The major Hollywood studios of the so-called Golden Age (c1935–55) were MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers and 20th Century-Fox. Each housed a permanent music department, with contracted composers, arrangers, orchestrators, librarians and music editors, as well as a resident orchestra, all working under a senior music director. The heavy emphasis on commercially viable narrative films, and intense pressures on production staff to maintain a prolific output, inevitably led to stereotyped scoring in which the work of one composer was readily interchangeable with another’s; many low-budget movies were ‘tracked’ with music from previous productions until this practice was prohibited in 1944. The majority of early composers shared Steiner’s European and/or Broadway background, and moved with ease from high Romanticism to Gershwinesque symphonic jazz as required. Steiner won RKO an Academy Award for his score to The Informer in 1935; the best-score category had been introduced in the previous year, and for the first four years of its existence it was awarded to studio music departments, not composers. In his later music for romantic melodramas, including Gone with the Wind (1939), Steiner preserved a link with silent-cinema traditions by incorporating allusions to easily recognizable melodies such as Civil War songs and national anthems where dramatically justified. In Casablanca (1942) he transformed the diegetic popular song ‘As Time Goes By’ to provide narrative comment in the background score.
The conventions of the ‘classical’ Hollywood film score in the Golden Age – essentially a leitmotif-based symphonic romanticism with narrative orientation, the music almost always subordinated to the primacy of the visual image and dialogue – prevailed in scores by other expatriate musicians. Work for European immigrants was promoted by the European Film Fund (founded in 1939), an initiative followed by MGM and Warner Brothers. At Warner, the Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold provided flamboyant scores to the series of Errol Flynn costume dramas including Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940), bringing the romantic-operatic style to its early highpoint. The German-born composer Franz Waxman developed a style of underscoring suited to the horror genre pioneered by Universal, where he was head of the music department, an early example being James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Waxman also exploited pre-existing musical structures such as fugue and passacaglia where these suited the narrative. The Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa (who had worked for his compatriot, the producer Alexander Korda, in London before moving to Hollywood in 1939) and Dimitri Tiomkin (originally a silent-cinema pianist in Russia) both proved exceptionally versatile. Rózsa served as Professor of Film Music at the University of Southern California from 1945 to 1965, and his scores for epic productions in the 1950s were especially influential (see below). The success of Tiomkin’s score to the western High Noon (1952) initiated a craze for the ‘theme score’, based largely on a main-title melody or song. Other immigrant composers included Daniele Amfitheatrof, Adolph Deutsch, Ernest Gold, Werner Heymann, Friedrich Hollaender, Bronislaw Kaper and Cyril Mockridge; their American contemporaries included George Antheil (also an early film-music critic), David Buttolph, Hugo Friedhofer, John Green and Ray Heindorf (the two last specializing in musicals), Herbert Stothart and Victor Young.
The leading native American film composer in this period was Alfred Newman, another musician who had moved from Broadway to Hollywood. Newman was music director at 20th Century, for which he composed his famous fanfare in 1935, the year in which the company merged with Fox; he held the music directorship of 20th Century-Fox from 1939 until 1960. By his death in 1970 he had completed over 200 scores (of which the last was Airport in 1969) and received nine Academy Awards and 45 nominations. (The Newman family has remained prominent in Hollywood to this day: Lionel Newman was Alfred’s brother, David and Thomas Newman are his sons and Randy Newman his nephew). In addition to his creative achievements, Newman was renowned as a sensitive music director and talent-spotter, and furthered the careers of young native talents such as David Raksin and Jerry Goldsmith. Raksin established his reputation with an inventive score to the unorthodox detective thriller Laura (1944), important equally for its near monothematicism (the main-title theme became a hit when lyrics were added by Johnny Mercer after the film’s release), its subtle blurring of the distinction between diegetic and extra-diegetic music, and its canny blending of popular and art-music styles. In the wartime genre of film noir underscoring achieved a harmonic and textural sophistication (including novel instrumental colours and expressionistic dissonances) generally lacking in other genres. Fine examples were composed by Rózsa (Double Indemnity, 1944) and Roy Webb (Farewell my Lovely, 1944; The Spiral Staircase, 1945).
Copland’s film scores – including Of Mice and Men and Our Town (both 1940), The Red Pony and The Heiress (both 1949) – encouraged American composers to explore a new clarity of texture and simple diatonicism. The strong flavour of American folk music in this style, which extends back to Virgil Thomson’s score for the Depression documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and was later represented by Friedhofer’s to The Best Years of our Lives (1946), made it well suited to rural or western scenarios; it had a significant impact on scores for the latter genre composed by Jerome Moross, whose music for The Big Country (1958) was widely imitated, and Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; True Grit, 1969). Bernstein’s work in the 1950s often favoured smaller instrumental ensembles than the traditional studio orchestras, and his output has remained prolific and varied.
