CD: Robe, The (1953)
Label: La-La Land Records/ Released: March 27, 2012
Tracks & Album Length: CD1: 18 tracks / (56:08) + CD2: 20 tracks / (55:23)
Special Notes: 12-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 2,000 copies.
Composer: Alfred Newman
As the commentary in Fox’ The Robe DVD and Blu-ray detail, as much as Alfred Newman wasn’t fond of scoring religious epics, he was bloody good at crafting multi-thematic scores designed to excite and move audiences, and The Robe is one of his best, due to the perfect offering of marches, a stunning love theme, and reams of theme variations that track the wavering relationships of the film’s characters.
Newman’s love theme is once again another vehicle for the composer’s famous high register stings which BR co-commentator Nick Redman rightly describes as tear-inducing. Whether it’s manipulative or blatantly melodramatic, the combination of sustained high notes and waves of low chords work like an automatic tear-trigger: the delicate intro sets the theme’s main notes, and then come the contrasting elements which slowly, surely extract drippy tears from the most vulnerable saps in the audience. (Prior classic examples include Song of Bernadette – perhaps his best religious score – and Captain from Castile, with that magnificent Catana’s theme.)
Marches were just as natural to Newman – the Spanish conquistadors’ theme as well as the intro march for How the West Was Won are modern standards – and like Miklos Rozsa’s Ben-Hur (1959), he worked them into themes for Roman soldiers, gladiators, and chase music when the film’s heroes are close to being overtaken by a garrison of infantry.
The Robe also contains short themes and variations, and source pieces designed to evoke a Roman world through Hollywood ‘s filter, and in his first true stereo score, Newman exploits the range of surround sound by miking his orchestra to fill the entire cinema while capturing the nuances of the exotic percussion and woodwinds.
On LP, The Robe was originally released in a re-recorded version – in mono and bullshit stereo – with some sound effects – whereas the original score first appeared on CD as an hour-long Fox CD in 1995, and later as an expanded 2-disc edition from Varese in 2003, limited to 1500 copies. La-La Land’s 2-disc set adds additional tracks – mostly orchestra and chorus-only tracks, plus a few deemed too damaged by prior labels – and the new mastering features a solid representation of Newman’s score. Some cues still lack some of the upper dynamic range of layer Fox scores, but the stereo image – augmented by a much higher bit rate and modern mastering gear – lets one admire the early effects Newman applied, including subtle shimmering effects, and sustaining low chords to accent gloomy, morally grey moments in the drama.
“The Carriage of the Cross” is a major highlight, with three sections – percussion, brass, and strings – playing their own distinct, drifting parts before full amalgamation for a main theme replay, and Newman’s chorals, written with uncredited Ken Darby, are superior than the more declarative “Hallelujah” that ends the film with a theme jarringly contemporary than Newman & Darby’s original chorals.
Within the film, the vocal stab for Judas are a bit rich, but on CD they seem to lack the bathos and heightened Hollywood style radiating from the film’s heavy-handed imagery (Christ-ghost nightmare, experienced by a morally sick Gallio en route back to Rome).
Also effective is the brief percussion clusters that make up the horse chase in “The Chase,” whereas “Demetrius’ Rescue” still sounds like a last-minute edit between Robe thematic material and leftover cue sheets from Captain from Castile; it’s the lone cue that just doesn’t belong in the film because its rambunctious, swashbuckling style is all wrong. That cue is the lone flaw in an otherwise perfect score, filled with grand gestures as well as simple, intimate elegance, such as the gentle, sweet “The Market Place” which manages to capture Gallio’s quiet contempt for the nascent Christians as he overpays for banal goods; and the conflicting moral stances of Gallio, the suddenly enriched townspeople, and their sudden shame when Justus makes them return the extra coins.
LLL’s CD comes with a lengthy essay by Julie Kirgo, perhaps writing the booklet notes that should’ve been written for Fox’ BR but was skipped at the last minute of production. Both the Fox BR and LLL’s CD set compliment each other even though the BR includes an isolated score track. They are two distinct listening experiences: the video allows one to experience the film with the score’s full nuances at play, whereas the CD gives one the soundtrack to underscore the emotional peaks experienced by the film fan – the original intention of the early Fox LP.
Ironically, most of the Fox ‘scope scores are getting their due on CD today because, as detailed in The Robe commentary, studio bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck felt by giving people a soundtrack album, they might not go again to see the film, dropping more cash. It’s a narrow little blunder, because it means most of the studio’s greatest scores have taken at least 20-30 years to appear as albums, either original (as was the case of The Robe‘s sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators [M]) or re-recorded
Newman and Hugo Friedhofer were the rare exceptions – their music did in fact make the occasional leap to the commercial LP realm – but as LLL’s set reveals, when heard in its unexpurgated form, a full CinemaScope score really becomes its own special thing.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan