Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

What better way to spend your evening hours during a prosperous decade than inside your newly purchased home with your family, in front of the neatest invention ever—the television. The postwar decade began as the worst nightmare the film industry could’ve imagined. The new television audience enjoyed the reality they viewed from the couch and wanted to recover from the over the top, silly sets and melodramatic horns and percussion of many wartime films churned out during the previous decade. The assembly line became frenetic, now trying to bring audiences films with higher production standards, exotic locations, and effects. A young composer looking for his niche in the 1950s, Henry Mancini, found himself not only working long hours at Universal but sometimes shuttled from film to film rather quickly. Often only a month was set aside to watch the film, compose, and arrange the score, so new composers were put on jobs to assist other composers for a while and then whisked away quickly to the next assignment. Therefore, one could afford little attachment or involvement in the project, which was not ideal for someone trying his or her best to develop a style. In his early years, Mancini contributed to over 100 films, in whole or in part. However, some strong relationships were beginning to grow during this young business’ transitional time.

Composer Alex North met director Elia Kazan while working in the theater during the 1940s. A classically trained composer who fell in love with Duke Ellington in the midst of his conservatory studies, North introduced the use of jazz in film music for Kazan’s 1951 classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. This and other North-scored classics: Viva Zapata! and The Bad Seed, started an exciting trend of jazz in the movies. Like a moody breath of fresh air, an intuitive step from left field, this unity was a new reason to go to the cinema, made possible by a composer (and a collaboration) which seemed to be working outside the studio grind.

As jazz-influenced scores grew in popularity, Elmer Bernstein became one of the most admired composers in the genre. His score for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) unleashed the era when jazz was all the rage in film and television. Even jazz legend Duke Ellington eventually got into the picture by composing music for the film Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Also in the 1950s, the temperamental Bernard Herrmann met his match with the temperamental Hollywood-transplant Alfred Hitchcock, resulting in some of the master of suspense’s most successful cinematic undertakings including Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and several films of the early 1960s.

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox