Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Favorite Scores of 1950's Sci-Fi Movies or All Great Works of Art Border on Being Awful!

I received a number of responses to my last posting (thanks!) on the subject of "top ten" film scores. The majority of the questions and comments were about Bernard Herrmann and his original score for "The Day the Earth stood still". It's seems most people weren't aware Herrmann had scored the film! Many seemed curious about other composers of music for sci-fi films of the 1950's. So, by request, I've put together a general "best of show" list, that for me, represents ten of the most "interesting" sci-fi film scores of the era.

Forbidden Planet - 1956 – Color


Directed - Fred M. Wilcox

Music - Louis and Bebe Barron

A starship crew is sent to investigate the mysterious lack of communication from a distant planet's colony only to find on arrival two survivors and a deadly secret! Oh… and Robby the Robot!

The movie's score was composed by Louis and Bebe Barron. The Barrons were “discovered” by film producer Dore Schary performing (essentially doing an electronic noise “freak-out session”) at a beatnik nightclub in Greenwich Village in New York City. Schary hired the Barrons on the spot to compose the films score.

Using equations from the 1948 book with amazingly pretentious title: Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by mathematician Norbert Wiener, Louis Barron constructed the electronic circuits which he used to generate the films distinctive "bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums and screeches". Most of the sounds were generated using a primitive ring modulator then adding reverb, delay and or tape manipulation to change the pitch of sounds. The result: this score cum Dadaist soundscape was the first all-electronic music soundtrack!

In the end, Louis and Bebe didn’t belong to the Musicians' union and, in a classic producer “save money” move, Schary refused to release a soundtrack album and credited the score as "electronic tonalities", to avoid paying guild fees (goodbye Academy Award nomination!).

Invaders From Mars - 1953 – Color


Director - William Cameron Menzies (who strangely gets a Production Design credit above his Directing)

Music -Raoul Kraushaar

In the early hours of the night, young David Maclean sees a flying saucer disappear into the sand dunes just beyond the backyard of his house. His once loving parents begin to act strangely and little David begins to fear aliens from the spaceship have possessed them! No one believes him until he manages to convince Dr. Pat Blake of the city health department and Dr. Stuart Kelston from the local observatory, that something is amiss! And chaos ensues etc…

I first saw this movie when I was a kid late one night on the local PBS station in the 70s (1979 maybe) and it really scared me! Maybe because the film’s told from a child’s point of view or perhaps it’s the surreal production design, they’re both interesting. But the real breakout element of the film is it’s score, the outre sound effects, the strange stinging choral stabs that buzz through the film like an ethereal wasp, taunting and cold! I love this soundtrack! It’s my favorite of the 50’s sci-fi B-movie genre!

What about the composer? Mort Glickman was a mainstay of the Republic Pictures music department for 13 years but this was the one and only time that he ever got to write for a relatively big-budget movie .

His main inspiration for the score to the film seems to have come from “Neptune, The Mystic” from Gustav Holst's suite “The Planets“(now this is long before John Williams "nicked" the entire score for Star Wars from the same Holst work!) but with a new kind of “flava”. His use of micropolyphony, a technique where the harmonic-musical flow doesn't change suddenly but is gradually blurred over time to form a sort of “harmonic cloud”, was and still is truly unique! His use of this technique in a film score foreshadowed the more well know works of György Ligeti, i.e.“Lux Aeterna” and “Atmospheres”, by a decade or more (both were later used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Glickman died in February 1953 at the age of 54 just after finishing “Invaders From Mars”. R.I.P.

Other works include:

The serials - Mysterious Dr. Satan as wells as Nyoka and the Tigermen

Kronos 1957 –B+W


Directed - Kurt Neumann

Music - Paul Sawtel/Bert Shefter

Scientists investigate what appears to be a meteorite that crashes into the ocean. After a few days and nights of mysterious lights and noises, a giant alien machine comes out of the ocean to steal earth’s energy!

I like Paul Sawtells/Bert Shefter score it’s sort of “Perry Mason” meets “Planet of the Apes”. Sawtell perfected this style by striking-up alliance with fellow film composer Bert Shefter and then scoring numerous films together, including the classic science fiction and horror films: The Fly, Curse of the Fly, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and It! The Terror from Beyond Space in 1958. Later they composed many-a-score for director Russ Meyer, including the cult classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

The Thing – 1951 –B+W

Tagline: Where Did It Come From? How Did It Get Here? WHAT IS IT?

Directed - Christian Nyby

Music - Dimitri Tiomkin

Produced by Howard Hawks, “The Thing” tells the story of a small group of researchers and military sent to recover a crashed flying saucer in the Arctic. They discover in the spacecraft an unstoppable alien (half Frankenstein’s monster /half Telly Savalas: in fact it was James Arness of Gunsmoke!) hell bent on world domination. This is the genre starter: the unfathomable super alien that must be destroyed; scientists who let intellect hinder action; claustrophobia; and the fate of mankind resting on in the hands of a few who must sacrifice all.

