(First in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)
by Warren M. Sherk
With so many scores to his credit, there are bound to be some overlooked gems in Dimitri Tiomkin’s film oeuvre. His music for The Moon and Sixpence is one such case. When the film was released in the early 1940s, the score was well received by Tiomkin’s peers and earned a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The venerable Film Music Notes published a glowing capsule review: “Feeling and atmosphere are skilfully [sic] blended so that the oriental, pagan flavor is well established.” The reviewer also described the score as “eloquent” and “finely tempered,” admiring the manner in which the music “foretells with subtle insinuation” the unfolding story.
The Moon and Sixpence served as the first of many collaborations between Tiomkin and the film’s associate producer, Stanley Kramer. It also marked the directorial debut of the producer Albert Lewin, who would go on to helm The Picture of Dorian Gray. Tiomkin previously had worked with Lewin on Spawn of the North. For The Moon and Sixpence, Lewin himself adapted the screenplay from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name. To bring the book’s sexually charged content to the screen, and to satisfy the film censors, Lewin invented a narrator to mitigate the more sensational aspects of the story, which include infidelity, miscegenation, misogyny, and suicide. The film chronicles the excesses of Charles Strickland, an abusive artist who abandons his wife and family, cavorts with a friend’s wife (who in turn commits suicide), and then sets off for Tahiti, where he marries a native teenage girl.
The story bears numerous similarities to the life of the painter Paul Gauguin, though Maugham did not use the artist’s name. During preproduction, the filmmakers received a letter from one of Gauguin’s sons that precluded the use of his father’s art in the film. Subsequently, the studio hired a young Russian-born painter, Dolya Goutman (1915-2001), to create Gauguinesque artwork specifically for the film’s climactic scenes. Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Goutman came to the United States with his parents as a teen by way of Latvia and Holland. Prior to the Moon assignment, he worked in Hollywood painting portraits of movie stars. After World War II he settled in Philadelphia, taught at the Moore College of Art, and is now considered to be one of that city’s greatest expressionist painters. Goutman’s paintings for Moon incorporated nude figures, which stirred up controversy because of their prominent display in the film (onscreen close-ups of bare breasts and buttocks were not common at the time) and the fact that Lewin shot them in color.
Publicity tie-ins for the film included a book featuring cast members George Sanders, Doris Dudley, and Steve Geray on the dust jacket of Maugham’s novel. A song, “The Moon and Sixpence,” was written by Harold Miller, with lyrics by Bob Reed, and was a “tuneful, swingy number” widely promoted by the song’s publisher, Music Products. To increase awareness, the studio suggested local radio stations devote a program to native music of the South Seas to market the film’s exotic locale.
Balinese water music backgrounds, called by studio publicists the “most liquid and airy of all sound compositions,” were reportedly recorded for the film. The sound, with antecedents in Polynesian and African music, is made by cupping one’s hands and slapping them vigorously and rhythmically onto a surface of water. The result is a cross between soft drumming and a gurgling brook. In spite of the studio hype, there is no indication that these recordings made their way into the film.
Tiomkin’s score in the film’s first two-thirds tends to be casual, at times highlighting the comedic aspects. The slow-paced story is judiciously scored up to this point; the film then takes a turn for the better as the setting shifts from Paris to Tahiti. In one scene, a gregarious matchmaker recalls, “Her name was Ata,” and a Tahitian girl played by Elena Verdugo is introduced, commencing an almost three-minute-long sequence that allows Tiomkin a venue to humanize the girl. This is soon followed by Tiomkin’s underscore for Ata’s wedding to the protagonist, Strickland.
Tiomkin, no stranger to writing music for dancers, exquisitely scores the post-wedding feast scenes featuring the native Bali-Java dancers of Devi Dja, the film’s technical adviser. (One might assume that this would be the place for the water drums mentioned in the studio publicity.) The tribal dancers are accompanied by the requisite primitive rhythms played on log drums, but it is Tiomkin’s score that shines. His music ably illustrates the dance while simultaneously servicing the unfolding courtship between Ata and Strickland. After about the two-minute mark, the combined dance sequences end with a dervish of orchestral brilliance.
Devi Dja, a native of Bali, appeared in a number of films, including three of the “Road” pictures that starred Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. After Moon, she toured the United States with her dancers and a Gamelan orchestra. Those interested in more information on her life story, including her marriage to Native American artist Acee Blue Eagle, should read Standing Ovations…Devi Dja! Woman of Java, by Leona Merrin, published by Lee & Lee in 1990.
Although there is no theme song, Tiomkin did compose a melancholy, minute-long song that Ata sings to comfort her newborn baby. Mostly a cappella, it has bamboo flute accompaniment and exhibits a South Seas flair, including a pentatonic (based on five notes) melody and quasi-Polynesian lyrics.
Several more lengthy music cues follow before the film climaxes with the unveiling of Strickland’s paintings. After he dies, Ata sets them on fire. For the fire sequence, Tiomkin works up a splendid furioso that serves as the musical climax. The music winds down as we see the closing image: a small, intact sculpture amid the burning wreckage. The sculpture, perhaps a nod to the “Rosebud” image from Citizen Kane, was created for the film by Icelandic sculptor Nina Saemundsson (1892-1965). Among her notable works are a bust of Leif Erikson in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park and a number of statues in her native country.
Thanks to the subject matter and direction, the film’s reputation has held up over the years. The Moon and Sixpence screened as part of the “Modern Painters in Memorable Films” series at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1963, and opened the “Living Idols: The Films of Albert Lewin” retrospective programmed by the UCLA Film Archive in 1997. A print was for sale or rent from Crystal Pictures in New York for a number of years. It wasn’t until 2000 that a VHS version from Ivy Classics restored the look of the film’s original 1942 release: the first hour is in black and white, the island scenes in the final half hour are sepia-toned, and Goutman’s paintings are in Kodachrome. A 2005 VCI Entertainment DVD (apparently made from a black-and-white print) and a special collector’s edition released by VCI Video in May have kept the film in circulation. It’s worth viewing, particularly for the Tahitian sequences. The music for these scenes probably played a large part in Tiomkin’s Academy Award nomination.
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California (thanks to Ned Comstock)
- The American Film Institute catalog
- Film Music Notes
- The Los Angeles Times and New York Times, accessed through ProQuest
- The Core Collection files at the Margaret Herrick Library