Seventy-five years ago, the art of music scoring for Hollywood sound films, or “talkies,” was literally being invented by a group of transplanted New Yorkers, many of whom were songwriters. Among them was a Russian concert pianist-turned-composer who was ready to take a stab at writing serious music for films. This is the story of Dimitri Tiomkin’s first feature-length film score.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s Score for Resurrection (1931)
by Warren M. Sherk
Banner headlines for film composers are not an everyday sight. Yet there it was, in Hollywood Daily Screen World on August 1, 1930:
DIMITRI TIOMKIN, COMPOSER, TO UNIVERSAL
Writes Music for Carewe Production of RESURRECTION
Tiomkin’s signing with Universal was widely attributed to the enthusiastic reception given to his “ultramodern” compositions for the prologue to Hell’s Angels. Master showman Sid Grauman had assembled talent from across the nation for the stage program that preceded the premiere of Howard Hughes’s big-budget aviation classic in May 1930 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Tiomkin and his wife, the choreographer Albertina Rasch, had been tapped, along with comedians, vaudeville performers, and various entertainers and songsters. It wasn’t the first time Grauman had called on the gifted duo; in February 1929, the “Broadway Nights” prologue at the world premiere of MGM’s Broadway Melody at the Chinese showcased the Albertina Rasch Dancers in an exclusive engagement following the troupe’s success in New York and Europe. “Broadway Nights” had featured Tiomkin’s “Romantic Ballet,” choreographed by Rasch. Tiomkin parlayed that job into a contract with MGM studios, where he provided ballet music for musical films.
For the Hell’s Angels musical prologue, Tiomkin wrote songs with lyricist Henry Myers, a veteran of Broadway musical revues. The songs “Sitting on the Garden Wall” and “Jungle Jungle” were included in two spectacular production numbers, “A Garden Wall” and “The Jungle,” created by Tiomkin and featuring vocal interpretations and the dazzling Rasch dancers. Later that year, in August 1930, the Hell’s Angels stage show and the Hollywood Bowl performance of Tiomkin’s “Suite Choreographic” during “Symphonies Under the Stars” landed Tiomkin at the center of the Los Angeles music scene. In celebration, the Tiomkins threw a lavish dinner party at their home following the Bowl concert. The Russian-themed supper, entertainment, decorations, and dance featured a guest list that must have been the envy of Hollywood at the time: songwriter Irving Berlin, director Ernst Lubitsch, actress Colleen Moore, composers Alfred Newman and Sigmund Romberg, actor Basil Rathbone, and producers Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick.
But perhaps the most important guest that night was the director Edwin Carewe. Tiomkin had just signed a contract to write the underscore for Carewe’s magnum opus, Resurrection, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel of two souls lost in passion but redeemed in love. The film, set in imperial Russia, was being touted as the artistic successor to All Quiet on the Western Front, Universal’s recent best picture winner. Tiomkin had been selected based on his intimate knowledge of Russian life and music and on his reputation as a modernistic composer. He planned to musically interpret Tolstoy’s themes, including the emotions of the peasants, the military, the Siberian prisoners, and the romance between two young Russians. Carewe previously had directed a silent version for United Artists that made a star out of Dolores del Rio in 1927. At Universal, whose plans for Carewe’s sound version included a roadshow on Broadway, Lupe Velez was cast opposite John Boles, who had appeared in a number of high-profile musicals, from Rio Rita to Sigmund Romberg’s Desert Song.
During production, Tiomkin lost a close friend, the Russian-born actor and singer Michael Vavitch, who was riding in an automobile with Tiomkin when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Earlier that day, the two had worked on song material for Resurrection at Tiomkin’s home. Like Tiomkin, Vavitch had attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory and come to America under the auspices of promoter Morris Gest. Vavitch, who served as president of the Russian Club in Los Angeles, appeared in a number of early sound films where his voice was in increasing demand. Tiomkin eulogized his friend in a lengthy letter to the editor published in Hollywood Filmograph.
