COMPOSER ELMER BERNSTEIN
Talk about a humble start!
But what a fabulous career
By RON MILLER
Elmer Bernstein composed the musical scores of five feature films in 1953, his third year as a film composer. Two of them were incredibly tacky 3-D pictures now usually ranked among the worst movies of all time: "Cat Women of the Moon" and "Robot Monster."
When Bernstein died last Aug. 18 at age 82, nobody even bothered to recount his humble beginnings. What was the point? After some 200 film scores, Elmer Bernstein was considered one of the last of the giants in the world of movie music. He had left behind literally scores of immortal scores and, remarkably, in his 80th year, had earned his 14th Oscar nomination as a film composer for 2002's "Far From Heaven."
Today film music is in a sorry state. Too many contemporary filmmakers prefer to use collections of pop records for theme music. Those filmmakers don't need composers; they need deejays. Only a handful of the all-time great film composers, such as John Williams, are still working in films. Though there are some promising people out there, few will ever be able to forge the sort of career that Elmer Bernstein did, working through an amazing six decades of Hollywood history.
I first became aware of Bernstein's music as a junior high school kid. His first score was for the football drama "Saturday's Hero" with newcomer John Derek. That was in 1951, when I was a seventh-grader. I can't say that score knocked me over back then. But I definitely remember the spooky score Bernstein did the following year for 1952's "Sudden Fear," a thriller with creepy Jack Palance menacing Joan Crawford.
Like most young film composers, Bernstein had to start small--with low-budget independent films like "Miss Robin Crusoe" (1954), which starred a little known actress named Amanda Blake, who would gain her slice of immortality the following year when she began a 20-plus year run as "Miss Kitty" on TV's "Gunsmoke."
Though his "Sudden Fear" score attracted some attention, Bernstein didn't become a hot property in Hollywood until 1955 when Otto Preminger hired him to compose the music for his controversial film version of Nelson Algren's novel "The Man with the Golden Arm," starring Frank Sinatra in the starkly dramatic role of a would-be jazz drummer who had become a hopeless heroin addict.
Preminger was busy defying censors in the 1950s and breaking as many Hollywood rules as he could find. His "The Moon is Blue" had been condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for using forbidden language--the word "virgin" actually was used in a movie, if you can imagine that!--and he was defying censorship again by showing the use of narcotics on screen. Preminger didn't want a flabby Hollywood score, so he went for Bernstein, who composed an almost entirely jazz-themed musical soundtrack.
In later years, Bernstein explained he didn't like the fact that jazz often was used on screen to suggest sleaziness. He didn't want to buy into that cliche, although jazz did originate in rather sleazy places. That time, though, he created some new cliches of his own--using screeching horns to suggest the torment of the addicted hero. He also gave "Golden Arm" a signature series of notes--da da-da da DUM--that for years was a familiar as the signature notes for Jack Webb's "Dragnet"(dum-de-dum-dum). If you heard those Bernstein notes, you knew it meant somebody was rolling up his sleeve and shooting up.
That score gave Bernstein his first Oscar nomination. I still remember my abject frustration when my hometown movie theater forgot to open the curtains for the start of "The Man with the Golden Arm," making me miss the dazzling title sequence created by Saul Bass and forcing me to hear a muffled version of Bernstein's score.
That successful film led Bernstein to his first giant mega-bucks score--for Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 religious epic, "The Ten Commandments." He wasn't DeMille's first choice. The original composer was the legendary Victor Young, who withdrew due to ill health and died a year later. Though that score isn't one of my favorites--I can imagine the micro-managing of DeMille taking its toll on Bernstein--it certainly gave credibility to the composer who began his career with poverty row sci-fi movies.
Bernstein's next celebrated score was for Burt Lancaster's 1957 "The Sweet Smell of Success," another jazzy dramatic score that increased his already heavy appeal to cutting edge filmmakers who wanted edgy music, not breakaway pop chart-busters.
Through the rest of the 1950s, Bernstein worked regularly for the most risk-taking directors: Robert Mulligan ("Fear Strikes Out," 1957), Anthony Mann ("Men in War," 1957; "The Tin Star," 1957; "God's Little Acre," 1958), Delbert Mann ("Desire Under the Elms," 1958), Mark Robson ("From the Terrace," 1960) as well as such veterans as Irving Rapper ("The Miracle," 1959) and Vincente Minnelli ("Some Came Running," 1958).
