September 18, 2019

The Movies’ Music Man

Composer Elmer Bernstein . Photo by Peter Halmagyi


The list of films for which Elmer Bernstein haswritten orchestral scores reads like a roll call of cinema’s all-timeclassics: “The Ten Commandments,” “The Age of Innocence,” “TheMagnificent Seven,” “Ghostbusters,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “CapeFear,” “True Grit,” “Animal House,” “The Great Escape,” “My LeftFoot”…just to name a few.

Bernstein was born in New York, in 1922, theson of immigrants from Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hisfather, a teacher, and his mother, a dancer who once performed withIsadora Duncan, immersed the boy in the arts. After brief forays intopainting, acting and dancing, he began studying to become a concertpianist. At the age of 12, Bernstein started composition studies withAaron Copeland, Roger Sessions and, ultimately, StefanWolpe.

During World War II, he joined the Army AirCorps and arranged music for patriotic radio broadcasts and wrotescores for the dramatic shows. In the early 1950s, he scored”Saturday’s Hero” and “Boots Malone.” The score for “Sudden Fear,” afilm with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance, achieved widespreadattention for its use of solo instruments; Bernstein’s career seemedready to take off.

But Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt preventedthe composer from working until 1955, when Bernstein wrote thespectacular score for”The Ten Commandments.”

His film-scoring career now spans five decades,and the youthful, passionate Bernstein — who celebrates his 76thbirthday on April 4 — shows no sign of slowing down. The JewishJournal caught up with him at his Santa Monica office on a rainyThursday afternoon.

Jewish Journal: Thiscentury has seen the rise of great Jewish composers in America,something that had never really happened before. How do you fit intothat?

Elmer Bernstein: Inthe 19th century, if you were Jewish and wanted to be a mainstreamcomposer, you had to convert. That’s what Mendelssohn did andcertainly Mahler did in order to become director of the Vienna Opera.He couldn’t have done it unless he converted.

But I think 20th-century thought is basicallydominated by Jewish thought. I mean, when you stop to think of it,Jesus Christ was a Jew, and a lot of his philosophy was extrapolatedfrom the Old Testament. Karl Marx was a Jew, and that has had a greateffect on political thinking in the 20th century. Albert Einstein wasa Jew, and that has a great effect on scientific thinking. Not tomention Freud. So, in a sense, a lot of Jewish thought has come tothe forefront in the 20th century, and as that’s all loosened up, ofcourse, we find Jewish people in all walks of life and a tremendousoutburst of musical activity from Jewish composers.

I had a dear friend — who, unfortunately, hasdied — named Christopher Palmer, who was one of the greatestorchestrators who ever lived. Chris had gotten to the point where hewas absolutely certain that in order to be a great composer, you hadto be Jewish.

JJ: In 1981, youwrote music for “The Chosen” and “Genocide.” Please tell us aboutthose experiences.

EB: I spoke Yiddishbefore I spoke English. I was largely brought up, for the first fouryears of my life, by my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmotherspoke only Yiddish. My grandfather could get along in English andRussian but was basically a Yiddish speaker. They were “Fiddler onthe Roof” kind of people, like people from Anatevka. Their friendsused to come over and sit around the kitchen with the glasele te, and I stayed for thestories. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us — I was veryfond of her — was conventionally religious. She observed: Shebensch licht[lit candles] every Friday night, but she wasn’t a religiousphilosopher. My father’s mother was a religious lunatic. She neverate a meal at our house, because she couldn’t be sure that it waskosher. So I was very steeped in our tradition, and having the chanceto do a film like “The Chosen” was fun for me because there were alot of familiar things in there. “The Chosen” was a very goodmovie.

“Genocide,” of course, is not specifically Jewish,but that was a very moving experience.

I was brought up listening to my Grandmother singJewish songs all the time. The first songs I learned were in Yiddish.It influenced me in the sense that it’s powerful.

JJ: What are yourfavorite scores?

