The Genius of Movie Songs (Movie Music #2)

For most people, their first live concert is a rite of passage.  Instead of just listening to an artist on the radio or record player, you got to experience them playing LIVE!  Usually it’s a pop sensation that you beg your parents to let you see.  My wife’s first concert was Elton John at the Cow Palace in San Francisco (boas and all).  My first concert may explain my life-long love of movie music.  My parents took me to see Henry Mancini in concert with the Hamilton (ONT) Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was already well-versed in the Mancini oeuvre by then.  We had a five disc collection of his movie music from Readers Digest that I’d listen to regularly, and I’d watched several of the movies he scored multiple times.  Days of Wine and Roses, Experiment in Terror, and The Great Race were particular favorites.

Mancini scored or arranged the music for 178 movies and 39 TV shows during his 32 year career.  Unique among the greatest movie composers, Mancini also produced a string of popular hit songs that first appeared in movies or TV shows.  There were instrumentals, like The Peter Gunn Theme and Baby Elephant Walk, and he also collaborated with lyricists for songs like The Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, Dear Heart, and Charade.  Mancini was nominated for Grammys four times as often as he was for Oscars, and he released over 150 albums in his lifetime.  (His album “Music from Peter Gunn” won the inaugural Album of the Year award at the 1st Grammys in 1958.)  While he started his career with big bands, his style was always innovative.  Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and World music were mixed into his scores, along with the sweeping romantic music you’d expect in movies.

Enrico Nicola Mancini was born in Cleveland, OH, on April 16, 1924.  His father, Quinto, was a steel worker and also an avid flutist.  He taught the instrument to his son when Henry was 8.  When the family moved to Aliquippa, PA in 1936, Mancini was introduced to the primary instrument of his career, the piano.  He was accepted into Julliard after graduating high school in 1942, but his studies were put on hold when he was drafted later that year.  He served out the duration of WWII in the Army Air Corps.

He’d already shown an aptitude for arranging big bands by submitting arrangements to Benny Goodman while still a youth.  In 1946 he was hired as a pianist and arranger for the Glenn Miller/Tex Beneke Orchestra.  (Miller had been lost in a small plane crash two years earlier, flying from England to France to entertain the troops.)  In short order he met the love of his life, Ginny O’Conner, who was a singer and one of Mel Torme’s original Mel-Tones.  Tex Beneke was looking for a new vocalist for the orchestra, and had Ginny come to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown LA to audition.  Most of the orchestra was out playing golf, except for Mancini, who accompanied her on the piano.  Within a year they were married, and they stayed together until his death 47 years later.

In 1952, Mancini was given a 2 week job at Universal Studios, working on the Abbott and Costello movie Lost In Alaska.  Mancini ended up staying in Universal’s music department for 6 years.  He worked on dozens of films, providing scores and/or incidental music, usually without credit.  Several are well known: It Came From Outer Space, The Far Country, Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth, Mr. Cory, Imitation of Life.  But he also worked on other Abbott and Costello movies and a couple of the Ma and Pa Kettle films.  In 1954 he got a big break (and his first Oscar nomination) arranging the score of The Glenn Miller Story.  With his personal experience with the band, it was a serendipitous assignment.  He showcased his ability with writing thriller themes in Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil.  His “Tana’s Theme” (for Marlene Dietrich’s character) blends the sound of a cantina with a melancholy sense of loss.  To listen to the theme, please click here

In 1958, Mancini left Universal to become an independent composer/arranger.  His first composition was for a young writer/producer by the name of Blake Edwards who’d created a series about a private eye – Peter Gunn.  (To listen, please click here.)   It became a signature piece for Mancini, with its throbbing bass line beneath a strong brass section, and was a hit on the pop charts as well.  The theme music album reached #1 on the Billboard charts, and won two Grammys.  This was the start of a friendship/collaboration with Edwards that lasted over 30 years and through 26 films.

Their next collaboration was again on the small screen, an adaptation of a 1943 Cary Grant movie about a gambler named Mr. Lucky.  Mancini did a 180 degree turn, creating a lush, romantic theme that was almost the opposite of the boogie-woogie Gunn theme.  An incidental theme, “Lujon” was later used in both The Big Lebowski and Sexy Beast.  (To listen, click here.)

In 1961, Mancini scored (you could say) one of his all-time greatest hits.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s, directed by Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, featured the iconic “Moon River.”  Mancini collaborated with Johnny Mercer, who’d been a music legend for years before falling on hard times during the rock and roll 1950’s.  This song revived Mercer’s career, and he went on to work with Mancini on several more projects.  Mancini wrote the music so that Hepburn could sing it in the picture.  He looked at a previous movie that she’d sung in, and noted that she sang well in the key of C, hitting notes between middle C and an octave higher C.  Those became the first two notes of the song.  (Click here to watch the opening sequence.)  The wistful music won two Oscars for Mancini (Best Song and Best Score), and it continues to be regularly recorded.  It recently was performed on an episode of Glee.

Edwards and Mancini’s next collaboration was as much of a contrast as Peter Gunn/Mr. Lucky.  Experiment in Terror was a thriller, staring Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, and a very young Stephanie Powers.  For the first half of the movie, you never see the villain, you just hear his asthmatic breathing as he talks in shadows.  (He’s played by Ross Martin, who’d worked with Edwards on Mr. Lucky.)  The slow, walking bass line and discordant theme increases the suspense of the film right from the opening credits.  (Click here to watch them.)

