It’s a matter of record that Jonny Greenwood earned an Oscar nomination for scoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread…but a significant piece of music that sets the tone for this moody character portrait is Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” played by pianist Oscar Peterson. It’s a perfect choice, just as it was when it debuted as the title song for a 1949 movie with Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews.
Yet Victor Young’s name is too often neglected when people cite the top composers of Hollywood’s golden age. Admittedly, he didn’t break new ground like Max Steiner or innovate as Bernard Herrmann did. All he did was write beautiful, melodic scores, yielding a vast number of songs that became hits and enduring standards. “Love Letters,” “Golden Earrings,” and “When I Fall in Love” are just a few of his memorable movie themes. Jazz musicians have always been drawn to his tunes and have particular fondness for “Stella by Starlight” and “Delilah,” from Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. (If you haven’t heard vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s recording with Wes Montgomery, you really should.)
An amusing side note, revealed in the valuable book It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett, who produced The Uninvited, noted in his diary on July 28, 1943, “Victor Young played us his ‘Stella by Starlight’ song which I found very disappointing—a pretty enough, featureless song without distinction…” He later had cause to change his opinion.
Young also wrote such standards as “Sweet Sue, Just You,” “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” and “Can’t We Talk it Over?” He was ridiculously productive. As Michael Feinstein wrote to me, “Victor Young holds a unique place in the pantheon of classic film composers because he not only exercised full-time duties as a prolific and fine film composer but also arranged and conducted hundreds of recording sessions for many singers, as well as working on radio shows and other concert activities. Many of his songs became hits, both from his Tin Pan Alley days and his later film output. It’s a dazzling body of work. And don’t forget Broadway. He also found time to create stage scores, and I wonder how in the world he was able to do it all.”
Michael also notes, “Though he was married to the same woman for many years, he had affairs with the singer Lee Wiley in the 1930s (presumably when they costarred on the Ponds show in 1933) and with Peggy Lee over a decade later. They both performed his songs and even wrote with him. My favorite song with Peggy is ‘Where Can I Go Without You.’ ” I’m also fond of the title song for Johnny Guitar, another Lee-Young collaboration that she performed over the main title of that 1954 movie.
A child prodigy on violin, he wrote especially beautiful music for strings, as evidenced by his haunting theme for For Whom the Bell Tolls and his score for MGM’s Scaramouche. Young has also been credited with turning Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” into a classic by slowing down its peppy tempo for bandleader Isham Jones, which in turn inspired Mitchell Parish to write lyrics for the unforgettable melody.
By all accounts Young was a boon companion and colleague. Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, Paramount’s in-house songwriters, told me that Young was never precious about his work. If they were setting lyrics to an existing melody and needed a small change to the melodic line he never made a fuss.
An inveterate poker player, he was also a keen practical joker. One time he heard a theme Max Steiner was working on, secretly notated the music, rushed over to Paramount and made a recording with some musicians who were on call. When Max came to dinner that night Victor rigged it so the recording played through his radio speaker. Max was apoplectic and Victor had a good laugh.
Ironically, after earning 22 Oscar nominations he finally won the coveted award posthumously for his score of Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. With lyrics by Harold Adamson, the title song became a much-covered hit, although its popularity has receded over the decades along with the film’s. Young was so prolific that three 1957 films bore his name on the credits, even though he died in late 1956. Samuel Fuller’s China Gate bore the legend “Music/Victor Young,
Extended by his old friend/Max Steiner.” As Steiner’s biographer Steven Smith remarks, “Only Max would have asked for ‘old friend,’ and only someone like Sam Fuller would have approved it.”
Another admirer, music director Ray Heindorf, chose For Whom the Bell Tolls as his first orchestral album for Warner Bros.’ new record label in 1958, with an eye-catching closeup of a tearful Ingrid Bergman on the cover.
Film music scholar and journalist Jon Burlingame points out, “Henry Mancini was a big fan, too, and put together a memorable medley of Young songs that he often played in concert (originally recorded as part of “The Concert Sound of Henry Mancini” in 1964). In a time when Mancini could have done just his own music in concert, he thought so much of Young, and didn’t want him forgotten. (The Mancini medley is available HERE.)
In spite of this, Young is often damned with faint praise. Film music expert Tony Thomas wrote, “Victor Young’s contribution to the art of film scoring was of a fairly conventional nature. He knew what was needed musically, and what he gave the pictures enhanced them. But he worked at a time and for a studio where nothing experimental or outlandish was wanted or even tolerated. In retrospect, what distinguishes his music is the warmth of melody–no matter what he did, Young couldn’t contain this aspect of his nature.” His contemporary Miklos Rozsa described Young’s music as “Broadway-cum-Rachmaninoff.”
With all respect to maestro Rozsa and Mr. Thomas, I love Young’s melodic scores and themes. According to Film Score Monthly producer Lukas Kendall, “Composer John Williams counts The Quiet Man as one of his favorite films and credits Young’s score—along with Bernard Herrmann’s music for Vertigo—with sparking his interest in film scoring as a career.”
Having just listened to the Film Score Monthly CD of Scaramouche for the first time and heard his efforts for a handful of undistinguished bread-and-butter pictures on a pair of discs released by Kritzerland (Victor Young at Paramount, Volumes 1 and 2). All three discs, as well as other tribute albums and compilations, are available from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Victor Young was a master of his craft. When carrying out an assignment, he was incapable of doing inferior work. When inspired, he made truly beautiful music.