She - The Complete Score Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

She - The Complete Score Soundtrack Review
Following-on from their phenomenal Bernard Herrmann double-whammy of Mysterious Island and Fahrenheit 451 and, incidentally, their label debut, William Stromberg, John Morgan and Anna Bonn plunge the Moscow Symphony Orchestra into the dynamic world of Max Steiner for Tribute Film Classics' third release, the complete score to the 1935 film adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's mystical adventure yarn, She.

By far the greatest thing about the lavish, but inordinately hollow movie, Steiner's score is presented here exactly as the great composer - the father of the modern film score - originally intended. When RKO sliced the budget for the movie, another grand visual extravaganza from the creative duo behind the studio's immortal King Kong, they not only lost the much-vaunted Technicolor that Merian C. Cooper wanted, but the size and structure of Steiner's in-house orchestra (he was then Head of Music at RKO) was pinned-back, too. But with the passion and dedication of TFC's trio of determined musical archaeologists and rejuvenators Steiner's original notes and orchestration for the score have finally been catered-for and “She” now sounds the way that its creator could only have dreamed of.

Starring Randolph Scott before he became America's noble cinematic and moral saviour, Nigel Bruce before he became better known as the bumbling Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's seminal Sherlock Holmes, Helen Mack and Helen Gahagan as the titular She, in what was to be her only film appearance, the movie, written by co-Kong-creator and Cooper's best buddy Ernest B. Shoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, after he had passed on directorial chores to Lansing Holden and Irving Pitchel and opted to helm the equally money-constrained The Last Days Of Pompeii, was met with indifference by the general public and derision by the critics, who thought it childish and ridiculous, and ultimately sank from trace until its rediscovery and reappraisal in the late 90's. Without a doubt, the film is not very good - and I am devout lover of films from this period. Individual elements are terrific - such as Gahagan's fabulously mysterious and tragic performance as the immortal Queen of the mystical lost land of Kor - a woman who has the eternal Flame of Life heating her pipes, but hasn't had proper love for nigh-on five hundred years (!) - and the enormous sets (Art-Deco barbaric, they have been called), but the story, itself, is woefully stodgy and continually fails to stimulate, excite or to provide anything in the way of genuine awe. After both The Most Dangerous Game and, of course, Kong (Steiner scoring both films), this is a dumbfounded shock and the lack of budget is most definitely not to blame.

But, back to the main reason why we're here - Max Steiner's score is utterly amazing and clearly one of his best ever works ... which is really saying something profound. Having created the awesome and, indeed, foundation stone of modern scoring with King Kong before it, Son Of Kong after it and then going on to compose such absolute classics as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, They Died With Their Boots On (a perennial favourite of mine), The Searchers, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep and Dodge City, it is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience to hear this wild, exuberant, dynamic, wholly mysterious and darkly romantic score in its full glory for the first time. Powerfully written with an emphasis on mystical mood and percussive action, “She” is a long, complex and diverse work that is both way ahead of its time and a stark reminder of how such consummate professionals as Steiner and other composers of his generation honoured the movies that they worked on with complete devotion and a sheer, unimpeachable willingness to express themselves musically, no matter how poor the material or the finished film may be.

There is little point in discussing such an immense score track by track in my usual manner, so I will just provide an overview of the undertaking and pick out certain highlights that showcase Steiner's innate style, intuitive grasp of the drama and the emotions that the characters - if not the actors - should be expressing and the inspiring use of leit-motif and sweeping orchestration. The main theme for She is a simple affair that Steiner applies with either swooning brass and strings, a terrifically booming fanfare for brass and cliff-shearing percussion or with pensive, melancholic stretches for oboe, bassoon and flirtatious woodwinds. Partly reminiscent of the power and grandeur of King Kong's opening salvo, his main theme yawns across the entire the score, providing an essential backbone and a solid foundation for the sections of awe, terror, action and sheer mystery to wrap themselves around. Steiner had incorporated a massive orchestra to work his wonders, but with the budgetary cutbacks, even this imposing army of musicians wasn't enough to completely fill the aural environment of the imagination that he was after. But Stromberg, Morgan and Bonn have capitalised on his plans and augmented their orchestra with the extra instruments that Steiner would have had if money had allowed.

A spirited travelogue, though brief in length, is amazingly detailed and buoyant in tracks 3 and 4, with superbly performed woodwinds that flutter and cavort with giddy abandon. Ferocious action is served up in Avalanche as Steiner's thunderous cue attempts to match the sight of huge ice blocks tumbling from the mountainous heights that hide Kor from intruders. A splendid sense of mystery is evoked from The Cave and, if you listen, there are little elements here and there that would later be referenced by Bernard Herrmann and even Hammer's regular composer James Bernard. Playful oboe, clarinet and piccolo add resonance to the irresistible unease that Steiner is concocting.

