June 2006 Film Music Editorial

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

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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

When Miklos 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.

Discography

What follows is a listing of the available concert recordings of elements of Rozsa’s score for The Lost Weekend.

1. (CD) 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.

2. (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.

3. (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.

4. (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 catalog.

5. (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.

Tom Kiefner
tlkiefner@msn.com

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