Part 1 of 2.
By Warren M. Sherk
In 1961 Dimitri Tiomkin agreed to score back-to-back Robert Aldrich directed films, The Last Sunset (1961) and Sodom and Gomorrah (released in Italy in 1961 as Sodoma e Gomorra, released in the U.S. in 1963). While he provided a key song to the first film, he bowed out of scoring both.
While we don’t know when Tiomkin and Aldrich first met, they did work on several films scored by the composer after World War II. Robert Aldrich served as assistant director on Pardon My Past (1945) and So This Is New York (1948), as second unit assistant director on Red Light (1949), and as production supervisor on The Steel Trap (1952).
When Robert Aldrich directed the pilot of Hotel de Paree for CBS in 1959 he called on Tiomkin for the music. At the time, the composer’s rousing hit theme for another Western, Rawhide, could be heard on television every Friday evening. For Hotel de Paree Tiomkin provided the series theme and underscore for the pilot episode, “Sundance Returns,” also known as “Sundance Comes Home,” that aired on October 2, 1959. Tiomkin’s music sketches can be found in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at USC’s Cinematic Arts Library and the full scores reside in the CBS Collection at the UCLA Library Special Collections, Performing Arts.
As Jon Burlingame notes in his landmark 1996 book on television music, “Tiomkin composed his only original television score for the pilot of ‘Hotel,’ about a Colorado adventurer named Sundance, played by Earl Holliman. With a lyric by Paul Francis Webster, the melody was used for a song called ‘Sundance’ over the end credits.”
Following Hotel de Paree, Aldrich directed Day of the Gun, the working title for The Last Sunset. Two composers, Dimitri Tiomkin and Ernest Gold, are mentioned by name in Los Angeles film critic Margaret Harford’s review of the film. (By 1951 Margaret Harford already earned an entry in The International Who Is Who in Music for her work in Hollywood as a feature writer, film reviewer, and music critic. Today her legacy lives on through the “Margaret Harford award for sustained excellence in theater” presented annually by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.)
Harford pointed out, “Dimitri Tiomkin wrote ‘Pretty Girl in the Yellow Dress’ which [Kirk] Douglas croaks more or less amiably for a couple of choruses under Robert Aldrich’s direction. Ernest Gold did the rest of the music.”
A Los Angeles Times review notes, “Gold’s score incorporates Tiomkin’s ‘Pretty Little Girl in the Yellow Dress.’”
While other reviewers mention the Tiomkin song, none elaborate on why Tiomkin provided only a theme song, and not the score, for the film, as he had done previously in similar situations, notably for High Noon.
As it turns out, Benjamin Franklin and Lowell Thomas share in the responsibility for Tiomkin bowing out of scoring The Last Sunset. More on that later.
The Last Sunset, scripted by Dalton Trumbo, follows Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson on a cattle drive across the Rio Grande. Described as “offbeat” and “an adult, psychological western,” the film was director Robert Aldrich’s third feature film Western, after Apache and Vera Cruz.
About The Last Sunset, Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote,
“I won’t dwell on the adventures which befall them enroute, but they include menaces, real and fancied, from both humans (Neville Brand is one) and nature. When the shootin’ showdown and the last sunset finally do arrive Hudson walks tall and Douglas walks tall, but the shadows they cast are short. It looks more like high noon.”
Dimitri Tiomkin was signed to score Day of the Gun, the working title for The Last Sunset, in late March 1960. He planned to use a 78-person orchestra for the underscore.
His plate was already full, as he would complete work on The Alamo in April when he agreed to score Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners. And Tiomkin was at the top of his game. For Alamo he set a precedence by asking for a flat fee for 70 minutes of underscore and a per-minute rising scale beyond that point. Including scoring fees and royalties, Variety estimated the composer’s income as exceeding $200,000 per year.
By late August it was reported that Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington had already written a “poptune” for Day of the Gun called “Pretty Little Girl.” Tiomkin conducted the recording session in May in Los Angeles.
“Pretty Little Girl in the Yellow Dress” plays a pivotal role in the film. Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) and Belle Breckinridge (Dorothy Malone) shared a teenage relationship and when O’Malley tries to reconnect with her as an adult he whistles the tune, recalling that throughout the intervening years he always remembered Belle as a “pretty girl in a yellow dress.”
WATCH: “Pretty Girl in the Yellow Dress” from The Last Sunset on YouTube
When the film was released a publicity item on Kirk Douglas, in the film “seen as a gunslinger who is just as quick with the ladies as he is with a derringer,” appeared in a Texas newspaper.
Starring in a rugged outdoor action drama can provide countless discomforts — but none so rare as the one that befell Kirk Douglas during location filming in Aguascalientes, Mexico, for Brynaprod’s Universal release, ‘the [sic] Last Sunset,’ opening at the Waco Theater.
