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    Mining Musical Gold

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    After breaking into films via B-pictures and some wonderful Gerald McBoing Boing animated shorts, Vienna-born composer/conductor Ernest Gold (1921-1999), whose 96th birthday is marked today, enjoyed a powerful one-film association with Otto Preminger and a more enduring 10-title collaboration with producer-director Stanley Kramer (from The Defiant Ones (1958) through The Runner Stumbles (1979)). His work with both film eminences proved to be the highlights of a prolific 40-year film scoring/conducting career, and the one-time Academy Award® winner/overall five-time Oscar® nominee found both gentlemen – after a fashion – to be deferential and delegatory regarding the composer’s melodic contribution. As befitting Preminger’s three-and-a-half-hour Super Panavision 70 epic Exodus (1960), based on Leon Uris’s wildly popular best-seller about the founding of the state of Israel, the work was extensive and exhaustive, and the composer, who in a rare-for-the-era occurrence, was engaged before filming began. Gold put his intense energy and experience to good use, spending three months abroad studying the music of Israel and Cyprus. He told CinemaScore interviewer Randall D. Larson in 1982: “For one thing, I knew nothing about Israeli music, so when I got to Israel, a man was engaged and took me around to concerts, folk music, nightclubs, rehearsal of the Imbal dancers, for Yemenite music. I studied Arabic music, I made copious notes on the instruments, the harmonic and melodic procedures, and I went to recording sessions of native music. I really steeped myself in it, and it paid off. I had a folder, at the end, and it must have been at least an inch-and-a-half or two inches thick – I think I could have used it for a doctoral dissertation. It was a tremendous amount of work. I wrote 33 themes. Any character in the picture, any situation I could think of. I just kept writing and writing and writing, and the purpose of this was to really get inside this thing because I knew I wasn’t going to have too much time once the score was demanded for real. So by the time I got through, as I said, I had 33 themes, of which I actually used in the picture only six. By way of a funny postscript, the 33rd theme, which I wrote simply because I had more time and nothing to do, turned out to be the Exodus Theme! It was an afterthought, and it partially consists of some small motives found in other themes – it’s a synthesis, in a sense, of the essence of the thematic material that I had created. I decided to make that into my main theme. Many of the other themes that I never used in the picture of course I have usedsince, either modified somewhat or as I had originally conceived it, in other pictures as turned out to be suitable.” (Grammy® Awards for the film’s “33rd theme” – as the Song of the Year – and the Best Motion Picture Soundtrack Album joined the Best Original Score Oscar® on the composer’s mantle.) 

    For Kramer, Gold’s output would mix the prestigious and dramatic (On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg) and the outrageously madcap (It’s a Mad Mad Mad World). He confided to Larson: “Stanley is not essentially a music person. He has little ear for music but he has a great film sense, and we developed a marvelous modus operandi. Stanley turned the picture over to me, spotted the picture, then the secretary typed out the complete spotting notes and I’d go Into Stanley’s office and we’d discuss it. Usually there was nearly total agreement as to where the music should go; I would say that, out of a 45-minute score, if there was some difference of opinion about maybe 10 or 20 seconds, that was a lot. Sometimes I felt a certain scene didn’t need music and Stanley felt there ought to be music; of course I would write it because we could always dump it in the dubbing if it proved that I was right and Stanley was wrong. On the other hand, it was good to have in case I was wrong and Stanley was right. But the disagreements were very, very minor. When we recorded, Stanley would come in and listen to one or two cues, and then go to his office, leaving it to me to finish the recording on my own. I had, virtually, 100-percent control over all musical matters because Stanley was one of the people who really know how to delegate responsibility, trusted the people that be worked with. There wasn’t any of this trying to control every phase; he was the opposite of the now-current auteur theory. So it was very easy to work with him and very pleasant, because I was my own master.” For the black-and-white production of Inherit the Wind (1960), the work was spare but precise. Based on the hit play inspired by the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, his music provided ominous shadings to the fundamentalist Americana on display, starting with the horn/string/drumbeat undercurrent to Leslie Uggams’ Old Time Religion through plaintive scenes of quiet emotion and wistful longing among the tortured protagonists and the bombastic Battle Hymn of the Republic riffs among the agitated, parading townspeople. In a piece where free speech and personal expression are paramount, the musical incursions served the power of the material subtly and stingingly as needed. For Kramer’s sun-drenched Technicolor wartime comedy adventure The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), the score was more open and colorful, as befitting the scenic location of this alternately funny and tense tale of villagers in post-Mussolini-but-German-occupied Italy seeking to hide their town’s priceless million-bottle supply of wine from advancing troops. As Film Score Monthly describes it, “Gold's score is a melodic slice of ‘Italiana,’ complete with a love theme, joyous celebration cues, suspenseful Nazi march, and mammoth setpiece (for the hiding of the wine).” Gold, whose It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World title song (with lyrics by Mack David) set the tone for that movie’s wacky shenanigans, also developed a tune to provide a similar function here. He recalled for Larson: “I wrote a purely instrumental number and as an afterthought we decided to have it sung in the main titles. We had an English lyric written [by future Norma Rae Best Song It Goes like It Goes Oscar® winner Norman Gimbel], got it rewritten in Italian, and then after the orchestra had already recorded the main title, [co-star] Sergio Franchi came in and overdubbed the vocal line.” For the full, fascinating text of Gold’s CinemaScore interview, read here: To experience the superb and remarkably versatile compositions of birthday honoree Gold in action, seek out the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Exodus (available here:, Inherit the Wind (available here: and The Secret of Santa Vittoria (available here: