The Film Music

Note. For all the experts who may chance upon this page, be forewarned that no argumentation on your part will make me disavow my predilections described on this page.

As a kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, I attended Saturday matinees religiously, as did countless other neighbourhood kids. And one of the elements I actively listened to was the background music, especially that of the smaller studios. This, of course, was not a shared experience with my peers on a conscious level, although it undoubtedly was on an unconscious one. Why else would the studios use it?

Now, the studio with all the big bucks, MGM, was actually the last to get on the musical bandwagon, because, it has been argued, the studio felt that its product, being superior to all the other studios, could stand on its own merit. And it was also pointed out that music served a purpose in the silent era, but that with the advent of sound, it was no longer required.

The argument fails to take into consideration the enormous impact that music had on the radio-listening public, which had grown accustomed to it, and subliminally at any rate, might have expected it at least in those films which reminded one of typical radio programmes.

However, I do not really intend to debate the issue, except to say that I cannot help thinking that if MGM's view had prevailed, we might not now have Max Steiner's splendid score for King Kong. Indeed, what would have happened to film composers like Steiner, Miklós Rózsa, Dmitri Tiomkin, and their disciples Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini, whom everyone knows, or others like Mario Casteluomo-Tedesco, Paul Sawtell, Irving Gertz, Marlin Skiles, Daniele Amfitheatrof, Frank Skinner or Roy Webb, who are not so well known, and deserve to be.

My favourite studios for film music are in descending order Columbia, RKO and Universal, and this despite the obvious budgetary constraints. In fact, these and other limitations, like poor acoustics, miking techniques and undersized orchestras, were just part of the charm of those innocent, halcyon days.

Since this is a site dedicated to Johnny Weissmuller, obviously my remarks will be confined to his films.

In the case of MGM, there is not a great deal to say. Very little of the music was written specifically for the Tarzan films. In the first two, there is no music over the MGM logo. An unpublished piece called "Voodoo Dance," written by George Richelavie, and arranged by Fritz Stahlberg and P. A. Marquandt, was used over the main title and credits. Sol Levy's "Cannibal Carnival" began the remaining four films, and started at the appearance of the MGM logo. For the last two MGM Tarzan films, David Snell's intro music from the popular Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern, preceded "Cannibal Carnival".

At the conclusion of Tarzan, the Ape Man, we hear a strain from Tchaikovsky's theme from Romeo and Juliet, and at the end of Tarzan and His Mate, the lovely melody "My Tender One," written by Dr. William Axt for Eskimo, filmed a year earlier. This music was reprised for the conclusion of the three following films, but was never more appropriate than in Tarzan Escapes, when the jungle king sees the smoke rising from the tree-house stove and realizes, with tears in his eyes, that his beloved Jane has not abandoned him. This was Weissmuller's acting at its best.

For the finale of the last MGM Tarzan film, Tarzan's New York Adventure, a cue from the film Waterloo Bridge, written by Herbert Stothert was used.

Curiously, there is almost more music heard in the Tarzan trailers than in the films themselves.

When Sol Lesser took over the Tarzan helm at RKO, he had the good luck to engage Paul Sawtell, one of the most underrated film composers of the century, according to Jerry Goldsmith. The Polish-born composer's prolific output — (Film Composers of America by McCarty lists no fewer than 152 films between 1940 and 1953 for which Sawtell supplied music. In addition, it states that he wrote the background music for more than 1500 TV shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Colt 45, Bourbon Street Beat and Sugarfoot, and of course the theme from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) — has been ascribed to the need to meet alimony payments for his many ex-wives.

Sawtell worked with the studio's premier composer, Roy Webb, and his technique evolved accordingly.

The music score for Tarzan Triumphs set the standard for the remaining RKO-Weissmuller films. Whether reacting to the idyllic peacefulness atop Tarzan's private escarpment, the plaintive cries for help from Zandra, or the rousing battle action in the streets of Palandrya, Sawtell delivered. Many of these cues would become generic for most of the other RKO Tarzan films. And Roy Webb introduced the ... Triumphs score with an adaptation of Beethoven's opening bars to the Fifth Symphony, played over the RKO tower. This same introduction was used in other RKO "B" films of 1943, such as Show Business, The Leopard Man, The Falcon in Mexico and Government Girl..

For the hurried follow-up film, Sawtell's music was not so great, but adequate. The Arab music flavour was similar to that created by other composers.

