For their second limited (1500) soundtrack CD, Sepia Records have double-billed recordings that reflect two distinct approaches towards scoring big top soap operas.
Composed a year before his definitive Bridge on the River Kwai score (both career-wise, and stylistically), Arnold's music for Trapeze (1956) is a fairly agreeable mix of sparse underscore, lounge jazz source cues, and circus music standards with some refreshing orchestrations, particularly Strauss' “Blue Danube,” which Arnold arranged for a small, tinny brass and percussion band.
Fucik's iconic “Entry of the Gladiators,” for example, has been slightly tweaked with sly chord changes, giving this classic work of fanfare and bombast a rather dry sense of irony; the brass are divided into multiple segments, and while one level seems to herald a kind of noble charm, the other half mocks the grandiose salute to danger and bravery with a strange cheekiness.
The selection of classic pices also ensures the score isn't a cliché-ridden selection of tired favourites, and Elie's “Trapeze” also progresses with an odd combination of elegance from Arnold's prominent use of alto sax and trombone, and a drunken tuba that spits out each note like flatulent thuds.
The original score cuts are relatively sparse, but some of the most pleasing highlights include the bouncy jazz source cue “Juke Box,” and the lounge-jazz “Lola's Theme,” performed by a small jazz combo – sax, piano, electric guitar, and soft drums. The cue evokes a kind of streetside café scene on a cool summer afternoon, whereas for the first half of the French-styled “Mike and Lola's Theme,” Arnold drops the sax in place of intertwined concertinas and a more prominent string bass. It's a nice blend of sultry smoothness with an indiscreet strand of sleazy subtext, and the cue's second half closes with a formal orchestral version, edited to expand the cue's length.
Arnold 's love themes are really quite beautiful, and they're an elegant contrast to the march and action music he's become associated with because of his more popular war scores from international productions. Prior to Kwai, Arnold had scored a diversity of genres in England, and Trapeze certainly demonstrates Arnold's ability to go beyond his recognizable sounds – notably dramatic cues that start of with slowly rising, pensive strings, cymbal crashes, and pairings of rumbling percussion and sharp brass couplets during tense action scenes.
The Roots of Heaven (1958), for example, is a perfect marriage of Arnold 's fetish for rippling orchestral textures and gorgeous melodies, both heroic and love-drenched, whereas later scores such as The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) is largely a mimic of Kwai. (Then again, Richard LaSalle's score for Ambush Bay heavily steals from Kwai, so it's probably better when a composer commits a bit of personal theft in place of a creatively vacuous hack like LaSalle.)
The original Columbia LP had great cover artwork of its three stars frozen during a trapeze act – Burt Lancaster manages a lengthy kiss with Gina Lollobrigida while a nearby Tony Curtis is in a “Hey! Cut that out!” pose – but the recording was shallow, and lacked proper dynamic range. It's not as awful as UA's rubbish Tunes of Glory LP, but the Trapeze tapes used by Columbia came from a poor mix, with edited and faded up segments – like the closing trumpet passages in “Blue Danube” – coming from coarse music stems.
Sonically, Victor Young's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (originally released as a 10" Orthophonic platter from RCA) fares much better, but its dynamic range is akin to a classic ‘Decca Tree' recording that has the orchestra cleanly miked in a triangular fashion, with little emphasis on any particular instrument. In the case of this RCA album, the bass is no more blah than the brass or flutes, and the selection of recorded cues – all neatly expanded to radio single running times of under 3 minutes – don't offer any dramatic excerpts.
Unlike Young's more diverse score re-recordings for Decca, Greatest is basically a collection of jaunty, triumphant march tunes with a vaudeville swagger that's a far cry from the contemporary setting of Cecil B. Demille's big top opera. The cuts feel twenty years out of date, and aside from two Young originals – the titular track and “Be a Jumping Jack” – the rest are old favourites meant to evoke the excitement of classic circus troupes.
Whereas Arnold's Trapeze album features original score cuts, Young's RCA studio re-recordings are performed by the same orchestral elements, so there's little instrumental diversity within the album, making Greatest a strong disappointment among Young's numerous Decca recordings.
It's mainly of interest to ardent fans, collectors, or those sharing a keen interest in an aged orchestra band sound from the thirties, and Sepia's well-produced CD shows the shift between composing styles, and the misguided marketing ploy that had Young craft what's basically a singles collection, and Arnold aiming for an eclectic mix of dramatic themes and source cue arrangements that form a more enriching and evocative listening experience.
Only qualms about this CD: the composers names are nowhere listed on booklet cover nor rear inlay card, but the liner notes breakdown both original and traditional songs used by both composers.
This release is part of a soundtrack wave from Sepia that also includes Elmer Bernstein's Drango.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan