(Second in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)
by Warren M. Sherk
In the mid-1940s Dimitri Tiomkin decided it was time he started making real money as a film composer. He put his acute business sense and knowledge of Hollywood to work, asking and negotiating for “much money,” as he states in his autobiography. (At the time, Tiomkin was living at 606 N. Alta Drive, a 4,400-square-foot house in Beverly Hills, today worth more than $4 million.) After the success of Duel in the Sun and Red River,he went on to become the highest-paid composer in town.
Tiomkin did have to pay his dues, though, like most other composers in Hollywood. By the end of the 1930s he had been well compensated on several significant productions but had also toiled on a number of second-string pictures for much lower fees. Two of these lesser-known films were scored back-to-back, just prior to the United States’ entry into World War II: Forced Landing and Flying Blind. Starring Richard Arlen, these films were aviation “actioners” from the newly formed Pine-Thomas Productions.
Finding a niche
Its founders, William Pine and William Thomas, had been on the publicity staff at Paramount studios, charged with hyping films through press releases and press sheets, or pressbooks. As they cranked out pumped-up grist for the media mill, they realized that slogans and catchphrases were being forced on low-budget pictures that they felt were not worth the effort—or, in some cases, did not even deliver. “Fast-paced action” was promised for a picture that completely lacked it, and disgruntled theatergoers were not being fooled. “We figured that picture audiences don’t care a hoot what a picture costs, so long as it is entertaining,” recalled Pine. He and Thomas left the publicity department to become producers, confident they could make satisfying films without spending a bundle of money. Pine-Thomas Productions debuted in the summer of 1941 with a trio of aviation films: Power Dive, Forced Landing, and Flying Blind. Their office was on the Paramount lot and was one of only two independent production companies—the other being Hal Wallis Productions—at Paramount in 1950.
Theater owners wanted movies that would attract audiences to “programmers,” hour-long films that screened between the top-billed, big-budget main attractions. Studios, of course, wanted these movies to be cheap to produce. Pine-Thomas filled both needs by providing films featuring lesser-known but popular actors. The business-savvy Pine and Thomas knew that most of a film’s budget was spent during the actual shoot. To minimize costs, Power Dive was shot in a then unheard-of ten days—and that was made possible only by extensive pre-production planning, which included mapping out camera angles beforehand. The two Williams wanted to make a million dollars without spending a million dollars, and they soon became known as the “Dollar Bills.”
A look at the music
To stay within budget, the music for the three films was handled by Screen Music Inc. and David Chudnow, a Russian-born music supervisor who had come to the United States at an early age. Chudnow specialized in supplying composers to independent film producers who were working outside the studio system. He most likely had a hand in selecting two fellow Russian composers: Constantin Bakaleinikoff for Power Dive, and Tiomkin for Forced Landing and Flying Blind.
For Power Dive, Pine and Thomas put up their own money, raised some money, and got the film into theaters under a Paramount release contract. Pleased with the picture’s success and critical acclaim, the studio promptly signed the duo to a multiple-picture contract. The ensuing relationship proved profitable for both sides. Paramount would finance and distribute, and Pine-Thomas would receive a supervision fee (around $7,000 at the start) and a percentage of the gross after the studio recouped its costs.
Forced Landing was produced from mid-April to early May, previewed June 30, and released July 25, 1941. Making her American film debut was the Hungarian-born actress Eva Gabor, billed as “the Girl with the Sweater Voice.” Of the $100,000 budget, $3,000 went to music scoring, excluding music preparation costs. In addition to the main and end titles, Tiomkin wrote thirteen music cues. The early cues are character driven, backing the mechanic Christmas (Mikhail Rasumny), nemesis Colonel Golas (Nils Asther), the love interest Johanna (Gabor), and the friendly pilot Petchnikoff (Harold Goodwin). After spinning a romantic theme for Arlen and Gabor—who are married at the end of the film—Tiomkin wrote action music to enhance a plot by revolutionary leader Andros Banshek (J. Carroll Naish). Theater owners could purchase disc recordings with sound effects of airplanes to entice ticket holders as they entered the lobby.
The next Pine-Thomas film was already in production before Forced Landing’s release. Flying Blind was produced from mid-June to early July, previewed August 15, and released August 29, 1941, and is considered the best of the bunch. This aviation spy melodrama involves a pilot, again played by Arlen, who runs a honeymoon air service for elopers. After discovering a pair of foreign spies among his passengers, the pilot breaks up an attempted sabotage. Reviewers thought the film provided good program value and surefire audience entertainment. One reviewer noted that Tiomkin’s score was packed with dramatic color. (The film’s wedding and honeymoon sequence is described in the May 2005 article, “Wedding Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.”) The film opens with a view from the cockpit of a plane landing in Las Vegas accompanied by a jazzy syncopated foxtrot by Tiomkin. Sparsely scored—a full ten minutes passes before the next music cue—the bulk of the score is heard in the last two reels. Until then, the flying sequences are dubbed with noisy airplane engine drones sans music. The score is then used to maximum effect in the cue, “Trouble is Coming.” The thrill of the descending plane is accentuated by the music as it builds before going out as the plane slides to a halt on the ground. After Arlen finally confesses to the girl that he loves her, a long musical sequence begins when a passenger says “I’ve got an idea,” and tries to build a fire to signal rescuers. Here, Tiomkin is handed a scene composers relish, one in which music can, and does, make a difference. There is a magical moment as the strings and harp murmur and present a glimmer of hope. The fire catches and spreads and we’re off to the races and a rousing climax. Pine and Thomas have the audience in hand as Tiomkin throws in fight (between Arlen and Roger Pryor) and flight music as the plane emerges from the fire.
Pine and Thomas produced approximately sixty pictures until Pine’s death in 1955. By signing the same experienced talent picture after picture, they were successful at controlling costs. Actors Richard Arlen and Jean Parker, cameraman Fred Jackman, and composers Alexander Laszlo and Darrell Calker were Pine-Thomas regulars. After Flying Blind, Tiomkin moved on to the war documentaries and did not work on another “Dollar Bills” production.
Flying Blind and Forced Landing were acquired by Screencraft Pictures in 1951. The legal ramifications of that sale may account for the pictures’ relative scarcity on the video and DVD market.
- The Dimitri Tiomkin collection at the University of Southern California
- American Film Institute catalogs
- Paramount press sheets consulted at the Margaret Herrick Library
- Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood by Bernard F. Dick (University of Kentucky, 2001)
- “Hollywood’s Dollar Bills,” Esquire (June 1945)
- “David Chudnow / Music Director,” obituary in weekly Variety (May 27, 2002)