Despite his grief, Tiomkin pressed on, as the New York Morning World reported in late October: “Tiomkin, now living on Catalina Island and working on his score, regards his task as heaven sent. The resultant picture is expected to be the nearest approach to an original opera the screen has offered since it first lisped from a scratchy sound-track.” The composer previewed a few snippets of music—including a wistful lullaby and a poignant love song—for the press. One writer described the lullaby as expressing the heartbreak and abject woe of a young mother singing to her stillborn child. In contrast, the ardent love song was full of tenderness and yearning. The lullaby was orchestrated by Paul Lamkoff, an émigré composer and arranger, who also trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Having composed the score for The Cossacks in 1928, he was well suited to Resurrection and was trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to forge a career in Hollywood as a composer. In fact, both Lamkoff and Tiomkin were at MGM in early 1930, when Lamkoff was orchestrating the film Romance. Occasional jobs continued to come Lamkoff’s way, but at the time much of his film work went uncredited. He later became an expert in Jewish religious music for motion pictures—he provided song material for the 1950s version of The Jazz Singer—and enjoyed some success as a composer of concert music and Yiddish songs.
Universal Pictures president and Resurrection producer Carl Laemmle Jr. loved music, according to Tiomkin. Laemmle had recently hired a general music director to supervise music affairs for the studio. He chose American-born Heinz Roemheld, who had developed ideas about music for sound pictures based on his experience supervising music in German theaters. Roemheld and Tiomkin may have crossed paths back in Berlin, as both were students of Ferruccio Busoni and Egon Petri in the early 1920s. Roemheld’s studio responsibilities included timing the music for synchronization, as well as other production-related duties, such as overseeing recording sessions. Tiomkin, in his first dramatic feature film scoring assignment, attempted to make music an integral part of the production, in part by scoring the picture as it was being filmed. He was fascinated by the new medium of sound films and even went so far as to declare printed music, such as that typically distributed to accompany silent films, as “almost dead.” To the Los Angeles Times he said, “The talkies have proved they are a successful means of entertainment…[and] the composer is of great value, for he must not only sit down and create music…but must blend his music emotionally and inject it carefully, making it part of the story itself.”
Carewe, Tiomkin, and Roemheld went to great lengths to ensure that the music for Resurrection was used “artistically”; that is, only where absolutely necessary to further the drama. As a recent arrival to Hollywood, Tiomkin found himself at the center of a small cultural and territorial war between composers and songwriters. Both camps wanted to write music for sound films, and the songwriters, being the first to arrive, were in the driver’s seat. As Tiomkin pointed out, “When the medium of sound and dialogue was created in pictures, there was a wild gold rush of the boys from Tin Pan Alley. They brought all the Tin Pan Alley material they could grab and threw it into pictures with abandon, letting it fall where it might and ignoring the real possibilities of good music at proper places in films.” Perhaps in response, advertisements for Resurrection noted that Tiomkin’s compositions blended with the plot and action and were used only when essential. From the set, John Boles explained, “When theatregoers hear my songs in this picture, they will find that every note and word has been written with such plausability [sic], that I look forward to regaining the lost popularity for music which was brought about by forcing songs and music into places in the pictures where they were not at all necessary.”
The music for Resurrection can be characterized as a song score, with some dramatic underscore. Boles, described by one reviewer as “more of a singer than an actor,” sang three songs, referring to them as “Do I Remember?,” “To You [sic] Eyes,” and “While the Volga Flows.” Another, “Baby’s Lullaby,” is sung by costar Lupe Velez. Tiomkin’s lyricist was Bernie Grossman, and this was their only known professional collaboration. Grossman, who often teamed with the Russian-born songwriter Al Goodman, was one of the aforementioned Tin Pan Alley “boys” who headed west in the late 1920s to supply songs and special material for motion pictures. He penned the lyrics for “While the Volga’s Flowing,” “Lullaby,” and the “Marching Song.” The staging of the operetta-style songs, often accompanied by hundreds of choreographed extras, provides some of the most visually interesting scenes; in contrast, many of the scenes without music feature a static camera, stilted dialogue, and a lack of spontaneity.
