Celebrating The Rich Legacy
Of Film Composer George Duning
By John Stanley
I always approach the obituaries in the weekly edition of Variety with apprehension, reluctance and a faint sense of dread. Because once in a great while, not very often thank God, I'm stunned when I read about the passing of a talent that I have admired. I have to sit there for a while to get over the initial shock.
Invariably, there is a sense of loss. It's a strange kind of reaction because it's less about the loss of the individual than what the loss of that individual will mean to the entertainment industry. A great contributor of talent is gone, and there's no way he or she will ever be replaced. And someone who brought me great pleasure through a movie-making skill is gone forever.
I felt that way the other day when I read that George Duning was dead at 92, of cardiovascular disease. I just got all numb for a while, remembering his many films and the excitement he brought to them with his musical compositions. It didn't seem like the same world with him gone from it. Like I said,it's a strange kind of reaction.
Maybe Duning's name was never put up in lights alongside the names of those great composers of Hollywood's Golden Age--Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann. Nevertheless, the Indiana-born soundtrack-meister made major contributions to movie music that brought him five Oscar nominations. Memorable pictures, too: "Jolson Sings Again," "From Here to Eternity," "Picnic," and "The Eddy Duchin Story." The fifth nominee is one that slipped through the cracks because I've never seen it: "No Sad Songs for Me," a 1950 Margaret Sullavan melodrama. You can bet it's on my must-see list now.
But there was a lesser known side to Duning--he was a major part of a studio's history at a time when it was innovative and thriving. For 15 important learning years (1947-1962) he was a workaday composer at Columbia Studios, slaving away under musical director Morris Stoloff, turning out seven or eight scores a year. In those formidable days he had been responsible for writing music for many a B mystery picture. His first assignment for Columbia, in fact, was a quickie entry in "The Whistler" series: "Mysterious Intruder" (1946), followed by "The Devil's Mask," also a quickie entry in the studio's "I Love a Mystery" series. He then did some of Dick Powell's classy noir films at the studio: "Johnny O'Clock" (1947) and "To the Ends of the Earth" (1948). Other scores he wrote were workaday, forgettable things ("Her Husband's Affairs," 1947; "The Corpse Came C.O.D.," 1947) but they were his training ground that would lead to better assignments.
It was some of Duning's B-movie efforts that I had discovered during my early TV-watching years, and as I became more aware of screen credits, I would leap with anticipation whenever I discovered Duning's name on a picture. I knew I was in for something special. His music, which had a distinctive "sound" all its own, would invariably pull me into the story and carry me away. Among other things, Duning was a master at writing heroic themes for traditional action pictures. Just take a listen to "The Gallant Blade" (1948). But he was even better at handling Western scores, such as "The Untamed Breed" (1948).
A lot of the Columbia product fell somewhere between the B- and the A-picture. One of his unsung masterpieces was the music for "Lust for Gold" (1949), a difficult film to score because of its time shifts from modern day back to the 1870s and then back to the present again. He had to capture Glenn Ford's greed as a prospector, Ida Lupino's wily conniving as a "femme fatale" and the tension and suspense of a murder-mystery plot as someone murdered seekers of the Lost Dutchman mine. And above all else, Duning had to capture a sense of the heat and forboding ruggedness of the film's chief setting, the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.
Duning also had a way of blending in unusual psychological substance that set his music apart from the other Columbia composers. That he was a master of intermixing action with character was never better demonstrated than in "The Man From Colorado," a 1948 Glenn Ford-William Holden post-Civil War western in which Ford portrayed a crazed judge who thrived on sending men to their doom whether they deserved it or not. Duning's music captured Ford's schizophrenia as well as the brooding concern of the film's hero, Holden, as he tried to understand what was driving Ford toward self-destruction. Even during the lengthy posse-in-pursuit-of-outlaws sequences, Duning kept the paranoia and madness galloping alongside the horses. In fact, parts of the "Colorado" score would be used over and over again in Columbia's low-budget films of the 1950s, recycled by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, a second-string composer and master of rehashing old music tracks to fit new footage.
Over and over again, Bakaleinikoff would use the work of the studio's top composers within the context of the cheap B product that mogul Harry Cohen insisted the studio turn out for use in double features. Miklos Rosza's "Attack on the Oasis" music from "Sahara," for example, would be used countless times in not only other war movies but in Westerns and cops-and-robber thrillers. It was suitable for any scene in which a character was sneaking up on another, or lurking around the premises of a deserted warehouse, or any kind of deserted setting.
