Tag Archives: The Wizard of Oz

John Wilson on Bernard Herrmann

The zombies of Brad Pitt’s new movie may have left Glasgow but there are going to be some traumatised souls wandering around the city centre again next Saturday. Why? Because – as part of a weekend centenary celebration of the music of film composer Bernard Herrmann – the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho is being screened at the City Halls, with its iconic, nerve-jangling music being performed live by the BBC SSO.

The tension in the audience is likely to be tangible according to conductor John Wilson, whose last visit to Glasgow was with his own orchestra and their joyous concert of songs from MGM musicals. Raising his arm as if about to impersonate the knife-wielding psycho of the film, he explains: “I’ve done this before and during the build-up to the shower scene, the tension was absolutely palpable. I could hear people whimpering behind me when I was poised to give the downbeat to this shrieking, stabbing violin quote.”

Even seasoned viewers of the film are likely to feel renewed tension from the live performance of the score. And there’s certainly plenty of stress involved for Wilson whose job it will be to synchronise the orchestra’s playing with the action on the screen. He’ll be relying on an analogue clock to keep him right. “I prefer to do it that way,” he explains. “You have a timecode on the score and you have a clock which is synchronised to the film.” Which is exactly how Herrmann probably recorded the original score with his studio orchestra? “Yes, but they had lots of attemps at it till they got it spot-on. We’ve got one!”

Won’t he be a nervous wreck, especially given how unsettling and edgy the music is? “It is stressful,” he admits, “but it won’t be anything like as bad as when I did The Wizard of Oz – and I had Munchkins to deal with! There was no margin of error there because I had singing as well as dialogue to synchronise with, and only an eighth of a second to play with. It takes that time for the eyes and ears to notice that if the music and the image are not in synch. Psycho is more straightforward – and the music is less technical, though very effective.”

Indeed, there are few Hollywood composers whose work is as effective or as integral to a film’s artistic success as Bernard Herrmann – especially where his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are concerned. In those films, a Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is almost always a partner to the action onscreen. It’s impossible to recall Vertigo without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme or its eerie arpegios (recently quoted in – of all things – the hit TV cop show New Tricks), or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest, or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho, without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

So integral was Herrmann’s contribution to his films that Hitchcock would tell him: “I’ve left reel three for you”. And the composer would fill it with music which, as Wilson says, gave you everything you couldn’t see. “He seemed to have an unerring instinct for catching the mood of a film, right up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his last score, and he was so technically adroit in so many different styles that he could pinpoint musically exactly what the subtext of a scene was. He never took you in the wrong direction, as it were.”

You only need to watch Janet Leigh’s car journey in Psycho to understand this element of the power of a Herrmann score. If you play the scene without sound, Leigh could be en route to the supermarket or to pick her kids up from school; turn the volume on, and it’s immediately apparent that something very, very bad is going to happen. The music unnerves and unsettles. “It’s that unresolved harmony,” says Wilson. “It’s completely ambiguous. There’s lots of that in Herrmann’s music – you get shifting blocks of unresolved harmony, harmony that can never go anywhere.”

Herrmann – who started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane – used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and help the audience understand their troubled minds. Did he change the function of film music?

“I think he did, in a number of ways,” says Wilson. “He was so determined and serious-minded, such a craftsman, that he raised the status of film music. Don’t forget Herrmann was a very, very highly regarded conductor and he had a career as a legitimate composer for the concert hall. He viewed the art of writing film music very seriously and he was a perfectionist. He was completely uncompromising in his choice of timbre and choice of instruments and he wouldn’t be dictated to by directors. He talked himself out of many jobs. But he fought for the cause of film music and was very erudite and articulate about it. He dragged the art of composing for the movies up a notch.”

At the same time, argues Wilson, Herrmann moved film music on from “that very opulent, late-romantic, Wagnerian/Straussian sort of sound” that the first generation of Hollywood composers, led by Max Steiner, had established. “I guess Herrmann was the first to incorporate into that style a leaner, more angular, more sparsely scored, less generic sort of sound.”

Wilson was first captivated by Herrmann’s music when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. “In my first year, I got all these LPs out of the library – LPs by Charles Gerhart and the National Philharmonic. He recorded a series on RCA of Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rosza – all those film composers – and there was a Herrrmann one in there called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef or something like that. It had nine harps in it. Then I read about one he’d written with five organs.. and I was intrigued. Round about the same time I saw Vertigo for the first time, and I loved it. I love all those Hitchcock films.”

