Are you a film score lover? Then the best thing you can do next to getting one copy of Intrada’s 4 CD set of The Franz Waxman Collection… is getting two. One for you, one as a gift. It’s that good? Even Better.
In the Post 60’s generation, Franz Waxman, who died in 1967, seems lesser known than a figure like, for example, Bernard Herrmann. One of the founding fathers of film scores, the German born composer (his birth place is named nowadays Chorzow, Poland) flew to Hollywood partly because of the Nazi morons spreading over Europe and also because he was noticed for his work on Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1934). Waxman’s score to Lang’s French film is said to have convinced James Whale to hire him to score The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is considered one of the first major full scale orchestral soundtrack masterpieces in film history.
When compared to his contemporaries, Korngold, Newman, Tiomkin, Steiner (dubbed the fathers of film music), the overall Waxman sound can take a little more time to fully catch up with. Whereas these great composers are often saluted for their efficiency (even if it goes beyond that), Herrmann with his Hitchcock collaborations for instance, Waxman’s romantic input, as it is the case when he himself worked with the master of suspense, makes it less obvious. But its detailed richness, even when it was intended for B-movies, always made it ultimately extremely rewarding. Listen closely…
To come up with their new treasure, the archeologists at Intrada spent years on research, development, licensing and production to present the original soundtrack versions, conducted by the composer, mastered from original studio vault elements. This includes 78rpm acetate reference discs from the 30’s and 40’s. Beside the extreme quality of the featured scores, the whole work, including various notes by Frank K. DeWald, delivered in a 40-page booklet with precious insights, is also a nod to the tremendous work of the MGM orchestra (1936-1942). There is a printed introduction of the musicians roster, thanks to the cooperation of the American Federation of Musicians. RKO and Warner musicians are also part of this CD epic venture. It’s almost a Holy book!
The musical journey starts with the score to Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Kipling’s Captain Courageous (1937), Spencer Tracy’s first meeting with Oscar. The fanfare of the MGM opening logo (originally composed by Waxman) is first heard without the famous overlapping roar of his majesty Jackie (Leo the lion appeared much later, in 1956). What follows offers an instant insight of what Waxman’s amazing body of work is about. The first notes of the Main Title are carefully crafted into a prompt opening introducing the epic proportion of the story to follow. A sudden change of pace establishes the balance between action and intimacy, shifting in a way that simply sounds effortless. This kind of variables, where he goes from symphonic bravura to short citations of existing material and into more romantic flavor and characterization details, while being totally coherent, tells a great deal about Waxman’s majestic signature.
All recorded material for Captain Courageous is introduced with the addition of outtakes.
The second soundtrack on the set was written for another Fleming/Tracy partnership, the 1941 remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. After a short opening sounding almost like a forerunner of the 1950’s and 60’s biblical epics to come, he goes from this point into subtle characterizations, using thematic material, from other composers as well as his own. The business as usual, effortless changes in pace and mood, are still very prominently supported by a few haunting clarinet themes. A well textured and complex score.
Next is the complete soundtrack (minus one cue) to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1939 production of Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, directed by Richard Thorpe. In following the two previous scores, it helps illustrate the large scope of the composer’s writings. A fusion of folk elements are comprised in the opening music, including a banjo. At first, it comes as a light proposal and bears some similitude to Carl Stalling’s (Bugs Bunny) characterization accompaniments. Then, this slightly satirical tone turns more dramatic in the ensuing build up (for instance the pizzicato on the Huck is Leaving cue) to even more grave in the later part, echoing Waxman’s great flair to create deceptively simple-sounding tracks, but elementally intricate narratives.
Franz Waxman was allowed ten days to write the entire score of the 1938 adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Score #2 of CD 2). Once again he is taking over the narrative. And it is remarkable. Past the Main Title, with our inevitable Christmas classic, we are introduced right into the second cue (Thread Needle Street/Fred and Bob) to thematic material which could be considered as a musical portrait of good old community in peaceful American life, Hollywood style, where we can almost smell the apple pie, and the burning pieces of wood from the smoke of the fireplace. Even more captivating is the feeling that this soundtrack, like the composer’s own Bride of Frankenstein, indicates the shape of things to come in the world of film scoring. Something highly influential.
