Alan Shulman’s Movie Soundtracks

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SHULMAN: The Tattooed Stranger. Tennessee Valley Authority. Freedom and Famine. Port of New York. Behind Your Radial Dial / Pathé Orchestra, RKO Radio Pictures Orchestra; unidentified conductors / Bridge 9560

This is an album of film music, specifically original RKO-Pathé film soundtracks recorded between 1946 and 1950. My readers know that I generally detest film music, but there are exceptions, among them Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, George Antheil and several of those hip, jazz-influenced soundtracks of the period 1953-1961.

Alan Shulman is one such. Born in Baltimore on June 4, 1915 of Jewish-Russian émigrés. A child prodigy, he formed a trio with his brother Sylvan on violin and his sister Violet on piano when he was only eight years old. He and his family moved to New York when he was 15 and he never desired to live anywhere else. In 1931 he joined Local 802 in New York, entered Juilliard in 1932 (where he studied for five years) and in 1933 became part of a string quartet that played popular music on NBC (and was the group’s arranger). In 1935 he joined the Kriener String Quartet, a group headed by violinist Edward Kriener, and in 1937 was chosen as one of the cellists in the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, simultaneously working as a regular staff musician for both NBC’s Red and Blue networks. In 1938 he formed his own Stuyvesant String Quartet with brother Sylvan on first violin, Zelly Smirnoff on second violin and Louis Kievman on viola, although those two inner voices changed over the years. The following year, the quartet, amplified by harpist Laura Newell, guitarist Tony Colucci and bassist Harry Patent, started broadcasting and recording Shulman’s own arrangements of light classical pieces in a jazz style under the name “New Friends of Rhythm.” Jazz trumpeter Eddie Bailey was quoted as saying that “Alan had the greatest ear of any musician I ever came across. He had better than perfect pitch. I’ve simply never met anyone like him.” In 1942 he decided to help his country in World War II, and so joined the Maritime Service as a Merchant Marine; after his basic training, he spent the war years at Sheepshead Bay, arranging for and performing in the Maritime Service Orchestra—essentially a much lower-profile version of the job that Glenn Miller was doing with the Army Air Force Band in England.

During the war, Shulman also collaborated with Nathaniel Shilkret scoring a documentary film, Private Smith of the U.S.A. for MGM in Hollywood. When he came out of the service in 1945, he also met with Herman Fuchs, then the music editor for Pathé News Service, where he was hired to write a score for a documentary short, Tennessee Valley Authority, and this is where we finally reach the music on this CD. Eventually both Fuchs and Shulman moved from Pathé to RKO Radio Pictures, where they continued their collaboration until 1950. The Tattooed Stranger, a B-picture film noir, turned out to be Shulman’s last film scoring assignment. Conductor Felix Slatkin tried to convince Shulman to move to Los Angeles, where he would get many more film score assignments, but Shulman had a bad experience during his MGM period (which lasted until 1946) that he had no taste to leave the East Coast ever again.

This CD opens with his last score, The Tattooed Stranger, rather than one of the earlier assignments. Without being able to see the film, I have no clue what was supposed to be going on, but the 24 minutes worth of music here is mostly fast and busy-sounding. Although clearly music written to support film scenes, it is unusually complex, including, according to the booklet, “an eerie sextuplet figure that also appears in his 1950 Threnody for string quartet.” The problem with the Tattooed Stranger soundtrack is that he constantly alternates some really excellent music (some of which sounds like Shostakovich) with music that is only theatrically effective, which is not the same thing.

Shulman was a good composer but not always a great one. He knew how to set a mood and he also understood the fundamentals of composition well enough to write some fine pieces, such as the Theme & Variations for Viola and Orchestra, premiered by his friend Emmanuel Vardi with the NBC Symphony in January 1942 and the Laurentian Overture conducted by Guido Cantelli with the NBC Symphony in 1952. His lifelong fascination with jazz also led to some interesting hybrids, such as The Bop Gavotte and Minuet for Moderns, conducted by his friend Don Gillis with the NBC Concert Orchestra, but I think, all in all, Shulman’s pieces retain their fascination mostly because they were different from everyone else’s. There’s a certain restlessness in both his extended compositions and this film music that sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t. As I say, this is film music and without the visuals I can’t say how effective it is in setting and sustaining the proper moods, so of course one can’t judge this on the same level as his serious works. Personally, I felt that Tennessee Valley Authority worked better and was more cohesive than The Tattooed Stranger, but then you also have to consider that the former is an integral score meant to be played as is from start to finish while the music for The Tattooed Stranger, though recorded all at once, was broken up and inserted into film sequences separated from each other and not meant to be heard sequentially. At least half of The Tattooed Stranger score is excellent and interesting.

Shulman’s TVA score, though similar to Virgil Thomson’s The Plow That Broke the Plains, contains more moments of tuneful, Romantic-style music, which (without seeing the film) one has a hard time reconciling with the TVA.

Much more cohesive as a piece is his 10-minute score for Freedom From Famine, also from 1946. Here, the slow music is more atmospheric and less “pretty.” This is a very fine piece of music. At around 1:57, he cleverly quotes a snippet of the Star-Spangled Banner, played very slowly by an oboe. In Port of New York, we’re back to busy, chipper-sounding music. We end with a very brief (1:21) snippet from Behind Your Radial Dial which cleverly combines jazz-like figures with a bit of NBC’s “chimes” signature.

My overall impression is of a gifted musician knocking off some film scores for money (and maybe also for fun), throwing in some excellent passages to offset the banal ones. Considering the period and the tastes of the American public, he did an excellent job, but in the harsh, cold light of posterity, these scores are somewhat better than average but no more than that. There’s just a bit too much bombast—martial rhythms and trumpet fanfares—for my taste, but as I said, all of Freedom From Famine and roughly half of The Tattooed Stranger are very good.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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