After a fiery conflict with a bunch of actually quite nasty natives led by regular horror-brute, Noble Johnson - seriously, check out the hot helmet that they are going cook Nigel Bruce's head with! - more mystery is crafted as our dumb heroes are led to the vast gateway that leads to Kor. Pounding bass and elegant chimes may seem a little familiar to those savvy with Basil Poledouris' awesome score for Conan The Barbarian which, of course, only serves to remind us just influential Steiner was, and still is.

Tyrannical menace is instilled in Track 16, The Trial, but Steiner manages to turn such darkness on its head with a light section of almost religious sonority as our travellers attempt to stay the execution of the same natives that were going to roast them earlier on. Clearly enjoying the topsy-turvy nature of the scene, Steiner swings back and forth from darkness and heavy chords to lighter notes and glistening instruments, keeping us on our toes far more so than the leaden direction employed on the film. This smooth transition from one extreme mood to another during the same piece is a unique hallmark of the composer's early works, which were predominantly action-adventures like this. Steiner's special skill was the brilliant use of severe crescendos that are smashed against us frequently, here in She employing gongs, tom-toms, street drums, sleigh-bells, marimba, glockenspiel, various sized cymbals and a large bass drum to wreak havoc with our senses. Then, just as effortlessly, he could switch to pure fantasy, which he evoked with magisterial ease and finesse via harp, piccolo, celesta and xylophone, the otherworldly texture further enhanced with the addition of a female choir that heightens the atmosphere considerably.

Whilst the film suffers from a horribly flabby middle section that seems to go on forever (ironic, that, I suppose) and really offers nothing more than one plot point stretched-out to beyond its thematic elasticity, Steiner enters possibly his most yearning and magical part of the score. Chronicling the strange and dangerous Kor and its weird and enigmatic Queen, Mash-A-Mo-Tep, She Who Must Be Obeyed, this is a sliding, sinuous and hypnotic series of tracks that are spellbinding, tragic and deeply affecting. Steiner grips the pathos of She with both hands and wrings the centuries of pain and loneliness out of it, allowing the fear and resentment, longing and anger of the brooding monarch to drip through us layers of long lost passion. Sweet agony is addressed with piercing strings and the harp glides through the canopy of hidden truth, tensions mounting almost subliminally as Steiner guides us through the film's most lethargic period, providing the only source of enjoyment to what is, visually, an incredibly dull chapter. Tracks such as The Memory Pool/Cremation and The Terrace are wonderfully soulful set-pieces that shimmer with emotion and discord, doubts are nudged-in and deceits and ultimatums keep pace with music that tells the story far better than anything Holden or Pichel can come up with. Menace and wisdom are filtered through Steiner's writing and conveyed to an orchestra that you can feel are being whipped-up into a frenzy.

But, justly celebrated and acknowledged now to be one of the composer's grandest moments, comes the famous Hall Of Kings triple-bill of pomp, ceremony, ritual and Golden Age Sturm and Drang. As She's true intentions are made clear to our party of intrepid, yet really rather naff explorers - poor Helen Mack's Tanya is to be sacrificed in order that She can have Scott's cardboard hero Leo, who she believes to be the reincarnation of her lost love from, well, a long time ago - Steiner indulges in a similar tribal bash that added so much vigour to King Kong's score. Only, here, he extends the full treatment to almost nine minutes of completely bombastic rapture. In the film, Cooper ladled on some Busby Berkley excess with hordes of extras, intricate choreography amidst one of the biggest sets that RKO had ever crafted and some, admittedly, very modern cinematography and visual tricks. The problem is that the sequence, as filmed and in the context of the plot, becomes tediously overblown and a complete distraction from the thrust of what is really going on. Steiner, on the other hand, appears to have decided that he wanted to give his orchestra the work-out of their lives. Big bass drums, amazing ranks of timpani and ever-pounding percussion rock the house and literally take no prisoners. Warn the neighbours, folks, because this gets deep, loud and positively barbaric. Essentially a ballet arranged in several movements, the three-part sequence is grand musical opulence from riotous start to esoteric cymbal-led finale. Part II finds room for a great rendition of the main theme amid crazed performances from woodwinds and percussion, swirling notes lifting away from the conflagration like sparks from a bonfire. A touch of the exotic East intrudes for a cue but then is violently shoved aside when Steiner's big guns smash their way back to the fore. Part III punctuates the menacing choir with chimes from glockenspiel and finger-cymbals as the fierce trilogy closes with a steady ting! that then burst apart as things get all adrenal in The Escape. After all he haunting eloquence of the middle phase, suddenly you realise that you haven't drawn breath for several tracks and Steiner isn't about to give you a break yet.

