Elmer Bernstein and his Oscar-nominated score is featured strongly in this
DVD's fascinating feature-length documentary about the making of To Kill
a Mocking Bird. Bernstein remembers that he saw the music through the eyes
of the children just as the screenplay does. His music is correspondingly playful,
innocent and intimate. The story is based on Harper Lee's Pullitzer Prize-winning
novel about life in the 1930s in America's deep south with all its cosiness
– and bigotry.
It will be remembered that Elmer Bernstein (here I quote from Christopher
Palmer's marvellous book, A Composer in Hollywood) "…supported the
stand taken by Copland in 1940 with Our Town which showed that, in a
certain type of picture, a score written for fifteen musicians, was more dramaturgically
appropriate than one written for fifty. Bernstein has always been an advocate
of the small orchestra score, and one of the most attractive features of his
work is its chamber-music-like concentration and concision of expression. He
is in fact a miniaturist, whose warm lyrical gift makes the greater impact for
being discretely exercised."
The score for To Kill a Mocking Bird precisely illustrates Palmer's
observation. Instead of some dramatic peroration, the theatre curtains unfolded
onto the Universal International logo over a soft lullaby played by a small
group of instrumentalists. This lovely childlike melody persisted as the credits
unfolded over the contents of a toy box. It wasn't until a marble rolled over
to hit against another that the music swelled to embrace a larger string ensemble
but even then the music was tastefully restrained.
This is one of Elmer Bernstein's best scores and one of the 'greats' in the
history of film music.
Turning to the film itself, To Kill a Mocking Bird was honoured by
Oscars for Gregory Peck as Best Actor for his role as the father, Atticus Finch,
and to Horton Foote for Best Adapted Screenplay. As well as Bernstein's nomination,
it also gained other nominations for Best Picture; Best Director (Robert Mulligan);
Best Cinematography; and for Mary Badham who played Atticus's little girl, Scout.
Peck of course is excellent turning in his greatest role of his lifetime – a
deeply sensitive and moving performance. I cannot recommend To Kill a Mocking
Bird too highly.