The singing was no problem, but the whistling was plain murder. After two weeks in the broiling hot sun, gusty winds and dust storms of Aguascalientes, Douglaw’ [sic] lips were cracked, chapped and sore. Even to shape his lips into a whistle was a painful chore.
When Douglas is unable to rekindle his relationship with Belle he turns to her 16-year-old daughter, Missy (Carol Lynley).
As Tony Williams writes in Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich,
“Missy appears like his dream girl in a yellow dress during the fiesta celebrating the next day’s crossing of the Rio Grande.”
Of course this is the same yellow dress that Belle wore when she was seduced by O’Malley when she was sixteen.
At this point O’Malley successfully woos Missy with the tune and proceeds to sleep with her that night. The following morning Belle tells O’Malley, “She’s your daughter.”
The Variety reviewer, after revealing that Lynley is Douglas’s daughter, goes on to write, “The studio has requested that the ending not be revealed, but it’s not likely to come as a surprise to seasoned filmgoers.” So much for spoiler alerts in 1961 Hollywood. (Fun fact, according to Webster’s dictionary the first known use of the term spoiler alert was in 1994.)
In December 1960 when Tiomkin dropped out of Day of the Gun, composer Ernest Gold stepped in. Gold had also scored a 1959 episode of Hotel de Paree; however, to elevate Gold’s career it took the release of the film Exodus in December 1960 and ensuing Academy Award for music score in April 1961.
“Pretty Little Girl” was recorded by pop singer Mike Clifford for Columbia and rockabilly singer Carl Dobkins Jr. for Decca. A Billboard blurb for the Clifford recording rated four stars with “strong sales potential” and noted, “Simple backing is very effective on this lovely folkish ballad.” Clifford, best known for his 1962 hit recording of the Leiber and Stoller song, “Close to Cathy,” recorded a number of film songs in the early 1960s.
“Pretty Little Girl” may be his first film song disc. At the time of its release, the seventeen-year-old wrote, “On my most recent Columbia recording I sang an old favorite, “At Last,” and a new song by Dmitri [sic] Tiomkin (who’s certainly not a rock ‘n’ roll writer), ‘Pretty Little Girl in the Yellow Dress.’”
The published sheet music features an image of a wholesome quartet, arm-in-arm with beaming smiles, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Kirk Douglas, and Carol Lynley. Lynley’s promotion of the film included a stop in Chicago to participate in the premiere parade on State Street that incorporated a “Prettiest Little Girl in the Yellow Dress” contest.
The explanation for Tiomkin’s withdrawal from scoring The Last Sunset is buried in articles in Daily Variety and Boxoffice magazines on another topic. Tiomkin partnered with Cinerama producer Lowell Thomas and began negotiations with United Artists to produce a biopic on Benjamin Franklin to be scripted by Irving Stone and a biopic on Col. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody for 20th Century-Fox. At the end of the news brief is the answer: Tiomkin “bowed out of a commitment to tune the Bryna-U-I feature, ‘Day of the Gun,’ in order to be free for the Franklin project.”
But is that the only reason? Check back next month for part 2…
[Note: The research for this article was prompted by longtime Tiomkin fan Phil Lehman who was curious about Dimitri’s involvement in The Last Sunset.]
The International Who Is Who in Music, entry on Margaret Harford, 1951
The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986 [“an adult, psychological western”]
What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich: His Life and His Films by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight, 1995 [“offbeat”]
Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich by Tony Williams, Scarecrow Press, 2004
“Tiomkin Tunes UI ‘Gun,’” Variety Daily, March 26, 1960
“Clear Tiomkin to Baton Score for ‘Sundowners,’” Variety Daily, April 11, 1960
“Douglas ‘Pretty’ Ditty,” Variety Daily, May 6, 1960
“Col Survives ‘Alamo’ Shellac Skirmish,” Variety Daily, August 26, 1960
“Tiomkin & Thomas Talk UA Deal for Ben Franklin Biopic,” Variety Daily, December 30, 1960
“Hollywood Report: Tiomkin, Lowell Thomas Form Production Unit,” by Ivan Spear, Boxoffice, January 9, 1961
“A Horse Opera to Make Strong Men Cry,” by Philip K. Scheuer, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1961
“The Last Sunset” [review], Daily Variety, May 24, 1961
“Special Merit Spotlights: Mike Clifford,” Billboard, May 29, 1961
“Coming Here / Carol Lynley,” [Chicago] Suburbanite-Economist, June 1, 1961
“Last Sunset” [review] by Margaret Harford, Los Angeles Mirror, June 15, 1961
“Kirk’s Chapped Lips Make Whistle Scene Painful Experience,” Waco Citizen, June 15, 1961
“’Last Sunset’ Varying in Dramatic Qualities,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1961
“Teen-age Balladeer Dislikes Rock ‘n’ Roll,” by Mike Clifford, San Mateo Times, August 19, 1961
TV’s Biggest Hits, by Jon Burlingame, Schirmer Books, 1996
American Film Institute (AFI) catalog, entry on The Last Sunset