, February 2008
Not long ago, in my review of the Max Steiner CDs Music for Bette Davis Films (Naxos 8.570184) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Naxos 8.570185), I wrote: “For too many years, for many music lovers, the perceived impression of “film composers” [always used as a pejorative term, and usually spoken with a sneer on the lips] was of talentless hacks who couldn’t make it in the world of real (concert) music …” Never have two composers been seen as nothing but hacks as Frank Skinner and Hans J Salter.
They had a fruitful working relationship, starting with Skinner’s score for Son of Frankenstein, which was orchestrated by Salter! In the long run, it seems that Skinner fared rather better than Salter. Skinner was quite well known, getting screen credits for some of his work, and he scored several of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films (1940s) and Bedtime for Bonzo (in which Ronald Reagan is acted off the screen by a chimpanzee) (1951) to The Appaloosa (aka Southwest to Sonora ) (1966) and his music even made a posthumous appearance in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1972). His credits number over 300 films. Salter, however, didn’t receive the same kind of recognition. He was also associated with over 300 films, both in Germany, and Hollywood, but, in both their cases, especially so in Salter’s, their work was often classified as “stock music”, music which could be pulled off the shelf to fit a particular mood or event in any given picture (without a composer credit) – rather like Chappell’s Music Library where an innocent little piece, which was sitting on the shelf, could gain world-wide fame if used in the right context; perhaps the most famous example of this is Charles Williams’s The Devil’s Galop which will forever be associated with Dick Barton, Special Agent, because of its use as the title music to the BBC radio serial in 711 episodes between 1946 and 1951, and ten episodes in 1972.
Salter’s and Skinner’s backgrounds couldn’t have been different; after studying at the Chicago Musical College, Salter became a vaudeville pianist, later joining a dance band before moving to Hollywood, whereas Salter (Austrian by birth) had studied with Alban Berg and Franz Schreker and was music director of the Berlin State Opera before starting to compose for the UFA Studios in Berlin, emigrating to the USA in 1937.
This is a wonderful disk. Skinner’s title music for Son of Frankenstein is so eerily creepy that it had me running for the safety you can always find behind the sofa! And I don’t normally do running! If ever proof was required that it was music which determines our reactions to a film this single cue gives the confirmation; we just know that something unpleasant is going to happen and it’s going to scare the pants off us. The rest of the score is in a similar vein – except for a poignant passage portraying this Frankenstein’s infamous father. String tremolandos, telling use of low brass, often muted, and timpani, create a world where nothing is right. There’s the police chief who, as a child, lost an arm to the monster and the hunchbacked, body-stealing, old family retainer, Ygor. This is a weird, almost expressionist world created by the sets - full of daring diagonals - and lighting design. Striking shadows are cast against bare walls. N othing is what it seems. So perfect is this music for the film that it’s hard to believe that some of the music was re-used in, amongst others, Tower of London (1939), The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw (1944).
The Invisible Man (1933), based on H.G. Wells’s 1987 novella of the same name, starred Claude Rains as Jack Griffin and it made him a star, even though he was only seen on screen in the death scene for a few moments. To make himself invisible Griffin takes the drug Monocane. In the sequel, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Frank Griffin, Jack’s brother gives Duocane - a stronger preparation I suppose - to Vincent Price, who plays the invisible man here and, like Rains, is only seen on screen for a matter of minutes. This time, the titular protagonist doesn’t go mad, and doesn’t create mayhem; he merely tries to clear himself of a conviction for a murder he didn’t commit. Therefore the music is less hectic – indeed, it’s quite pastoral, recalling some of Korngold’s love music in his swashbucklers. There’s some gorgeous woodwind playing here, and the massed strings are full-blooded and as romantic in feeling as you could want.
As horror film plots go, that for The Wolf Man is as nutty as any of them. Lawrence Stewart, "Larry" Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales, where he becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen. One night, Larry attempts to rescue Gwen's friend, Jenny, from what he believes to be a sudden attack by a wolf. He kills the animal with his walking stick, but is bitten in the process. Talbot soon discovers that it was not just a wolf; it was a werewolf, the son of a gypsy fortuneteller who had been a werewolf for years. Now the curse of lycanthropy has been been passed to Larry. Without more ado, Talbot stalks the countryside in the form of a two-legged wolf. Although he struggles to overcome the curse, he is finally bludgeoned to death by his father with his own walking stick. As he dies, he returns to human form.
With this film we’re back in familiar horror film territory with big music making big gestures to accompany the onscreen action. The booklet describes the music magnificently: “this is music which ‘runs around on all fours and bites and snaps and bays at the moon’”. But the music is not without its moments of pathos, after all we have to sympathise with Talbot for losing his humanity after the fatal bite. Again, to quote the booklet, ‘the hero’ experiences “… sprouting fur and fangs and ferocious behaviour whenever the moon is out …” It’s a rich and varied score – and all the better for the contrasts.
Thank you, Naxos. Yet another marvelous entry in your collection of Film Music Classics. I can’t wait to hear more.