Myth and Music in the Majestic Old West

22 Jun

Okay, well, yesterday was the first day of summer, and I was feeling great. I wasn’t stressed or rushing to work as I have been for the past month.  Instead, I was moving at my own pace, and the weather was mostly agreeable. Oh, sure, it was a little hot and humid for my taste–and for this early in the season–but it wasn’t unbearable, and the sky looked great: clear, blue, bright, and sunny.  As I drove along with my windows rolled down, the radio blaring, I realized none of the music on my favorite stations was working for me. Instead, I wanted to be accompanied by the sweeping strains of a big, corny, old-fashioned western, something big, something wide, open, and full of promise like the myth of the majestic old west that Hollywood  has been selling for roughly a century. Whether you actually  like westerns themselves or not, and I’m not necessarily, a huge, HUGE fan as are some of my family, friends and associates from my days in the biz, the music is pretty spectacular. Here are some faves.

^ How the West Was Won (1962): This epic, all-star western featured an Oscar nominated score by legendary Alfred Newman and Ken Darby.  Four directors–John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and Richard Thorpe–were hired to bring the project to completion with each responsible for different chapters in the mammoth saga, which was also filmed in true Cinerama, a super-deluxe wide screen process requiring a bank of three cameras–side by side–capturing all the action; later, the film had to be screened using three synchronized projectors.  Imagine that.  In her new memoir, Unsinkable, actress Debbie Reynolds vividly describes the challenges of shooting on location under such cumbersome circumstances. How the West Was Won competed for 8 Oscars at the 1963/64 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, and, again, Best Score. The movie ultimately claimed prizes for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay (as the latter category is now called). The movie is also part of the National Film Registry and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as number 25 of the greatest ever movie scores.

^ The Magnificent Seven (1960): Based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven features a thrilling score by yet another legend, Elmer Bernstein. This one may very well be the most iconic western score of all, and that’s saying quite a bit. Bernstein earned an Oscar nod though the trophy in his category ultimately went to Ernest Gold’s almost equally iconic score for Exodus. A hard call.  Bernstein’s score also shines in the 10 spot on the AFI’s list of greatest film scores. The rugged cast includes Steve McQueen (talk about magnificent), Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Robert Vaughn, and Eli Wallach.

^ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): A friend of mine reminded me that I would have to include Ennio Morricone’s haunting score for Sergio Leone’s s0-called Spaghetti western in my list of the best of the best, but she need not have worried. How could I not include this unforgettable classic. Too bad the Academy never saw it that way. Not even a nod though Morricone, whose career includes the Oscar nominated scores for 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1986’s The Mission,  was finally recognized with an honorary award for his body of work during the 2006/2007 Oscar telecast.  Of course, this is the film that took Clint Eastwood from TV to big screen international superstardom.

^ High Noon (1952): I would be remiss not to recognize “The Ballad of High Noon” (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’),” the Oscar winning song–by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington–from Fred Zinnemann’s vintage real-time western that propelled Gary Cooper to his second Best Actor Oscar. The original is sung by the one and only Tex Ritter.  It appears on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest movie songs.  A fairly new souped-up DVD edition of this flick is currently on my Amazon wish list.

Bonanza (1959 -1973): It would be a shame not to celebrate some of small screen classics, starting with this “galloping” gem credited to, per the IMDb, Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, and David Rose (the latter also famous for, among others, “The Stripper”).  Though the Bonanza theme was never officially singled out for an Emmy, Rose eventually won a statuette for his scoring contributions late in the series’ run; meanwhile, Evans and Livingston had to make do with the Oscars they won for “Buttons and Bows” (The Paleface, 1948), “Mona Lisa” (Captain Carey, USA, 1950),  and “Que Sera Sera’ (The Man who Knew Too Much, 1956); they also gave the world the popular, and Oscar nominated, “Tammy” (Tammy and the Bachelor, 1957). Oh, and wasn’t that Michael Landon just dreamy? Meanwhile, Pernell Roberts for all the world looks like “trade.”

Rawhide (1959 – 1966): Eastwood again. And so butch. The single version even includes the line, “hell-bent for leather.” Lovely. Anyway, this one is, once again, from the team of Dimtri Tiomkin and Ned Washington–with vocals by Frankie Laine; however,…

…^ Carol Kane just about stole The Lemon Sisters (1989), a dream project for her, Diane Keaton, and Kathryn Grody, with her version of the TV classic. Am I the only person who actually saw this one in a theater? Its release was delayed forever; when it finally arrived, it came and went quicker than the crack of a whip.

^ The Big Valley (1965 – 1969): Not a classic on the order of, say, Bonanza, Rawhide, or Gunsmoke, but  a solid effort, and a nice showcase for Barbara Stanwyck who won an Emmy and multiple nominations…though the blue eye shadow is a bit much. Still, Lee Majors and Linda Evans offer such lovely eye candy. The theme is by George Dunning. A few years ago, a big screen version, with Jessica Lange as matriarch Victoria Barkley, was announced, but nothing ever came of it.

Dallas (1978 -1991; 2012 – present): Jerrold Immel’s theme for the original series is a modern western classic, and I definitely hear a musical thread linking it to the scores for How the West Was Won and The Magnificent Seven. The 1980s gave TV viewers some grand themes with the likes of Knots Landing (also Immel), Dynasty, and Falcon Crest (both by Oscar winner Bill Conti), but Dallas was the  first and best. Like most of the tunes featured here, it sounds great at a local Friday night high school football game. Fortunately, the producers of the recent TNT  Dallas update had the good sense to treat Immel’s theme with some reverence.

I’ll stop here though I know I have not included all the favorites, such as  The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, “Blaze of Glory” (Young Guns II),  and oh so many of the TV themes.  I’ve also glossed over the old timey singing cowboys (Gene Autry and Roy Rogers) and cowgirls (Patsy Montana and Dale Evans) that were faves of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, but please feel free to leave comments about your picks.

Thanks for your consideration…


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