By Warren M. Sherk
Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Last Train from Gun Hill has been issued for the first time on compact disc and is available from Screen Archives Entertainment. This is the first Tiomkin score on the Counterpoint label formed in 2010 by soundtrack producers Craig Spaulding, Lukas Kendall, and Neil S. Bulk. Last Train was preceded by Counterpoint releases of music from Sunset Blvd. and Dark Shadows, making a most unlikely trio.
Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was developed from an original motion picture story written by Les Crutchfield, best known for his work on the television series Gunsmoke. The tense drama, brought to the screen by producer Hal B. Wallis and his associate Paul Nathan, re-united several key members of the creative team behind Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1956), including director John Sturges, cinematographer Charles Lang Jr., and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. For Gunfight, Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington created “The Ballad of the O.K. Corral.” Frankie Laine sang the song with lyrics that at various times throughout the film either anticipated the action to come or commented on the preceding screen action.
Tiomkin’s concept for the Last Train evolved from his scores for Gunfight and High Noon (1952), both monothematic and based on their respective main title songs. The idea this time around was to repeat the Last Train theme song several times throughout the film, but instead of repeating the main title lyric each time, Paul Francis Webster would write additional sets of lyrics, each commenting on the story as it unfolded and developed. The tentative main title credits of August 7, 1958 include a title song, but lack a recording artist’s name. A week later Tiomkin called on Kitty White to record a demo version of the song (see March 2007 news). Before another week passed the song credit with White’s name now attached was considered “definite.” A few days before the recording sessions commenced in September a press release announced a forthcoming White recording of the title song. By this time, Paul Nathan, the hands-on production executive that managed daily production details for Wallis, had expressed his opinion that the song was no good for the picture. By the end of the recording sessions even Tiomkin agreed that the Kitty White vocals were not working and the vocals were scrapped. As Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes point out some rescoring took place as a result of dropping the song lyrics. By November it was official, the song credit was removed from the main title credits.
Once the song was abandoned there was some discussion between Tiomkin and the producers about how the film should open musically, with Tiomkin advocating a soft, pastoral, and melancholic beginning. Apparently he couldn’t convince the producer and the film was released with a dramatic prelude. If you listen to the following CD tracks in the order they were recorded you can hear how the music that opened the film evolved. Track 32 (demo version, August), track 30 (original vocal version, September), track 29 (first revision, without vocal, October), and track 1 (final version, December). As the liner notes point out, tracks 1 and 29 were conducted by Irvin Talbot. This was necessary because some time after scoring was completed in September Tiomkin made his way to New York and was therefore not available to record the rewrites. Talbot, a member of the Paramount music department, specialized in synchronization scoring and conducting to picture.
After dropping the vocal music, Paramount allocated some extra money for revisions and orchestrations. Wallis specifically asked for a rewrite of “Watchful Waiting” (track 19). The producer did not want to hear the theme and was looking for more suspense in the music. Tiomkin supplied the requested trepidation but managed to include snippets of the theme here and there. The film review in Variety noted the contribution of Tiomkin’s score (“reverberating with tautness and passion”) and his orchestrators (“excitingly orchestrated”), Maurice de Packh, Manuel Emanuel, Michael Heindorf, George Parrish, and Herbert Taylor.
Several points of interest are worth noting. The idea to use song lyrics as a story-telling device was not scripted. The lyrics, “…this cold and angry day…” reference one of the working titles of the film, “One Angry Day.” Even though the lyrics were dropped, thus negating the reasoning behind the theme’s repetition, the film’s score does not suffer from the decision to use the underlying theme instrumentally. What about the song itself? On the demo (track 32), backed only by piano and guitar, White’s voice comes across as confident and relaxed, with hints of Mahalia Jackson, in a strong, vibrant, and rich performance. Listen to White’s haunting styling of the lyric, “the lonely hours, lonely hours.” Contrast this with the straight-laced orchestra-backed track (track 30) that has been raised one step in pitch and generally lacks intensity. The dramatic ballad had been turned into a conventional pop song.
The sheet music for “Last Train from Gun Hill” is available in the Dimitri Tiomkin Anthology.
Perhaps a modern-day female jazz vocalist will pick this song up and give it its due. If Kitty White’s performance had been retained in the picture would it have been the first American film to be released with a main title song performed by a female African-American singer?
Last Train from Gun Hill was released by Paramount Pictures in 1959 and re-released in 1963. At that time, citizens of Colorado Springs, Galesburg, Illinois, and other mid-Western towns could motor to their local drive-in to catch a double feature of Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The limited-edition soundtrack contains 32 tracks with one hour of music. The soundtrack was remastered from 35mm three-track stereo music masters supplemented by cues from the film’s monaural music stems that have been placed in a stereo field to more closely resemble the stereo master tracks. Frank K. DeWald provides the production and music notes for the 32-page color booklet. The CD, Counterpoint CPT1003, can be ordered directly at Screen Archives Entertainment where five sample tracks can be heard, including the demo and original version of the unused vocal.
- DeWald, Frank K. “Last Train from Gun Hill,” liner notes, Counterpoint CPT1003, 2011
- “Last Train from Gun Hill” in the Paramount Pictures scripts, Paramount Pictures production records, and Hal Wallis papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
- Access Newspaper Archive, Los Angeles Public Library, accessed at www.lapl.org on June 21, 2011
- “Last Train from Gun Hill” [film review], Variety, April 15, 1959