Victor Young

Another Biography of the Famed Composer


Whenever Hollywood's golden age of film music is discussed today, Victor Young's name surfaces only as a grand afterthought.  Several reasons exist for this.  For one thing, some of his film scores initially seem to lack the musical ingenuity and titanic individuality of, say, Miklos Rozsa or Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

It has been noted, too, that when faced with films he found lackluster or uninspiring, Young occasionally failed to furnish his best (though one is also reminded that colleague Korngold eventually gave up film music altogether because, for one thing, he tired of the increasing number of substandard films he was asked to score).  And there are few stories of Young stubbornly standing up for his principles in the legendary, much-loved manner of Bernard Herrmann or Franz Waxman.  What's more, associates have remarked how Young, possibly because of the sheer volume of work he tackled, not only proved somewhat sloppy when composing but also frequently (and happily) left most decisions at symphonic coloring to able orchestrators such as Leo Shuken.  Perhaps worst of all, he didn't even look like a composer.  Anyone working in the busy music departments of Hollywood during that era is quick to remember Victor Young as a compactly built, cigar-smoking character whose very appearance suggested a Chicago warehouseman more than a distinguished film composer, arranger and recording artist.  "Amazing," fellow composer Irving Gertz said of Young on occasion of the recording at hand.  "The first time I met him was at Columbia and he was coming to the podium to conduct.  He was a little guy who looked like a prizefighter with a cigar.  I asked somebody who he was.  It was Victor Young."  (Of course, if one wonders just what a composer of that period was supposed to look like, the public back then might well have suggested stern-looking character actor Victor Francen, who portrayed the stern, temperamental conductor in Tales of Manhattan and stern, temperamental pianist in The Beast With Five Fingers.)

And yet Young effortlessly produced something other composers then and now find difficult to serve up -- melody.  It's little wonder he found inspiration and kinship in the music of that great displaced Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who had himself settled in Los Angeles during Young's career and continued writing in an unashamedly romantic and songful manner.  "He was very nice," Hollywood composer Herman Stein said during a lively 1996 interview, recalling a lunch he enjoyed with Victor Young decades before. "I told him Rachmaninoff was thoroughly underrated as a composer and he said, 'Oh, yes, I agree. He's not just a second-rate Tchaikovsky!'  But I think a lot of people held that opinion then."  Even as scores embraced more brittle, hard-edged tones in the 1950s, Young refused to bend to the trends of the times.  "He wrote music from the heart," music editor and associate Bill Stinson later remarked of Young.  "He had so much melody within him.  He may have been the best melody writer we ever had in Hollywood."  There was little telling what might trigger such melodies.  Today his full-blooded scores for such popular, critically successful films as For Whom the Bells Toll (1943), Samson and Delilah (1949) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) are frequently cited, yet there is just as much musical merit in less prestigious fare such as Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), bristling with soaring melodies and memorable battle music and nefarious harmonies.  Like the best of Victor Young's music, it is as fully satisfying heard away from the film as it is alongside it.

Young's genius as a songwriter, composer and arranger, coupled with his cheerful, pliable personality, certainly won him the respect and affection of many in Hollywood's filmmaking and musical realms.  And while such qualities also probably resulted in the overwork that eventually taxed his health and contributed to his death at a relatively young age, Young's impact was evident at his jam-packed funeral.  No less than Frank Sinatra and Michael Todd showed up to pay tribute to the fallen composer.  But perhaps no one in the entertainment business drew so much music from Victor Young as Paramount's autocratic director and producer, Cecil B. DeMille, who recognized the exuberance and great appeal of Young's music (as well as Young's amazing industriousness and willingness to tolerate the blunt orders DeMille routinely barked to his crew).  And so, in 1940, DeMille tapped Young to score Northwest Mounted Police and all manner of spectacle thereafter.  Only in 1956 did Young take the highly uncharacteristic move of stepping aside in his long-running collaboration with the demanding (and, whatever else, steadfastly loyal) filmmaker, owing to Young's rapidly declining state of health.  Even then, Young did his old boss a supreme favor by recommending to DeMille that a young composer by the name of Elmer Bernstein be tapped for the job -- advice DeMille wisely took.  And what a job it was: Composing the score for DeMille's three-and-a-half-hour epic remake The Ten Commandments (1956) -- much of it, intentionally or otherwise, showing Young's influence on even the highly individualistic Bernstein.

