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December 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Johnny Belinda  
Music composed by Max Steiner
  Available on BYU (Brigham Young University) Film Music Archives (FMA-MS115)
Running Time: 58:39

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  • Johnny Belinda is the story of a deaf-mute woman, Jane Wyman, in a small Canadian (Cape Breton) fishing village who falls in love with a doctor, but then has to go on trail for killing the man who raped her, before true love can finally triumph. Based on a 1934 play by Elmer Harris, Johnny Belinda proved enough of a box-office hit in 1948 to subsequently be remade five times for television, including once as an Italian mini-series. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars, though in the event only Jane Wyman took a statue home. Among the loosing nominees was Max Steiner for his score, now lovingly preserved on this beautifully presented soundtrack album from the Brigham Young University film music archives.

    Until now those at all familiar with this score will be so through the film itself, or the via the suite recorded by Charles Gerhardt for his Classic Film Music Series, a revival now further away in history than the movie itself was when Gerhardt recorded his National Philharmonic album.

    In terms of presentation anyone who has previously seen a Brigham Young University album will know what to expect. For those who haven’t suffice to say the packaging equates to that of a Film Score Monthly release, though with the printing on very superior quality paper. The 32 page booklet features a fascinating and extensive essay by film historian Rudy Behlmer, detailed track notes by film composer John Morgan and many superbly reproduced stills and other illustrations.

    In a 30 year career at Warner Brothers Max Steiner scored 161 films. During the 3 years around the release of Johnny Belinda he scored 30 (10 in 1947, 11 in 1948 and 9 in 1949) including such classics as Life With Father, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Adventures of Don Juan, The Fountainhead and White Heat! For Johnny Belinda Steiner wrote themes for Belinda and the doctor, as well as a love theme not heard until a considerable way into the film. Before that the main title uses the Canadian national song, “Maple Leaf Forever”, and reflecting the Scottish heritage of many Cape Breton natives, the score incorporates a considerable amount of Scottish folk and dance music.

    The music on this album was transferred from acetates cut when the score was recorded in 1948. These discs contain almost the entire score and were in excellent condition, such that the music sounds as good as any 1948 recording is ever likely to sound. That said the mono sound lacks range and detail compared to any modern recording, but has the unmistakable authenticity and sound of a classic Warner Brothers 1940’s soundtrack.

    Steiner brings his regular sense of nobility, grandeur and Americana to the proceedings, together with his trademark vibrato rich solo violin melodies, which to many a current ear my sound overly sweet and sentimental, but which are part of the classic Hollywood sound. From warm folksiness to the modernistic brutality of “The Rape” – with squealing strings briefly even anticipating Herrmann’s Psycho – this is a rich, mostly lyrical, score of the highest calibre. I can not say that though I can appreciate Steiner’s music I find it particularly appealing to listen to away from the film for which it was intended, but that does not detract on iota from the achievement here. A first class release of a major score from one of cinemas’ most prolific and distinguished composers, and as such highly recommended to all fans of Golden Age movie music.

    Gary Dalkin

    4

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