January 2018
Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood by Nathan Platte

Review by Warren M. Sherk

Making Music in Selznicks HollywoodMaking Music in Selznick’s Hollywood by Nathan Platte published by Oxford University Press contains considerable documentation on Dimitri Tiomkin’s music scores for two films produced by David O. Selznick in the late 1940s: Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jennie.

(Disclosure, I have known Nathan since 2009 and Nathan completed research for this book at my place of employment, the Margaret Herrick Library.)

Making Music is about the intellectual, creative, and physical processes that separately and together bring a film score into existence. Selznick, as producer, compulsively let his thoughts on music be known and he spent a lot of time and effort giving instructions to those around him concerning music in his films—where there should be music, what the music should contribute to the film, and what was and wasn’t working when the music was married to the film. Composers brought creativity as well as their own thoughts on the placement and purpose of music and at times this brought them in conflict with the producer. And Hollywood, through the organizational structure of the studio system and recording and dubbing process, brought music scores to life.

In his first solo book publication, Platte engages the reader by bringing together the historical context, the creative and production processes, music expectations, and more for Selznick’s films by following the producer’s career through sweeping collaborations with composers such as Herbert Stothart, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, and Dimitri Tiomkin.

BUY: Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood (Oxford Press)

Platte combines meticulous research, culled from books and articles as well as from archives, with his own insight and analysis resulting in a highly readable tome that will enlighten even the most knowledgeable student of film music history. In addition to consulting the standard film music literature and trade publications, such as the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, Platte digs deep to unearth nuggets in publications from American Showman to Wid’s. (The latter preceded The Film Daily and included Wid’s Film and Film Folk, Wid’s Independent Review of Feature Films, and Wid’s Daily.)

BUY (Amazon): Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood (Oxford Music/Media Series)

The real insights, however, are drawn from Platte’s visits to nine archival institutions in four states. At the forefront from the film production side is the David O. Selznick Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT Austin, Texas.

Ransom Center history

Harry Ransom believed that “a strong research library was the foundation of a great university,” Harry Ransom Center exhibition, December 29, 2017 (photo by Warren M. Sherk)

Selznick is well known for his lengthy production memos—witness the groundbreaking 518-page book Memo from David O. Selznick by Rudy Behlmer—and the documentation at the Ransom Center related to music in Selznick’s films is more than adequate to justify a book-length treatment of the subject. Other collections and archives consulted include the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the Cinematic Arts Library at the University of Southern California, Franz Waxman Papers and Miklos Rozsa Papers at Syracuse University, Max Steiner Collection and Hugo Friedhofer Collection at Brigham Young University, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.

READ: Our exclusive interview with author Nathan Platte

Two chapters are largely devoted to Tiomkin, Chapter 11, “From the Ranch to the Drawing Room: Duel in the Sun and The Paradine Case,” and Chapter 12, “Our Valedictory to Wild Extravagance”: The Curious Portrait of Jennie.

Tiomkin fans will undoubtably learn from these chapters: Tiomkin auditioned themes for Selznick for Duel in the Sun; at Selznick’s behest Tiomkin simultaneously wrote two cues for the same climactic scene which in the end played without music; and after the success of the RCA Victor Duel in the Sun suite recorded by the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler, Selznick suggested a monthly series of “Selznick Record Classics.” (Selznick was ahead of his time, nearly three decades passed before RCA began issuing their Classic Film Scores series in 1972, coincidently the same year Memo from David O. Selznick was published.)

From the Selznick Collection, Platte cites numerous examples of the producer’s instructions to composers. For example, for Rebecca Selznick requested a “pitiful crazy chord against a few other notes” for Ben and noted “the score has to keep the end from being dead.”

“Planning the Score” in Chapter 12 documents the selection of music by Debussy that was adapted by Tiomkin for Portrait of Jennie. Did Bernard Herrmann’s work on Portrait of Jennie prior to the hiring of Tiomkin have an effect on the final score? Yes, indeed, and Platte provides the interesting details.

Many factors contributed to the realization of a music score for a Selznick film. In addition to Selznick’s influence as producer: budgets, music directors, music editors, time constraints, and preview scores. Platte has found evidence of the earliest documented preview score for a Selznick film dating from 1937 (see page 353, footnote 41). Music from preview scores could influence the hired composer’s original music cues that replaced the preview tracks, tracks from the preview score could end up in the final film, and Selznick never had an issue with reusing or adapting music cues written for his previous films. Platte’s illumination of the role of music editor Audray Granville in the recording and placement of Miklos Rozsa’s music in Spellbound is fascinating.

The two chapters on music for Gone with the Wind and the question of authorship in film scores should be required reading for anyone studying film music, musicology, or film studies. Based on archival research and his own background in music, Platte details the contributions of the music team (dubbed “Steiner and Co.” by Hugo Friedhofer) that includes at least one groundbreaking discovery, see page 173ff, “Who’s Tara? Whose Main Title?” The question of authorship is complicated and there are aren’t always simple answers. Platte does an admirable job in guiding the reader through the creative process in Hollywood that mingles composing, arranging, orchestrating, and “filling in” (adding music notes or instruments to an existing sketch or score). His insight and interpretation of the musical evidence and knowledge of common practice in the Hollywood studio system is a testament to his academic background and training. In the end, it seems that the process of scoring the epic Gone with the Wind and questions of authorship may not differ drastically from the scoring of tentpole pictures today.

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Making Music is the latest addition to the Oxford Music/Media Series overseen by series editor Daniel Goldmark. Kudos to Oxford for creating a companion website to accompany the book, complete with film examples.

Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood is not only a pleasure to read, it is a significant and compelling addition to film music literature. The back of the book jacket contains critical praise from three leading scholars with varied backgrounds in music theory, English/Romance Languages and Literature, and film studies: James Buhler (“meticulously researched but accessible”), Claudia Gorbman (“original, brilliantly researched, witty and wise”), and Kathryn Kalinak (“Platte produces a masterwork”).

About the author

Nathan Platte (courtesy of Nathan Platte)

Nathan Platte, an associate professor of musicology, teaches music history at the University of Iowa. He collaborated on two previous books, Franz Waxman’s “Rebecca”: A Film Score Guide (co-written with David Neumeyer; Scarecrow Press 2011) and The Routledge Film Music Sourcebook (coedited with James Wierzbicki and Colin Roust; Routledge 2012). Some material in Making Music draws on his previous writings on the topic of Selznick for two scholarly journals.

Platte’s research and writings explore film music of Hollywood’s studio era from a variety of angles, including the collaborative process of film scoring, the intersection of technology and music, the role of studio orchestras, and soundtrack albums. He has presented papers at national and international conferences. Platte received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where he also completed bachelor’s degrees in history and trombone performance.


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