The Other Hollywood
Though we often hear of the film composers Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and other high-profile émigrés who changed the sound of Hollywood, it has always been a slight puzzle to me why so many of the more established European film-composers made such a small contribution to American film. Somewhere between the very successful composers above, to the more left-field composers such as Ernst Toch or Hanns Eisler, there was a group of formerly very successful film composers, whose work in Hollywood did not have the same impact. This is odd as composers such as Friedrich Holländer (featured in the opening photo), Werner Richard Heymann, Emmerich Kálmán, Ralph Benatzky, Oscar Straus and even Kurt Weill should have been the most successful of all. Granted, Kurt Weill at least compensated by having his big ‘hits’ on Broadway. My suspicion, however, is that the composers who did less well, while making few innovations to American cinema, were the ones with the most successful careers at Berlin’s UFA studios. They thereby underlined how very different the film-music aesthetics were between the two continents. Despite German cinematic brilliance, it was the Americans who had the most revolutionary ideas about sound and image, even if these ideas came from such central Europeans as Korngld, Waxman and Miklós Rósza. While the UFA composers arrived with the fixed ideas of film music as a jaunty opening number for the credits with a tune embedded to be picked up later as the ‘hit’ song, the non-UFA composers were coming up with the very Wagnerian idea of music that was operatic and through-composed.
The odd men out are the likes of Ernst Toch and Hanns Eisler, both of whom arrived in Hollywood with a good deal of film music experience. Toch’s scores for ‘Catherine the Great’, ‘Peter Ibbetson’ and ‘Little Friend’ are sparse. With Ibbetson, there is at least what we think of as an ‘old-fashioned’ soppy love-theme, but it is neither expanded nor developed. It simply appears and goes away again. The music for ‘Catherine the Great’ is hardly what one could call a soundtrack at all as it consists of music that is part of the movie’s narrative, such as church and folk music. ‘Little Friend’ on the other hand, opens with a subject that is pure German ‘New Objectivity’. Toch’s future in Hollywood was thus reduced to horror films, or science fiction.
Eisler too, largely avoided the broad canvas, though there is a telling irony that he abandoned Bertolt Brecht in New York during the middle of rehearsals of ‘Fear and Misery of the Third Reich’ to return to Hollywood to compose the music for a true Korngoldian swashbuckler called ‘The Spanish Main’.
This was atypical of Eisler’s general use of music in cinema, which like Toch’s score of ‘Catherine the Great’, was usually reduced to the purely functional. His score for ‘Hangmen also Die’ veers away from the ‘narrative descriptive’ and is often absent just when music would be most expected, leaving the viewer with a strong sense of dislocation. With the composers for the movies of Berlin and Vienna, however, we come to either adaptations of operettas for film, or very conventional dance music for opening titles encapsulating the required ‘hit’ song. Perhaps it was Heymann who was most successful at combining UFA techniques and aesthetics with Hollywood, with Greta Garbo’s ‘Ninotchka’ being his biggest success.
In addition to ‘Ninotchka’, he had another two Oscar nominations with a 4th coming for the recycling of his music in the French film ‘Chocolate’ from 2000. An example of Heymann’s genius can be heard in this beautiful song written for Hidegard Knef in 1952. ‘Das Lied vom einsamen Mädchen’ sung here by Dagmar Manzel.
His music for ‘Bluebeard’s 8th Wife’ was composed together with Friedrich Holländer, or Frederick Hollander, as he billed himself. Hollander, composer of ‘The Blue Angel’ and the Dietrich hit-song ‘Falling in Love Again’, has (according to the International Movie Database), 114 films to his credit along with many television scores. Oscar Straus, best known for his ‘Chocolate Soldier’ offers a mere 26 film credits (10 more than Korngold, though Korngold did contribute music to another eight films in addition to the 16 for which he was sole composer) despite Straus’s score for ‘Make a Wish’ from 1937 sounding more like something from Vienna’s studios at Rosenhügel than Hollywood. Heymann has 113 credits, including his four Oscar nominations whereas Kálmán’s 13 film scores appear to be mostly cinematic versions of his highly successful operettas. Ralph Benatzky didn’t ‘make it’ in Hollywood at all, though he composed soundtracks for 35 European films and Eric Zeisl, a truly important composer worked on 44 films without receiving a single individual credit.
Does this have anything to say to us? I believe it does, as it is an example of how a mere transplantation of talent did not always result in what posterity would think of as a successful career. The basic fact that such esteemed composers managed to survive the Holocaust can be viewed as ‘a success’. For me, the fascinating aspect, is that those composers who simply brought what they could already do well and carried on doing it in Hollywood are not the composers we think of today as having been ‘the greats’. The ones we admire today are the ones who arrived in Hollywood and reinvented themselves along with reinventing the music of cinema. Would Heymann, Straus, Kálmán and the others have developed into more significant composers had they stayed in Vienna, Berlin and Budapest? This is hard to judge, as under those circumstances, Korngold, Rosza and Waxman would not have needed to emigrate either, and it’s debateable if Max Steiner could have turned the entire world of movie music around on his own.
It has become very plausible and indeed legitimate, to discuss the influences of Schoenberg on Bernard Hermann’s score for ‘Psycho’. An equally compelling question is whether Toch’s scores also didn’t pave an important cinematic path. His score for ‘Little Friend’ featured above, but also the sleigh chase sequence from Shirley Temple’s ‘Heidi’ from 1937, is pure Berlin Sachlichkeit. In a way, Toch also reinvented himself when he arrived in Hollywood. Listening to his first symphony, however, I hear more of HIS Hollywood, than I do of Korngold’s Hollywood in the Symphony in F-Sharp. Indeed, with modern ears, listening to Toch’s First Symphony, now sounds unashamedly ‘Hollywood’ though at the time, few would have dared to identify it as such.