While Waxman cites, with A Christmas Carol, other famous composers, notably Bizet (the Christmas Morning cue) and Wagner (the Graveyard cue), we can hear, from his personal imprint, the future input of such composers as Georges Delerue (in the films of François Truffaut) and Bernard Herrmann on All That Money Can Buy (1941) and The Trouble with Harry (1955). There is also something of the late Jerry Goldsmith in it. Not specifically regarding the overall sound, but in spirit. Something to do with both their skillful ways of altering the course of action. Cradled at times with waltz quality, the music, in the ‘ghost’ parts, becomes bone chilling (isn’t that some Ondes Martenot that can be heard in the background?). The mixture of light elements, romance and drama coupled with the more unsettling parts work perfectly. Pure magic.
Half the score (part of the masters went missing) of the jazzy-romantic music for George Stevens’ lighthearted Tracy/Hepburn match up, Woman of the Year (1942), closes CD 2. Mr Waxman beautifully underscores what is a joyful romantic comedy. There is a modern flavor as in 1936’s Love on the Run (second score on CD3), the Gable-Crawford vehicle for which there was need for only about 15 minutes of underscore. Both were highly contemporary for their time, and another indication of Waxman’s versatility.
Elegant would best describe in a single word Franz Waxman’s refined music for Jean Negulesco’s minor World War II comedy-melodrama that is Count Your Blessings (1958), starting CD 3. Never mind the film, the score sounds absolutely gorgeous. In turn romantic, with brief assertion of the surrounding dramas of the (war) time and place (even quoting Beethoven’s 5th), it reaches considerable emotional depth as a whole with some very eloquent, graceful brass and strings, going from full orchestra to various solos. This is simply an amazing, lavish score in the classical sense.
Toward the end of the set we reach what could be seen as the thriller/suspense section. Genres for which Franz Waxman made a name for himself in the studio system.
First, Fritz Lang’s Fury (the last score on CD 3), the first American film by the director, made in 1936. Only a portion of the score still lives, so the six minutes presented here are mainly underscore following the action of this vengeance movie-turned courtroom drama in its second part. This is also basically a similar case for Todd Browning’s 1936 production of The Devil-Doll (Second score of CD 4) an atmospheric, eerie affair in which we find the composer in his underscore mode, setting the mood. The good news is the maestro was also very efficient when asked for simple underscoring.
In 1941, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (the first score on CD 4) was the second of four Hitch-Waxman collaborations, following Rebecca (1940). The portion of the original recordings that made it to the 21st Century gives us 20 minutes or so. As already mentioned, the primary romantic approach by the composer, though at times punctuated with suspenseful fragments, certainly doesn’t get to you as easily as the future Hitchcock/Herrmann period (without implying Mr. Herrmann’s music was devoid of romantic lyricism), but as the liner notes point out, the perspective in this case is about understatement. This doesn’t keep the music from being eloquent and lyrical on its own terms.
To close this wonderful CD set, the jazz oriented King of the Roaring 20’s (1961) is there to remember how comfortable Waxman was with any genre. With King he embraces sounds we often relate to relative newcomers of the 1950’s, Alex North (who was not much younger than Waxman) and Elmer Bernstein for instance. But Franzie could easily put his foot in there (Remember his killer Oscar winning score for Sunset Boulevard?). Rich, modern (again from the standards of the time), it offers some strong solos (violin, trombone, saxophone, etc) supported by enthusiastic brass sections, especially in its later part. Cues like Doublecross, Down and Out and The Last Walk could fit any James Bond movie. Dr. No came out the following year…
As a comprehensive guide on what the strength and charm of great film scoring is about, Intrada’s The Franz Waxman Collection is a must-have. It covers so much ground, it feels like stumbling on a carved piece of wood on which the scripture reads: Franz was (already) here!
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