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Elmer’s Tune

Bernstein reminisces at recent ASMAC lunch

“A good line will always win.”

The speaker was Elmer Bernstein, and he was talking about the value of melody. And because he was speaking to a crowd of musicians, they knew his reference to “a good line” meant a melodic line.

Bernstein spoke recently at a meeting of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC), one of the oldest musical societies in Hollywood, and one that is rich in talent.

Their monthly luncheons are always a who’s-who of arrangers, composers, music directors and orchestrators, and they attract speakers like Bernstein because everyone there talks the same language – and many of them are friends and colleagues of decades-long standing.

Bernstein recounted bits and pieces of his celebrated career in radio, TV and films, especially from the ’50s.

It was his experience in radio that led to his first film score for Saturday’s Hero (1951), Bernstein reported. An old friend, writer Millard Lampell, had asked him to score a radio drama, Sometime Before Morning, about the 1947 truce between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The show-biz trade paper Variety happened to mention Bernstein’s music, enabling Lampell to recommend Bernstein to producer Sidney Buchman for the score of Hero, which Lampell had written for Columbia. New Yorker Bernstein became a Hollywood composer.

He also managed to attract attention with his music for the Joan Crawford thriller Sudden Fear (1952) for which he wrote a “concertino de camera for two pianos and orchestra.”

“Graylisted” during the McCarthy era because of his left-wing politics from years past, Bernstein said he was “unemployable in the grand sense.” He made all of $800 for composing, orchestrating and conducting the music for the legendary bomb Robot Monster(1953).

“You learn how to use modest means” in cases like that, he noted with some amusement. Sci-fi music buffs will be interested to learn that he used “electronically enhanced celli” and the Hammond B3 organ to achieve some of the musical effects in that film.

Bernstein did behind-the-scenes musical work on Oklahoma! (1955), for which he scored the ballet music and even played rehearsal piano; and The Court Jester (1956), helping Sylvia Fine translate her tunes into genuine songs for husband Danny Kaye.

It was Cecil B. DeMille who, he said, “rescued” him, effectively reinstating him as a composer worthy of A-list films. DeMille initially hired him to write the dance music for The Ten Commandments – and wound up scoring the entire film when Victor Young’s ill health precluded him from doing it. Young, Bernstein said, was “one of the most darling men that ever worked in this business.”

The Oscar-winning composer was gracious in acknowledging the debt he felt he owed to his predecessors in Hollywood, mentioning several – David Raksin (present that day), Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa and Daniele Amfitheatrof – by name.

Discussing the state of film music today, he was generally downbeat. “By and large, the films are not there for film music anymore,” he said. He characterized his experience on last year’s Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven as “a blessing… a film about real people with real problems.” Correcting some critics who wrote about his music, he said: “It was not a nostalgic score. The score is supposed to be about feelings.”

Far From Heaven, like so much of the best of Bernstein, is a melodic score, and he spoke about its role in music.

“The life of music from the very beginning has always been about line. Melody, a non-PC word,” he said. Every memorable score in Hollywood history has “had a line in it,” he added, because the melody so often provides “the emotional core of a film. A good line will always win.” 

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

Republished courtesy of The Film Music Society

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