Although Cecil B. DeMille no longer commands the attention he once did as a filmmaker, one cannot deny his presence during the cinema's first 50 years.  Granted, he may have been well on his way to becoming wearily predictable during the final decade of his life, hackneyed in his epics mixing innocuous sex (including a love of leading ladies taking peek-a-boo baths), patriotism (so that even an army of the truly dead took to the field in The Unconquered) and spectacle (and who has not initially marveled at the parting of the Red Sea in either of his takes on The Ten Commandments).  In some ways, DeMille had become the P.T. Barnum of Hollywood during his later years, not only tackling all sorts of mammoth, eye-catching spectacle but touting his films with such flamboyance that one felt un-American ignoring DeMille's exhortations that one and all see his latest film.  It was only natural then DeMille finally mount a film in a genuine circus, as he did in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).  Whatever one thinks of the storyline -- mostly about ambition, jealousy and love among circus stars -- the film still has an air of awe about it, with DeMille's cameramen following the high excitement and
riveting drama of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in performance and linking it to their credo that the show must go on -- even after a horrible train wreck sets half of the circus animals loose, injures the circus manager and leaves the performers and crew in a quandary over how to make good on their next performance.  Victor Young's spirited circus march captures the determination and energy behind their drive and the sheer joy at their success, piccolos soaring acrobatically overhead while brass and percussion drive home the point.  Even those critics who think some of Young's music is itself a bit too obvious would have to concede his upfront talents fit this picture like a glove.  Certainly, it's more interesting than most genuine circus marches.

One can only begin to appreciate the vast amount of work Young produced when considering his amazing versatility.  In addition to scoring more than 300 films during the two decades he spent in Hollywood, he also wrote numerous popular songs for some of the best-known singers of the day, proved successful as a recording and radio artist, was peerless when it came to arranging, and even found time to compose concert works.  When colleagues later remarked that music was a natural part of Young's makeup, they weren't far wrong.  Born Aug. 8, 1900, in Chicago, he found music evident throughout the house.  His father, William Young, was a tenor with the Chicago Opera Company, though he reportedly abandoned his family after the death of Victor's mother.  With nowhere else to turn, 10-year-old Victor and his sister Helen went to Poland to be raised by elderly grandparents.  It was in Warsaw that Victor's musical roots took hold.  Thanks to the savings his grandfather had set aside as a tailor, Victor was able to study at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, devoting much of his attention to the violin.  He must have been an apt pupil.  Family tradition has it that Victor's debut as a concert violinist with the Warsaw Philharmonic proved so successful a wealthy music-lover presented him with a 1730 Guarnerius, an instrument Young continued to play upon his return to America.

Young's versatility went on parade only after 1914, when his concertizing across Europe was interrupted by World War I.  Upon his return to Chicago, he picked up work of all kinds, and in the 1920s he toured as a concert violinist.  However, as his musical gifts became apparent to himself and others, he took a turn toward popular music, quickly finding great success as a songwriter and band leader.  A career in radio began in Chicago in the late 1920s but eventually moved to New York City.  In 1935 he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his success, forming another ensemble and continuing to air on radio regularly.  By this time, he was writing and arranging songs for some of the most prominent performers of the day, including Al Jolson and Don Ameche.  But even before he began composing film scores for Paramount -- always his home studio, despite the numerous scores he wrote for others -- Young had already gained something of a background in movie music.  In the 1920s, just as his career was beginning to bloom, he worked as a concertmaster in a motion-picture theater in Los Angeles and later back in Chicago.  Together with his natural gift for melody -- proven time and again with his success as a songwriter -- it was only a matter of time before Hollywood became his permanent home and film music his primary profession.  "When fellow musicians in more sedate branches of the music field ask why on earth I chose to become a film composer, I am stumped for a ready answer," Young wrote shortly before his death.  "Why, indeed, would any trained musician let himself in for a career that calls for the exactitude of an Einstein, the diplomacy of a Churchill and the patience of a martyr?  Yet, after doing some 350 film scores, I can think of no other musical medium that offers as much challenge, excitement and demand for creativity in putting music to work.  Every new film is unique in its dramatic values and, scene for scene, asks for a fresh musical interpretation of the human comedy.  The film composer must be equipped with an unflagging interest in the universe of man and a gargantuan knowledge of musical forms."

