BBC Proms: The Warner Bros Story

The annual concert by the John Wilson Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall is reviewed by Michael Darvell

Royal Albert Hall


The John Wilson Orchestra is famous for promoting the music of Hollywood in its heyday and reviving great scores from the golden years of the great American film studios when music was an important part of a movie’s make-up. Nowadays, with some exceptions, music seems to be almost incidental in the production of films and, although there is still a place for music in the movies, it somehow lacks the grandeur of the output from the big Hollywood studios in the 1930s and ’40s. Then all the major studios, Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO and Warners, for example, had their own permanent music departments with resident composers under contract, plus back-up arrangers, orchestrators, editors, copyists and librarians, as well as the studios’ in-house orchestras.


Warner Bros, who were the pioneers in the change-over in the 1920s from silent movies to talking pictures, invested in the Vitaphone recording process so that all the music in their films would sound exactly the same in whichever venues were screening them. Once the music department at Warner Bros was established they began employing the best composers they could find. Warners had an exceptional team including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bronislaw Kaper and, later on in the 1950s, Alex North. Then there were the popular songwriters of the time such as Harry Warren, Sammy Fain, Harold Arlen and Henry Mancini. Warners also used the work of musical theatre composers such as Sigmund Romberg, Jule Styne, Frederick Loewe and Meredith Willson. These are the names that John Wilson evoked in the programming for his latest BBC Prom concert which was broadcast live on 9 August 2019.


The first four names mentioned above, the more classical composers on the list, Erich Wolfgang Korngoldwere all emigrḗs to the USA from Europe – Korngold (right) and Steiner were both Austrian, Tiomkin was born in the Ukraine and Kaper was Polish. (Alex North started in the US and later moved to Russia.) They brought with them from Europe the styles of the classical composers that influenced them, from the likes of Wagner, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Offenbach, Johann Strauss, Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov etc, thereby giving their own movie music a richness and depth hitherto absent from other more mundane film scores.


The John Wilson Orchestra’s Warner Bros Prom concert began with a rousing opening performance of Korngold’s overture to The Sea Hawk, the 1940 swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn which the orchestra played with immense bravura and in epic style. Apparently Korngold would read a film script as if it were an opera libretto in an effort to embody both visual and emotional experiences into his music. The results were certainly amazing and none more so than in this concert’s closing piece, Korngold’s ‘Tomorrow’, a solo cantata from the 1943 film The Constant Nymph. In fact it is so brilliant a piece that it could well be included in a lieder recital. Here it was sung by Kate Lindsey, a trained mezzo soprano opera singer making her Proms debut. She has a rich, powerful voice and she performed it with marvellous precision and emotion that brought the concert to an absolutely magnificent finale. 


I am not sure how the piece went over in the original film, director Edmund Goulding’s piece of romantic hokum, adapted from a novel by Margaret Kennedy with Joan Fontaine and Alexis Smith fighting over the same man, a poor but handsome musician played by Charles Boyer. The film is now largely forgotten but, the fact that one reviewer said, “Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score is a constant pleasure,” only makes me want to see it now although, after hearing Kate Lindsey sing ‘Tomorrow’, I doubt if the original version could match up to her performance. Joan Fontaine ‘sang’ the piece in the film but was dubbed by an uncredited Sally Sweetland (1911-2015) who also, apparently, sang in The Sea Hawk an old Spanish song which might well have been written by Korngold too. The composer wrote almost two hours of music for The Sea Hawk, a film than runs for just 127 minutes.


In between these two pieces by Korngold, who composed fewer than twenty feature film scores in his career, the concert fielded some more excellent music. Max Steiner was a prolific composer of over three hundred movies between 1930 and 1965. In 1934 he worked on no less than thirty-six films. He worked at Warners exclusively from 1938 to 1953 and throughout his career approached every script with enthusiasm for the ways in which music could be used to enhance its values. Here he was represented by a suite of his amazing music for John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a classic of its kind that contains all manner of different moods according to the action on the screen, using leitmotifs for individual characters and matching different rhythms to the cutting of the film.


Max Steiner was really in his element for the 1942 Bette Davis weepie Now, Voyager which turns out to be not only Steiner’s favourite, but also John Wilson’s too, so Wilson concocted a Suite from the film’s everlastingly memorable score, including the main love theme which became so popular in its day that lyricist Kim Gannon turned it into a hit song called ‘It Can’t Be Wrong’, which was recorded by the likes of Dick Haymes and many popular bands of the time. 


Dimitri Tiomkin’s Suite for The Old Man and the Sea (1958) is a charming piece even if the film of Hemingway’s book was a dud. In fact, despite the miscast Spencer Tracy being nominated for Best Actor and James Wong Howe too for his brilliant cinematography, the film’s only Oscar was for Tiomkin’s music. The fourth of the quintet of composers in the ‘classical’ mould was Bronislaw Kaper, and Wilson and his orchestra played his lively main title sequence to Auntie Mame, Morton DaCosta’s 1958 film of Patrick Dennis’s novel starring Rosalind Russell. 


