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B-Movie Scores Come Back to Life

Walk down the dark, crumbling corridors of Mosfilm Studios and, for a moment, you might think you’ve entered Frankenstein’s castle.

The music filling the air would certainly underscore that feeling. Behind heavily guarded studio doors, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra has been recording music from the 1944 Boris Karloff horror film “House of Frankenstein.”

The pairing of the Moscow orchestra, more accustomed to Beethoven and Shostakovich, with the rousing Hans Salter score written decades ago for Universal, is unlikely, to say the least. Russian performers play the music with unbridled passion but, having seen none of the movies, understand little of the nostalgic appeal such films have abroad. Droll titles of film cues--"Liquefying Brains,” for instance--baffle them.

During the cue “Strangulation,” the flutist reaches over to the puzzled piccolo player and, as if to better explain the title in Russian, grabs him by the neck and begins playfully throttling him.

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Los Angeles film composers John Morgan and Bill Stromberg, who have helped make this moment happen, smile at the spectacle. At last, the Muscovites are loosening up.

“I’m glad they’re starting to discover the fun in this music,” says Stromberg. “Conducting an orchestra, especially in unfamiliar music like this, can be like pulling a freight train. You would not believe the weight.”

Just before his death in Los Angeles last summer at age 98, the Viennese-born Salter gave his blessing to this offbeat endeavor, the massive reconstruction and re-recording of scores for such Universal horror films as “The Wolf Man” and “Son of Frankenstein.” The project is being undertaken by Hong Kong-based Marco Polo Records.

The music Salter and colleagues Frank Skinner and Charles Previn scored under crushing two-week deadlines for Universal Pictures still soars in a way even much more conventionally written concert hall music doesn’t.

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In fact, John Morgan, 48, who painstakingly reconstructed the scores from mere sketches after being approached about the project by producer Tony Thomas--Universal trashed the original manuscripts in a massive housecleaning years ago--says such music contributes heavily to any popularity the films still have.

“We love ‘em,” he says. “But we’re under no illusion about the movies themselves. If you look at them without the music, they’re pretty simple. But when the music is added, it gives these old horror films this rich, undeniably creepy atmosphere.”

Stromberg, 30, and Morgan leaped at the chance to do an album devoted to the complete score of “House of Frankenstein” and another album of suites for “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), “The Wolf Man” (1941) and “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940). The recordings will be released by Marco Polo by Halloween. (Morgan’s previous credits include scores for “The Aftermath” and “Flicks”; Stromberg’s, for “Killing Streets” and “Oddball Hall.”)

“Hey, I can’t believe it’s happening, either, but it’s great,” Morgan says. “Most modern recordings of vintage film scores today are by ‘A’ composers for ‘A’ films. What we have with Hans Salter is an ‘A’ composer who happened to work on ‘B’ films.”

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Morgan and Stromberg are especially excited about the chance to rerecord the score to “House of Frankenstein,” a 1944 potboiler that featured Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man and, presiding over them all, Boris Karloff as a brain-swapping mad scientist.

Their sole regret: That Hans Salter didn’t live long enough to hear the results--though he gave the two musicians his full support (“Just make it sound better than it was,” he wryly told Morgan). The haunting music he composed remains the most stirringly memorable of all that composed for Universal’s classic horror series. Yet he died largely forgotten.

Fleeing to America from Nazi Germany in 1937, Hans Salter quickly found himself scoring Westerns, comedies, even Deanna Durbin musicals. But studio producers knew what he was most suited for.

The irony that Salter escaped the Third Reich only to wind up scoring horror films about brutish superhumans and mad scientists with names like Niemann and Frankenstein was never lost on the low-key composer, though he seldom mentioned it.

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“Ordinarily, you’d never think of him as a monster-movie composer,” Morgan said. “He was a sweet, mild-mannered gentleman who studied with (German composer) Alban Berg. I mean, he knew he was talented, but he always kind of knocked himself.”

Marco Polo’s monster-music project is the latest effort to rerecord film scores from Hollywood’s so-called “golden age.”

Last summer in Berlin, Morgan and Stromberg oversaw new recordings with the Brandenburg Philharmonic of Victor Young’s “Scaramouche,” Erich Korngold’s “Captain Blood” and Max Steiner’s “The Three Musketeers” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

“It’s really kind of unfortunate,” Stromberg says of the decline in overall quality of movie music compared to the great scores of the ‘30s and ‘40s. “But if people want to hear truly great film music, they usually have to go back to the classics of the past.

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“Look at ‘House of Frankenstein.’ Whatever you think of the film, the music is this one great tone poem. It has some of the most interesting music. The fact Hans had help from avant-garde German composer Paul Dessau results in this unique blend.”

Asked if the two felt they were neglecting their own careers as film composers in Los Angeles, neither Morgan nor Stromberg express any regret; in fact, they say, they would like to return for future film music projects.

“When we’re not working on our own stuff, what better thing to do than this?” Morgan said. “I mean, as film composers ourselves, we owe so much to people like Steiner and Korngold and Hans Salter. It’s really repaying a debt.”


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