If one film score displays Young's exceptional compositional talents at their zenith, it is The Uninvited (1944), a richly atmospheric, genuinely scary film that is arguably the best ghost story ever produced by Hollywood.  Set on a lonely stretch of British seacoast, The Uninvited concerns a witty London music critic and his sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who very unwittingly move into a haunted house in the neighborhood, only to discover that the icy air hovering over part of the house and the after-hours sobbing inhabiting yet another corner of the place are connected with ghostly forces, both linked to the doe-eyed granddaughter (Gail Russell) of the house's crusty former owner.  As this very adult ghost mystery gradually unfolds, the ghosts' past history is reassembled, bit by bit, just in time for the old mansion's truly malevolent forces to be exposed and grandly put to flight.  Graced by razor-sharp dialogue, a top-notch cast and Charles Lang's moody camerawork, the film can still give one shivers today and has the added novelty (at least for 1944) of not trying to explain away the supernatural goings-on with ordinary, perfectly natural explanations.  Young's wondrous and wildly fantastic score is as pivotal as any of these other assets, perhaps more so.

Certainly, the year 1944 is exceptional in that it provided more truly great film scores evoking the weird and the fantastic than any other year.  At RKO, Roy Webb provided one of his most intriguing scores for The Curse of the Cat People, in some ways as subtle as Val Lewton's famous horror films themselves, sending the French children's tune "Do, do, enfant, do" into a musical world balancing a child's make-believe with an adult's angst and bitterness.  Over at 20th Century-Fox, Hugo Friedhofer furnished one of his most vivid and underrated film scores in The Lodger, dispatching the tune of Big Ben into the fog-shrouded, fear struck realm of Jack the Ripper's London.  And for Universal's campy House of Frankenstein, Hans J. Salter and Paul Dessau took the classic motifs composed for the studio's classic spooks Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein's Monster and set them loose in a full-blooded, musical maelstrom that not only served as a grand summing up of Universal's remarkable horror-scoring practices but, in complete form, stands as one of the most enjoyable and rollicking scores of Hollywood's golden age.  But Victor Young's vibrant score for Paramount's The Uninvited introduced something none of these other film scores did -- a hit tune that, decades later, is just as infectious as it was in 1944.  The tune, which introduces itself straightaway in the film's Prelude (or main title), went on to become the song Stella By Starlight, made further famous by such notables as Frank Sinatra and Harry James after the film's release.  Young thought so much of the tune, he even crafted a concert piece for piano and orchestra based on it, neatly capturing the sumptuous style and bracing charisma of his idol Rachmaninoff's piano concerti.

But if the love theme from The Uninvited reeks of Hollywood's beloved brand of romanticism (or, to quote colleague Miklos Rozsa regarding Young's music, "Broadway-cum-Rachmaninoff"), its eerie ghost music blossoms with rampant impressionism.  In the chilling cue The Sobbing Ghost, heavily cut in the film but restored by John Morgan for the re-recording at hand, a crashing orchestral chord suggests the fury of the sea and its role in the mystery behind the haunted house in question.  Flighty woodwinds then dart about, echoing the unholy restlessness along this stretch of coast and hinting at dark matters not easily grasped or understood.  Brass sound with great solemnity while strings rustle quietly with mounting urgency.  Before very long we encounter, first through the tones of alto flute and English horn in unison, then amidst other sections of the orchestra, a two-note figure that beckons most sorrowfully.  Eventually, this figure becomes more strident, more insistent, before bursts from the harps and scattering woodwind figures clear the air for a  reassuringly human melody.  This quickly evolves into a light-hearted variation, led off on the flute, as the home's new owner tries to laugh off the whole ghostly affair by strolling back to bed -- only for the wind to send the critic's bedroom door flying shut behind him, prompting him to dive beneath the covers.  This is accompanied by a hair-raising but thoroughly comic orchestral finish, courtesy of good-humored Victor Young.  (Incidentally, the instrumental song heard on the radio in the film just before the music critic discovers his home is haunted is My Silent Love and, ironically, comes not from Young's own tuneful pen but that of Dana Suesse, an underrated rarity among songwriters in that era -- a woman!)

