MIKLOS ROZSA AT MGM
Madame Bovary; Ivanhoe; Knights of the Round Table; Beau Brummell;
Valley of the Kings; Moonfleet; Green Fire; The King's Thief; Tribute to a Bad Man; Diane;
Lust for Life; The World, The Flesh and the Devil; King of Kings
Rozsa conducting the MGM Studio Orchestra
TURNER/RHINO R2 75723 (2 discs)
When Miklos Rozsa arrived at MGM in 1949, his career in film music had already passed through 3 phases. The earliest might be describes as romantic/exotic (associated with the Kordas - The Four Feathers, The Thief of Baghdad, Lydia, That Hamilton Woman, The Jungle Book); the second can be termed the Freudian/obsessive phase - film froid, if we may, (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Spellbound); third, the noir period (The Killers, Brute Force, A Double Life, which latter could also be placed in the second category, and The Naked City). MGM knew, by now, what the man could do, and also knew, if we might credit their musical executives with any objectivity, that the quality of the MGM background score was seldom up to the competition (Herbert Stothart, MGM's then recently deceased principal composer, was no slouch, but tended to a safe, soft style with heavy borrowings from the classics).
Rozsa's arrival heralded a new era in film composition - and not just for MGM. The next dozen years, culminating in 1959's Ben-Hur, brought into clear focus just what a composer for film could accomplish. The supreme irony of this accomplishment is that most of the films for which Rozsa composed these classic scores were mediocre or worse. Certainly Rozsa seldom was afforded the opportunities that confronted Stothart, who at least had Laughton, Colman, Garbo, Tracy and Gable to write for. Of the thirty-five scores that Rozsa wrote for MGM over the next thirty years, a bare fist full could in any way be described as classics, and one of these, Adam's Rib, is a comedy with little in the way of musical opportunity. Most of the rest, and especially the titles from the mid-50s, is standard Hollywood folderol. Rozsa was particularly unfortunate in the MGM options for leading men in this period. Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger hardly measured up to Colman and Gable. Nevertheless, Rozsa's legacy from this his richest period is even more remarkable in the context of the cardboard content of MGM's product of the time. For Rozsa wrote to the subject, not to the often cartoon level of the screen drama. Some of the titles he wrote for, if less than classic, have merits other than their music. One thinks of Leo Genn's subtly ironic Petronius, set against Peter Ustinov's completely over-the-top Nero in 1951's Quo Vadis. One remembers with equal pleasure Jean Simmons' spunky Elizabeth in Young Bess (1953), also the contrasting beauty of Joan Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor in 1952's Ivanhoe. But more often than not, the human truth that such films communicated was due almost completely to Rozsa's extraordinary music, not to inherent virtues in screenplay or performance. And if this is true of their dramatic impact, it is even truer of the heroic transcendence of their total effect. Certainly, Jennifer Jones's Madame Bovary, Kirk Douglas's Van Gogh (Lust for Life), and Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur would have been memorable creations without music, but they are much more memorable because of Rozsa.
Like its predecessor, The Lion's Roar, this collection inspires and irritates in roughly equal measure. The irritation factor derives from the juxtaposition of the familiar, even already available, with the unfamiliar and archaeologically justifiable. Where with the former double CD we lamented the dearth of Rozsa (especially in contrast to the wealth of Stothart), and forgave the obvious omissions in view of the promise of this Rozsa double set, here the misjudgements are strange. The absence of Quo Vadis is forgivable - the originals have disappeared - but the twenty minutes given to Ivanhoe seems somewhat redundant in view of the availability of both the MGM LP and the excellent Bruce Broughton performance (on Intrada), both of which most collectors will already have. And why give thirteen minutes to King of Kings when those of us who love Rozsa will already have it in several forms? I can understand a nod toward both scores, and also to Lust for Life and Madame Bovary - no representative collection of this type should fail to include some of the man's "greatest hits". However, to give about a third of the playing time to these readily available scores seems excessive when so many of the other scores are nowhere to be found (save perhaps on pirate or prohibitively-priced imports).
If this seems ungrateful, let me make amends. This set would be worth the investment if only for the reminder that Rozsa's MGM oeuvre drew from all three of his prior periods. The romantic/exotic (Valley of the Kings, Diane), the Freudian/obsessive (Lust for Life) and the film noir (an extraordinary example with which I was previously unacquainted, The World, the Flesh and the Devil). Then of course we get several definitive examples of that for which the MGM period is most fondly remembered, Rozsa in heroic full throttle - which English history unfailingly elicited from the composer (Knights of the Round Table, Beau Brummell, Moonfleet and The King's Thief, not to mention Ivanhoe). With all this glory most filmmusic aficionados are already at least fleetingly familiar.
Placing Green Fire and Tribute to a Bad Man in this career context is especially suggestive. Green Fire, apparently one of the many clinkers among Rozsa's three dozen MGM assignments, anticipates El Cid in its Hispanicisms, if not in its inspiration. Bad Man, like the Tracy/Hepburn comedy Adam's Rib an atypical subject for the composer (his only western), even includes a brief tip of the stetson toward Copland before settling into a recognizably Rozsa meld of western pentatonic convention and Hungarian melancholia (Rozsa on the Range? Goulash Gulch? Couldn't have imagined this at all!).
On balance, a fascinating set. We hope, in the wake of the Herrmann/Fox releases, and the Auric/Ealing - there'll be many more such concept sets (Waxman at Warners? Steiner at Selznick? How about the classic pre-war scores of Maurice Jaubert?).
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