Finally, that leaves Alex North who first read music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School before studying at the Moscow Conservatoire, thereby becoming the first American member of the Union of Soviet Composers. On returning to the USA he worked with Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. When he wrote music for Elia Kazan’s stage production of Death of a Salesman it led him to Hollywood and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), again for Kazan. This was the first jazz score to be featured in a Hollywood film, the main title music of which was played in the Warner Bros Prom. From the opening bars it immediately captures the sleaziness of Tennessee Williams’ tale of the developing madness of his nymphomaniacal heroine Blanche Dubois. North went on to write more music for the films of Death of a Salesman, Viva Zapata!, Les Misḗrables (1952), The Member of the Wedding, Cleopatra, Cheyenne Autumn, Spartacus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, etc.


In lighter vein there were tributes to Harry Warren & Al Dubin for their song ‘We’re In the Money’ from Gold Diggers of 1933, elegantly sung by Louise Dearman and the Maida Vale Singers. Calamity JaneMatt Ford sang Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer’s title song from the 1941 film Blues in the Night. Louise Dearman, Matt Ford, Patrick Smyth and the chorus got together for Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin’s ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’ from George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born which is still the best version of all (pace Lady Gaga), particularly when Judy Garland sings ‘The Man That Got Away’. Louise Dearman found the full emotional measure of Garland’s performance, and she also paid tribute to Doris Day in ‘The Deadwood Stage’ from Sammy Fain & Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane (1953), complete with whip-cracks from the orchestra. Mikaela Bennett also remembered the late great Doris with her version of ‘It’s Magic’, the Oscar-winning song that Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn wrote for Romance on the High Seas, Doris Day’s first film for Warners in 1948.


When Warners stopped making their own musicals, they started buying the rights to successful theatre shows instead. On stage Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady ran for over six years on Broadway, over five years in London and all around the world too. Jack Warner bought the rights for $5 million and the film recouped that amount many, many times over. When Matt Ford and the Maida Vale Singers accompanied by the John Wilson Orchestra performed ‘Get Me To the Church On Time’, you could see why. Meredith Willson’s The Music Man ran for over three years and so Robert Preston was able to repeat his Tony Award-winning Broadway role for the Warner film. Here Matt Ford and the Maida Vale Singers gave us the memorably rip-roaring hit number ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’. 


On stage, Richard Burton won a Tony Award and Julie Andrews was nominated for Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot. Unfortunately, when Warners filmed it, Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave didn’t have the same pull at the box-office and so it sank, failing to make any profit at all. However, it has a fine score and Matt Ford’s version of ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ showed its obvious appeal. Warners had already made two versions of Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song, in 1929 and 1943, but the 1953 film with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson was not the best of the three. However, the musical direction by Warners’ resident composer, arranger and conductor Ray Heindorf (1908-80) who worked at Warners from 1932 until 1965 and was involved with many of the films featured in this Prom concert, saved the day. The title song was given a sympathetic performance by Mikaela Bennett and Matt Ford who were both suitably restrained in their rendition of Romberg’s somewhat over-exotic operetta score.


With Ethel Merman starring, Jule Styne (below right) Jule Stynewriting the score and Stephen Sondheim providing lyrics, how could Gypsy possibly fail? Well, it didn’t as it ran for over two years on Broadway, and the subsequent Warners film was excellent, even without Miss Merman who lost the role she had created to Rosalind Russell. The John Wilson Orchestra played Styne’s overture to Gypsy, in the Frank Perkins arrangement for the 1962 film, showing that, along with Glinka’s overture to Russlan and Ludmilla and Bernstein’s Candide overture, Styne’s Gypsy overture is one of the best-ever openings for a musical show. The John Wilson Orchestra were well equipped to reproduce that feeling in the cinema as the musicians on the soundtrack of Gypsy strike up the opening four notes (‘I had a dream’) from the song ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’. Incidentally, on the film of Gypsy it is Sondheim himself who is conducting the overture behind the credits.


The John Wilson Orchestra excelled even themselves in their exciting playing of the Warner Bros film music. The Prom concert eventually came up to date with Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer’s 1962 Academy Award-winning title song for Days of Wine and Roses (below), but there were also some encores too. Firstly, it was back to My Fair Lady and ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ but then Harry Potter reared his head and suddenly, with John Williams’ unashamedly nostalgic score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we were magically taken back again to the heady days of Korngold, Steiner, Tiomkin and Kaper. 

Days of Wine and Roses

Days of Wine and Roses


John Williams, with his work on Star Wars, E. T., Jaws, Superman, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, and all the other scores he has written in the last sixty-five years, surely deserves a nod of recognition with a Prom concert of his own or at least an album from the John Wilson Orchestra. Williams is the only film composer who is still writing music that reminds us of the heyday of the Warner Bros studio and the classic films it produced in the golden age of Hollywood.


If you missed the Warner Bros Story Prom, you can still enjoy the concert by the John Wilson Orchestra which is available to watch on the BBC Four i-player for a month following its 9 August broadcast