Monday, July 6, 2015

Celebrating One of Hollywood's Legendary Talents

Let's ponder for a moment what Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) might have in common beyond having been voted the two finest films in cinema history*.  The particular feature they share that I have in mind is also shared with, to name just a few films, Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Ray Harryhausen “Dynamation” hit, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), the Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum thriller Cape Fear (1962), Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Canny classic movie buffs have determined by now that Bernard Herrmann, composer of the score for each of these films, is the common denominator.

Welles and Herrmann
Herrmann first collaborated with Orson Welles during the 1930s, when the two were working in radio. Welles was involved with programs like the Columbia Workshop, his Mercury Theatre and the Campbell Playhouse, and Herrmann was a music director/conductor/arranger for the CBS radio network.  When Welles undertook Citizen Kane, he tagged Herrmann to create its score; Kane would be the first feature film for both men. Herrmann also provided the score for Welles’s second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and for Jane Eyre (1943), in which Welles starred.

Herrmann and Hitchcock
But it is with Alfred Hitchcock that Bernard Herrmann’s career as a film composer is most intimately linked. Beginning with The Trouble with Harry in 1955, the two collaborated on seven films, two of them Hitchcock’s – and Herrmann’s – great masterpieces: Vertigo in 1958 and Psycho in 1960. And two very different scores they are; Vertigo, with its nod to Tristan and Isolde, is lushly orchestral, even operatic, while Psycho is spare, modern, jarring.   Both scores have had long-lasting impact. In fact, in 2011 the filmmakers of The Artist, winner of five Oscars including Best Picture, inserted Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo into their own film's score.

Steven Smith, Herrmann’s biographer, reflecting on Herrmann’s special gift as a film composer, noted that “…the thing that Herrmann did again and again, especially in Hitchcock's films, was that he forced the viewer to feel what the characters on screen were feeling. He considered film music, in his phrase, the `communicating link' between the filmmaker and the viewer."

From 1941 until 1975, Bernard Herrmann created the music for 50+ original film and TV works and now he is soon to be celebrated with a new feature-length documentary, Lives of Bernard Herrmann. The film, currently in production under the supervision of New York City-based director Brandon Brown, will feature interviews with Herrmann’s oldest daughter, with actor and former TCM host Alec Baldwin and other notables, and will explore at length the legendary composer’s life and work. Lives of Bernard Herrmann is slated for release in Summer 2016. 

The San Francisco Symphony recently announced its 2015 – 2016 season and its “wildly popular” film series is again part of the schedule.  This series consists of popular classics presented on the big screen while the orchestra performs the score live. I can attest, having attended a few of these events, that these movie-with-live-orchestra performances are an out-of-this-world experience. And this season, good news for Hitchcock/Herrmann fans, Vertigo, which was first presented during the 2013 - 2014 season, will once more be showcased at Davies Hall.

The complete San Francisco Symphony 2015 - 2016 film series:
  • Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), score by Danny Elfman, on Fri. and Sat., Nov. 27 and 28
  • Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), score by Dimitri Tiomkin, on Fri. and Sat., Dec. 11 and 12
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), score by Bernard Herrmann, on Fri. and Sat., Feb. 12 and 13
  • Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), score by John Williams, Fri. and Sat., Mar. 25 and 26
I enthusiastically recommend this series to those who live in or will be visiting the Bay Area during the 2015 - 2016 symphony season.

Vertigo (1958)

For more information on Brandon Brown’s Lives of Bernard Herrmann, click here 

Click here and scroll down to learn more about the San Francisco Symphony’s 2015 – 2016 film series

Steven Smith is quoted from an October 2000 interview on NPR, Bernard Herrmann’s Score to Psycho

*Sight & Sound critics poll

Bernard Herrmann

Saturday, May 16, 2015

National Classic Movie Day - May 16, 2015

A special day is about to come to a close and I haven't much time to put together a tribute to one of my true passions, classic film. Meanwhile, Rick and friends over at The Classic Film & TV Cafe have been hosting a day-long blogathon in honor of this first National Classic Movie Day, and 60+ illustrious bloggers have chimed in on the subject of My Favorite Classic Movie.

Many films rush to mind when I consider which might be my own favorite...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Film with Live Orchestra: The Godfather (1972)

The night sky was clear and the air a bit chilly on Friday, January 9, typical early winter weather in San Francisco. But the evening would be unusual for reasons other than the climate. It was the night that, at 8 pm, the San Francisco Symphony would premiere Francis Coppola's The Godfather (1972) with live orchestral accompaniment. It was also the night that, at midnight, the Golden Gate Bridge was to shut down - through the weekend - for the first time in its 77 year history. The evening would prove to be eventful in more ways than one for those of us attending the three-plus hour symphony performance who also live north of "the Gate."


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Shape of Things to 2015

2014, a busy year in my world, seems to have passed in a about a half-hour or less, and now 2015 is at the door. Here's what my crystal ball predicts may be in store for me on the classic film front in the new year...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What a Character: Cecil Kellaway

Cecil Kellaway is among a handful of older character actors active during Hollywood's heyday who brought to the screen a delectable combination of warmth, kindliness and good cheer that I call "old guy charm." Other members of this twinkly-eyed pack of golden boys include the likes of sweet and snuggly S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, shyly unassuming Henry Travers, rascally Charles Ruggles and spry ol' Harry Davenport.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


2014 has been jam-packed with anniversaries significant to classic film lovers. The year has marked not only the on-screen centennial of Chaplin's "Little Tramp," but also the centenary birth dates of many silver (and Technicolor) screen luminaries including Alec Guinness, Hedy Lamarr, Ida Lupino, Tyrone Power, Jane Wyman and Richard Widmark. 2014 also marks the diamond anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind 75 years ago in December, 1939. And 70 years ago On the Town, the musical that catapulted the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to fame, made its much-heralded debut on Broadway in December, 1944. The pair went on to script its 1949 screen adaptation as well as screenplays for Singin' in the Rain (1952), Auntie Mame (1958) and more.

There's been much to celebrate, and the revelry continues.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hair-raising Tales


Léonard Autié (Monsieur Léonard) was the imaginative 18th century hairdresser responsible for creating the wildly elaborate coiffures of Marie Antoinette. The rococo hairstyles he concocted during her heyday were called poufs, and several of the fantastical coifs he whipped up for her rose 36 inches or more from the top of her head.  In her offbeat and whimsical Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins describes one of Autié’s first important hairstyles for Marie Antoinette, the pouf d’ inoculation - a celebration of Louis XIV’s vaccination: “a rising sun and a serpent holding a club as he shimmied up an olive tree nestled into her hair. The sun symbolized the king. The olive tree stood for peace. The slinky serpent represented medicine, with its club to clobber disease.”