Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Music Behind the Harryhausen Movies

Selenite-blogging, essay 4 of 5 blog entries
on First Men in the Moon (1964)

Part One: A Salute to Laurie Johnson

The great movie composers inevitably seem to get associated with one particular score—the one that would play behind them when they accept a Lifetime Achievement Award or receive an MBE from the Queen.

For Max Steiner, it would be Gone With the Wind (1939).  For Victor Young, The Quiet Man (1952).  For Bernard Herrmann, Psycho (1960).

Composer of the wonderful score of First Men in the Moon (1964), Laurie Johnson is forever tagged as the composer of The Avengers TV theme, the music that must have played behind him when he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to music in 2014.  It’s one of the great TV themes.

But there’s much more to Laurie Johnson than just The Avengers, case in point being his very fine score for First Men in the Moon.  As the film moves from Victoriana to the weirdness of life insider the moon’s caverns, the music grows increasingly strange.  In this first clip, the Selenites are introduced with a blast of dissonance which drops into a syncopation at the 26 second mark, effectively suggesting the movement of the Selenites along the cave passageways.  Then a piercing high-pitched Selenite theme abruptly appears, eerily meshing keyboard with strings.  Staccato brass echo the melody.  From this point, whenever the Selenites approach, the theme returns.

Surprisingly, First Men in the Moon only contains one traditional Harryhausen monster scene.  The giant mooncalf provides this one opportunity for a chase and attack.  Naturally, the mooncalf gets his own theme, both ponderous and relentless, echoing the beast’s size and threat.

In one of the film’s most visually opulent scenes, designed by Harryhausen to suggest the magnificent sets of She (1935) and A Matter of Life and Death (1945), the scientist Joseph Cavor mounts a seemingly endless staircase that leads upward toward the throne of the Selenite ruler, the Grand Lunar.  In this clip, Johnson’s staircase theme begins at 1:26, striking an almost religious note that appropriately reflects the look of awe on Cavor’s face.

Now 88 years old, Laurie Johnson is one of the few members of the First Men in the Moon crew still with us.  Over the years, he has scored more than 400 films and television episodes.  Classically trained, he enjoyed adding experimental new sounds (like the synthesized Selenite theme) to traditional orchestral arrangements.  You can hear his adventurousness in First Men in the Moon as he moves from Gustav Holst-style themes for Victorian England to a discreet background of electronica ever-murmuring behind the Selenites.  It’s a magnificent piece of work.

Part Two:  My Three Favorite Scores to Harryhausen Movies

Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) at the organ in Mysterious Island (1961).

Considering how the Charles Schneer/Ray Harryhausen movies tend to coast on second-tier directors and actors, I’m always amazed that they so often invested in the very finest music composers.  In return, Schneer and Harryhausen received scores that amplified the production values and technical effects, making the evocation of their fantasy worlds both more believable and dramatic.  A great score helps a lot!

For my three favorites scores to Harryhausen movies, it may appear that I’m picking one score apiece from three composers in order to avoid simply picking three Bernard Herrmann scores.  After all, Herrmann’s musical reputation is stellar and ever-growing, and I have four excellent Herrmann scores to choose from (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island, and Jason and the Argonauts).  Also, I could be criticized for leaving out a fourth major composer—Miklos Rosza—who worked on the Harryhausen movie The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  But my selections really are my personal three favorites—the other Herrmann-scored movies would be in fourth through sixth place and, as for the Rosza score, I think it’s far from his best.

My favorite of the Bernard Herrmann scores is his wonderfully varied work on Mysterious Island.  It’s got swirling hurricane-evoking action music to launch the adventure, a set of moody quiet themes for the mysterious island, and quirky set pieces for each of the monsters.  This selection—Elena/The Shadow/The Bird—begins with a delicate character piece for the young heroine, followed by some very Vertigo-esque forebodings, then (best of all) simultaneously comic and threatening music to accompany the attack of a giant flightless bird.

The film composer Jerome Moross is justifiably most famous for his classic western score to The Big Country (1958).  But—perhaps because I heard it first—my heart belongs to his music for The Valley of Gwangi, Harryhausen’s grand dino-western.  This clip begins with introductory themes and then hits its stride at the 1:20 mark with one of the finest of all expansive western melodies.  It’s everything I want a western score to be.

And third favorite?  Why that’s First Men in the Moon, of course!  Composer Laurie Johnson, a friend and occasional assistant to Bernard Herrmann, seized the opportunity to do his own variation on a Herrmann-type score and he did the master proud.

Reference Sources
Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray
Film Fantasy Scrapbook by Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

... and a special thank you to the hosts of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon: Ferdy on FilmsThis Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark.


© 2015 Lee Price

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