SALTER / SKINNER: Monster Music
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Frank Skinner (1897-1968)
Son of Frankenstein 1939
Frank Skinner & Hans J. Salter (1896-1994)
The Invisible Man Returns 1940
The Wolf Man 1941
Reconstructed and orchestrated by John Morgan
By the final months of 1941, events in Europe and thePacific threatened to eclipse any horror film ever toemanate from America's famed Universal Pictures.
Nazi Germany had overrun most of Europe, Italianfascists had embarked on conquest of Africa, andJapan was ravaging much of Asia. But even as theseclouds of world war gathered and grew darker,Universal's own star-studded globe - the one thatrevolved at the beginning of every Universal film ofthe era - continued to turn more and more over horrorfilms, each one more outrageous and more rollickingthan the last.
A striking variety of creative forces were involvedin these ever-popular pictures: Teutonic screenwriterCurt Siodmak, make-up wizard Jack P. Pierce, artdirector Jack Otterson, special effects director JohnFulton, cinematographer George Robinson and, mostintriguing of all, Lon Chaney Jr., whose erratic effortsto outshine his late horror-star father saw him not onlyplay the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, theMummy and Count Dracula but also star inUniversal's curious Inner Sanctum thrillers. But of allthese creative forces, none proved as consistentlycrucial to the success of the Universal monster moviesas the marvelously macabre music of Hans J. Salterand Frank Skinner.
If ever a genre needed musical assistance increating a sufficient amount of atmosphere, it was thehorror film of the 1930s and 1940s. Today, earlyUniversal horror classics such as Dracula and evenFrankenstein (both 1931) occasionally come off asstilted, partially because they lack full music scores.
Even later films such as Werewolf of London (1935)and Dracula's Daughter (1936) pale partially becauseof their tepid music. Happily, Franz Waxman'swizardly score to James Whale's The Bride ofFrankenstein (1935) not only added punch to thatfilm's overall impact, it also gave Universal's moreattentive filmmakers a vivid idea of how fundamentalfilm music was in this particular genre. Subsequently,when director Rowland V. Lee proceeded with Son ofFrankenstein in 1938, he engaged staff composerFrank Skinner to compose a wholly new score for thepicture. It was this music, orchestrated by Skinner'ssoon-to-be frequent partner Hans J. Salter, that set thetone, literally and figuratively, for all horror film scoresto come from Universal.
Few musical collaborators in film history are asintriguing as Salter and Skinner. Skinner. with hiseasy-going Midwestern sensibilities and dance-bandbackground, might have seemed the wrong man toteam with Austrian-born Salter, whose experienceincluded study under prominent composers AlbanBerg and Franz Schreker, directing operettas andworking for Berlin's famed UFA studios beforeHitler's nightmarish visions sent him packing for otherhorizons. Yet their work together composing scoresfor Universal proved one of the happiest partnershipsin film music, partially because of their willingness tocultivate a particular style they could both easily workwith. \We exchanged themes before we started," Salterrecalled in 1994, shortly before his death, "and we'dkeep it in that one style. If it worked well enough, itsounded like the score of one composer." Of course,Salter also recalled, Universal's ever-pressingdeadlines allowed them little time for moreadventurous forays. From the time Salter joined thestudio in 1938, he and Skinner were constantlycranking out scores for every genre of film imaginable.
"We were so busy in those days we hardly survived,"he said. "My first few years at Universal, I don't thinkI had a full Sunday off. We worked day and night."Because of the type of pictures Salter and Skinneroften worked on, and because of the low budgetsusually allotted them, the composers have gained anunfair reputation as talented hacks. However, no lessthan Henry Mancini, who did his apprentice workalongside Salter and Skinner in the 1950s and helpedscore many of Universal's science fiction films then,later championed the work done by them all. "Mostof them were potboilers," Mancini admitted of thesefilms, "but we worked on 'em like they were GoneWith the Wind." Salter himself has recalled ininterviews how he and Skinner even went so far as touse period English music in scoring Rowland V. Lee'shistorical melodrama Tower of London (1939),figuring this novel approach might truly evoke agenteel air of authenticity. Alas, much of their scorewas subsequently thrown out and replaced with musicfrom the team's earlier score for Son of Frankenstein.
In the final analysis, it was tough to beat a horror-filmscore by Salter and Skinner - even when the scorecame from Salter and Skinner themselves.
Over the years, Skinner's music for Son ofFrankenstein has suffered from comparison withWaxman's The Bride of Frankenstein score. Suchcriticism is not really fair. If Waxman's score has asly humor to it, at least part of it is to mirror directorJames Whale's own wry, deliciously wicked vision inThe Bride of Frankenstein. Skinner's gritty, creepierSon of Frankenstein score, however, is still of the samesound world as The Bride of Frankenstein, completewith frantic harp glissandi and out-of-kilter brassharmonies, wonderfully matching art-director JackOtterson's weird, "psychological sets" and the script'sbizarre, sharply etched characters. At one point, duringthe scene in which Dr. Wolf Frankenstein (BasilRathbone) gives a medical exam to his father's ailingmonster (Boris Karloff), Skinner even provides hisown version of the "telltale heart music" heard inWaxman's rousing creation sequence -- except hereSkinner's music reflects the film's new development.
It stresses, through sickly, transparent upper stringsand thumping pizzicato in the lower strings reinforcedby timpani, the very fragility of life.
Certainly, Son of Frankenstein, as a film, offeredplenty of Old World macabre touches. There's onearmedPolice Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) who asa child lost his limb to the Frankenstein Monster and,in the film's grand climax, is fated to do so again -enough to prompt from Skinner a brief but swaggeringmarch capturing the inspector's vanquished dreams ofa glorious military career. And there is the twistedblacksmith and outcast Ygor, providing actor BelaLugosi with the very best role in his career and offeringSkinner a chance to compose some positively evilmusic, including a certain "cackling" in the upperstrings, punctuated by tart bursts in the brass or, forthe striking sequence where Ygor emerges from thepit, a passage for brass suggesting the tolling of bellsin the inferno. The film also gives Skinner a rarechance to humanise Wolf Frankenstein's infamousfather with a plaintive passage for organ and orchestraas the son toasts his father's portrait and high ideals.
And Skinner conjures up a lumbering, three-note motiffrom the very bowels of the orchestra (basses, tuba,bass trombone, contra bassoon and bass clarinet) torepresent the monster himself - a motif that, to quotefilm historian Donald F. Glut, seems to echo the veryname "Frankenstein."Such moments in Son of Frankenstein - carefullyreconstructed from scant materials and woven togetherby film composer John Morgan into the lively concertsuite heard here - prove even more remarkable whenone realises how very little time Skinner and Salterhad to mull over the film's needs. In a revealing 1975interview with William H. Rosar, Salter recalled thefinal 48-hour stretch to meet the film's impossibledeadline: 'With this score especially, we worked underterrible pressure. I remember the last two or three daysbefore the recording, we didn't leave the studio. Wejust stayed