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CD Review

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Original Movie Soundtrack by Alfred Newman

  • Soundtrack Album and Original Film Recording, Remastered
Uncredited orchestra/Alfred Newman
Ryko RCD 10734 39:21 + 60:19 + 34:41
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Well, it's certainly a good story, but have you heard the one that starts, "Two Jews walk into a bar"?

The three-CD set contains the original soundtrack album, plus at least some of the cues as they were heard in the film. Everything has been remastered. The first things that strike one, of course, are the pitifully short timings on two of the discs. The material could all have fit easily on two discs. Cost (at Amazon, at any rate) is perhaps a little over two full-price discs, but even so it rankles.

Alfred Newman (related to Lionel, David, and Randy, but not to Alfred E.) began as a prodigy pianist. As far as I know, he never formally studied composition or orchestration. He was, as they say, a natural. He wrote music, arranged, and conducted on all kinds of movies, from stupid little musicals and genre pictures to the top of the studio line. He worked for many years as head of 20th-century Fox's music department and, to his credit, encouraged young film composers. His own idiom was rather conservative, though not quite as conservative as Max Steiner's of Warner Bros. He won the Oscar nine times, mainly for superb arranging and musical direction: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Tin Pan Alley (1940), Mother Wore Tights (1947), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Call Me Madam (1953), Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing (1955), and The King and I (1956). In the film-music revival, his original scores tend to be overlooked, possibly because he wrote over 250 of them.

On the other hand, he doesn't have within his output anything like a breakthrough film score. One looks in vain for something like Korngold's Captain Blood, Waxman's Bride of Frankenstein, Rózsa's Thief of Bagdad, Asphalt Jungle, Spellbound, or Quo Vadis, Copland's Red Pony and Something Wild, Thomson's Plow That Broke the Plains and Louisiana Story, André Previn's Outriders, Elmer Bernstein's Magnificent Seven and Man with the Golden Arm, Moross's Big Country, and just about every film Bernard Herrmann ever worked on.

I admit I'm no great fan of George Stevens's work, but The Greatest Story Ever Told is positively dismal, with Max von Sydow as a Christ out of Munch and El Greco, David McCallum as a pretty Judas Iscariot, and - in typical Hollywood fashion - Van Heflin, Victor Buono, Nehemiah Persoff, Ed Wynn, Shelley Winters, and Donald Pleasance as characters God should have put in the New Testament, but for some reason did not. Probably no experience with screenplays. Stevens directed, with the unacknowledged help of David Lean and Jean Negulesco, who should have thanked their lucky stars for their anonymity. The credits attribute the script to James Lee Barrett and Stevens himself (plus three others uncredited, including Carl Sandburg), and it exemplifies the "creeping Jesus" religiosity that afflicts the movies from time to time. It's no worse than DeMille's Ten Commandments (either version), but it's not significantly better either. Fans may remember it fondly as the source of a beloved howler: John Wayne as a Roman centurion grunting, as only he could, the line "Truly, this was the Son of God." Fortunately, his career recovered.

After World War II, the Hollywood studios - particularly MGM - floundered around. The truly interesting pictures tended to come from small and independent producers who hadn't a lot of money to waste, so they decided to put what they had into the writing and direction. The Greatest Story comes up with nothing to challenge anybody, except the actors, who must strive not to laugh out loud or simply give up. Neither Stevens nor Barrett has anything interesting to add to a tale that has fascinated some of the greatest minds of the past. Perhaps the greatest minds tend to keep away from Hollywood studios. The picture is a little Sunday-school lesson brought to un-death.

In the careerist world of Hollywood, however, this sort of tosh meant Importance and Prestige. The production bosses therefore assigned the film to the composer with the big career. The Greatest Story Ever Told to some extent typifies the careers of many Hollywood composers. To be fair, Newman took all kinds of assignments (and sometimes got lucky enough to work on classic films), even while he ran Fox music, and I suspect he thought of himself as the supreme professional who could come up with something at least tolerable, even on relatively short notice. The score is a good job of work, to echo John Ford, but it's not the equivalent of a John Ford movie. It's nice, it's pleasant, it helps support what little drama the movie has. But the music is not as powerful as, say, Rózsa's for Quo Vadis - a far less tasteful and more successful flick, precisely because it has the energy of garishly bad taste. The claim made by the liner notes that Newman's score stands "amongst the most important in the history of cinema" either comes from somebody who knows very little about the history of film music or can be put down to copywriters who let their sales enthusiasm get away from them. I particularly like the "amongst." Newman's score certainly means less to film history than Honegger's Napoleon, Milhaud's Madame Bovary, Prokofieff's Ivan the Terrible, Walton's Shakespeare trilogy for Olivier, Thomson's The River, Copland's The Heiress, or Herrmann's Psycho. I would also contend that it means less than other Newman scores, particularly those for Street Scene and How Green Was My Valley.

Newman's music, I hasten to add, far surpasses the movie for which he composed it and doesn't have to be a masterpiece to be worthy of anyone's time. Mainly, it comes across as a kind of a superior noodling around. The most memorable idea, associated with Jesus, may be an unconscious crib from Barber's Adagio for Strings. At any rate, it kind of leaps out at you amid the genteel haze, and in isolation brings the other work to mind. The second big idea derives from the opening of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Newman tends to resort to it when he wants to express Christ Militant. Again, however, Newman does something of his own with it. The choral pieces as a whole I find the most successful, particularly the cue "There Shall Come a Time to Enter," which adds some ecstatic percussion to evoke the Middle East. The most jarring parts of the score can't be blamed on Newman. Stevens insisted on the insertion of the opening of Verdi's Requiem in the "Into Thy Hands" cue and the good ol' "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah at the end. Both got a huge laugh from the audience I saw the movie with, as well as here and there several groans. Nothing exceeds like excess. It's as if Stevens rube-ishly wanted the imprimatur of Genuwine Masterpieces on the movie, which points to his fundamental artistic insecurity with the project. Newman treats these intrusions better than you might expect, writing a lovely continuation of the Verdi without producing a stylistic jar. Yet that continuation remains recognizably Newman's own and of a piece with the original parts of the score. The original soundtrack album, however, with these two risibles seriously misrepresented Newman's vision of the movie. Sometimes it's better not to receive credit. For that reason, the archival material, arranged into extended sequences, is particularly welcome. For these, we must thank Ken Darby, Newman's assistant and one of the most extraordinary choral arrangers ever to take up a pen.

Most important, at least to Newman's historical vindication, we get Newman's original opening, and the crucifixion sequence and ending he would have supplied, had Verdi and Handel never written. Newman's lower profile undoubtedly would have served the drama better. The cue "Resurrection and Ascension" (with chorus) especially is one of the most vigorous and affecting of Newman's career, and no theater audience ever heard it. The "And the Word was God/Trumpets announce the dawn/The three magi" cues deal in poetic colors, particularly a flute ensemble backed by chorus and muted trumpets. The "Middle Eastern" music derives from Rózsa's Quo Vadis, but it's still very well done. The cue title "Hosanna" sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, but again Newman avoids the traps and comes up with a lovely evocation of Russian Orthodox choir music.

The transfer to CD is quite fine, if a little constricted sonically, judged by present-day standards, with a bit of tape hiss on the archival material. However, Newman leads a band of studio professionals at the top of their game.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz