The Movie Offer He Couldn’t Refuse

Jon Burlingame is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Leonard Bernstein composed just one original movie score-for “On the Waterfront” in 1954. He was a somewhat reluctant New York traveler to Hollywood, and his experiences here famously didn’t make him want to return.

Still, the score he produced made a big enough splash: It earned an Academy Award nomination and excellent reviews. And Hollywood was excited to have lured a high-art celeb into the fold, however temporarily.

A year later, Bernstein took the major themes for “Waterfront” and turned them into a single movement orchestral work that has had a respectable life of its own. According to Times music critic Mark Swed, Bernstein “wrenched his atmospheric themes into something far grander, a symphonic suite, that the composer would conduct with an overpowering insistence.”


This week, former Bernstein pupil Yakov Kreizberg will lead the L.A. Philharmonic in the Suite.

“It has a tremendous variety of expression, of musical ideas,” says the Russian-born conductor of the music inspired by Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando and company. “The way he uses percussion, for example, clearly foreshadows ‘West Side Story.’ It has a virtuoso quality to it. It has very driven and barbaric moments about it, very lyrical moments, very sensual moments. It has chamber music in the midst of all this bombastic stuff. It’s incredibly exciting.”

One key to the music and its impact is the material that inspired it. Bernstein was 35 when he was hired to score the movie after having already enjoyed success as a conductor and a composer for the ballet (‘Fancy Free’), the concert hall (‘The Age of Anxiety’) and Broadway (‘On the Town’). He had steadfastly resisted movie offers, he later wrote, “on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness.”

But producer Sam Spiegel convinced Bernstein to look at a rough cut of the film, with its towering performance by Brando as an inarticulate longshoreman caught up in union corruption on the New Jersey docks. Bernstein said he felt “a surge of excitement” at the screening and was “swept by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score.”

In fact, according to both screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Kazan, Spiegel’s primary interest in Bernstein was for publicity. ‘I don’t think Sam was that enthusiastic when we got the film done,” Schulberg said recently. “He told Kazan that he was worried that people might not go to see it. That’s really what motivated his thinking-it would get an extra ‘utz’ if he could get Lenny to do something he’d never done before, which was to write a film score.” For Kazan’s part, he noted in his autobiography that Spiegel was “anxious to get another prominent name on the advertising copy.”

Bernstein began composing in February 1954. As he later explained: “Day after day, I sat at a Moviola, running the print back and forth, measuring in feet the sequences I had chosen for music, converting feet into seconds by mathematical formula, making homemade cue sheets. And every time I wept at the same speeches, chuckled at the same gestures.”


Over the next several weeks, he wrote 48 minutes of music based on three primary themes: one expressing Brando’s reluctant heroism; a love theme for Brando and Eva Marie Saint; and forceful, percussion-driven music for the violence on the docks (most dramatically heard at the outset of the movie as a longshoreman is hurled off a rooftop).

Morris Stoloff, Columbia Pictures music director, conducted the score over three days in late April of that year. At its largest, the orchestra consisted of 47 musicians (including, one day, Bernstein, who played jazz piano for a saloon scene between Brando and Saint and was paid all of $48.21, union scale, for his efforts).

Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert attended the scoring sessions. “It was a big event in town,” he said. “Everybody talked about it. Lenny Bernstein was coming to do a score in Hollywood? What would he do?”

What he did was break with Hollywood film-scoring tradition. Instead of the usual sweeping orchestral overture, the score opens quietly, with the sound of a single instrument. French horn player James Decker, who played that solo and now teaches at USC, remembered that “the opening being what it was, it allowed me to do a little phrasing, which was nice. I was able to milk it a little bit. You don’t get that chance much in the studios.”

Music critics, and even some movie critics, were impressed by the score’s boldness and its overall structural unity. Life magazine called it “chilling,” and Time cited its “curiously piercing purity.” British critic Hans Keller wrote that “in textural style and harmonic idiom, it is more daring than many individual film scores.... It is clear that Bernstein is determined to subject the Hollywood soundtrack to a radical spring cleaning.” American critic Clifford McCarty agreed: “So fresh and powerful is Bernstein’s music, and in so personal an idiom, that it at once sets itself apart from the more conventional ‘Hollywood’ scores.”

That may be part of the reason it didn’t win the Oscar, although other theories abound. The movie was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight, including best picture, actor and director. Some observers believe that Bernstein lost because he was not a Hollywood insider. Others attribute it to the fact that hard-campaigning winner Dimitri Tiomkin capitalized on the popularity of his whistled theme song for “The High and the Mighty” with everything from trade ads to skywriting airplanes.


Did Oscar disappointment keep Bernstein from returning to creating original film scores? Probably not. He didn’t even attend the ceremonies (he was conducting at La Scala). There’s more evidence to back up what Charlie Harmon, who was Bernstein’s personal assistant, archivist and music editor, says: “He always claimed that he didn’t do another film because he was so upset at the cutting and editing process over which he had no control.”

Instead of returning home to New York after the score was completed, Bernstein hung around for the picture’s audio mix. He wrote about it in a New York Times essay he datelined, tongue in cheek, “Upper Dubbing, California.” He described a “frustrating and maddening” series of reduced-volume, truncated and even lost musical moments.

“I found myself pleading for a beloved G-flat,” he reported. “Sometimes the music, which had been planned ... with a beginning, middle and end, would be silenced seven bars before the end.” It’s instructive to note that the newspaper story, published before the film’s opening, concluded with the line, “It was a glorious experience; I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” The version published in Bernstein’s 1959 book, “The Joy of Music,” while nearly 700 words longer, omits that upbeat sentiment.

Many years later, Kazan complained about some of Bernstein’s choices in a way that makes the composer’s initial hesitance about heading to Hollywood seem prescient: “I try not to bring another personality into the picture through the music,” said Kazan, “but there was no way to avoid that with Lenny,” he told author Jeff Young. “So you’re aware of the music. It put the picture on the level of almost operatic melodrama here and there.”

Bernstein adapted the basic musical material of “Waterfront” into the Suite in mid-1955-partly because, unlike the film score, which was owned by Columbia, his contract specified that he would own and therefore profit from any concert work he cared to derive from it. But, more importantly, the Suite was a convenient way to ensure that the music would live on in a more musically coherent form in the concert hall, a la Prokoviev’s “Alexander Nevsky” and Copland’s “The Red Pony.”

He premiered it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tanglewood, Mass., that August and, five years later, recorded it with the New York Philharmonic.


Reviewing the premiere, the New York Times thought the Suite made “great big, beautiful sounds,” while the American Record Guide, discussing the recording, said “it adds up to some impressive Bernstein.”

Yet, according to Kreizberg, it’s among the most underrated of Bernstein’s output and is not performed in concert nearly as often as the symphonic dances from “West Side Story” or the overture from “Candide.” “

There is so much typical Bernstein in [the film score],” he says, “I think the very best of him, in a way, is in this piece.”

Declares Hollywood veteran Elmer Bernstein (the composer of scores to such classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Magnificent Seven” is no relation to Leonard): “I think it’s one of the great scores ever written in Hollywood. It energized the film. It lent a dignity to the love interest instead of trivializing it. And forgetting everything else, it was just superior music on its own.”


‘ON THE WATERFRONT” SUITE, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Dates: 8 p.m. Thursday, 1 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. next Sunday. Prices: $10 to $70. (213) 365-3500.