The rich score for The Uninvited offers many other musical morsels, including the delightful Squirrel Chase, which finds piano and orchestra joining forces as the Londoners' small terrier chases an agile squirrel through the abandoned, sun-lit house they have just stumbled upon -- a chase concluded when the squirrel runs up the inside of an old chimney, accompanied by a final run along the keyboard.  And though terribly brief, John Morgan, in reconstructing this suite, could not refrain from adding the brief cue The Village, which finds Young reveling in the Celtic domains that so invigorated his later score for The Quiet Man.  Sunday Morning chronicles young Stella Meredith's walk to church, interrupted by the captivated music critic in his motor car, while the church bells continue to echo in the horns in an almost approving fashion (and considering what beckons for poor Stella, why shouldn't such innocent love be approved?).  But such scenes of happiness and tranquility cannot last long in The Uninvited.  Even in The Cliff, when the young composer plays a piece he has written for young Stella -- predictably, Stella by Starlight -- the tune goes "awfully sad," to quote the young dedicatee.  The love theme manages to resurface, only for poor Stella to fall prey to the tension of the house's hauntings and the emotion of the moment.  She races absent-mindedly toward the cliff overlooking the sea, trumpets desperately warning of the malevolent ghost that seeks to lure Stella over the side and into the murky waters that have also claimed the woman Stella has wrongly been led to believe was her mother.

Besides its refusal to surrender the supernatural integrity of its ghosts, the genius of The Uninvited lies in the delightfully complicated mystery behind the mansion's troubled spirits, a matter that involves unraveling an illicit affair and vengeance gone awry.  Early on in the film the new homeowners discover they are haunted by not one ghost but two, one of them very obviously seeking Stella's destruction, the other set upon guarding her.  In the complete score, Young plays along with the mystery, sometimes providing clues as well.  The aforementioned beckoning musical figure generally associated with the dead woman Stella mistakenly believes is her mother may sound enticing at first in The Sobbing Ghost but quickly becomes more edgy when in the same cue the figure is colored by two flutes, English horn, muted trumpet and high celli in somewhat uncomfortable unison.  When the "good ghost" of the unfairly charged maid takes the room, her Spanish background is suggested by a lightly exotic melody -- a motif not heard in this suite till very near the end.  But the darker elements of the score reign supreme in Grandfather and the Cliff, when Stella's dying grandfather tries to save her from the ghost of his very own daughter, a situation that finds the ghost nearly succeeding in sending Stella over the cliff once more, the trumpets screaming more frantically than before as the girl runs headlong toward certain death.  And listen, just moments before the trumpets explode in panic, as two flutes trade off rapid-fire chromatic passages, followed by demonic runs in the strings, other woodwinds and the xylophone, conjuring up the ghostly apparition of evil Mary Meredith as she reaches out for Stella -- chilling music that can raise goose-bumps!

In the score's last minutes, with Stella safe and the mystery at last solved, the dead maid's melody is given room to flower before Young musically acknowledges that all is well, at least with this particular poltergeist.  He does this through a fuller treatment of the comforting theme heard toward the end of The Sobbing Ghost.  All that remains afterward is for the glib hero to give Mary Meredith's ghost one good tongue-lashing before shaming her into giving up the grounds for good (though, judging by her final presence in the score, she puts up one solid front).  Thereafter Young's love theme Stella by Starlight wraps things up amidst smiles and wisecracks. (Amazingly, everyone seems to have quickly forgotten poor Grandfather's body upstairs.)  Victor Young certainly had reason to smile.  The movie showcased one of his finest melodies.  He had every reason to feel proud of the rest of the score, too.

