The Siren is on a major Oscar Levant bender, having ordered A Smattering of Ignorance, Memoirs of an Amnesiac and A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant all in one binge. She isn't sure what prompted it, unless it was watching his big encore from The Band Wagon on Youtube and wondering once more what in holy hell was going on with his hands. Still, Levant, with his dangling cynicism and constant cigarette, is a welcome presence in every movie he ever made. And he's a wonderful writer too, stylish and assured, funny as hell and so informative about George Gershwin. (If you put the Siren under hypnosis she would probably admit Gershwin is her favorite composer.)
Anyway, from A Smattering of Ignorance, published in 1942, here are some vintage Levant thoughts on film scores.
It is a tradition in pictures (one of the most stubbornly respected) that nobody in the world goes to hear a movie score but the composer, the orchestrator and other composers. As a kind of compensation, I suppose, they hear every single sixteenth note in the score and are thereafter equipped to discuss its most obscure subtleties. Frequently, however, they have to be told what the picture itself is about.
This has its parallel in another tradition in the movies with which every composer comes into contact as soon as he reports to a studio. It was probably devised by the first producer ever to use a musical score for a dramatic film and runs as follows: If the audience doesn't notice the music, it's a good score. This I could never quite understand...
Perhaps one of the reasons for the low repute of picture music may be found in the words that fill the air when a Hollywood score is discussed by those versed in such matters. You never hear any discussion of a score as a whole. Instead, the references are to "main-title" music, "end title" music, "montages," "inserts" and so on, with no recognition of the character of the complete score. It is much as if one would discuss a suit in terms of its buttonholes, pleats, basting and lining, without once considering its suitability to the figure it adorned...
In the early days of the talkies the idea of writing music under dialogue was so revolutionary that a number of prominent producers (as, for example, Irving Thalberg) countenanced it only under the greatest pressure, and then but sparingly. They were not merely unfriendly to music; they were actually suspicious of its potentialities.
They made a great fetish, for example, of pointing out the conflict between the so-called "reality" of the movies and the "unreality" of music. Always when a situation seemed to demand a heightening by music effect they would come back at the composer with the question, "But where would the audience think the orchestra is coming from?" This was supposed to be the stopper for all arguments. When a musical background was absolutely inseparable from an effect they would go to the most extravagant lengths to relate the music to the scene by having a band playing outside the window, or secreting a string quartet behind a row of potted palms or having the sound come out of a radio. Unquestionably it is an additional virtue to make music an integral part of a dramatic situation, but it always seemed to me an example of remarkable shortsightedness that even the best directors and producers could not reconcile themselves to the thought that they were dealing with a completely artificial medium and adapt themselves to it accordingly.
The second half of that last sentence melted the Siren into a puddle.
Anyway, in honor of Levant, here is a list of twenty film scores. The Siren, at this point, knows better than to give this list a designation like "Favorites" or, god help us, "Best." After much thought, she has decided to call it "An Alphabetical List of Twenty Film Scores I Could Still Recognize and/or Hum After Two Glasses of Scotch," an organizing principle she feels Levant might approve despite his being more the prescription-drug type.
A Summer Place, Max Steiner
Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Miles Davis
Band à Part, Michel Legrand
Limelight, Charlie Chaplin
Doctor Zhivago, Maurice Jarre
Giant, Dimitri Tiomkin
How Green Was My Valley, Alfred Newman
Kings Row, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein
Peyton Place, Franz Waxman
Shaft, Isaac Hayes and J.J. Johnson
Spellbound, Miklós Rózsa
The Bad and the Beautiful, David Raksin
The Big Country, Jerome Moross
The Reivers, John Williams
The Third Man, Anton Karas
To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein
Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
Walk on the Wild Side, Elmer Bernstein