Dissonant modernism came to the fore in a high-profile score by Leonard Bernstein (On the Waterfront, 1954) and in Leonard Rosenman’s partly atonal music for the James Dean vehicles East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause (both 1955), strongly influenced by Berg and the Second Viennese School; the gritty realism of the director Elia Kazan stimulated this trend. Serial techniques were occasionally employed: examples include Rosenman’s The Cobweb (1955) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), Rózsa’s portrayal of Satanic elements in King of Kings (1961) and Jerry Fielding’s Straw Dogs (1971). The career of Bernard Herrmann, who provided critically acclaimed scores for the directors Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, 1941; The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, 1958; North by Northwest, 1959; Psycho, 1960), François Truffaut (see §4) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976), set a new standard in essentially non-thematic but highly atmospheric and economical underscoring, with dissonant harmonies, resourceful instrumentation and often disquieting ostinato figurations.
In the field of animation, film scores quickly achieved a formidable virtuosity. The Disney studio, founded in 1923, added a soundtrack to Steamboat Willie in 1928, promoted the hit song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?’ in The Three Little Pigs (1933) and thereafter specialized in comic shorts and full-length animated musicals, the first of which was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with music by Frank Churchill. Fantasia (1940) comprised inventive and witty scenes cut to famous pieces of classical music conducted by Stokowski. Eisenstein admired Disney’s work for its close integration of image and music, and the term ‘mickey-mousing’ (i.e. musical effects directly synchronized with, and illustrative of, specific actions on screen) was adopted in live-action cinema, where it had proved especially appropriate in slapstick comedy. At Warner Brothers, Carl Stalling composed for the Bugs Bunny series between 1936 and 1958, while at MGM in the same period Scott Bradley wrote witty, jazz-inflected music for the Tom and Jerry cartoons; his score to The Cat that Hated People (1947) used a 12-note row with its retrograde to represent the antics of cat and mouse, while The Cat Concerto of the same year was cunningly cut to an adaptation of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no.2. Established Hollywood film composers who contributed to full-length animated features include Raksin (The Unicorn in the Garden, 1953), Rosenman (The Lord of the Rings, 1978) and Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, 1993), while Disney’s musicals have since 1989 been dominated by the work of Alan Menken.
The boom in television viewing in the 1950s threatened to diminish cinema audiences, who were lured into movie theatres by new gimmicks such as widescreen and 3-D presentation. Four-track stereophonic sound was introduced in the first CinemaScope production, The Robe (1953), with a score by Alfred Newman; alongside the greater flexibility of editing techniques made possible by the introduction of soundtrack recording on 35 mm magnetic tape in 1950, the increase in audio quality was significant. Lavish historical epics were ideal for the grandeur of widescreen presentation, and commanded budgets of which television companies could only dream. For these, Rózsa developed a manner of underscoring which drew heavily on organum techniques and quartal harmony to create a pseudo-archaic style, backed up by careful historical research, for the Roman epics Quo vadis? (1951), Julius Caesar (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959), and the Spanish epic El Cid (1961); composers influenced by this style included Alex North (Spartacus, 1960; Cleopatra, 1963).
Increasing competition from television, coupled with the demise of the permanent studio orchestras precipitated by a damaging musicians’ union strike in 1958, made the survival of mainstream Hollywood scoring in the 1960s less than certain: commercially targeted youth audiences ensured that jazz (see §5), electronic scores (see §6) and pop music (see §7) came to dominate the market. However, the success of full-blooded orchestral scores by composers such as Jerry Goldsmith (The Blue Max, 1966; The Omen, 1976; Star Trek: the Motion Picture, 1979) and John Williams (Jaws, 1975; Star Wars, 1977; Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981; E.T., 1982) steadily steered film music back towards its traditional symphonic realm. A fluid balance between lyrical and dissonant orchestral scoring, jazz, electronics, popular song and non-Western or traditional music, and rock-tinged percussiveness prevails in the work of contemporary Hollywood composers such as Carter Burwell, Bill Conti, Randy Edelman, Cliff Eidelman, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Dave Grusin, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Mark Isham, Michael Kamen, Thomas Newman, Basil Poledouris, Graeme Revell, Marc Shaiman, Howard Shore, Alan Silvestri and Hans Zimmer. More exceptional have been the extended minimalist soundtracks supplied by Philip Glass for the non-narrative films Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988), although his music for The Secret Agent (1996) revealed a grasp of more conventional expressive techniques.