Young's talents both as a composer and arranger were on parade in Gulliver's Travels (1939), famed cartoonist Max Fleisher's bid to sketch himself into feature-length animated films in the same manner that Walt Disney was then attempting.  But while Disney was able to build on his success in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), the creator of Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop found full-length cartoon films unwieldy.  The ambitious Gulliver's Travels certainly has much to recommend it, even if much of the wit and traveling furnished by Jonathan Swift are missing.  In fact, the film was hindered by several factors, including wildly uneven production values.  Most notably, Max Fleischer, for all his talents in shorter animated films, lacked the keen vision required to make a more substantial work.  "The crucial point that Disney understood and Fleischer's staff did not was that, in a short subject, an audience did not demand characterization; personality and gags were enough," Leonard Maltin wrote in his insightful Of Mice and Magic (MacGraw-Hill, 1980). "But in a feature, one had to present a character with depth and feelings with which the audience could identify. Otherwise there was nothing to hold the viewers' interest 80 minutes."  Indeed, while the film may enchant children, the characters are way too thinly sketched.  Even the warm, congenial giant Lemuel Gulliver is largely limited to saying, "My, my," on most occasions -- hardly the foundation for true wit.  The only character who seems to have any sense in Lilliput is red-haired town crier Gabby (and Leonard Maltin has repeatedly stated how obnoxious he found him).

One thing Max Fleischer's cartoons relied on heavily, though, was music.  Busy Paramount tunesmiths Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger provided most of the songs, including the engaging All's Well, which Gabby sings as he marches right into the hand of a sleeping giant who has washed onto the beach near Lilliput.  And while not by Robin and Rainger, the song It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day was joyfully worked into the musical mix.  Maltin -- an unabashed fan of animation and an obvious admirer of Fleischer's earlier works -- suggests the songs might have been better, but that's fairly debatable.  Most of the songs compare favorably with songs in Disney feature films from the same period.  (And, as further proof of the pair's talent, Rainger and Robin won a song-writing Oscar months before with a tremendously winning tune for the otherwise forgettable film Big Broadcast of 1938, a tune Bob Hope made distinctly his for the rest of his long career -- Thanks for the Memories.)  Of Victor Young's dynamic orchestral score for Gulliver's Travels, there need be no such debate.  In Gulliver's Travels, Young's ease with the material -- even when many of the melodies were not from his own pen -- is obvious from the very outset, the main title or Prelude joyfully touching upon snippets of songs to come, never lingering long, only long enough to tantalize.  In short fashion, he mentions, initially in the brass, the theme for Gulliver himself (I Hear a Dream), followed by bits from Faithful, All's Well, Bluebirds in the Moonlight, We're All Together Now, Forever and It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day, before a chorus joins in to bring us back to Gulliver.  Quickly we are hurled into the raging sea which will wash Mr. Gulliver from his ship and leave him in the land of the tiny Lilliputians.  This fanciful prelude boasts music that cannot help but bring an innocent smile for all those who revel in childhood adventure yarns painted in sunny tones.

Under musical circumstances, it's hard to blame Fleischer's scriptwriters for dumping the story's main bone of contention -- two shaker-sized kings warring over which end of an egg to crack -- and replacing it with their violent disagreement over what song to sing at the marriage of their royal children.  One need have only the most meager musical education to realize how Gulliver will solve this dilemma for the two tiny kingdoms -- proposing that the love songs be properly married and sung together (which Young does ever-so-briefly when he touches upon Faithful moments into the aforementioned Prelude).  Meanwhile, there is much else in which to revel musically, such as the purposeful Pussyfoot March, which finds Gabby stealthily leading the townspeople out of the village and through a starlit night to find and bind the sleeping giant, then haul him back to the king.  Castle in the Background finds Gulliver, still out cold, flat on his back and being carted by horses and villagers toward the kingdom of Lilliput, the heavy burden and enormous power required to transport it all conveyed by the deepest recesses of the orchestra, while upper strings, winds and light percussion wonderfully suggest the continuing hustle and bustle of the little people.