Marlin Skiles, one of Duning's contemporaries, almost ended up retiring on the amount of money he received over the years from his "Mine Shaft" music from Robert Young's 1948 production "Relentless." Bakaleinikoff used it more times than any other piece of music, not only in low-budget features but in almost all of the serials that producer Sam Katzman was turning out in those days. Take a listen to the 1949 "Batman and Robin" and you'll realize that almost half the music was lifted from the scene from "Relentless" in which Young stalks killer Barton MacLane. There isn't a Columbia Western serial that doesn't have "Mine Shaft" all through it in various tempos. And then there were Duning's riding sequences from "The Man From Colorado." Over and over again it popped up in the studio's Westerns, as if the chase would never end. Hardly a serial or a low-grade feature came out of the Columbia factory without portions of Duning's music anonymously hidden away within its chapters. (Don't worry--Duning got well paid for it just as Skiles and Rozsa did; the music unions in Hollywood saw to that.)
Another Duning score that stood out from all the other assembly-line Westerns was for the 1949 Randolph Scott oater "The Doolins of Oklahoma." Utilizing Duning's unusual use of fanfare drum rolls in the opening credits, the film immediately establishes a "film noir" quality, thanks in part to Duning's tragic overtones in establishing a cruel frontier that often chews up and spits out individuals who get in the way of progress. Reluctantly, for basically he's a deeply moral man, Scott is forced to turn outlaw and take it on the run from U.S. marshal George Macready, who pursues him with a mindless vengeance. All these attitudes are captured in a score that still has its flavor of sagebrush and cactus. A nighttime chase sequence through the picturesque rock formations of Lone Pine becomes a memorable pursuit piece with Duning's "galloping" music punctuating all the highlights of the chase. Duning shared credit with RKO's Paul Sawtell because he was so busy he didn't have time to finish the last few reels of "Doolins." But I swear, every time I watch it I can tell you the exact moment when Duning's superior music stops, and the lesser Sawtell takes over. Duning was that distinguished and recognizable.
If there is one score that brought Duning great praise from within the studion itself, it was "3:10 to Yuma," a 1957 "noir" western with themes of cowardice vs. bravery that evoked raves from Harry Cohn, the tyranical chieftain of Columbia who ruled with an iron fist and rarely gave out praise. Director Delmer Daves had told Duning he didn't want anything thunderous or epic--he wanted a low-key approach that would underscore the tension between outlaw Glenn Ford and broken-in-spirit rancher Van Heflin. And he wanted to capture the sense of desolation that Heflin felt as he was forced to take a job guarding a dangerous criminal for a small sum of money in order to support his drought-stricken farm and family. The tension Duning creates is almost unbearable when Heflin holes up with his prisoner Ford in a second-floor hotel room, overlooking a Western street (Old Tucson) that is forbodingly empty of life. Daves would later say that he felt Duning's score was "quintessential for the genre" and in all discussions about the film would talk about the music and its title song sung by Frankie Laine. (Daves would work with Duning just one more time--for the 1958 Glenn Ford Western, "Cowboy.")
Duning was to enhance his reputation in 1955 with "Picnic" when he successfully blended his own love theme for the adaptation of William Inge's play with the popular song "Moonglow" during a dance sequence between William Holden and Kim Novak. As the actors drew close and gazed lovingly into each other's eyes, the "Picnic" theme overwhelmed the "Moonglow" theme. This was a technique of counterpoint that most composers would have stayed away from because of clashing harmonies, but Duning was often innovative like that. As a result, the Composers Guild of America called it "the best original underscore for a nonmusical film." The piece became so talked about it was released on a best-selling record that spent three months on "The Hit Parade" TV show. Later, an enthused Steve Allen was to write lyrics to the "Moonglow-Picnic" combination, creating another musical sensation when it also was released on record.
Duning's passing last February 27 was additionally painful because I had once met him, if only briefly, and I still carry a sharp memory of the moment. We had met by chance in 1981 at the Silverado Country Club in Napa Valley. The occasion was KTVU Channel 2's annual wining-and-dining party for program advertisers. I was then hosting the Oakland station's Saturday night "Creature Features" series and had been invited to mingle because of the show's high identity among the sponsors. At the time Duning had written the music for a TV-movie extravanganza, "Goliath Awaits," produced by Operation Prime Time, a unit financed by a conglomerate of independent stations to compete with network-made movies. To ballyhoo its upcoming televising of the film, Channel 2 had invited Duning and other principals for the festive weekend.
It was one of those slow-moving cocktail parties--until I was introduced to Duning. I guess I must have acted like a kid who had just met his favorite movie star. Instantly, I started rattling off the titles of some of his lesser-known works, remarking that I couldn't believe I was meeting "the" George Duning. His face lit up--after all, how often does a composer, usually an anonymous contributor to movies as far as the general public is concerned, meet a real fan? He graciously asked me to sit with him in a corner near the bar. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone could possibly be familiar with the best and the most esoteric of his soundtrack credits.
