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September 5, 2003
da capo
Green Turns Red
Composer Johnny Green misspeaks his mind in a 1955 Variety report
by Marilee Bradford

Editor's note: Here we begin a series of occasional articles called da capo – the musical notation meaning to repeat from the beginning – offering a rare glimpse into poignant and colorful moments from the bygone days of film and television music.

Prolific composer/songwriter Johnny Green was among the most accomplished, well- respected and admired members of the film music community during Hollywood's Golden Age.

With such classic song standards as "Body and Soul," "I Cover the Waterfront" and "I Wanna Be Loved" to his credit, along with 14 Oscar nominations (including his score for Raintree County) and four Academy Awards for scoring (Easter Parade, An American In Paris, West Side Story and Oliver!), Green was key to the success of the movie musical as M-G-M's General Music Director and Executive in Charge of Music from 1949 until 1958.

Green was also known for his political savvy, dapper appearance and, according to fellow composer David Raksin, "he was a very shrewd guy. He was smart as a sonofabitch, very good at what he did, made a very good head of the department. Fundamentally he wasn't worse than anybody else, and better than almost all."

But on March 9, 1955, Green forsook diplomacy when his unfettered opinion of growing trends in film music appeared in a Variety article by Hy Hollinger, titled "Film Music Not So Over-Written Now, Says Green." The story read, in pertinent part:

According to Johnny Green, musical topper at Metro, there is a growing trend in the film colony among composers toward getting away from the so-called "Hollywood Sound." "I predict," said Green, that in five years from today I'll be able to make the statement that the Hollywood style of music will have disappeared."

Green, visiting New York on Metro and Academy Award business, feels that the term of opprobrium – "Hollywood sound" – will no longer exist in describing film music. The lush over-writing and schmaltzy scores usually identified with Hollywood pix, he feels, are on their way out and will be replaced by a more individual approach. "There is a far greater awareness among producers and directors," said Green, " as to the part music must play in a picture. As a result, producers and directors are taking greater participation in deciding the sound, the style, and the manner of presentation of the music. Careful attention is being given to selecting the right music for a particular picture."

Green believes that Hollywood has been influenced by the growing public interest in music, as evidenced by the increasing number of hi-fi fans. "The result," he said, is a blossoming maturity in film music," the abandonment of assembly-line composing, and the drawing to Hollywood of gifted composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Rosenman, and Alex North. Even the old-line composers, such as Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman, according to Green, are changing their styles, the result being that the veterans and the newcomers, encouraged by producers, "are stepping away from the lush Hollywood sound" and are introducing "a sparse and linear" type of music.

Almost immediately, Green received harsh criticism from many of his contemporaries who were upset with what seemed to be disparaging remarks about "The Hollywood Sound." Raksin recalls, "[the article] offended some people, and I'm sure he heard from them." But, he added, "[Johnny] was hyper-sensitive. He was extremely sensitive to what was going on and to how he was seen."

Three days later, Green's sincere apologies to his colleagues came in the form of personal letter, photostatted with the name of the recipient typed into a blank in the salutation, but each one signed personally by Green. A copy of this letter was received by Raksin, which read as follows:

Dear Dave: -

On my recent New York trip I was interviewed regarding Hollywood film music by a reporter from the Weekly Variety. The interview was an informal, verbal one with no prepared statement.

If ever anything "went sour" this interview did, and I am acutely embarrassed and truly sorry. Its implications in print and the reactions thereto from the members of our profession are about as far from my intent and my ideas as anything could be.

Whenever it has been my privilege I have always tried to speak for the film composer and his music in the most effective and positive manner. I dare point with some pride to the record in this connection. Therefore, it must be apparent that I would not suddenly with intent "pull a big switch" and give an interview calculated either to damage the standing or offend the sensibilities of my Hollywood colleagues, friends and coworkers.

That the article came out with, at the least, implications unfavorable to our Hollywood composing community I am too honest to deny. At the risk of appearing less astute than I would like, I was not aware that my answers to the questions directed to me were such as to produce what ultimately appeared in print.

My intent was to indicate that music in Hollywood is now moving towards a conspicuously greater maturity than ever before; that it is marked by an ever growing economy of means; that there is a far greater incidence of linear and less lush writing; that within five years the term "the Hollywood Sound," as an expression of adverse criticism, will have disappeared. Surely all of us are in accord with these statements.

My references to non-resident, more recent composers of film music as well as my specific reference to two of our long time Hollywood colleagues reached the printed page, I confess, in a peculiar, most unsatisfactory and regrettable manner. The suggestion has been made that specific names should never be mentioned in such an interview. I have to go along with that suggestion and will, believe me, be so guided in the future.

My regret at having been the unwitting cause of the discomfiture of any of my colleagues is sincere. Though I have apparently added another foot or two to the pavement of good intentions "on the road to Hell," I do assure you of my good will and my loyalty to the creative group of which I have been, am and will continue to be proud to be a member.

Faithfully yours,

Now 48 years later, Raksin reflects on the incident: "There were a lot of people who made a fuss about how verbose he was, but that was a big crock. He was a very smart guy, a talented composer and a good songwriter. You don't write 'Body and Soul' unless you're some kind of genius."

© 2003 Marilee Bradford

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