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CLASSICAL  December 2007

CLASSICAL December 2007

Subject:

Hollywood vs. Japan

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 7 Dec 2007 15:33:35 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Franz Waxman
Objective, Burma!

Score restored by John Morgan
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William T. Stromberg
Naxos 8.557706 Total time: 71:38

Summary for the Busy Executive: Influential score by a major film
composer.

In a crowd of crude propaganda films made during World War II, Raoul
Walsh's 1945 Objective, Burma!, starring Errol Flynn, stands out as a
good picture, still eminently watchable. The plot, an update of Kenneth
Roberts's Northwest Passage (made into another good movie by King Vidor
in 1940, starring Spencer Tracy), concerns a small commando unit sent
to destroy an important target. They complete the mission but get caught
behind enemy lines and must flee the pursuing Japanese. Walsh liked the
plot so much, he used it again in his 1951 Distant Drums, with Gary
Cooper.

Most movie critics consider Walsh one of the classic action directors
of Hollywood, along with Hawks, Ford, and Curtiz. He's probably best
known for directing Jimmy Cagney in the masterful White Heat. As a
director notorious for leaving actors alone, so long as he got his shot,
his films brim full with wonderful performances. Errol Flynn, during his
lifetime never much respected as an actor, turns in a grim, stoic job
as the commando leader, free of the buckle and swash that made him. Then
again, Flynn was always a good actor, like Spencer Tracy a startlingly
modern actor in an era of juicy hambones, like John Barrymore, Bette
Davis, and Fredric March, all of whom, despite their skill, have dated
horribly. You can still watch Flynn, even in tights, and accept him as
broadly realistic. It takes a good actor to pull off a part like Robin
Hood without descending into parody.

Franz Waxman (born Wachsmann, in Germany) began, in deference to his
parents, as a bank teller. Out of his salary he paid for music lessons,
including lessons in composition. He soon began arranging for German
"jazz" dance bands and broke into movies through the recommendation of
the great German Kabarett songwriter Friedrich Hollaender. For his first
movie gig, he orchestrated Hollaender's score to The Blue Angel. After
the international success of that film, he found regular work in German
movies. In 1933, at the assumption of Nazi power, the Jewish Waxman fled
to France, working in French films, then to England, and finally arrived
in Hollywood in 1935. His first picture, the classic Bride of Frankenstein,
introduced modern musical language to the Hollywood film (and featured
one of the early uses of the theremin, beating Rozsa's Spellbound by a
decade). Despite providing scores for such classics as Fury, his career
breakthrough came with his music for Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), probably
his best film score, although not one he received the Academy Award for.
For film buffs, he resides in the pantheon of Korngold, Rozsa, Herrmann,
Stallings, Webb, and Tiomkin. He was also an occasional classical composer.
I can strongly recommend his Sinfonietta for strings and timpani (available
on Koch B000001SFK, along with Rozsa's Concerto for String Orchestra and
Herrmann's Sinfonietta for strings).

Waxman's music for Objective, Burma! may not stand with his very best,
but, like the film itself, it was miles ahead of most similar work.
Waxman was even ahead of his time, demonstrated by the fact that Warner
Bros. kept raiding his score for war films in which he had no direct
involvement: Merrill's Marauders, PT 109, Up Periscope, and so on. The
music works beautifully in the film, avoiding the cliches of orientalism
- especially in portraying the Japanese. It's more a matter of orchestration
than the usual silly pentatonic riffs. Outside the film, the music works
less well, narrating in the standard-practice, almost Mickey-Mouse way
pioneered by Max Steiner. In other words, it sounds like a Warner Bros.
film of the period.  Waxman's scores to Rebecca and Fury, written years
before, are already beyond this. Perhaps Steiner, the notoriously
conservative head of the Warners' music department, put the kibosh on
anything else. In general, the most musically-advanced composer at Warners
was Carl Stallings of the cartoon unit, and only because no studio
executive thought cartoons worth troubling over. Still, Waxman gets away
with an idiom which owes more to Prokofiev than to Tchaikovsky. The
backbone of the score is a march full of harmonic side-steps, and Waxman
puts it to several emotional uses: triumph, of course, but also weariness
and despair.

John Morgan and William Stromberg have not only cleaned up the score,
they have discovered cues not heard in the original film. It's nice to
have it all. The "Jumping" cue, depicting the commandos parachuting out
of the plane, influenced other film composers. The discovery of the
slaughter of one group of commandos in a deserted village for me is the
most powerful sequence in the score - perhaps in the movie as well - and
the one which hangs together best divorced from its images. The Moscow
Philharmonic plays a little rough, but Stromberg at least keeps the music
alive. Recommended, especially to fans of film music.

Steve Schwartz

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