Scoring “The Thing” fell to Dimitri Tiomkin (who received credit ahead of the director), one of cinema's most famous composers. Tiomkin's booming, pugnacious score for “The Thing” scared stiff the uninitiated 1950s audiences and became the touchstone for a decade of sci-fi movies. The score is a particularly forceful and enigmatic composition for Tiomkin, who was more well know for his sense of melody than muscle, it’s great work! He never revisited the sci-fi genre but perhaps that’s because he mastered it in a single stroke! Sadly the master tapes of the score were lost but recently a series monaural acetate transfer disks were found in Tiomkin's personal belongings. So hopefully with some restoration they’ll soon surface like some long frozen alien from the Arctic depths to dominate our planet!

Creature From the Black Lagoon - 1954 - B+W

Tagline: Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!

Director - Jack Arnold

Music - Hans J. Salter

A scientific expedition searching for fossils along the Amazon River discover a prehistoric “Gill-Man” in the legendary Black Lagoon. The explorers capture the mysterious creature, but it breaks free. The Gill-Man now filled will anger (and mojo) returns to kidnap the lovely Kay, fiancée of one of the expedition, with whom it has fallen in love. Quick aside: Ricou Browning who played the monster in the underwater scenes could hold his breath 4 minutes!

Hans J. Salter’s cues and scoring of the underwater scenes for “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” are doubly famous, once of being fanatically effective in the original film and secondly even more famous when John Williams “nicked” them for the movie Jaws. Never you say… it’s true just have a look! Though the theme to Jaws is now considered a classic suspense piece, the score's ominous two-note motif becoming nearly synonymous with sharks and danger, anyone who listens to even ten seconds of the score of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, will quickly find the “shark” in the motif.

Alas, Salter was no John Williams and composed mainly for Universal as an in-house composer, most famously for horror and science fiction films. His most celebrated scores include The Wolf Man (1941), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The latter like much of his output for Universal was uncredited, as it became stock music, used time and time again in B-pictures.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) B+W

Tagline: A robot and a man . . . hold the world spellbound with new and startling powers from another planet!

Directed - Robert Wise

Music – Bernard Herrmann

Klaatu and his mighty world-destroying robot Gort land their “cherry” 50s spacecraft on a Cold War-era super-noided-out Earth to offer us peace and gets shot!

Bernard Herrmann (one of the greatest film composers of all time!) used not one but two Theremins to score the film, an otherworldly-sounding instrument that it is played without physical contact. The Thereminist stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines the pitch, and the distance from the other controls volume. The sound generated is a sort of an electronic whistle (think Beach boys “Good Vibrations”) with continuously variable pitch and portamento over its entire playable range (again justly like whistling). The result, a ground breaking electronically enhanced score and sci-fi’s first and perhaps “greatest’, sound cue. Hail Herrmann!

The Space Children - 1958 - B+W

Tagline: Slowly...and with horror the parents realized THEIR CHILDREN WERE THE SLAVES OF 'THE THING' FROM OUTER SPACE!

Director –Jack Arnold

Music – Van Cleave

The score (especially the intro) sounds like the beginning of a Yes album from 1973 (or substitute any 70's solo Rick Wakeman album). It gets a 7.5 on the “All Great Works of Art Boarder on Being Awful” meter. It’s a retro-progressive score!

Director Jack Arnold produced the classic 50's sci-fi films like "This Island Earth", "It Came From Outer Space", "The Amazing Shrinking Man” and "Tarantula" to name a few (He later helmed the “Minnow” directing numerous "Gilligan's Island" episodes), and had the good sense to hire the extremely the prolific composer Van Cleave.

A word about the composer Van Cleave (or should I say Nathan Lange Van Cleave). Though born into an era somewhat unfathomable to us today (May 8, 1910), he was still enough of a modern “stud” to know that his “aura” would certainly be improved by the dropping of “Nathan and Lange” and leaving behind the “Composer” with a big “C” name of Van Cleave (I’ve always thought that “Van” was a great first name, for example film star/matinee idol Van Johnson, that’s a name always seemed to have a define sexual overtone!… and Van Cleave…. Van Johnson… Van Cleave…wait a minute!). Anyhow… In 1945, Van Cleave moved to Los Angeles to pursue his musical career. His film credits, as a composer and orchestrator, include "Cinerama Holiday", "The Colossus of New York", "Easter Parade", "Funny Face", "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", and "White Christmas". But Van really hit his stride working on many of the classic Twilight Zone episodes!

The Incredible Shrinking Man - 1957 - B+W

Tagline: Almost beyond the imagination . . . A strange adventure into the unknown!

