AOM Logo April 2000

Bernard Herrmann/Alfred Newman: The Egyptian

Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William T. Stromberg, cond.

Marco Polo 8.225078

David Aspinall

Record Cover

The Egyptian marks the only occasion that two major film composers ever worked together on a motion picture score. I italicize "together" because innumerable are the scores that must be considered collaborations, albeit often uncredited. Even major composers of the golden age were not exempt from having producers like David Selznick "improve" their offspring. With Selznick's urging, Franz Waxman's score for Rebecca was "touched up" by Max Steiner. Alexander Tansman's work for the same producer's Since You Went Away was completely replaced by Steiner's music (much of which came from an earlier Selznick/Steiner collaboration, the original 1937 A Star is Born, from which also some of Rebecca's "touchups" were borrowed). Steiner himself was not exempt from the producer's ministrations: even Max's 2½ hour score for Gone With the Wind was supplemented with bits from the stock music library. With the sole exception of Korngold, no composer's art was beyond the producer's reach. Even the dean of American composers Aaron Copland stood by helplessly while William Wyler interpolated alien music sequences into The Heiress (ironically, Copland would win his only Oscar for this film!).

Herrmann and Newman had earlier been connected by one of these factory "collaborations". In 1941, the former had been brought to Hollywood by Orson Welles to score the landmark Citizen Kane. As a neophyte film composer, Herrmann would probably have had no objection to the use of a theme from Newman's Gunga Din, which was borrowed from the RKO library to underscore the early newsreel review of Kane's life (watch/listen to the Xanadu music cue). The dramatic score proper, however, was pure Herrmann. The two musicians' careers would, for the next twenty years, be inextricably linked. In 1944, after writing his first three scores for RKO (All That Money Can Buy and The Magnificent Ambersons followed Kane), Herrmann was hired by Newman, now music head at Fox, to score another Welles project, Jane Eyre. With a single exception (1951's On Dangerous Ground, back at RKO), all of Herrmann's scores until 1955 (the year of his first teaming with Hitchcock) were assignments for Newman at Fox.

This brings us to the genesis of The Egyptian. 1954 was a watershed year in Hollywood film production. The studios were fighting back from years of declining box office by tossing every type of new technology at an already TV-addled public: 3D, cinemascope and stereophonic sound had given an injection of life to film grosses. 3D remained merely a toy, but widescreen and stereo were now de rigueur for major productions. Fox's The Robe, the first cinemascope feature, had broken box office records by early 1954 (only Gone With the Wind still remained ahead of it on the all-time list). What could Fox do to capitalize on the public's new appetite for the epic? Among the studio's 1954 projects were four cinemascope extravaganzas. Prince Valiant, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Desiree (with Hollywood's hottest young star Marlon Brando as Napoleon), and, most extravagant of all, an adaptation of Mika Waltari's novel The Egyptian, also to star Brando. In a supreme irony, Alfred Newman was to assign none of these opportunities to himself. Franz Waxman, who had resigned the Academy when Newman's score for The Robe failed to garner an Oscar nomination, was rewarded with its sequel Demetrius as well as Prince Valiant. Alex North was handed Desiree. Bernard Herrmann was assigned The Egyptian. What did Newman give himself? Fox's Irving Berlin musical There's No Business Like Show Business, with Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, Donald O'Connor and Johnny Ray, was, apparently, a higher priority for studio head Darryl Zanuck than even the four epics (perhaps because Newman had already won two Oscars for adapting Berlin, including the previous year's Call Me Madam, and, decisively, because this was the first cinemascope musical).

In retrospect, we can only regret that executive responsibility would rob us of so many potential Newman masterworks in the '50s. And we can be grateful that Bernard Herrmann, so notoriously his own man and so contemptuous of his Hollywood confreres, should willingly share the credit for The Egyptian. Actually, the initiative for the collaboration came from Herrmann himself. The original plan was for Herrmann to develop Newman themes, in addition to writing and orchestrating his own. However, with the film's fixed premiere moved up further, and one hundred minutes of music needed, Herrmann suggested the entire score be a joint effort.

As it turned out, this one-of-a-kind score was far more of an event than the film. Brando, in a cost-cutting catastrophe, was replaced by Fox contractee Edmund Purdom, hardly equal to the ambiguities of the title character Sinuhe, whose carnal/spiritual struggle is the point of the plot. Although The Egyptian is still worth watching for its reproduction of Middle Kingdom Egypt, much of its thespian posturing verges on parody, what with Hungarian Michael Curtiz at the helm, the ineffably incompetent (and often unintelligible) Bella Darvi* as a (Polish/French) seductress of the Nile, and Peter Ustinov, Victor Mature and even the ravishing Jean Simmons in various stages of discomfort much of the running time. Only Michael Wilding, as the radical Pharaoh Akhnaton, comes away with integrity untouched by the cartoon carryings on.

Sigmund Freud had made the heretic Pharaoh something of a cult figure in his last work Moses and Monotheism (1939), which ventured to demonstrate that the Jews owed their vision of the one God to Akhnaton of Egypt, not Moses. Despite the historical dubiousness of Freud's theory, it is in the character of Akhnaton that Alfred Newman seems to have found the spiritual centre of his musical approach. In sharing out the musical sequences with Herrmann, Newman judged with astuteness the relative strengths of both himself and his colleague. Although the Morgan/Stromberg selection gives credit to Herrmann for nineteen of the thirty cues, it is interesting to see that Newman gave Herrmann almost all the early scenes and reserved the majority of the final scenes for himself. We might speculate that the imbalance reflects the shift from early emphasis on Egyptian exoticism (and eroticism) toward the purely spiritual emphasis of the last half, as Akhnaton achieves transcendence in defeat and death, and Sinuhe leaves forever his decidedly unspiritual past. Herrmann, therefore, can get full measure from his orchestral bag of tricks, and Newman is left to the (only) sublimities in this uneasy mix of serene asceticism and sophomoric sensuality. Herrmann does wonders to transform the inept Darvi into a semi-credible, serpentine seductress in the wittily titled Nefer-Nefer-Nefer. The Herrmann-credited prelude, I would venture, wraps a Newman core in a Herrmann coat. Much of the rest, if actually co-composed, is quite seamless. The pure Newman can be heard in Jean Simmons' scenes as Merit. That lovely lady had inspired Newman to write one of film music's most memorable melodies (Diana in The Robe). While the Merit theme is not quite as indelible as Diana, what is? It is with the Akhnaton cues, however, that Newman achieves total sublimation. Michael Nyman should study these scenes to hear how nearly still music can be rendered unforgettable by nuance. That is, nuance both in composition and, yet more crucially, conducting execution.

This loving performance does full justice to the orchestral and choral complexities and subtleties inherent in this massive score. About the only serious difference between this and the Decca soundtrack (actually not a true soundtrack, as Newman conducted rearrangements of the cues by both composers) is the comparatively reticent chorus, recessed into the overall sound picture, unlike the in-your-face LP (which, in its later incarnations, also suffered from "enhanced stereo" tinkering). Yet, even this reservation is negated by the novelty of listening to hieroglyphic Egyptian sung in English with a Russian accent (Alexander Nilesky? What a marvelous age we live in!) Our humble thanks again to Misters Morgan and Stromberg and the folks at Marco Polo.

* It is indicative of Hollywood's priorities that while Brando was dropped, Miss Darvi, apparently Zanuck's mistress at the time, was allowed to finish off The Egyptian's already precarious credibility. When the affair with Zanuck ended, Darvi returned to Europe. She committed suicide in 1971.

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