AOM Logo February 1999


The Ladykillers: Music from those Glorious Ealing Films

Frankel: The Man in the White Suit; Auric: Passport to Pimlico; The Titfield Thunderbolt; The Lavendar Hill Mob; Rawsthorne: The Cruel Sea; The Captive Heart; Saraband for Dead Lovers; Irving: Whisky Galore!; Kind Hearts and Coronets; Schurmann: The Man in the Sky; Cary: The Ladykillers; Ireland: The Overlanders

Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Kenneth Alwyn

Silva SSD 1080

David Aspinall

Record Cover

I am gratified to note that Gramophone has recognized this tribute to Ealing pictures, or more precisely to its composers, as the outstanding soundtrack of the past year. Not too far behind in the voting was another dip into the distant past of filmmusic, an ASV collection of the forgotten Richard Addinsell's scores. Alwyn and his expert orchestra were responsible for both. I suspect the success of the former has had as much to do with a residual nostalgia for the Ealing era as it has with the innate qualities of the music. Just the same, in a year when Titanic was the best-selling soundtrack, I count my blessings that any vintage work of worth is being dredged from the sea bottom where most movie music of the golden age languished until lately.

In the case of the Ealing scores, a fiery metaphor is more appropriate. As so often happened at the Hollywood studios, cost-cutting measures resulted in the burning en masse of the original music manuscripts and audio tracks of hundreds of the best examples of British film music. Most of the tracks on this album had to be laboriously reconstructed from sketches and/or audition of the film soundtrack. That this should have been allowed to happen in England, where the traditional Hollywood partition between concert hall and "movie music" has not been maintained, is doubly deplorable.

So, this Ealing tribute was a three-year project, a labor of love for producers David Wishart and Philip Lane. I wish I could summon as much enthusiasm for the music as for the vision. As with the preponderance of music written for the British cinema of that era, the prevailing moods are jocularity and stiff-upper-lip earnestness. True, the sharp shaft of satire was the most memorable aspect of the Ealing ethos. However, the scores written for this type of picture were severely straightened in their stylistic and emotional options. Why were they so little noted at the time, while their films were so celebrated? Why has there been no drum banging for their resurrection, even among the film music cognoscenti? I suspect the prime factor is that the emotional constriction of most British film products of the time simply did not lend itself to the open-hearted late romantic style that so long dominated Hollywood products (Newman, Steiner, Korngold, Young). The British character responds to life's adversities more often with a raspberry than a threnody. In short, Hollywood's musicians had to respond emotionally to their subjects, whereas those writing for the British cinema were more likely to reflect the stoic resolve or ironic objectivity of their films' protagonists. Thus Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman, despite their English bloodlines, made far better subjects for the musical muse than, say, John Mills or Michael Redgrave.

How you respond to this stylistic contrast will determine your response to this disc. One man's frisson is another man's wallow. Certainly, the composers represented here were the technical equals of their Hollywood counterparts. One impression that has long been with me, and is confirmed by this disc: scores written for British films are often too complex. Their composers seem verbose, show offs by comparison with the best of Hollywood. Compare Gerard Schurmann's The Man in the Sky with Franz Waxman's The Spirit of St. Louis. Both have as their subjects flight. Both are ingenious. Both are superbly orchestrated. Nevertheless, Schurmann seems fancy, merely technically impressive, whereas Waxman is inspired. What is the difference? Well, the quality of the respective films is one obvious factor. Waxman's setting may be the clouds, but his music remains rooted in the earth and heart. Similarly, John Ireland's Overlanders, his only film work and the only music on this CD recorded before, is able but, like Schurmann, lacking emotional resonance (since its subject is an Australian cattle drive, Ireland may perhaps be forgiven.) So, it is with much else that is here. Alan Rawsthorne's three selections illustrate. The Cruel Sea has atmosphere and oh-so-Brit resolve but also a distancing reserve. Saraband for Dead Lovers injects too many twentieth century complexities and melodic convolutions into its Georgian period. The Captive Heart is the most affecting of Rawsthorne's contributions. Though perhaps a trifle over-elaborate, its main theme has a nice ironic turn, and its evocation of the plight of English POWs elicits the composer's sympathy. In the midst of all this Anglo-Saxon anxiety and busy-ness, it's a relief to find Ernest Irving's serenely simple Mozart adaptation for Kind Hearts and Coronets. One thing you could count on with the Hollywood boys - Rozsa (sometimes) and Tiomkin (most of the time) excepted - they did not overwrite their subjects. Even though Copland, Bernstein and Irving Bazelon could be counted on to chastise them for bringing a Strauss-size orchestra into every living room or back alley, the Hollywood crew knew from experience that less is more if you want to involve the viewer. When it came to wringing our hearts or riveting our eyes, Max Steiner could do more with a single suspended chord (yes, in the entire orchestra!) than all the excerpts on this CD together accomplish. (Check out the end of the Gable/DeHavilland window scene in Gone With the Wind, or the plane hanger showdown in Casablanca.)

In this sober company, Frenchman George Auric profits by contrast, for his Gallic bounce found suitable outlet in romps like The Lavendar Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt. As with Addinsell, one wants to hear more of this neglected composer. Benjamin Frankel's main title to The Man in the White Suit, which opens the album, manages to convey both hilarity and alarm in its brief compass, in much the same way Herrmann did in scores such as The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Trouble With Harry. The Ernest Irving romp, Whisky Galore! is representative and, like the Auric, blessedly lively. Tristam Cary's suite from The Lady Killers, which gets more space than any other piece, is craftsman-like, suitably facetious and ultimately forgettable. (Alec Guinness, like Peter Sellers who shared the screen with him for the only time here, does not invite involvement from his composers; Malcolm Arnold let Guinness fend for himself in Bridge on the River Kwai).

There is much to admire in the chosen excerpts and so carefully reconstructed for this CD. My reservations have little to do with inherent defects in performance or recording. In both aspects, this release is exemplary. Finally, though, I am left to muse upon the mysterious art of touching the heart. This CD doesn't alter my impression that my fellow Brits, by constitution or by choice, find this gift more elusive than their Hollywood cousins.

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