Director - Jack Arnold

Music Super Vision by Joseph Gershenson -Trumpet Soloist – Ray Anthony

While out on the ocean with his wife, Scott Carey's boat drifts through a strange mist that leaves a metallic residue covering his body. He thinks nothing of it at the time but within a few weeks he begins to notice that he is losing weight. A visit to the doctor also confirms that he is getting shorter. As he gets smaller and smaller, doctors determine that his exposure to insecticides followed by what must have been a radioactive mist has caused a genetic mutation. Basically he gets smaller, the plot gets bigger and chaos ensues!

This score is on the list primarily because of the truly bizarre/unique vision of the director in choosing to put a “quasi- Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass” soundtrack to this classic sci-fi film. Trumpet Soloist – Ray Anthony (dig it!) is featured prominently in the opening credits as well as the score (maybe it because he was married to sex symbol actress Mamie Van Doren… obviously a point of pride! Note: to this day, Ray Anthony, maintains a close friendship with Hugh Hefner, leading him to make numerous appearances on the reality show, The Girls Next Door with Hef… What a player!). This one's a real head scratcher, a funny trumpet/film noir/Tijuana Brass at an over the top bullfight score that illustrates the “little” story in the “big picture”… I don’t know… My suggestion is as follows: adjust the ears on your bunny, heat a burrito, dim the lights, and get small!

The Blob - 1958 – Color

Tagline: Beware of the Blob!

Director- Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

Music – Ralph Carmichael

The Blob is a sci-fi bor-o-rama film from 1958, depicting a giant KY-jelly/booger-like alien that terrorizes the small community of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, starring Steve McQueen.

The amazing opening song garners “The Blob” it’s spot on the list. A young and unknown Burt Bacharach composed the opening novelty song with lyrics written by Hal David's brother Mack. This song scores a perfect 10 on the “All Great Works of Art Border on Being Awful” meter. It’s hard to believe… but it’s true… evidence you want… well here’s your stinking evidence…

Beware of The Blob, it creeps
And leaps and glides and slides
Across the floor
Right through the door
And all around the wall
A splotch, a blotch
Be careful of The Blob

Those were and are the actual lyrics to the opening song! Too rich says you? Never says I!

And in an ironic twist, the background score for The Blob was composed by Ralph Carmichael. Known as "The Dean of Contemporary Christian Music," it was one of just a few film scores that Carmichael wrote. What a legacy!

The Trollenberg Terror a.k.a The Crawling Eye - 1958 - B+W

Tagline: A man dissolves...and out of the oozing mist comes the hungry eye, slave to the demon brain!

Directed – Quentin Lawrence

Music - Stanley Black

The film begins with shots of the Alps and no score. Two men are kneeling at the edge of a small ledge, a third, connected to the others by a safety rope, is ascending the cliff above them. A terrible scream and the climber plummets off the mountain. The other two climbers attempt to pull him back up only to find their comrade’s head missing!

Cut to:

A speeding train enters a dark tunnel, the opening credits and score slam onto the screen. In particular, I like the Hammond organ/orchestra mix, it’s interesting and what I would technically classify as “far-out”. It’s a sort of 60's before the 60's soundtrack. Stanley Black is probably most remembered for writing the theme for “The Goon Show” and his theme tune for the Pathé News, written in 1960. Well in this ”Goo Show”, strange electronic beeps accompany run-away-train styled music (which match the cuts). Over all, the music is the best part of the film, bringing real character to this “Lovecraftian” sc-fi/horror flick!


Anonymous said...

the crawling eye is the best band movie of all time

Zorg Borg said...

I hear they're making a new Forbidden Planet. Do you know who's in it?

Gort said...

The new Thing sucked but the soundtrack wasn't bad

MJoehardy said...

Wow great post lot of work

Verloos said...

I just watched Invaders from Mars online you're right it's fab and the sound track is really good. Is it on CD?

Sci Fi Guy said...

You can get the Invaders from Mars soundtrack here:


DirtyApe said...

Is there a site were I can check all these flicks out?

Cat person said...

I just watched a clip on youtube of the Blob song OHMYGOD that's funny! That's not a joke?

Joel said...

I love the original Thing but the John Carpenter remake is a much better movie. Great monster and Kurt Russell is really good. The soundtrack is also great and was written by Carpenter.

Anonymous said...

The Crawling Eye is a classic!

Chuck said...

They are doing a remake of Forbidden Planet and it's a serious version not a spoof no leslie Nielsen

The Creature said...

I love the Creature from The Black Lagoon. I just watched it again. I have one question who searches for fossils in near the Amazon river? And the score REALLY sounds like JAWS wow can't they sue Spielberg?

Anonymous said...

The new TDTESS suk dah Keanu can't act

jiggi said...

Is the crawling eye a lovecraft story?

Anonymous said...

Kronos sucks! i don't remember the music

Will said...

The end of the shrinking man is bizzare

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