The Adventures of Marco Polo; The Lodger; The Rains of Ranchipur; Seven Cities of Gold
William T. Stromberg, Moscow Symphony
Marco Polo 8.223857
by David Aspinall
Forgotten and forlorn admirers of Hugo Friedhofer - about the least known of the Hollywood ten (1) (composers, that is, not putative crypto-communists) - have reason to rejoice at last. This new recording is the kind of project that the film music specialist could only fantasize about during the LP era, that dark age when taping from TV was the only way to access most great film music.
Although he came to Hollywood with sound, Friedhofer laboured there seventeen years before achieving recognition as a composer. By then, Friedhofer was comfortably ensconced as orchestrator to both Korngold and Steiner. Hugo did his job so well that they seldom trusted their musical offspring to others. Friedhofer continued to work in their shadows while suppressing his creative drive.
In 1946 Alfred Newman recommended him to William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives. (As tribute, Newman’s Fox fanfare, and its Cinemascope extension, introduce two suites.) The music for Years not only won Friedhofer one of its eight Oscars but was analyzed in serious music journals.
Friedhofer built a reputation among his peers as the most learned and sophisticated composer in the business, and as one of Hollywood’s sharpest wits (he quipped that the perfect score for Hunchback of Notre Dame would be “quasi-modal”). But none of his scores achieved “hit” status, though nine were nominated for the Oscar, (including An Affair to Remember, revivified in Sleepless in Seattle). Even Best Years waited thirty-three years for a recording. But Hugo’s stature as dean of Hollywood composers was compensation for his commercial inconsequence.
Perhaps Friedhofer’s exceptional gifts as orchestrator worked against popular acceptance. Hugo wasn’t “catchy” like Steiner. Nor did he go in for the sensational effects of Herrmann. (Though he could colour with a Villa-Lobos-like balance of density and delicacy - check track 29 of Seven Cities - definitely not Chattanooga, though Villa-Lobos also wrote for choo choo). One must listen patiently to The Lodger or The Rains of Ranchipur before they yield dividends. A true post-Freudian, Friedhofer seems preoccupied with psychological, not dramatic, truth. Seven Cities of Gold and Ranchipur seem to take their cue from Alfred Newman (indeed A.N. hired Hugo for these 1955 Fox projects, and had scored 1939’s The Rains Came, of which Ranchipur was a remake). Those who relish Newman’s Mark of Zorro or The Hurricane should respond to Friedhofer’s exoticisms. But where in similar settings Newman emotes, Friedhofer contemplates. As David Raksin pointed out, Friedhofer was often the most subtle of film composers. The Lodger (1944) is one of his earliest scores: its bleak brass and woodwind sonorities, jagged themes, punctuations of percussion, and juxtaposition of rugged modernism and stark simplicity, anticipate the revolution wrought in ’50s Hollywood by Alex North and Leonard Rosenman - the delineation of despair and alienation in their breakthrough scores Death of a Salesman and Rebel Without a Cause. Unlike Miklos Rozsa, who defined the film noir sound that same year with Double Indemnity, Friedhofer disdains the emphatic gesture.
A niggling reservation: this CD overemphasizes the exotic side of Friedhofer’s output: Ranchipur and Seven Cities, with their chromatic main themes, would gain by having the dark light of The Lodger set between rather than before them. Nonetheless these are loving performances, the sound decidedly digital, but, thanks to the composer’s taste and restraint, never overbearing.
1. Pioneers of Hollywood film music’s golden age, the ’30s through ’50s (Korngold, Steiner, Newman, Waxman, Rozsa, Herrmann, North, Raksin, Young and Tiomkin - the last three, for aesthetic and/or historical reasons, of more arguable stature than the former seven).