The best of those Hitchcock scores will be played in the second concert of the Herrmann centenary celebration weekend in Glasgow, along with music by some of his colleagues, among them David Raksin (Laura) and Alfred Newman (All About Eve). Wilson explains: “Herrmann is the singlemost effective composer of music for films but it doesn’t always stand up as well on its own in concerts – it’s too repetitive, it hasn’t any organic development in it and it’s so married to the films. Things like Vertigo occupy such a unique sort of sound world that you can give them an airing because people have the images in their heads already – but a lot of film music doesn’t stand up on its own in concerts.”

Having said that, Wilson remembers that he’ll be conducting some music from Marnie, the only Hitchcock film which is outclassed by its score. “Oh, the music in Marnie is sumptuous. I love the unrestrained romanticism of it,” sighs Wilson. “It would be difficult for any film to come up to the level of that score. It’s one of my favourites.”

* Psycho is showing at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Saturday 17 at 7.30pm. The Music to be Murdered By concert takes place at the City Halls on Sunday 18 at 3pm.


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The Magic of the MGM Musicals

I love a musical. RKO’s Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s are masterclasses in elegance, wit and several key chapters of The Great American Songbook. Warner Bros’ Busby Berkeley musicals, which have been referenced in everything from The Producers to The Big Lebowski, combine jaw-dropping choreography with a sassy insight into life during the Depression. The Fox musicals of the 1940s are brash and gaudy like Christmas baubles and just as cheery. Even the French have contributed to the Hollywood musical genre – thanks to Jacques Demy’s cultish homage Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

But one brand of musical towers head and shoulders above every other: the MGM musical. The mere phrase conjures up a string of iconic images – Gene Kelly ecstatically splashing about in puddles, a be-ginghamed Judy Garland skipping off down the Yellow Brick Road, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby singing while supping at the bar, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland slumming it as tramps, Maurice Chevalier crooning his way through a park packed with pretty Parisiennes.

Between 1939 and 1959, Metro Goldwyn Mayer took the musical genre to a new level – well, several new levels, actually. They gave us the first musical with black stars in the leading roles – in the shape of Cabin in the Sky, in 1943, and six years later, they took the musical out of the studio and on location, with the groundbreaking New York-set classic On the Town.

But first and foremost, the studio gave us The Wizard of Oz (1939). The most beloved movie of all time and one of the most perfect screen musicals, it set the standard for the MGM musicals of the next two decades.

Unlike many of the 1930s MGM films, which featured such “straight” actors as Cary Grant, James Stewart and Jean Harlow trying (with varying degrees of success) to sing – and which seemed like a half-hearted nod towards the possibilities of singing and dancing on film – The Wizard of Oz threw itself behind the genre by featuring only the creme de la creme of talent in every department.

And whereas the musicals up to that point had been very self-conscious about the use of song ‘n’ dance routines – they invariably featured in “let’s put on the show right here” style plots – The Wizard of Oz blended them seamlessly into the story, just as the songs, by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, rose organically out of Arlen’s score.

Requiring 29 sound stages, 65 sets, hundreds of costumes, 150 singing and dancing midgets and breath-taking special effects, The Wizard of Oz was typical of MGM’s opulent, no-expense-spared house style – but it was their most ambitious musical to date, and the first in colour. As a result of its success, studio chief Louis B Mayer decided to set up a musical unit at MGM with Oz producer Arthur Freed (the man who had ensured that Over the Rainbow be reinstated to the film, after it had been cut) at the helm.

And it is to Arthur Freed, says hotshot young conductor and arranger John Wilson – who thrilled audiences with his rapturously received 2009 Prom concert of MGM music – that much of the credit for these glorious  musicals is due. A passionate champion of film music, John Wilson has spent the last few years reconstructing the long-lost scores for many of the legendary MGM musicals and as a result is more intimately acquainted with every last detail of these great films than most of us.

He puts the unrivalled greatness and splendour of the MGM musicals down to the fact that “MGM had a sort of repertory company, in the shape of the Freed Unit. Their musicals were the best ever made because Freed had this extraordinary gift of assembling talent, and he had a very loyal group of craftsmen that he used time and time again – directors Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, composer/arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Andre Previn, choreographers Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan, costume designer Helen Rose etc, etc. He had the same people doing the same job year in year out  – they really knew what they were doing.” As a result, every aspect of films such as Meet Me In St Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Gigi was absolutely first class.

