Memorable Music in Old Movies: More Oscars and Korngold

Feb 25, 2017

The first Academy Awards given for music in films, a practice that began in 1934, named only the head of the music department of the studio instead of the individual composer.

Max Steiner (see the first in this pair of blog posts), who wrote the music for King Kong (1933), was the head of the music department for RKO Pictures when his score for the 1935 film The Informer won that year, so technically he may have been the first composer to be named for the awards.

The first composer to receive an Oscar in his name only for an original film score was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He won for the 1938 classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Like Steiner, Korngold was a child prodigy in Vienna. And yes, he was named for Mozart. He also had established himself as a composer at an early age. He wrote a ballet when he was 11 and an opera conducted by Bruno Walter when he was 19, and became a professor at the Vienna State Academy.

In 1934, Korngold went to Hollywood to work on the score of the film adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Over the next four years, he’d travel between Vienna and Hollywood for work. Then in 1938, a Hitler-controlled Germany annexed Austria, preventing Korngold from returning to Vienna.

In the first Hollywood movie he worked on, he got attention for the quality of his music for the score of 1935 film A Midsummer Night's Dream. Felix Mendelssohn's music was used, but Korngold re-orchestrated it for the film.

It was, however, his music for Captain Blood from the the same year that set the seal on his prospects as a very successful composer in Hollywood. Captain Blood made Errol Flynn a star in this great sea adventure with a dashing hero and rousing music score:

The score Korngold wrote for the film Anthony Adverse won an Oscar in 1936, but not in his own name. It was still the head of the music department who received the credit.

In 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood was an even bigger success than Captain Blood, again with Flynn as the hero and a music score that won an Oscar for Korngold:

Korngold went on to write music for more classic films featuring Errol Flynn, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk, and many other films.

In 1945, as if to confirm his seriousness as a composer, Korngold wrote a concert work that has become a mainstay of the repertoire, the Violin Concerto in D. It premiered in 1947, performed by Jascha Heifetz, and uses melodies from some of Korngold's earlier film scores to great effect.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner were three of the great composers during what has been called the "Golden Age of Hollywood"—the period from the end of the 1920s and silent films through the 1950s, when television became the dominant entertainment medium.

For a time, all three of these fine composers even worked together at the same studio, Warner Bros. What a great era for movies and for music in movies.

My love of movies started with those old classic films on TV, and I still enjoy going back to them again and again.

Notes: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner worked together at MGM. The three composers worked together at Warner Bros.

The previous version also stated that Korngold settled in California in 1934. While he split his time between Vienna and Hollywood starting in 1934, he didn’t permanently relocate to California until 1938.