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
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
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
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
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
Young's versatility went on parade only after 1914, when his concertizing across
Europe was interrupted by World War I. Upon his return to
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
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.
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
Come back again, come back,
Wherever you may be.
Come back again, you 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
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
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
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
Tachna Family Home Page