Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Frank Skinner at Universal

Frank Skinner's career at Universal spanned nearly thirty years, from 1938 to 1966. The composer did yeoman's work, as did others ranging from Hans Salter in the '30s to Henry Mancini in the '50s, under the music department's head, Joseph Gershenson. Like Paramount, but unlike Warner Bros., orchestral underscore for a film was often a group job, for which Gershenson alone received screen credit for music supervision.

I am currently finishing up a project to digitize more than 60 films for which Skinner himself composed an orchestral underscore. The films are mostly from the late 1940s through about 1960, VHS dubs from television a decade or so back, when the American Movie Channel (AMC) was still showing a large number of Universal-International films without commercial breaks. A majority, unfortunately, are in widescreen format that has been reduced by pan-and-scan, but AMC clearly had access to excellent prints and, apart from the formatting changes, image and sound track quality are quite acceptable, even when passed through television and VHS to mpg files.

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. On the other hand, his main title cues stand out as remarkably tuneful: Skinner often gives a perfunctory nod to the clichéd opening maestoso, then quickly drops into a soaring melody whose style may or may not be directly related to the film's setting or story. These tunes are generally too intense ("heavy") to be associated with the female lead--they typically recur in dramatic emotional situations between the principal male and female characters. In that sense, one might say, they mark an advance on the 1930s-era two-part main title cue. (See HtM, chapter 6, for discussion of the design of establishing sequences.)