For the next three films, Sawtell wrote new main title and end music to be used in conjunction with the excellent cues from Tarzan Triumphs. But I must say that the haunting theme music written for Tarzan and the Amazons ranks among his best. And the main title music from Tarzan and the Huntress would be reprised later for Tarzan and the She Devil, starring Johnny's successor, Lex Barker, and for Tarzan and the Trappers, a made for TV film, starring Gordon Scott.

For Weissmuller's last film at RKO, Sol Lesser decided to pull out all stops. He would go to Mexico to film, he would engage Robert Florey to direct, hire extra crew from among Mexican talent, and choose Dmitri Tiomkin to write the film score.

Son Julian explained that his father wanted to give the picture size, ... ŕ la Lost Horizon, and was planning big musical numbers. But the result was less than expected. It has been said that Lesser lacked an artistic sense, and while it may have begun to surface as early as Tarzan's Desert Mystery, nowhere was it more evident than in Tarzan and the Mermaids.

The score for the film is grandiose and overpowering. Film music producer David Schecter describes it as "vintage, typical Tiomkin. Mixed too high, grander than the film deserved, but just what you'd expect from Dmitri."

Fortunately, Lesser returned to his tried-and-true formula for most of the remaining RKO Tarzan films, which included the services of Paul Sawtell.

Finally, we come to Columbia, the little studio with the little orchestra.

With a meagre budget and rapid shooting schedule, composing original scores as background music was not an option. Yet the low-end production values made music an indispensable countervailing ingredient in the Jungle Jim opus. Enter Mischa Bakaleinikoff, the Russian-born music head at Columbia Pictures.

The former double-bass viol player was fully conversant with the music inventory, having been at the studio for some seventeen years. He had developed a unique system of cue tracking. This involved finding and adapting musical snippets from existing original scores, and composing "bridges" to link them. He also had aspirations to being a composer himself and often created music cues, some of which were highly successful and reused, others imitations or disguised versions of other composers' cues, although the latter were probably not intentional plagiarisms. Two or more cues were often mixed, and it requires frequent and careful listening to isolate them.

This system was already in use when the Jungle Jim films began, having been used in series films such as Blondie, Boston Blackie and the Crime Doctor, and especially in the serials that Katzman was churning out. In fact, a number of the selected cues had already been used in jungle or pseudo-jungle serials such as Congo Bill and The Sea Hound. And some of the cues may not have been written for any specific film, but were simply created for Columbia's music library. They often carried non-descriptive titles like Mysterious Agitato.

The earliest regularly-used cues seem to have emanated from a 1940 docuflick I Married Adventure, music by Gerard Carbonara and Nico Grigor (the pseudonym of French composer Mme Germaine Ortala Leclerc). Substantial cues were also culled from a number of action films, the most important of which were Commandos Strike at Dawn (42), Oscar-winning music by Louis Gruenberg, Miklós Rózsa's score for Sahara (43), Mario Tedesco's scores for Two-Man Submarine (44), The Return of the Vampire (45), I Love a Mystery,(45) and Prison Ship (45) . Two cues from Hugo Friedhofer's score for The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (46), and a number of cues from Lucien Moraweck's superb score for The Return of Monte Cristo (46) also helped bolster the series, and finally George Duning's music for the 1948 films To the Ends of the Earth and The Gallant Blade completed the main package.

At least thirty other composers' music was earmarked for one or more of the Jungle Jim pictures. Composers like Paul Sawtell, famous for the RKO Tarzan music, and Irving Gertz, who was responsible for much of Universal's Sci-Fi music, spring to mind.

Even Mischa Bakaleinikoff himself wrote music cues for the Jungle Jim films, at first one or two, but towards the end of the series a dozen or more. His forte of course was to select tracked cues from the existing library, but failing to find an appropriate cue, he could compose one, usually to bridge other cues. His first important cue was undoubtedly "Fishing," composed for the third film in the series, Mark of the Gorilla (49). It became a fixture for subsequent films, especially describing lighter moments, such as animal antics. One other cue, the Saint-saënesque "Monkey and Elephant," was composed for Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land.

Bakaleinikoff yearned to be a composer, but the nearest he came to actually scoring a film was probably the Columbia Sci Fi cult classic It Came from Beneath the Sea (55). In fact, among people who knew him, he was not thought of a composer.

Press this link to view Bakaleinikoff's cues for the Jungle Jim features.

[For the daunting task of collating information on the Columbia music, thanks are due to Monica Ciafardini, former head of Columbia's Music Licensing Department, and to Film Music historian, Paul Mandell. A special thanks must go to David Schecter, a Columbia film music expert (although he would deny it!), who has generously corresponded with me on many facets of this vast, uninvestigated area of film music.]