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December 2nd, 2008
A Score of Appreciation for Golden Age Film Composer Franz Waxman

Franz Waxman conducts. (c) John W. Waxman Photo Collection. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

By Elyse Eisenberg

How is the star film composer of Hollywood’s Golden Years virtually unknown to moviegoers today? The name Franz Waxman doesn’t usually ring a bell, but the movies he worked on—“Philadelphia Story”, “Rebecca”, more…are classics. Read more about this composer’s life and work:

German-born film composer Franz Waxman composed the scores for hundreds of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) and “Rear Window” (1954), and the iconic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).

If you ask Franz Waxman’s son, John Waxman, to discuss his own life’s work–a library of music for motion pictures, one of the largest in the world– he immediately starts reminiscing about his father and the “Hollywood Sound”. There are very few people who remember this musical heritage–there are very few left who care. It’s a great legacy lost forever, Waxman said, who added that while people might recognize the music from his father’s films, most people do not know his father’s name.

“Among film historians and people who are serious about film, Franz Waxman is one of the best-known film composers. Maybe what John Waxman is saying is that he is not as famous as he should have been,” said Jeanine Basinger, a film professor at Wesleyan University for almost 40 years, who has taught hundreds of students in her film program.

The Hollywood films from Waxman’s time did not feature cinematographers or composers, and often even the directors were invisible, according to Basinger, because at the time it was all about the stars. All of that began to change in the 1960s when movies evolved into an art form, and people began looking at the art behind the scenes.

So why isn’t Franz Waxman known today? For Basinger the answer is clear: because of the era in which he worked, when composers received little credit. Basinger pointed out that unusually, Waxman was able to maintain his own voice and creativity while serving the artistic needs of the studio.

John Waxman recounts:

“Sometimes my father got assigned to films that were real stinkers, and the producers thought the music could save it. The legendary composer, Max Steiner, used to say, ‘You can dress up a corpse but you can’t bring it back to life. My father also had to pay the rent.”

The Sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age

John Waxman, who makes film music available to orchestras all over the world, says that the popularity of film music has grown tremendously since 1980. “When I first started off, some publishers laughed at me. They didn’t think it was serious music, just filler. But, it’s really much more than that.” Waxman explains: “The best example is in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”–all of the tension and anxiety is conveyed through the music; if you watch the film without the music, the scenes go on forever.”

Basinger says: “For the great composers, like Franz Waxman, the music is worthwhile on its own, but if the music has been designed with pauses and crescendos, and you leave that out of the film, then you are leaving out a design element.”

“My father would say good music is good music, no matter what the genre or context,” Waxman said. “My father could work in every genre, including horror films (”Bride of Frankenstein” [1935]), comedies (”Philadelphia Story” [1940]), war pictures (”Objective, Burma!” [1945]), historical dramas, women’s pictures and Westerns. “He was a chameleon.”

Waxman recounts:

“My father would work on a Kirk Douglas western in the morning, would go to the studio for lunch, work until dinner on the “Spirit of St. Louis” (1957), after dinner he would take a swim, and work on “Miracle In The Rain” (1956) in the evening. He couldn’t wait for inspiration to strike, he had to turn out so many scores in such a short time.”

“One of the great things about Franz Waxman was that he could soar with the romanticism and emotional fullness, as in the Hollywood melodrama ‘Rebecca’, where he infused the main character who is remembered and unseen with so much power and emotional appeal,” Basinger said.

Franz Waxman is one of a number of film composers whose inventive work helped define the Golden Age in Hollywood. A new PBS documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood” takes an in-depth look at the impact of Franz Waxman and many other German and Eastern European exiles on Hollywood’s film industry.

During the “Golden Age” of cinema there were many prolific film composers. They include Max Steiner, Hans Eisler, Miklos Rosza, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The Genesis for the PBS Documentary Cinema’s Exiles

“The idea started off with my father, but I knew that there were many other German refugees from the film industry who also changed the motion picture business,” said John Waxman, who pitched the idea to Karen Thomas, the producer for the documentary.