Artistic considerations aside, sound films presented a new obstacle to Hollywood studios. Films in English limited their access to international audiences. To overcome the language barrier, American studios often filmed scenes first in English, then filmed them again in a different language, usually French, Italian, or Spanish. A Spanish-language version of Resurrection was produced simultaneously, with the studio employing many of the same production crew, supplemented by writers and actors who were native speakers. Velez reprised her role in the Spanish Resurrección, with Gilbert Roland replacing Boles. Baltasar Fernández Cuè, a specialist in Spanish adaptations, was brought in to translate the Finis Fox screenplay and dialogue. (Curiously, Resurrección, although destined for Puerto Rico and points beyond, opened in New York City in March 1931, just two months after the English version.) Cancion del Soldado (“Song of the Soldier”), a manuscript with English and Spanish lyrics by Cuè and Grossman in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at USC, provides evidence that Tiomkin’s music appeared in the Spanish version. Heard as the Russian soldiers leave for war, it is the same as the “Soldier’s Song” in the English version. At least one other piece of music, the “Gypsy Song,” was refitted with Spanish lyrics for Resurrección.
In his autobiography, Tiomkin wrote that his score was “a concoction of some Russian tunes in minor keys and a lot of standard sentimentality in the style of [Sigmund] Romberg’s musical comedies. I remember only one thing with approval, a Cossack song with vehement rhythms proper to the horsemen of the steppes.” Even though Resurrection was intended to be a musical drama, composers were not allowed to attend the final sound mix, and as a result Tiomkin’s work did not fare well. “My score was massacred; it was fortissimo when it should have been a whisper, and vice versa; drowned out by noisy sound effects when it should have been expressive. You couldn’t hear the Cossack song for the thunder of the horses’ hoofs. It was my first experience of the constant war between music and sound effects.” Tiomkin also humorously recalled that a large colony of White Russian exiles in the Los Angeles area were drafted as extras, some of whom were frightened by the Cossack uniforms.
The opening credit music–titled the “Resurrection Overture” on the cue sheet–is followed by Boles singing “While the Volga’s Flowing.” This aria, or love song, returns when Boles and Velez see each other for the last time before he goes off to war. A café scene features the “Gypsy Song” (also known as “The Gypsy Serenade”), a lavish production number for orchestra and chorus with a vocal arrangement by Paul Lamkoff. This is followed by the “Drinking Song,” which Boles referred to earlier as “To You Eyes”: “I drink to your eyes…I drink to a night of romancing.” An orchestral version of the song then underscores the action. Of the remaining music, only “Tent Music,” “Train Music,” and “Jail Music” are without lyrics. Even “Prison Barrack Music” has Grossman lyrics. The film’s climax, both dramatically and musically, comes as Boles gazes longingly at Velez on her way to Siberian exile, accompanied by the “Marching Song.”
By December 1930 Tiomkin was back in New York, working out details for several Broadway stage shows, in particular an operetta with Montague Glass. He attended the New York premiere of Resurrection at the Roxy Theater in January 1931. While the film opened to generally tepid reviews, the music was often favorably cited, although one critic thought the film attempted to turn Tolstoy into an operetta, and another determined that Carewe must work by the principle “When in doubt, use music.” All told, Resurrection does not have a substantial amount of music; however, it was made at a time when films with music tended to be musicals, and most dramas had only an obligatory underscore for the main title sequence, supplemented by whatever source music was required in the film. “With Music” is prominently displayed in parentheses below the film’s title in a trade paper review. In 1930s parlance, this indicated to audiences that the film had more music than was typical, but was not a musical. More often than not, music in dramatic films was referred to as “incidental music,” a term borrowed from theater music, as films were often thought of as filmed plays, or photoplays. In retrospect, the amount of press the “incidental” music in Resurrection received is remarkable. While this attention did not immediately benefit Tiomkin’s budding career as a film composer, he fared better than Carewe, who, despite a successful career in silent film, became a casualty of the talkies.
The influence of Tin Pan Alley and popular music remained strong in Hollywood. In the early 1930s, however, Tiomkin, Roemheld, and other musicians were instrumental in bringing atmospheric music to the screen. Even though their artistic sights were set high, the new medium of the talkies was not technologically up to the task that they had in mind. It would take several years before recording technology allowed the sonic richness of a full orchestral palette to be heard in movie theaters and for the art and language of dramatic film scoring to emerge. Viewed today, Resurrection is a curious artifact of a bygone era, a time when sound on film was struggling to escape the grasp of silent film and its long tradition of live musical accompaniment.
© 2006 Volta Music
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California (thanks to Ned Comstock)
- The American Film Institute catalogs
- The Los Angeles Times, accessed through ProQuest
- Tiomkin, Dimitri, and Prosper Buranelli. Please Don’t Hate Me. New York: Doubleday, 1959