I rattled on about "3:10 to Yuma" and how pieces of the music sounded like the sun beating down on people and the prairie; I raved like a madman about "The Doolins of Oklahoma"; about the military reveille fanfare he used to open "From Here to Eternity"; about his brilliant blending of "Moonglow" with his theme for "Picnic" and how it made the love scenes between Kim Novak and William Holden so hot for 1955. My ranting continued about the haunting honky-tonk New Orleans blues sound he gave to "Toys in the Attic." I even had to mention his comedic contributions via "Have Rocket, Will Travel," a Three Stooges feature he had composed the music for at Columbia.
Finally, when I calmed down long enough for him to get a word in, he talked about those early days at Columbia working with Stoloff. "It's the best time in a composer's life when you can create without a lot of restrictions, and at Columbia, Stoloff allowed the composers to work with a sense of freedom. His attitude was, yes, we'll listen to the producers and directors about what they want the music to be, but ultimately, when it comes time to sit down and write, we must put down what we feel."
Before we had to separate for dinner, Duning talked about Stoloff, who had been a child prodigy with the violin, and who had run the studio's music division with a steady but benevolent hand:
"Stoloff knew that music was emotion," he said. "Get the emotion down on paper and you have achieved your goal. That wasn't always easy, believe me. However, I was always able to sense the emotional content of a film. It was something that was just there for me. At least it lasted long enough for me to get it down on paper."
Duning had been born to musical parents. His father, an oratorio singer and conductor, urged him to study music theory at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While there, his mentor became Mario Casteinouvo-Tedesco. Playing the trumpet with a concert band after graduating brought Duning to the attention of NBC radio and he was hired to be the musical director of "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge" in the late 1930s, during what we now look back on as the "Golden Age of Old Time Radio."
Kyser's show was an olio of music and comedy and for Duning the job lasted nine years. Kyser made frequent films at RKO but it wasn't until he made "Carolina Blues" at Columbia in 1943 that Duning was brought along to serve as an arranger for Kyser's musical pieces. Stoloff liked Duning's contributions and hired him on the spot to be an orchestrator.
But the outbreak of World War II interrupted Duning's good fortune and he would spend the next three years conducting music for the Armed Forces Radio Service, his movie career on hold.
Stoloff wanted Duning to join his stable of composers shortly after war's end, for there was always plenty of B-product being churned out. Only instead of orchestrating, he wanted Duning to write original scores. That's when Duning became prolific and began turning out an endless stream of unique musical soundtracks. Among the better known pictures he worked on were "Pal Joey," "Bell, Book and Candle," "That Touch of Mink," "Gidget" and "The World of Suzie Wong." After he left Columbia n 1962, he moved over into television and established the themes and incidental music for "The Farmer's Daughter" and "The Naked City." His last feature film was 1980's "The Man With Bogart's Face."
One of his co-workers at Columbia had been composer-arranger Arthur Morton, who went on to become Jerry Goldsmith's orchestrator. He recalled, "Duning always had a shrewd sense of what would and wouldn't work in scoring films, of what you could and couldn't do. George is a first-class musician and working with him was a pleasure."
I might add that listening to George Duning was a pleasure, too. And will always be so. The composer may be gone, but his scores will always be there for me, and will remain an important part of my movie-watching life. I just learned that "Picnic" is being issued soon on DVD, and you can bet I'll be watching it and listening to it the day it hits the market.
©2000 by John Stanley
JOHN STANLEY is the renowned "Creature Features" TV host and expert on horror, sci-fi and fantasy films whose Creature Features Movie Guide is now a standard resource for film buffs. He was a writer-editor for The San Francisco Chronicle for 33 years. Stanley wrote the novel World War III (1976), the Edgar-nominated mystery The Dark Side (1977), and the non-fiction book Them Ornery Mitchum Boys. Through his Creatures at Large publishing company, Stanley printed Robert Bloch's Lost in Time and Space with Lefty Feep (1987). He also wrote and directed the feature film "Nightmare in Blood" (1976). Since retiring from the Chronicle in 1993, Stanley has continued to review films, make crossword puzzles for TV Guide publications and work as an Elderhostel instructor, specializing in classes about the world of entertainment. In 2007, he provided the expert audio narration for Fox's "Island in the Sun" DVD and published his latest book, "I Was A TV Horror Movie Host." (This is an excerpt from: http://www.thecolumnists.com/aboutus.html)
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