Film: American Musical Theatre: Elmer Bernstein, The (1961)

May 13, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: TV / Film Music / Musical Variety

Synopsis: Two-part audience participation with guest film composer Elmer Bernstein.

Special Features: n/a




This weekly half-hour series (1959-1965) seems to have been produced by a local New York City CBS affiliate WCBS in 1961, and over two parts featured a Q&A with composer Elmer Bernstein and ‘selected’ students from the NYC high school system, with series host Jim Morske making sure the whole show went off without a hitch.

Bernstein, looking ridiculously boyish, explains to the audience he’s already penned a good 30 scores, although the bulk of his projects tend to be heavy dramas instead of comedies – a genre he seems to lament not scoring, but ironically years later, be better known for, after  scoring John Landis’ Animal House (1978).

The big surprise for Bernstein fans is how well the show is assembled: instead of a pappy series designed to name drop current film and music hits, Bernstein is given ample time  to articulate his craft to an audience he rightly presumes to be pretty astute. The group’s questions (which admittedly could’ve been pre-screened, since the most curious kids are in the front row) are sharp and pose detailed questions & answers.

The two-part spotlight on Bernstein, fresh from scoring the failed stage play Laurette (1960) and awaiting the theatrical release of his latest film, By Love Possessed, has the composer conducting lengthy extracts from The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Rat Race (1960) and From the Terrace (1960) in Part 1, and Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Men in War (1957) in Part 2.

The format is simple: Part 1 has Bernstein giving a quick overview of film scoring history, and then tests the audience’s ability to respond to contemporary scoring conventions and pick out not what score extract he’s playing with the CBS Orchestra, but what he’s trying to evoke; the kids’ responses include very perceptive descriptions of specific emotions and imagery which illustrate the musical language we’ve learned and to which we easily respond.

Part 2 gets more specific on the working methods of writing a score once a composer’s been hired, and some of the challenges he faces, such as non-traditional main title sequences like Saul Bass’ Man with the Golden Arm, which is shown silent, and then accompanied by a more leisurely version of his famous intro music; and how unusual instrumental sounds become vivid elements in dramatic cues, such as a furtive extract from Men in War. The episode ends with the first 3 minutes from Charles and Ray Eames’ short Toccato for Toy Trains (1959), illustrating the composer’s recent work in the shorts.

In each discussion, Bernstein has a candor and intelligence that’s charming, yet he’s also a natural educator, breaking down process, style, and methodology for anyone to understand, even when he’s melting under the broiling studio lights by the end of Part 1. Bernstein also describes his early studies, which includes a keen interest in folk music which undoubtedly blossomed into his broad symphonic portraits of America in classics like Magnificent Seven.

The surviving elements are from black & white videotape, and it’s sort of a toss-up between high-contrast, glare-heavy kinescopes, or fragile tape which has been cleaned up & stabilized as best as possible. The image is still clear, but there’s loss of content at the frame edges where tape oxides probably suffered the most damage.

For the composer’s fans (and certainly fans of surviving live teleplays on kinescopes), image and sound quality is not an issue; it’s the content that’s paramount, and this hour of material contains a young, confident composer newly established at the peak of his profession’s pecking order for action and dramatic scores. His articulate grasp of his métier also shows how well he understood the dramatic functions of a score, and demonstrates why his film career spanned 51 years, averaging at least a movie per year.

A remarkable snapshot of a genial craftsman that deserves to be on DVD. This review is derived from a rare screening at the 2012 Toronto Jewish Film Festival, using a source transfer from the Paley Center for Media (Part 1, and Part 2), originally broadcast Sunday July 23 and 30, 1961, at 4pm.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

Composer Filmography


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