Editorial: Golden Age Column
The Lost Weekend (Rozsa)
Hopefully all who read my column
on The Red Pony
featured in the last update of this site got the message loud and clear: there is no original soundtrack available for
this very fine Aaron Copland score. Well, here we go again with no
original soundtrack on CD! This column will focus on The Lost
Weekend (1945) with a wonderful soundtrack from Miklos Rozsa, a giant in the
world of Golden Age film music.
The Music in the Film
took the assignment for the film in 1945, he was already a veteran of nearly
forty films, six of which had garnered Oscar nominations for him. The
year before, he had worked with the director Billy Wilder on Double
Indemnity, so both were familiar with each other, and Wilder chose to work
again with the Hungarian composer for his follow-up film. The year 1945
was a dream year for Miklos, with an Oscar nomination
for The Lost Weekend, and an Oscar winner in Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
For those not aware, The Lost
Weekend was Hollywood's
first serious look at alcoholism. On a cross-country train trip from Los Angeles to New York,
director Billy Wilder bought the Charles Jackson during a stopover in Chicago. As legend has
it, he couldn’t put it down for the rest of the journey, and decided then and
there to have Paramount purchase the rights to
the book. (This cost the studio $50,000, a huge sum of money back then.)
It was a film that managed to cause a fuss. The liquor industry secretly
wanted to purchase the movie (their offer factoring in a profit for Paramount), with the
expressed purpose of burning it! Nor were the film’s prospects looking
terribly good before its release. The first preview in Santa Barbara was a near disaster for the
film. The Prelude for the opening New York Skyline scene had a terrible
temporary score which featured some Gershwin-like jazzy music that carried over
to the scene where Ray Milland as Don Birnham was trying to get the whiskey bottle, hanging on a
rope, outside his window. People roared with laughter!
Needless to say Rozsa remedied that with a more appropriate score, and the
film went on to be well regarded, winning four Oscars including Best Picture,
Best Actor (Ray Milland), and Best Screenplay and
Director for Wilder. Rozsa’s score stood out for its
distinct use of a relatively unknown instrument at the time called the theremin. Invented in 1919 and named after its
inventor, Russian Leon Theremin, the instrument was first used in film by Dmitri Shostakovich for Odna
(1931), and later became a staple of science-fiction scoring owing
to its use by Bernard Herrman in The Day the Earth
Stood Still (1951). Although Rozsa had
experimented with the theremin in the late thirties,
it wasn't until 1945 that he used the device, and then not once but twice, the
instrument also appearing memorably in Spellbound. Rozsa recalled later that "Hitchcock and Selznick hadn't heard of the Theremin and weren't quite
sure whether you ate it or took if for a headache."
Even though Spellbound was
shot and scored before Lost Weekend, the premiere was after the release
of Weekend, so there was no sense at the time of Wilder’s
film mining the same musical territory as Hitchcock’s. When Selznick heard and found out about the theremin
being used in the Wilder film as well as his own, he had his secretary phone Rozsa, who proceeded to tell her that: yes, he used the theremin, also the flute, triangle and violin and promptly
hung up. Whether because of this or otherwise, Rozsa
never worked with Hitchcock again, and while Herrmann did a wonderful job on Vertigo
(1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), thoughts of
the Rozsa music for Spellbound make one wonder
what might have been achieved has he scored it.
I am sorry to report that all
that remains of the score at least to my knowledge are the Tony Thomas 78
transfers. Such a shame, because is such an innovative score. The theremin is used throughout the film to represent Birnham's obsession with alcohol. But that is only a part
of the soundtrack. During the scene where Don Birnham
is going through the delirium tremors (DT's), the wailing violin for the mouse
is yet another stroke of genius. He created the leitmotif in such a way
that it somewhat sounds like a mouse! The love melody is pure romantic Rozsa, and he used it very effectively – again as a
leitmotif – whenever Helen (Jane Wyman) appears. The effective use of the
music in the scene Don walking up Third
Avenue depicts the man’s anguish and despair, a
perfect example of how an effective underscore makes a scene even better.
All in all, a fantastic score.
Having said that not everyone
agrees on the value of the score. James Agee, who wrote screenplays to
films such as Night of the Hunter and African Queen, reviewed the
film on December 22, 1945 for Time magazine, writing: "Frank Faylen's performance as a male nurse is fully as right and
powerful; so is a shrieking free-for-all in an alcoholic ward-which is fought,
however, by an incredibly mistaken use of 'background' music…” When Agee was
talks about the hangover, he derides the absence of music in these scenes as
reducing them to dead silent pantomime. Needless to say, I totally
disagree with his assessment of the film.
What follows is a listing of the
available concert recordings of elements of Rozsa’s
score for The Lost Weekend.
Koch Records 7375 (1997) – performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by James Sedares. This was the main
recording I listened to, until I received access to the OST. The
recording has since become dull and tepid sounding. On the positive side
is it also includes Double Indemnity and The Killers. As far as I know it
has been discontinued from the catalog. The three-part suite does include
five major cues and approximately thirty-three minutes of music.
(LP) RCA Victor 0911-2-RG (1987) – part of the series of recordings that
Charles Gerhardt did with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, it is
recommended if you can find it. The non-Dolby surround sounds much better
if you can find it, but at this point I would take anything! It only has
about ten minutes from the film but does include ‘The Mouse and the Bat’ and
the love scene music. The music is well played with some vibrancy and excitement.
(LP) Deutsche Grammophon 2584-013 (1975) – this has
the advantage of Miklos Rozsa
himself conducting. While it contains other material which is wonderful
to listen to such as Young Bess, A Double Life and others, the Lost
Weekend material only includes the suite of music included in Don's walk up
3rd Avenue, a mere five minutes. It has never been remastered
to CD either.
(CD) Varese Sarabande
VSD-5206 (1989) – Alas, this has only five minutes of material. I would
pick this one up however for the wonderful Plymouth Adventure (Symphonic
Picture) piece. As far as I know it has also been deleted from the
(CD) Varese Sarabande
VSD-5207 (1989) - Another Gerhardt/National Philharmonic recording released
when Gerhardt began recording with Varese. While it includes a
nice compilation of Rozsa selections The Lost
Weekend suite is only five minutes long.
The Tony Thomas recordings are
the real OST. The hiss level is high and the transfers back in the late
70's weren't nearly what we are capable of today, but again it is in an LP
format. However, it is the finest of the recordings, and it includes all
of the important cues. The couple that are
omitted are insignificant in my opinion unless you are a completist.
Sadly, these recording are not generally available.
Someday I hope someone will
release the transfers. In the meantime, I am grateful I have these
recordings as the concert versions are just not the same. I wish to thank
David Schecter of MMM recordings for providing me
with a copy of the Tony Thomas 78 transfers. I also wish to thank Ray Faiola of Chelsea Rialto Studios for answering a few very
important questions for me. They are my gurus and I certainly appreciate
the help they always willingly give me.