And it is this, plus the fact that – as Wilson says – every moment of these movies is vital, that explains the classic MGM musicals’ enduring popularity. Wilson elaborates: “In a non-musical picture, any typical Hollywood fare, you allow for the attention to flag, you can have the odd dip in the movie. But the best of those movie musicals have no dips in them. Every line is chiselled and apposite. Even if the plots are slight, there’s never excess of anything in terms of dialogue or unnecessary music.”

John Wilson conducting

Of course the perfect example of that – and much else besides – is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the ultimate Freed Unit production (not least because he also co-wrote the title song!). As Wilson points out, “you could watch that and enjoy it even without the music”.

But, oh, what music. Pick any legend of American popular songwriting and you’ll find he worked for MGM during the glory years. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren – they all wrote songs for MGM – and in some cases, the songs outlived or outshone the films. And it wasn’t just the songwriters whose music enchants.

When John Wilson conducts this stuff it is thrilling for a number of reasons, among them the fact that you’re hearing the exact arrangement of whichever song as you know it from the film, and the rare treat of also getting to hear the incidental music which leads in and out of those very familiar songs. This was another area where MGM excelled, thanks to its master arrangers who wrote for a peerless in-house orchestra which was reckoned to be as accomplished as any symphony orchestra.

At the end of the day, the MGM movies endure because they are meticulously crafted works of art which offer pure unadulterated escapism and complete and utter joy. As Gene Kelly sang in the 1951 MGM extravaganza An American in Paris, “who could ask for anything more?”!

* A Celebration of MGM Film Music, with John Wilson conducting The John Wilson Orchestra plus singers Curtis Stigers, Kim Criswell, Sir Thomas Allen and Seth MacFarlane, is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday, November 28.

MGM Musical Highlights

Sir Michael Parkinson, chat show host extraordinaire
Favourite film? “Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – the best-natured movie ever made. The MGM musicals are, in my view, maybe Hollywood’s greatest contribution to the cinema. They stood for perfection in every department and set new standards in music, dance and arranging.”

Favourite number? James Stewart singing Easy To Love in Born To Dance (1936).

“Nowadays, when so much we see from the music industry in TV and movies is frankly mediocre it is salutary and uplifting to the reminded of a time when genius reigned in Hollywood.”

* Parky’s People – The Lives – The Laughs – The Legend (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now, and The Michael Parkinson Collection (BBC DVD) is out now.

Allan Hunter, co-director of the Glasgow Film Festival (February 17-27 2011)
Favourite film? Meet Me in St Louis (1944), maybe because it’s an idealised vision of America that you hope and think maybe did exist – but probably never did. It’s got great songs, Judy Garland probably never looked happier or healthier, the cinematography is wonderful – there’s a kind of warm glow to it – and I think the cast throughout are perfect.

Favourite song?: “Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell doing Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine from Broadway Melody of 1940.” 

“It’s the most amazing display of tap dancing and harmony between two performers. Eleanor Powell later said that they spent an entire day just rehearsing hand movements. It’s amazing to watch the two of them in that perfectly synchronized tap dancing routine, and they both seem to be really enjoying themselves.”

Pauline McLean, arts correspondent for BBC Scotland
Favourite film? “Singin’ in the Rain. I never tire of it. It works on so many different levels – part Hollywood history, part romance, spectacular dancing and great music.”

Favourite song? “True Love (by Cole Porter) from High Society (1956).” 

“Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly exude such effortless cool while singing and sailing!”

Nick Varley, managing director of Park Circus film distribution
Favourite film? “Kiss Me Kate (1953). “It might look a bit hammy today but the writing is fantastic – those wonderful Cole Porter lyrics! It was also the only musical to be filmed in 3D.”

Favourite song? “I Remember It Well (Lerner and Loewe) from Gigi (1958), sung by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold.” 

“Gigi was the last great musical to come from the Freed unit and MGM. The song is a poignant reminder of that great period of MGM production.”

ALISON KERR, journalist Favourite film: “Singin’ in the Rain. It’s just the tops in every way – the songs, the dance, the comedy, the costumes, the colour, the brilliant way it tells the story of the birth of the talkies. There’s something for everyone in it.”

Favourite number: “Well, it’s one of many but it gets forgotten because it’s a five-star number in a three-star film – On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe, from The Harvey Girls (1946). Judy Garland and co singing Johnny Mercer lyrics, Harry Warren tune – I love how the tune gets passed from singer (and non-singer) to singer, and the scale of the production. Like Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a number I’ve enjoyed sharing with my young children.” 


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