Then, in 1960, Bernstein teamed up with director John Sturges to write the music for a big-budget western that was based on Akira Kurosawa's famed action movie about feudal Japan, "The Seven Samurai." Arguably, his score for "The Magnificent Seven" was his all-time most acclaimed--and best remembered.
His secret, Bernstein often explained, was his decision to make the music go much faster than the movie. As he says in the notes to his CD "Elmer Bernstein by Elmer Bernstein," the goal was "to provide pacing to a film which would have been much slower without the score." He's absolutely right! Play nearly any scene from the film and turn the sound off. Then play it again with the music. You'll notice the scenes with the music seem to speed up. Well, they don't. They just seem to.
Bernstein's signature series of notes for "The Magnificent Seven" are some of the most instantly recognizable notes ever heard--anywhere in the world. The main theme was re-used as a key component in all the sequels to the original film and in the TV series of the 1990s.
When Bernstein re-teamed with director Sturges for "The Great Escape" (1963), he went all the way back to his youth and borrowed a little tune he had dreamed up as a youngster. Played quietly after the commanding introductory notes of his World War II military prison saga, Bernstein's gentle, almost whimsical main theme had the same delicious effect that "Colonel Bogey March" had when played in 1957's "Bridge on the River Kwai." It worked especially well for "Great Escape," which also contained a great deal of male humor.
By the 1960s, Elmer Bernstein was widely recognized as one of Hollywood's most talented and versatile composers. Just about the time when everybody figured out what he did best (i.e., westerns, military sagas, etc.), Bernstein would roll out a surprising new facet of his musical ability. A perfect example: His unforgettable score for Robert Mulligan's 1962 "To Kill A Mockingbird." This is a quiet, wistful score, as full of wonder as a child's imagination. Since the film was seen through the eyes of lawyer Atticus Finch's two children, it was the ideal approach--and produced an immortal score.
In 1962, Bernstein returned to a Nelson Algren story, composing the score for Edward Dmytrk's "A Walk on the Wild Side." The setting for this Algren story was, in large part, a whorehouse. Again, Saul Bass did a dazzling title sequence--this time involving cats striding across the opening credits. Bernstein dreamed up a jazzy, feline score that seemed to stretch and purr like a whorehouse cat.
Bernstein's big score for the epic "Hawaii" (1966) remains a great example of his tendency to avoid cliches. His research showed him that very few native musical instruments existed in the Hawaiian era where the film begins, so his score has none of the Hawaiian cliches that abound in virtually every other soundtrack for a Hawai-set movie or TV show.
In 1967, Bernstein won his only Oscar in 14 nominations: For scoring the musical comedy "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Again, this was the sort of film Bernstein wasn't supposed to be able to do well. He showed 'em.
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, Bernstein again began to be type-cast, this time as a composer of comedy scores. His scores for such films as "Animal House," "Airplane!" and "The Blues Brothers" were so well-received that everybody seemed to have one of those projects for him. Meanwhile, Hollywood was starting to trend toward using pop songs in films, often hiring composers--even famous ones--to just come up with something to stitch together the pop hits.
That sort of happened with Bernstein's score for "Ghostbusters," one of the most successful screen comedies of all time. Bernstein's charming little theme is heard throughout the movie, but the producers chose to impose somebody else's noisy pop tune on the credits, obscuring Bernstein's very apropos theme. Listen to it separately on a recording and you'll realize what a wonderful theme it was.
In his last 20 years, Bernstein did some of his most mature and thoughtful work. The best of the best: The poignant and moving "My Left Foot," 1989; the morose, yet playful "The Grifters," 1990; the tense and often terrifying Martin Scorsese remake of "Cape Fear," 1991; the evocative and nostalgic "Rambling Rose," 1991; his rich period score for "The Age of Innocence," 1993; the archly noir "Twilight," 1998, and his final score, the romantic "Far From Heaven," 2002, which, ironically, returned Bernstein to the 1950s era in which he began his film composing career.
Bernstein's contribution to the history of movies was immense. I'm afraid we won't really know how immense until we stop and think about how barren the music of films has become without the likes of him around.
©2004 by Ron Miller. The photo of Elmer Bernstein is courtesy of the official Elmer Bernstein website and is ©2000-2004 by the estate of Elmer Bernstein.
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