- Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood by Nathan Platte
Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018: 416pp.
If there is one issue that a consideration of Classic-era Hollywood film music raises consistently it is the question of authorship – an area in which the collaborative nature of film production comes face to face with enduring myths of lone artistic creation. How does one write a history of such music that acknowledges its meaningfulness as creative artefact without projecting some false ideas of authorial coherence onto its notional composers? Happily, Nathan Platte’s Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood offers us a compelling solution to this apparent problem. In producer David O. Selznick – a man whose ‘desire to actively shape every facet of a film’s development […] was insatiable, compulsive, and, in the eyes of his critics, overbearing’ (p.6) – Platte finds both a point of creative focus and a lens through which to examine multiple aspects of music-making in studio-era Hollywood, without ever ignoring the complexity of authorship behind the simplistic credit ‘Music by …’. Producers in Classic-era Hollywood wielded far more authorial power than directors and Selznick is revealed to have been a producer with a particularly strong interest in music’s role in film. Moreover, as someone who worked for major studios – RKO, MGM, and Paramount – before striking out on his own with Selznick International Pictures, Selznick’s involvement with music cuts across institutional boundaries and modes of production, and involves a panoply of prominent industry individuals – including noted composers Max Steiner, Herbert Stothart, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, and (briefly) Bernard Herrmann, along with music director Lou Forbes and music editor Audray Granville. Ultimately, Platte’s book reveals in Selznick a figure more implicated in the musical design of his films than was previously acknowledged – an aspect that extends to music’s role in promoting a film – and he concludes not without justification that ‘study of Selznick’s productions invites a re-evaluation of certain prejudices regarding the involvement of nonspecialists in the scoring process, the sharing of compositional duties among multiple personnel […] and film music’s service of commercial interests beyond the film’ (p.327).
The major strength of Platte’s book is undoubtedly his careful archival research, and the arguments of Making Music are supported throughout by [End Page 104] primary-source documentation, the extent and content of which are often pleasantly surprising. The most direct evidence for Selznick’s contribution to the sound of his films, for instance, can be found in his copious notes on music and accompanying memos to composers – and Platte explores these documents at length for a number of films. Selznick’s five sets of music notes for Spellbound (1945), for instance, incorporate both spotting notes and more detailed description that even specifies the use of particular thematic material. As such, Platte can contrast Selznick’s vision of the music with Hitchcock’s, as revealed by his largely unexamined notes, and conclude that ‘Selznick’s ideas […] had a profound impact on the score that was largely antithetical to Hitchcock’s own conception’ (p.243). Such insights raise fundamental questions of authorship, and Platte’s all-encompassing view of these films and their compositional materials is also able to uncover the acts of musical reuse that characterised some of Selznick’s most famous productions: thus, he discusses the complex authorship of the Tara theme from Gone with the Wind (1939) and its origins in themes Steiner had previously written for Crime School (1938) and They Made Me a Criminal (1939) (pp.173–180), while also examining the many contributions throughout Gone with the Wind by the roster of studio composers and orchestrators that worked alongside Steiner – a congregation fully warranting the attribution ‘Steiner and Co.’. Selznick’s attitude towards musical reuse is also revealing: faced with a problematic scene, he saw no difficulties in asking his composers to reuse music that worked in another of his productions – as with his suggestions to use Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) music in A Star Is Born (1937) (p.112) or a...