“One of the things my dad does well is carry on the importance of film music, and my family’s legacy,” said Franz Waxman’s granddaughter Alyce Waxman. “It is such a beautiful story of how these composers defined American cinema, how they went from something so bleak to something so great. So, many people associate film with America, when it was actually outsiders who created film.”

Basinger explains:

“The “Golden Age in Hollywood’ was not born in Hollywood– it came from composers in Europe who were trained in the classical music traditions of Beethoven and Wagner, who used large orchestras and lushly romantic scores. The reason why Hollywood cinema became so great was because it absorbed huge talent from Europe, all of the greats fleeing persecution were absorbed in Hollywood cinema.”

Ironically, their experiences in Nazi Germany gave the work depth. “There’s a great emotional sensitivity in their music, that they have suffered, and lived full lives. They were not just born in California. There is a power and sophistication that comes from their survival and the great European tradition that elevates their music,” Basinger said.

Waxman’s Career High Points

Franz Waxman began his musical career playing at the Tingle Tangle club in Berlin, and he eventually got a break writing songs for Frederick Hollander, who gave Waxman his first important movie assignment: orchestrating and conducting a score for Josef von Sternberg’s classic Marlene Dietrich vehicle, “The Blue Angel.” Then, one evening, after Hitler had come to power, Waxman was walking home from the studio when he was beaten up by a group of Hitler Youth. He got back up, went back to his apartment and left that night with his girlfriend. They left everything and went to Paris. In Paris, he ended up in the Hotel Ansonia, where other film professionals from Germany passed through. Many refugees like Waxman who emigrated to the U.S. were forced to leave family behind, but ended up finding work in close-knit Jewish communities.

Waxman states:

“You know the famous story in Hollywood– it’s 25 percent talent and 75 percent connections. Once in the U.S., my father was invited along with my mother to the home of writer Salka Viertel. There, he met director James Whale, who said he had a picture he wanted my father to score for Universal Pictures. It was “The Bride of Frankenstein”. It led to a two-year contract with Universal as head of the music department and it was the beginning of steady employment for the next 30 years.”

Waxman won the Academy Award in 1950 for Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” and in 1951 for George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” He was the only composer to have won the award for Best Score two years in a row, according to Waxman.

Still, John Waxman reflects on the “golden age” as a challenging time for his father and the émigré composers: “It was tough in those days because composers were not appreciated in the same way they are today. People look back at the ‘golden age’, and think it must have been really great. It wasn’t all that great.”

Waxman’s Final Masterpiece

“My father’s brother and part of his family were exterminated in Auschwitz. My father didn’t talk about it. It was too painful. All of these émigrés lived with these stories, every one of them had stories, but they did not look back. They were interested in the future,” Waxman said.

While Franz Waxman focused most of his career on composing scores for Hollywood films, his last great work was very much about the Holocaust–but not for film–it was a concert.

Waxman recounts:

“My father received a commission from the Cincinnati May Festival for a composition for a children’s chorus, and he was looking for a work that would fit their requirements. My aunt was a German refugee who worked in New York finding European books for McGraw-Hill that were appropriate for translation and publication in the U.S. One morning she called my father and asked him to order her a roast beef sandwich with lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing for lunch, because she had a package from Prague–a book which she was sure would be a subject that he could compose to.”

It was the publication “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”, of poems written by children interned at the Terezin ghetto near Prague. “The Nazis tried to portray the Terezin ghetto as a ‘model’ camp to the Red Cross, when actually very few children there survived,” Waxman said. Franz Waxman wrote the work “The Song of Terezin”–a series of eight songs each based on a poem from the book–over a six-week period. “He composed it almost like Mozart writing the requiem–he knew he was sick and had to finish it fast. Five months before he died, Waxman was able to make a trip to Prague.

Franz Waxman passed away in 1967, at the age of 60.

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