Saturday, January 5, 2013

Frank Skinner at Universal, part 2

In a previous post I wrote: "Skinner worked to formula in a musical style that was the lingua franca for Hollywood in the 1930s but had begun to sound a bit old-fashioned when paired with high-quality widescreen image tracks in the 1950s. His music for action scenes (sword fights, battles, etc.), in particular, sounds dated, as if it were stock music taken from 1930s B-films."

Although the generalization stands -- one need only compare Skinner's scores with contemporaries such as Alex North (examples: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Misfits) or late-career masters like Franz Waxman (Spirit of St. Louis) to get the point -- the specific statement about music for action scenes needs qualification. Under Joseph Gershenson, who had been a producer but became music department head in 1949, Universal maintained the practice of collaborative scoring much longer than did other studios. This was by no means always the case, especially later in the 1950s (except for the title song, for example, Skinner wrote all the underscore for Written on the Wind), but even when one composer wrote most of the music, action scenes were often scored by someone else -- or drawn from Universal's large music library, whose holdings stretched back to the mid-1930s.

Action scenes were particularly prone to being shunted off to someone other than the principal composer because they were almost always generic -- that is, they rarely involved thematic material from the film; they were there to increase excitement and tension. Furthermore, unless there was some reason for close synchronization, most any "hurry" would do -- then, pulling something out of the library often made sense and also saved time (hurries are note-heavy) and money (especially if a recording could be re-used).

You can get information about a film's music from Clifford McCarty's Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911-1970 (2d ed., 1999) -- he made a thorough study of studio cue sheets, conductor scores, and other archival sources. His results, however, don't always match those given on IMDb, whose information about music seems to be taken mostly from the databases of rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI.

A simple example: McCarty credits Skinner and Hans Salter for the music to The Rawhide Years (they do both receive screen credit), but IMDb adds Eric Zeisl as composer of "stock music, uncredited." Zeisl's name appears in the ASCAP records for the film.

An example of collaborative work and re-use: Herman Stein received screen credit for The Unguarded Moment. McCarty lists Henry Mancini under "additional composition." ASCAP has an entry for Mancini but also one for Skinner. Stein's theme for the film was re-used in Imitation of Life (Skinner) and two of Mancini's cues were re-used in The Tattered Dress (also Skinner). In both cases, I took the information from the studio cue sheets.