Mancini worked with other directors and producers as well.  His theme for Howard Hawk’s Hatari communicated the feel of Africa, and the movie also yielded another iconic Mancini piece – the whimsical Baby Elephant Walk.  For Stanley Dolan, Mancini composed the theme for Charade, which garnered another Best Song Oscar nomination.  Mancini told of watching the rough film, seeing Audrey Hepburn sitting on her suitcase in her empty apartment and being inspired to write a minor waltz.  In a half-hour, he had the theme completed.  Delbert Mann’s Dear Heart, staring Glenn Ford, Geraldine Page, and Angela Landsbury, benefited from Mancini’s original music, which was also nominated for best song.

But the work with Blake Edwards continued to be stellar.  Days of Wine and Roses was a harrowing portrayal of alcoholism, with much more realism than The Lost Weekend.  Jack Lemmon has told the story of the first time he heard the theme song.  He and Lee Remick were doing a particularly difficult scene (in a movie that had more than its share of them).  Edwards broke for lunch, and then motioned for Lemmon and Remick to come with him, Mancini and Johnny Mercer, who was again providing lyrics.  They walked to the next soundstage, which was dark except for a single light by an upright piano.  Mercer pulled an envelope from his pocket on which he’d written the lyrics.  Mancini hit the first chord, Mercer began to sing, and both Lemmon and Remick were blown away by the piece.  Talking about it decades later, Lemmon still choked up.  It added another Oscar for Best Song to Mancini’s mantle. (To hear Andy Williams recording of the song, click here.)

After the dramas they’d worked on, a change of pace was in orderEdwards came up with a bumbling, pompous French detective on the trail of a debonair jewel thief, and The Pink Panther series was born.  For the opening sequence, Mancini created its jazz theme while sitting at a rented piano in his garage in Northridge, CA.  The bass part came first, then the melody for the saxophone, and within an hour he had the piece completed. To hear the original version, click here.  The animated titles, featuring a Pink Panther running from a cartoon Inspector Clouseau over Mancini’s music, were a sensation.  It took on a life of its own, becoming a popular and long-running cartoon series (and mascot for Owens-Corning Fiberglass Insulation).  Peter Sellers played Clouseau in the original movie and its first sequel, A Shot In The Dark.  (The third installment, Inspector Clouseau, had Alan Arkin as Clouseau and was directed by Bud Yorkin, who later produced Sandford and Son as well as All in the Family; Edwards and Sellers returned for the five later sequels in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.)

Mancini also had a major recording hit in 1969 with a song he did not write: The Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.  His instrumental recording won a Grammy for best arrangement, and it topped the Billboard 100 chart for two weeks.

Together, Edwards and Mancini did the hilarious and underappreciated slapstick extravaganza, The Great Race, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk.  Through the rest of the 1960’s, Mancini continued to produce excellent themes and songs for movies such as Arabesque, Two for the Road, Wait Until Dark, and The Molly Maguires. 

In 1970, he again worked with Edwards on the director’s first major flop, Darling Lili.  A musical comedy about a German spy in WWI did not go over well, and the film grossed back only a fifth of its $25 million budget.  While Edwards continued to work, making movies such as The Carey Treatment and The Tamarind Seed, he didn’t have a big success until he returned to the Pink Panther movies five years later.

Along with his movie work with Edwards and other directors, Mancini returned to television, doing the theme for The NBC Mystery Movie, The Blue Knight, and the miniseries The Moneychangers.  He also wrote the NBC News theme used in the 1970’s.

Edwards still had a couple great movies in him, and Mancini helped those movies become successful.  In the first instance, it was an adaptation of a classical piece, Ravel’s Bolero for the movie “10.”  It’s likely that Edwards based Dudley Moore’s character George Webber, a successful composer, partially on his friend Mancini.  The movie was a major hit for 1979, grossing over $75 million, equal to a $200 to $300 million movie these days.  While Bolero was the piece most people remembered, Mancini did get two more Oscar nods, for best score and best original song “It’s Easy to Say.”

As a follow up, Edwards did a poison pen love letter to Hollywood called S.O.B.  It included Julie Andrews (Edwards’ wife) baring her breasts.  The movie didn’t do well at the box office, a common fate for a black comedy, but it’s definitely worth watching for cinemaphiles who enjoy in-jokes about the movies.  There’s a sequence of friends taking a director’s corpse out for a final night on the town, which actually happened during an earlier Hollywood era and was chronicled in David Niven’s book, Bring On The Empty Horses.  Mancini wrote a saccharin G-rated musical number that opened the movie, which is later changed into an R-rated psycho-sexual nightmare leading up to Andrews’ breast-baring.

The next year, Edwards and Mancini did the classic Victor/Victoria.  The gender-bending musical comedy delivered Mancini’s final Oscar win, for best score.  While it didn’t match the box office of “10,” it has aged more gracefully, and it spawned a successful Broadway musical.  To watch the “Le Hot Jazz” number from the movie, click here.

Mancini did a couple more excellent TV themes in the 1980’s, including Remington Steel, Hotel, and the long-running Newhart. 

On June 14, 1994, Henry Mancini passed away from cancer.  Over his career he amassed an incredible collection of awards: 4 Oscars (18 nominations); 20 Grammys (72 Nominations); 1 Golden Globe (9 nominations); and two Emmy nominations.  Even more impressive is how his songs continue to show up in films.  Movies such as Love and Other Disasters, In Bruges and Monsters vs. Aliens include his work.  They’ve also been used in an incredibly diverse list of TV shows in the last decade, including The Simpsons, Nip/Tuck, Gossip Girl, Cold Case, and Dancing with the Stars (as well as the earlier mentioned Glee).

Mancini’s memorable music will likely still be being played (and used in films) for many more years to come, a testimony to his genius.


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