EB: That’s tough.Certainly, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “The Man with the Golden Arm” wasa seminal film for me. “The Magnificent Seven.” In more recent times,”The Age Of Innocence” and “The Grifters.”

JJ: After so manysequels to “The Magnificent Seven,” did you ever get tired of writingin that style?

EB: One of the waysthat I have kept myself interested down through the years is bytrying to avoid being pigeonholed. Sometimes, I’ve had to do veryconscious things to avoid it. There was a time after “The Man withthe Golden Arm” that people had this perception of me as a jazzcomposer. I was called upon to do a lot of scores about crime, like”Sweet Smell of Success,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and”Carpetbaggers.” Then I started doing westerns, starting with “TheMagnificent Seven,” and all the sequels and John Wayne’s last sevenfilms. Then I had to just stop it. I had to say, “I won’t do awestern anymore,” in order to keep myself fresh. Then I had 10 yearsof comedy. Success is a big snare. If you’re successful in a certainstyle, then everybody wants you to repeat it, and I was just notinterested in that.

Try out everything is more of my style. I have 10years of westerns and 10 years of comedy. In recent years, I havefooled around more with electronics. In a score like “The Grifters,”for instance, it was an electronic design. In recent years, I haveincluded an instrument, which I’m very fond of, called theondes martenot,which is a lovely instrument. It’s most prominently noticeable in “MyLeft Foot” and films like “Ghostbusters,” and very prominent in thefilm I just finished, “Twilight.”

JJ: You ran afoul ofSen. McCarthy. What happened?

EB: That was fun.From the ’30s on, in this country, most thinking people, especiallyin the arts, tended to be a bit left of center…. I can rememberstanding on street corners in New York right after World War II,handing out leaflets on behalf of the idea that black people shouldbe allowed to play baseball in the major leagues. That’s the kind ofstuff we were doing. But for some reason that I don’t understand, allthat liberal, left-wing thought scared the hell out of everybody. Alot of people made political careers out of selling the clear andpresent danger of the communists in the United States.

“The Ten Commandments,” is one of the films for whichElmer Bernstein has written orchestral scores. Photo courtesy ofABC TV and Paramount Pictures.


I wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party, butI was “tainted” and I was in trouble. I was basically rescued byCecil B. DeMille. When I was working on “The Ten Commandments
,” therestarted to come out all this press stuff about my left-wing leaning.DeMille called me into the office one day. He said: “Are you a memberof the Communist Party? I know I have no constitutional right to askyou that question, but I’m asking anyway.” I just said, “No.”DeMille’s belief in my answer made a very big difference because hewas very powerful.

JJ: Do you consideryourself a pioneer?

EB: In retrospect,yes. At the time I did all these things, no. I have only done thethings in film that I thought were appropriate at the time. To quoteMark Twain: “It just seemed to be a good idea at the time.” I canunderstand that the way I used instruments in “Sudden Fear” wasunusual. I tell my class at USC that I am inveighing against thepiano. Today, you can’t hear a score without a piano solo. In the olddays, you couldn’t hear a score without a violin solo. In 1952, thepiano was very unusual, but I had no idea it was so unusual. It wasjust appropriate to me. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starts outwith only the piano playing one note at a time, was a thing I didbecause it seemed appropriate, because it’s a film about a kid.Retrospectively, I can see why that was seminal. I can see why thejazz score for “The Man with the Golden Arm” was seminal, but, at thetime that I did that, I didn’t think, “Wow, this is going to be somereal pioneering, boy.”

JJ: What inspiresyou now?

EB: Love of theprocess. I really enjoy looking at a film for the first time andbeginning to wonder what I’m going to do. That, to me, is all ittakes. It’s the challenge. Every film is a new challenge. They’renever exactly the same.

JJ: What’snext?

EB: I’m doing musicfor a film called “The Deep End of the Ocean.” It’s from a novel. Ithas Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopie Goldberg and Treat Williams and isdirected by Ulu Grossbard. Look for it around the end of June.