Although these toilings are briefly interrupted by the king's reaction to the giant the Lilliputians have brought to the palace door -- represented by a madly rushing figure in the strings and flutes against a royal fanfare in Gabby and the King, humorously conveying a frightened ruler who has fled straight back to his bed -- the Lilliputians' industriousness continues to dominate the score.  Lemuel Gulliver awakens only after the little people accidentally fire his "thunder machine," blasting away a tower.  Heavy orchestral chords represent what Lilliputians are sure is catastrophe and doom for them all, sending those instrumental forces favoring them into panic.  Gulliver's warmly reassuring and thoroughly heroic theme, announced in this scene by the brass, alerts us that the giant in Lilliput has only the most honorable of intentions, though judging by the increasing nervousness in the rest of the orchestra -- woodwinds frantically alternating with upper strings -- it's also obvious villagers don't recognize this right off.  Yet another frantic turn in the orchestra, underlined by a quotation from the song Forever, informs us that the kingdom of Lilliput is under attack by the stubborn ruler so attached to that tune.  Gulliver's size quickly puts the invaders to flight, with the Forever motif crumbling in the process.  Afterward, amidst the eerie still of Lilliput, Gulliver's broad theme once again comes to the fore, flexing its muscle in the brass, then among other winds.  In the final section of this suite, the heartbreaking woes of the little people are acknowledged, along with bright hopes for their days ahead.  Gulliver's theme then makes a last appearance, this time with choral accompaniment, as our hero sets off to sea.  The lyrics indicate what is already felt in the music:

Come back again, come back,
                        Wherever you may be.
                        Come back again, you sailor man,
                        Sailor man.
                        Back again, from the sea.

Although Victor Young had only been scoring films four years when he wrote the "atmospheric music" (as he's credited in the film's titles) for Gulliver's Travels, he quickly came to be seen as someone brimming with musical invention and capable of writing on deadline.  While Paramount kept him busiest at his new craft, other studios such as RKO, Republic and MGM tapped his talent early on, even before he was nominated for an Academy Award for his Gulliver's Travels music.  Not long afterward, for instance, Young was brought in to score Columbia's western Arizona by studio executives who were worried about the finished film and hoped Young's scoring could bolster the film.  (To no surprise of most veteran composers asked to perform such musical miracles, it didn't.)   Incidentally, when the 1939 Academy Awards were handed out, Young's Gulliver's Travels lost in the original scoring category to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz (which, for the record, also edged out Aaron Copland's Of Mice and Men, Alfred Newman's Wuthering Heights and Max Steiner's mammoth score for Gone With the Wind).  For his part, Young didn't seem to mind losing out to The Wizard of Oz.  In fact, he could take special solace in the fact that he had conducted the orchestra in the hit record made of Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, the film's beloved song.

By the time Young came to score Warner Bros.' Bright Leaf a decade later, he was a seasoned pro at film composing and showed no signs of weariness, despite a pace that would shatter most composers.  Besides continuing to score as many pictures as, if not more than, other composers, he also kept making records and doing radio broadcasts, in addition to writing occasional songs.  And while most biographies state he had abandoned his works for the serious concert hall, a casual look at his work reveals a number of such pieces, including an An Elegy for FDR, suggesting that Erich Wolfgang Korngold, with his titanic symphony, wasn't the only composer tempted to remember the late wartime president.  Family and friends suggested that Young slow this maddening pace, but the composer likely figured he knew how to relax.  This he did sometimes at his home in Desert Hot Springs (where he eventually suffered his stroke), sometimes at the home of his sister, Helen Hill.   "His love was music and cards -- gin rummy, actually," niece Bobbie Hill Fromberg recalled on occasion of the re-recording at hand.  "They had these three-day card games on weekends.  He'd meet with Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner and my father, Henry Hill, among others.  You know, someone actually died during one of these games, but before they did anything else, they called someone to take the hand he had!  Only after that did they call the wife, then the mortuary!"  On another occasion, Young and his fellow card-players played a terrible joke on Max Steiner, whose eyesight was by this time fast in decline.  "The only thing he could see was women, music and cards," Fromberg said.  "One time they had my mother serve Max dog biscuits with their tea and coffee or whatever.  Max liked them so much he told his chauffeur to find out what kind of cookies they were because he wanted them for his own home.  Everyone around the table thought that was so funny, taking advantage of a blind man!  They had a wonderful time together."

