Elisabeth Lutyens: Horror Queen of Film Composers

LutyensFemale film composers are a rarity but there are some wonderful examples of talented women working behind the scenes who managed to flourish under the tight deadlines imposed by film studios while creating memorable music for the movies.

One of my favorite female composers is the late Elisabeth Lutyens who was born on July 9th in 1906. On the occasion of what would have been her 109th birthday if she had managed to live that long, I thought I’d celebrate her career in British horror films where Lutyens earned her “Horror Queen” moniker by composing some of the genre’s most innovative, accomplished and unsettling soundtracks.

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Summer Time, and the Movie Is Silly

“Forgive me for being profound, but it’s good to be alive,” mumbles Troy Donahue to his date, Suzanne Pleshette, as Italian singer Emilio Pericoli warbles the reverberating “Al-Di-La,” in Rome Adventure (1962-Delmer Daves).  Well, forgive me for being a goof, but this girl’s fancy, (and questionable taste) finds such fare pretty irresistible as the days are getting longer and Spring melts into Summer. Besides, this movie, filmed in Roma, Firenze, and Lago Maggiore is a cheap, vicarious way of visiting Italy without having to stand in line at the airport or mispronouncing this beautiful language myself.  The fact that it also features two actresses I’ve always loved–Suzanne Pleshette and Constance Ford–was icing on this Italian ciambella.

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Variations on a Theme

All month long TCM has been celebrating the 100th birthday of Akira Kurosawa and playing many of the director’s best films. On Sunday TCM will also be showing one of my favorite westerns, John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) which happens to be based on Kurosawa’s classic THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). If you haven’t had the opportunity to see THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN it’s a great time to catch up with this entertaining movie.

One of my favorite things about John Sturges’ film is its incredible theme composed by the legendary Elmer Bernstein. Elmer Bernstein is responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest film scores but his theme for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is one of the most recognizable pieces of music he ever recorded.

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Love Among the New Bohemians

If literary legend Jack Kerouac were still alive he would be celebrating his 88th birthday tomorrow. Unfortunately Kerouac left us much too early at age 47 but his work lives on. Often called the father of the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac’s jazz-fueled spontaneous writing style doesn’t easily lend itself to film adaptations. The most grievous example of this is the 1960 film adaptation of Kerouac’s short novel THE SUBTERRANEANS directed by Ranald MacDougall and produced by Arthur Freed for MGM. THE SUBTERRANEANS was the first full-length film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel and it’s not an easy movie to recommend. The film is badly cast and plays like a poorly misconstrued parody of the Beat Generation. It also takes extreme liberties with Kerouac’s original story. So why am writing about it? As a novice jazz enthusiast the movie appeals to the music lover in me and as someone who was born in the Bay Area, I find the San Francisco setting extremely enchanting.

THE SUBTERRANEANS
was originally a semi-autobiographical story written by Kerouac in just three days and published by Grove Press in 1958. It details the brief interracial romance between Leo Percepied (filling-in for Jack Kerouac) and a young African American woman named Mardou Fox. Some of the highlights of the book include Kerouac’s description of the clubs that he was frequenting at the time and an encounter with jazz legend Charlie Parker.

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The Silent Robin: A Tonic for the Soul

I suppose to the eyes of the world, we were a motley looking crew as the capacity crowd flowed eagerly into George Eastman House‘s Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York last month. Unlike the first Hollywood premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1923) at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922, there were no limos, no gowns, no red carpets, no klieg lights searching the sky, and certainly no hint of a “Day of the Locust” style mob scene. However, there were about five hundred not very glam but expectantly eager people gathered on an October evening for the “World Premiere” of this restored version of the tale in the 21st century starring Douglas Fairbanks in one of his classic roles.

So, who were these people who came out to see this 87 year old film version of the English bandit’s adventures?  Among the crowd at this movie were a few who might have been just old enough to have seen a later Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. film in a movie theater, a generous sprinkling of younger cinephiles, middle aged academics, and a delightful gaggle of children of about nine years of age in the audience that Saturday.  Once thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, this film’s “premiere” was a highlight of the seventh biennial conference of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies at the University of Rochester, where the historical and literary permutations of the appealing errant figure of lore were analyzed and, frankly, reveled in by the participants. Accredited scholars and hard core Robin buffs from around the world spent three days discussing the evergreen legend of this “Robin Hood: Media Creature”, trying to discern if the 700 year old hero of Sherwood Forest even existed, while enjoying an extravaganza of multi-media exhibits (including Douglas Fairbanks boots, seen below), early manuscripts, songs, and presentations discussing all aspects of the tale.

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Spend September With Bernard Herrmann

Hermann

Every Tuesday night in September, starting tonight, TCM will be screening a diverse selection of films (23 in all) scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (the dandy image above was created by the Bernard Herrmann Society). As an appetizer, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Herrmann scores, from radio, TV, and film. It’s easy to forget, but Herrmann was a master of radio orchestration before he created those distinctive tonalities for the screen. He had an innate sense of how to adapt his musical ideas to different formats, sounding more descriptive on the radio, and increasingly atmospheric and emotional on the screen. His work wasn’t merely music added to images – he composed out of these images, creating an organic whole that lifted the films he worked on into another level of artistry. How can one think of The Mercury Theater, Citizen Kane, or Hitchock without him?

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Hoagy: Who’s That Cool Guy?

Hoagy CarmichaelHe seems to be just a regular guy, that Hoagy Carmichael. There he is on screen, hunched over the piano, hat tipped back, in his shirtsleeves, wearing a matching series of monikers from the down home to the outlandish, playing characters called Cricket, Celestial, Hi, Butch, Willie, Smoke or Happy. I’m not sure when I first became aware of his calm, bemused presence and air of tolerance in movies, but he always struck me as the kind of guy you’d wish were your worldly uncle; the slightly disreputable family member who understands all, with that undeniable gift for music.

Yet, unlike the troubled heroes or villains that might populate the center of the screen in the movies he appeared in, he seems to lack their tension or ambition. There’s little or no romantic involvement or intrigue for him in these movies. He’s invariably the good guy or gal’s best buddy, even if that person doesn’t always have the good sense to know that immutable fact. Hoagy on screen appears to be the most relaxed man in movies from the thirties to the fifties, despite the fact that he was never hired as an on screen performer in the mid-thirties. When he landed in Hollywood as a songwriter, the place was, as Hoagy said, “where the rainbow hit the ground.” While his contemporary Oscar Levant brought an edgy wit to more musically highbrow movies, Hoagy Carmichael added a laid back sagacity and watchfulness while weaving a few bars of his own inimitable, slightly off-kilter classic standards into a movie. [...MORE]

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