Monday, March 26, 2007

Leigh Harline: When You Wish Upon a Score

It's been awhile since I've taken note of a centenary, and today brings one I can't resist. Composer Leigh Harline was born 100 years ago today in Salt Lake City. His is not one of the top five or ten names that get fired around when soundtrack buffs start talking shop, but it should be.

He began to score films in 1933 for the Walt Disney studios, and within his first first four years on the job, he had at least two incontestable short masterpieces to his credit: "The Band Concert" (1935) and "The Old Mill" (1937). This last was followed by the quantum leap -- for all concerned -- of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), on which Harline collaborated with Frank Churchill and Paul J. Smith. It's easy to tell what Harline personally contributed to the score: if your heart soars or melts when you hear it, it's Harline.

SNOW WHITE's score was nominated for an Academy Award but did not win. In 1941, he and Smith and lyricist Ned Washington were jointly nominated for their musical score for Disney's immortal PINOCCHIO, and Harline and Washington alone were nominated for Best Song: "When You Wish Upon a Star." More than 35 years later, Harline's unforgettable melody was woven like a golden thread through one of John Williams' cues for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as a personal tribute. (It was not one that Harline lived to hear, as he died in 1969 at age 62.) Harline and Washington also wrote "Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)" and "Give a Little Whistle" for PINOCCHIO, and he appears onscreen conducting a cartoon scoring session in Disney's THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941).

He left Disney after PINOCCHIO and wrote library music that turned up uncredited in numerous interesting programmers of the era, including the "Blondie" and "Falcon" series for Columbia. He also did interesting credited jobs, such as the Joe E. Brown comedy BEWARE SPOOKS! (1939), THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942), THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER (1945), the Val Lewton classic ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945, in which Boris Karloff says "They call me... the Watchdog!"), THE ROAD TO UTOPIA (1946), Joseph Losey's THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948), and Sam Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), and Anthony Mann's MAN OF THE WEST (1958) to pick out only the most conspicuous titles.

Long before I realized that Leigh Harline had scored PINOCCHIO, and that it had been his music which had such a vertiginous effect in me when I first saw it as a very young child, I heard another score that first brought his name to my attention: George Pal's THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964). I saw that film for the first time when I was eight years old, and I saw it the second time when I was one day older -- and made a special point of seeking out the composer's name. I've remembered it ever since.

This wonderful score, the equal of anything he wrote for Disney but full of exoticism and strangeness as well as warmth and festivity, was released on CD for the first time last year by the good folks at Film Score Monthly. Sourced from the original stereo masters and a particular thrill to listen to through headphones, I can't recommend it highly enough. I doubt that anyone who's ever seen the film would have trouble calling immediately to mind its bittersweet main theme, the fluttering melody and dizzying culmination of "Pan's Dance", the come-hither rattling of "Medusa", or the bellowing bagpipes that accompany the arrival of the Loch Ness Monster. You can hear them all on this disc, which also contains 11 bonus tracks, including a wonderful piano demo of "Pan's Dance." You should move to obtain it before its limited edition of 3000 copies sells out.

Remembering Leigh Harline definitely has its advantages.

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