!  You know how they always used to say that you could tell how great somebody’s going Holden and Novak sloooowww dance in Picnic to Duning's musicto be in bed by the way they dance?  Well, let’s just say that Millie and Hal certainly passed that test with flying colors.  It doesn’t get much more intense than that little dockside interlude; be sure to take a look at the scene right here now.  It’s also very effective just listening to the music on its own, which you can find here (click on the Morris Stoloff link); the blending of the two tunes is pure magic.  (I’m shocked to report that though nominated, Duning did not win the Oscar that year, but lost to Alfred Newman’s Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, chiefly, I’m sure, because of that title song, which also won an Oscar.  Duning not winning for Picnic was a total robbery.)

The next year Duning and Stoloff were nominated again for their scoring of The Eddy Duchin Story, but it was won by The King and I.  George Duning International Poster for The Eddy Duchin Story starring Novak and Tyrone Powercontinued to turn out great score after great score, including the Judy Holliday comedy/drama Full of Life, the tough Glenn Ford Western 3:10 to Yuma, Kim Novak’s foray as silent screen star Jeanne Eagels, the Ernie Kovac comedy Operation Mad Ball, a Danny Kaye comedy/drama Me and the Colonel, a brief sidetrip to Paramount for the Cary Grant/Sophia Loren comedy Houseboat, then back to Bell, Book and Candle Score by George DuningColumbia for one of his most popular scores, for the Kim Novak/James Stewart/Jack Lemmon supernatural comedy Bell, Book and Candle in 1958.  This one allowed Duning to shine, with eccentric jazzy melodies which perfectly captured the kooky spooky vibe of the material. 

Duning continued his seemingly unending string of terrific scores in the early 1960s, including the aforementioned Strangers When We Meet, supplying suitably romantic and clearly sexy music for Kirk and Kim to do their thang to, and the list goes on Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak in Strangers When We Meetand on (and not always for Columbia):  The World of Suzie Wong, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, Two Rode Together, The Devil at 4 O’Clock, The Notorious George Duning scored The World of Suzie WongLandlady, That Touch of Mink, Critic’s Choice, Toys in the Attic, Ensign Pulver, Any Wednesday and more.  He also began to work more in television, composing the title theme to The Big Valley, working several times on Star Trek, including scores for some of the most romantic episodes of the original series, including episodes like “Metamorphosis” and “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “The Empath”.  He also did the very memorable (if you’re a Trek fan) Nazi theme for “Patterns of Duning's Trek episode Is There in Truth No Beauty?Force” (guest-starring the great Skip Homeier), and composed the title theme song for the short-lived but iconic 1969 Michael Parks-on-a-motorcycle series Then Came Bronson.

Many more assignments followed, along with heavy involvement in the Hollywood music community as an officer of ASCAP and on the 10 to YumaBoard of AMPAS.  Several of his wonderful scores have been reissued by film music preservation organizations, and it’s safe to say that once you’ve tuned into to George Duning’s unique and never-less-than-perfect musical style, you’ll enjoy looking out for his movies and hearing his scores. 

George Duning passed away eight years ago, in February of 2000, at the age of ninety-two.

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