Tepid though director Michael Curtiz's tobacco dynasty drama Bright Leaf (1950) is, the film must have struck a chord with Young, for it prompted from him one of his most restrained and thoughtful film scores.  Certainly the film promised much, if only for its cast alone -- Gary Cooper playing a down-on-his-luck Southern tobacco farmer parlaying what few resources he has into a successful cigarette empire, all the while wooing his rival's quirky, trouble-causing daughter, portrayed by Patricia Neal, and ignoring the stereotypical girl with a proverbial heart of gold played by Lauren Bacall.  In the end, however, this bleak, draggy drama, complete with utterly downbeat ending, was sunk further by miscasting.  In a ticklish 1997 interview with Kevin Shinnick in Scarlet Street, Patricia Neal admitted how terribly she longed for Bacall's role.  "I did everything except kill myself I so badly wanted it," she told Shinnick, "and they wouldn't even think about it."  Neal was on-target in her complaint.  The film might well have taken on a new energy had the two lead actresses exchanged roles.  As it was, Bacall came off tired, hackneyed and unconvincing in her role, while Neal proved weirdly off-putting but little else.  The fact both were playing up to a leading man that, alas, seemed too old for the part didn't help.  In the end, Bright Leaf had little to recommend it beyond ever-reliable actor Donald Crisp's brooding portrayal of an old tobacco tycoon driven to dark extremes and Victor Young's magnificent score, providing a color and verve the film itself lacks and furnishing a motif for determined tobacco farmer Brant Royle that is all-American in its yearning.

One of Young's few film scores for Warner Bros., Bright Leaf works well both as a soundtrack and music on its own.  The music opening the film offers up a broadly arching theme that captures the aspirations of Brant Royle in its endless striving.  Young offers other material in this stretch of music, including a slow-going, heavy figure to suggest the Old South and the bittersweet homecoming Royle is finding; darkly persistent tones for Major Singleton, who has long bedeviled Royle's family; and the spry suggestion of a jig that briefly infuses humor and vitality into Royle's return to  Kingsmont.  This is the same Old South so wonderfully captured by Young's friend Ferde Grofe in his own lively Mississippi River Suite, William Grant Still in his many symphonic works and Max Steiner in such films as Gone With the Wind (and, indeed, Young's work on Bright Leaf came at the behest of Steiner, who like his friend at Paramount had managed to get himself overcommitted in scoring assignments).  In the opening scene to Bright Leaf, Young remains faithful to his protagonist's theme, successfully negotiating it through the various moods conjured up by other material.  Only in the last seconds is Brant Royle's theme overwhelmed by uncertainty in the orchestra.  Sonia is a waltz, engaging enough but also politely uninsistent, mirroring the well-intentioned woman of the town whose love is continually ignored.  On the other hand, Margaret, scored for Brant Royle's night side encounter with the rich old tycoon's daughter, is utterly bewitching, partially because it never firmly settles on a theme, hinting of many delectable things -- all of them intriguing to the ear, yet none ever quite fulfilled.   It well reflects the courtship on view in the film – frustrating and ill-fated, yet weirdly tantalizing.  Skillful orchestration and enchanting wisps of melody allow this cue to maintain interest, even apart from the onscreen action.

