The Lion's Roar: Classic MGM Film Scores 1935-1965
MGM Studio Orchestra
STOTHART Mutiny on
the Bounty; The Good Earth; The Wizard of Oz; Random Harvest; The
Yearling; WARD The Women WAXMAN The Philadelphia
Story; Cimarron BASSMAN The Clock ROZSA Madame Bovary;
Ivanhoe; Lust for Life; Ben-Hur; King of Kings NEWMAN The
Prisoner of Zenda; How the West Was Won KAPER Lili;
Invitation; Home from the Hill; Mutiny on the Bounty RAKSIN The
Bad and the Beautiful; Two Weeks in Another Town PREVIN Bad
Day at Black Rock; Designing Woman; The Subterraneans NORTH I'll
Cry Tomorrow GREEN Raintree County BERNSTEIN Some Came
Running HERRMANN North by Northwest; Joy in the Morning MANCINI
Bachelor in Paradise GOLDSMITH The Prize; A Patch of Blue
MANDEL The Americanization of Emily; The Sandpiper SCHIFRIN
The Cincinnati Kid JARRE Doctor Zhivago
Who really was the emblem of MGM? Fearsome Leo of the logo, or (Bert) Lahr, The Wizard of Oz's somewhat less intimidating representative of the species? During Hollywood's musical Golden Age (the 30s and 40s), Leo the lion gave off a fairly feeble roar, compared to its somewhat less regal studio rivals Warners and Fox. While MGM was handing its prime assignments to Herbert Stothart, David Snell, Edward Ward and George Bassman, Warners producers had their pick of the pantheon - Korngold, Steiner and Waxman. And while Stothart was still stealing many of his best licks from Tchaikovsky, Verdi or Mussorgsky, in the less than enterprising fashion of the silent film accompanist, Alfred Newman, David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann were fashioning a startlingly original musical language for cinema dramaturgy. The comparative achievement of the three studio music staffs may be measured by Waxman's decision to depart the comfortable lion's lair for the less prestigious but more challenging Warners, where head of music Leo Forbstein could at least offer a few more meaty assignments than Waxman's not-so-perspicacious executives at MGM. By the middle of the 40s, in the inspirational company of Steiner and Korngold, Waxman was back to the form of his pre-MGM 1930s peak at Universal, The Bride of Frankenstein.
Well, in the wake of Warners seventy-fifth anniversary commemorative CD set and Fox's less weighty but equally potent tribute on Varese Sarabande, Rhino has released this double CD compilation. It isn't exactly a greatest hits collection, as Leo's leading lion Miklos Rozsa (who arrived in 1949) is distinctly under-represented. If the buzz is true that there's a two-CD set on the way devoted to Rozsa alone, we can forgive. Nevertheless, the choice of selections strikes me as curious. We already have (more or less) complete Madame Bovary, Ivanhoe, Lust for Life, Ben-Hur, and King of Kings, so for the collector the excerpts included are redundant. At whom is this collection aimed? If the filmscore neophyte, I will suggest that the cause of film music would have been better served with less of the archival material and more prime Rozsa (say Quo Vadis or Young Bess). If the completist, rare Rozsa would have been more judicious (he wrote about two dozen scores for MGM less well known than those included). If the musical archaeologist, then Stothart, Ward and even early Waxman would be more pertinent. As it is, we have something to please - and irritate - everybody.
Among the very welcome: Waxman's Gershwinesque main title to The Philadelphia Story, which has even more panache than Charles Gerhardt's rendering. The ecstatic love scene from same is even more welcome (complete with footsteps - sadly, the solely music tracks no longer exist); Alex North's I'll Cry Tomorrow, in the urban-wail mode of Streetcar; Elmer Bernstein's Some Came Running, which has something of the gotcha-by-the-throat impact of Herrmann's The Man Who Knew Too Much main title. In addition, the Previn, Kaper and Raksin cuts also give us much that is not otherwise available, and the Stothart Wizard of Oz excerpts happily complement the suite recorded by John Mauceri.
The sound, as must be expected, is highly variable, but never less than acceptable. A surprising number of the earliest excerpts are in stereo. What is equally surprising is that some of MGM's biggest epics have the worst sound, King of Kings, Ben-Hur and How the West Was Won conspicuously so, at least as transferred for this collection. Unfortunately, Benny Herrmann's Joy in the Morning, never before released and achingly redolent of Vertigo and Marnie, suffers significantly from emaciation of the string sound, particularly in the midrange. This is even more frustrating in that excerpts adjacent to Joy, Henry Mancini's Bachelor in Paradise and Lalo Schifrin's The Cincinnati Kid, are superbly recorded. But they are also utterly frivolous fluff (albeit pleasant). The collection ends with Doctor Zhivago. Leo leaves us with a whimper. My nominee for the curtain call, and a last mighty roar indeed, would have been the Legend and Epilogue from Rozsa's El Cid. Suitable for nailing our hypothetical neophyte to the back wall. But not a note of that last great gasp of Leo is here. Ah well, Zhivago may not be the desired big finish. But somehow it is a more appropriate segue to the cellophane era of cinema soundtracks.
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