The main theme returns, bolstered by mournful harp and then aching strings as the inevitable must happen if the three foolish voyagers are to get free of She's influence once and for all. Once more, Steiner builds a huge wall of sound that comes on like a rampaging Kong, then, almost as abruptly, has it recede to allow delicate strings to intervene for a spell. This momentous to-ing and fro-ing from size and rage to quiet reflection is something that sounds so simple, yet it must be incredibly hard to create. The aural results are nothing short of sensational, however.

She is a barnstorming piece of work from a composer who literally created a musical standard with his film work. Stromberg credits him with writing music with extreme rubato - meaning that incredible shifting of tempo from one cue to another during the same section. Without a doubt, it is to Max Steiner that we, as score-lovers, should look when we think about how a movie is augmented, enhanced and elevated by its music. This score, which went sadly overlooked for far too long because of its being saddled with a pretty lousy movie, can now be fully embraced and appreciated and I would urge soundtrack fans to pick up a copy. Thankfully, this release is not limited and should be easily obtainable. The quality of the recording is absolutely scintillating and the score, itself, a powerhouse that tears itself away from what is considered the Golden Age and becomes an experience that is timeless and inspiring.

The bonus track on offer here is actually the original main title theme for James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) as composed by Bernhard Kaun, who acted as the musical arranger for Steiner on She. Although again quite a brief cue, it is great to hear it as Universal would have orchestrated it back in the thirties. Since a large number of the studio's horror and sci-fi films during the first 30's and 40's used library tracks and classical compositions from opera and ballet, it is refreshing to hear a taste of what could have been. Incidentally, Stromberg and the MSO have resurrected a few of the great Universal horror scores from the period, such House Of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and Son Of Frankenstein. House Of Frankenstein, particularly, is a wild and dramatically thrilling exercise that comes highly recommended.

If I had to pick one thing to moan about with TFC's otherwise exemplary packages, it is that the awesome liner notes - fabulously extensive at 32-pages of restoration info, track-by-track analysis, essays on the score, the film and on Steiner by all three of the creative team as well as historian James V. D'Arc - are so thick that prising them out of the CD case is prone to damaging them. A bit churlish, I know, but it is such a shame to nick corners of the gloriously illustrated books and scuff the covers. Having said that, though, the sheer wealth of information provided is staggering and, once again, hats off to TFC for supplying such incredible value with their releases.

Their next release is Bernard Herrmann's score for The Kentuckian, which starred Burt Lancaster. Somewhat mysteriously, this has been delayed for some time now and, quite frankly, I'm getting impatient waiting for it. Tribute Film Classics, like Intrada and FSM, are a score-lover's dream and should be applauded and supported for their tireless restorations and reconstructions of such immortal and beloved movie-music.

1. Main Title / Time Passes 2:07

2. Uncle John's Vision 1:06

3. To the Northern Rim 0:35

4. The Barrier 1:07

5. At the Campfire 1:22

6. The Saber-Toothed Tiger 2:19

7. Avalanche 1:21

8. The Cave 3:15

9. Fight with the Natives 0:49

10. Trek to Kor 3:40

11. At the Gate 0:30

12. The Queen / Tanya in Bed 5:07

13. Tanya's Unrest 3:22

14. Leo Asleep 3:06

15. Fanfares 0:40

16. The Trial 5:10

17. Forgotten Palace 1:52

18. The Memory Pool / Cremation 4:30

19. The Terrace 7:46

20. The Hall of Kings - Part I 3:56

21. The Hall of Kings - Part II 3:36

22. The Hall of Kings - Part III 1:19

23. The Escape 3:23

24. The Flame of Life 5:01

25. Finale 2:40

26. Bonus Track: Main Title from "Frankenstein" 1:18

Total Album Time: 70:57Powerful, sweeping and heart-yearning, Max Steiner's epic score for “She” is a symphonic masterpiece that continually exhilarates and fascinates. The film it accompanied was incredibly honoured to have been bestowed such a wonderful work. Although it is hard to beat King Kong or They Died With Their Boots On, Steiner created a truly wonderful composition for She that once heard will haunt you forever. Beyond question, this is the type of thing that orchestras thrive on and long to perform. Strenuous, incredibly textured and packing some earth-shattering percussion, She pushes the sonic envelope with devastating ease and leaves you exhausted but immensely satisfied come the finale.

As usual from TFC, the audio quality is pure reference and the now-standard package of liner notes brilliantly comprehensive and richly detailed. Wish they'd use thinner paper, though! So, what are you waiting for ... seek it out and relish one of the biggest scores ever mounted.






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