Some of the most enjoyable moments in Young's scores come from the film's montages, including that entailing the success of a new-fangled cigarette machine -- a piece as dynamic and to the point as Mossolov's famous Iron Foundry, the orchestra chugging along at an unrelenting pace, Brant Royle's theme breaking out triumphantly in the brass.  Only near the very end does this breathless montage pause to show Major Singleton's own cousin sneaking a cigarette manufactured by the family's arch-rival, her lighting of a match captured by a rapid-fire high flute (and just seconds before the disapproving major comes into the room, hence the brewing chords at the end).  The second montage, showing the expansion of Brant Royle's tobacco empire, is almost as spirited, exploding with a furious passage taxing strings and trumpets most of all, the brass shouting out success throughout.  Sonia/The Wedding is yet another montage, the music beginning in promising fashion, complete with mention of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, only for things to turn dark toward the cue's finish.

Drama surges forth in other portions of the score, though Young's writing is always sure enough to stand on its own.  The cue Suicide is scored for the sequence in which the proud old tobacco tycoon, having thoroughly humiliated himself in a barroom standoff with Royle, leaves shattered, only to dispatch himself in his waiting carriage.  The mounting tragedy reaches its height as drums accompany the horse-drawn carriage and the dead major in their mad rush home.  The score's final minutes find the major's daughter, now Royle's wife, confessing at last how she has gained revenge on her husband, beginning at the moment of their wedding vows, the strings painstakingly climbing to the heights of insanity (or at least as high as Young dared go in a drama about revenge among genteel Southern folks) before a harp glissando breaks the tension, the orchestra then erupting in calamity as an enraged Brant Royle accidentally sets fire to the mansion he has struggled so long to occupy.  Later the score returns to musical materials heard at the beginning of this suite, including the reassuring little waltz symbolizing a woman not pursued and a passage suggesting that life will go on in the South, whatever the fortunes of Brant Royle.  The score ends with Royle's striving theme once again triumphing over all else, seemingly promising better things ahead.

For all his success, Young's career promised new heights in the 1950s, much of it borne upon his delightfully shimmering score Scaramouche (1952) for MGM, the aforementioned seafaring romp Blackbeard the Pirate for RKO and his exhilarating score Strategic Air Command (1955).  He was particularly delighted when the King Brothers turned over to him their production of The Brave One, a film about a boy and his bull.  As Young recalled it later, producers informed him simply, "It's your baby now," prompting from the composer a Latin-flavored composition he found "deeply satisfying."  No less than fabled Hollywood producer David O. Selznick -- a man whose best-known productions boasted scores by Steiner and Tiomkin -- singled out Young for praise late in his own career.  While watching over wife Jennifer Jones' role in Ruby Gentry in 1952, Selznick fired off one of his famous memos to director King Vidor on the subject of film scores and hit songs, strongly proposing Victor Young as an extremely practical and successful man in doing scores without chichi, and without tricks and without nonsense and within economic boundaries."  (For whatever reason, the scoring assignment went instead to Heinz Roemheld.)  For all this praise, Young's habit of overloading himself with work and ignoring his health finally caught up with him.  While his huge score for Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days finally netted him an Oscar, it was to be, sadly, a posthumous honor.  Old friends stepped in to complete other projects left undone by the fallen composer, including colleague Max Steiner, who finished up work on the film China Gate.

In the years since his death, Victor Young's film music has faded from the public's ears, to the degree his finest work has remained untouched even after interest in re-recording great works of golden-age film music erupted in the 1970s.  Today some critics still suggest his music is too overwhelming or too sentimental, even for the much-maligned art of film scoring.  But others in Young's colorful musical orbit -- ranging from his cherished idol Rachmaninoff to his disciple Henry Mancini – have survived such barbed arrows of criticism, and it is quite likely Young will, too.  As long as captivating tunes, vibrant harmonies and a straightforward desire to delight, amuse and invigorate in utterly imaginative ways are treasured by music-lovers, Young's music will always be in the wings, if not on the air.  For all the success Young enjoyed during his lifetime, he knew full well the crazy and careless whims of others when it came to music and musicians.  Shortly before his death, he recalled how earlier in his career a director brought him by Selznick's office, only for the producer to exclaim, apparently to Young's utter, ever-lasting amusement: "This man can compose music?  He looks more like a prizefighter to me!"


First Biography of Victor Young

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