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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.

  • Doug Lenier

    I was only able to see part of this program on KCET Los Angeles, and I ask you to PLEASE, PLEASE run it again, SOON!!!

  • Sean Chapman

    Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt will be performed at the Royal Opera House 27 Jan – 17 Feb 2009

  • Al Covaia

    “Cinema’s Exiles” was a revelation;.even to someone like myself, quite familiar with the era It was deeply moving to see the actual passport documents, stills. and early footage of those pre-war days in Hollywood. Karen Thomas (daughter of Tony Thomas?) and her colleagues deserve a world of credit for their unstinting efforts and the same for Sigourney Weaver’s commentary. We film devotees are deeply indebted to PBS and all who made this memoral event possible.
    Heartfelt thanks,
    Al Covaia
    KUSF (90.3FM) U.of San Francisco

  • Lisa Mitchell

    Deae John:

    I knew your dear father when I was growing up and lived in California. We lived next door to many of your relatives on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood.

    Your dad would come to visit our neighbors, his remaining relatives.

    He always would stop and talk to me when I was playing in the driveway that connected our homes.

    He was so kind and attentive to a skinny kid that he happened upon in that driveway. So many times over the years, he patiently listened to me babble on about my turtle or hampster or whatever was on my mind. His patience was remarkable and I realized (much later) what a special human being he was. And how fortunate you were to have such a father.

    It is simply thrilling to learn of your success, also. But then you had such talented parents, no surprise. I continue to cherish the memory of your wonderful family and wish you well.

    Take good care. Lisa Mitchell

  • Louis Banlaki

    Dear Mr. Waxman,

    As a serious collector of film music I want to take this opportunity to say that your father was truly a great composer—-but of course you already know this. I’m ashamed to say that I only have a few recordings of your
    father’s music but that is swiftly changing. I most admire the work of your father and Miklos Rozsa and they are
    both my favorite composers from the Golden Age. I’m not a very star struck man but I will say that I wish I
    could have had the honor of meeting your father as I believe he was touched by greatness. And to find that he was
    much admired by my favorite composer Jerry Goldsmith is saying something indeed!
    I have already purchased Varese’s 3 disc set of your dad’s music and I am anxiously awaiting the release of the
    new Tadlow recording of his score for TARAS BULBA and it shall reside next to my box set of the SPARTACUS
    score. To know that the world was capable of producing a Franz Waxman fills one with gladness. To put it simply,
    your father was one hell of a great composer and we sure could use him now.
    I hope I didn’t ramble on too much and I want to say that there are people out here who do know your dad’s name and not just his music. He was a true master.

    Bless you and your family,
    Louis Banlaki

  • Tom Guarino

    how can I download/purchase this documentary, “Cinema’s in Exile: From Hitler to Hollywood”?
    I cannot find it on your website or any other. Please let me know any information.
    Thank you! Sincerely, Tom Guarino

  • Eric Vallone

    Please hook me up with more of this! and Victoria too! I wish I hadn’t missed this blog post before you returned

  • Michell Corwin

    WOW! check this out!……

  • Christiane Metters

    Great song by the Eagles incuding the fabulous Don Felder despite the garbage spoken by ego maniac Frey at the beginning who along with Henley treat everyone around them like shit

  • Joan Spielberg Rich

    I went to school with John at Bard. Could you please pass my e mail on to him.Thanks

  • Nancy Raabe

    I understand that before escaping Germany, Franz Waxman worked on German films, and also arranged and conducted (don’t know about composing) the film score for the iconic ‘The Blue Angel (Der Blau Engel)” starring Marlene Dietrich. He was not recognized for that on the credits.

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