Bernard Herrmann and the echoes of cinema history

April 28, 2011 | 2:21 p.m.
bh Bernard Herrmann and the echoes of cinema history

Bernard Herrmann, left, and Alfred Hitchcock (Bravo)

The TCM Film Festival celebrates the 100th birthday of the Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann (“The Devil and Daniel Webster”) with screenings this weekend of several films for which he wrote the scores:  Orson Welles ‘ 1941 masterwork, “Citizen Kane;  Martin Scorsese‘s 1976 classic, “Taxi Driver” ( his final score); 1958’s “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” the first of four fantasy films from special-effects legend Ray Harryhausen; and 1955’s “The Trouble With Harry, the first film Herrmann scored for Alfred Hitchcock.

Dorothy Herrmann, the daughter of the composer, will be talking about her father Thursday evening at screenings of his favorite film, the 1947 romantic fantasy “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and the 1951 sci-fi thriller “The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Bernard Herrmann, who died in 1975 at the age of 64, worked in radio in the 1930s in New York, collaborating on Welles’ “Mercury Theatre,” writing and arranging scores for the legendary radio broadcasts. He also conducted the music for Welles’ infamous 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” Herrmann followed Welles to Hollywood, where he scored “Citizen Kane” and 1942’s “The Magnificent Ambersons. Besides his work with Welles, he’s best known for his  evocative, complex scores for Hitchcock thrillers including 1956’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1959’s “North By Northwest” and 1960’s “Psycho.

In addition to winning the Oscar for “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” he also earned nominations for “Citizen Kane,”  1946’s “Anna and the King of Siam,” “Taxi Driver” and  “Obsession,” which was also released in 1976. Dorothy  Herrmann, 69, is the author of numerous books including “Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift for Life” and “Helen Keller: A Life. Our Susan King talked to her recently on the phone from her home in New Hope, Pa.

SK: I have been humming your father’s score to “Psycho” all morning.

DH: I think my father would turn over in his grave to be remembered for “Psycho.” That was not his favorite score. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was, and I am very happy the festival will be playing that. I don’t know if you know the history of “Psycho.” But Hitchcock set out to make a very inexpensive film that he could make a lot of money out of. He cut down expenses. He used very inexpensive actors, and he used a string orchestra — that was to save money. … When he saw the completed movie, Hitchcock didn’t like it and he wanted to cut it down to an hour and show it on television. My father persuaded him — he said, “Let me see if music can help it along.” Hitchcock said to him, “Write some music, but whatever you do, don’t write any music for the shower sequences.” Of course,  my father disobeyed his wishes. Hitchcock went on vacation and when he came back, he saw what the effect added to that scene; he really felt that it added a great deal. So my father reminded him that he didn’t want any music and Hitchcock said to him, “Improper suggestion, my dear boy. Improper suggestion.” The effect of that squeaking noise — it is the sound of a violinist beginning to tune up. That’s all it is.

SK: Your dad wrote such stunning scores, I am still shocked he only received an Oscar for his score for 1941’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

DH: Well, he was also nominated I believe for “Citizen Kane” [that same year]. I think toward the end of his life he was up for “Obsession” and “Taxi Driver” in the same year — think he canceled himself out.

SK: His score for 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was very modern with the use of the theremins to achieve that other-world effect. Was he always interested in experimenting with different instruments?

DH: He was. That score was a prelude to electronic music, and I think it used a high and a low theremin. I think there is a difference between the two of them. For instance, for a very forgettable film like “Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, he used something like nine harps for the underwater sequences, so he was always very interested in very unusual combinations of instruments. When he came to Hollywood, many of film composers in the 1940s had come from Europe and they were influenced by … Viennese opera and musicians and German musicians — Wagner was a big influence, Richard Strauss was another. So many of their scores were really sort of 19th century Viennese operas. One studio in particular, I think it was Warner Bros., the music never stopped. Daddy, of course, used the neo-romantic style, but he used unusual orchestrations. Because of his radio training at CBS — he was the composer for the “Mercury Theatre” — he used these usual bridge transitions throughout his films rather than to have a running theme … as the other composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner did.

SK: He worked with Welles on “Mercury Theatre” and then “Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” But they never worked together again. What happened?

DH: Welles after “The Magnificent Ambersons” was really sort of kicked out of Hollywood. “The Magnificent Ambersons” was ruined by [RKO]. They put on a sappy ending. Everybody has been looking for the original footage, but the movie lost its punch. The studio cut it down, and I think they brought in another composer to compose the parts they had inserted. I think Daddy wanted to take his name off the film. Welles went to Europe. … After that, I don’t think that Welles approached Daddy to do anything more for him — I think he had trouble finding the funds to film other projects.

SK: Is it true that your father demanded total control?

DH: Yes, he did. He was supposed to score “The Exorcist,” and I remember meeting him at the Hotel Carlyle. [Director] William Friedkin had told him that he wanted to see the music every day. It was a funny story. I was looking forward to having a dinner at the elegant Hotel Carlyle. I arrived at the hotel suite, and Daddy said don’t touch anything, don’t use the bathroom. He packed everything in his suitcase, told Friedkin where he could go and then went out to stay with his brother in Washington Heights. He did not suffer fools gladly.

SK: Did he enjoy doing the fantasy films with Ray Harryhausen?

DH: Yes. I think he enjoyed his relationship with … Harryhausen. He was the father of special effects, and it was amazing what he was able to achieve without computers. He especially enjoyed doing “The Three Words of Gulliver.

SK: Why was “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” his favorite score?

DH: Well, I think it was sort of romantic idea that this was a story about a lonely widow and a ghost who was a virile sea captain. He was always drawn to romantic stories … .

— Susan King


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9 Responses to Bernard Herrmann and the echoes of cinema history

  1. Alex Poe says:

    Wow, the question about Orson Welles reveals a lack of cinema history knowledge in the interviewer. Especially as the far more interesting story is why Hermann and Hitchcock ended their working relationship. The quality of reportage at Hero Complex has really gone down lately.

  2. Melanie says:

    Isn't it pretty much acknowledged that Christopher Young ghostwrote much of "Taxi Driver"?

    • Marc Allen says:

      No. It's not. If you mean, "Christopher Palmer," then still, "no." Palmer DID arrange/compose the sax piece, "So Close to Me Blues" based on a theme from Herrmann's musical, "The King of Schnorrers." The rest of the score was composed by Herrmann.

      • Jerry says:

        Palmer arranged the theme from Herrmann's musical, but the music was composed by Herrmann and Palmer helped to orchestrate it for saxophone. Thus the entire score is Bernard Herrmann.

    • Richard says:

      Does it seem plausible that Herrmann would allow someone else to write his scores for him when he wouldn't allow others to orchestrate for him. It's true he needed help on the jazz scorings in that film; maybe that's what you're talking about.

  3. Mary Mallory says:

    Theremins go back to at least 1945, when Miklos Rozsa used one for SPELLBOUND.

  4. Malcom says:

    And Herrmann then used 4 for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. And not just those – electric violin, electric cello, bass guitar and Hammond organ, were also featured.

    • J S Lasher says:

      Herrmann did NOT use 4 Theremins for TDTESS. Two Theremins, one 'high' and one 'low', were performed by Dr Samuel Hoffmann and Paul Shure, respectively.

  5. sirys says:

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my favorite movies, way better than Tom Cruises remake.

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