The Naked Spur:
Bronislau Kaper · Daniele Amfitheatrof · Jeff Alexander
Classic Western Scores From M-G-M
This is the second in FSM’s series of “budget” collections—sized between a regular release and a box set. Like the first (The Unforgiven: Classic Western Scores From United Artists, FSMCD Vol. 10, No. 10), it features scores for westerns. The source catalog this time is the historical M-G-M film library (today owned by Warner Bros.), with five titles from the period 1950–1956. With this release we are introducing a new innovation in soundtrack presentation: online liner notes. It is a way of keeping costs down (and passing the savings on to you) while still providing the finest in documentation for these historic recordings. Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan have written detailed essays and program commentaries for the five scores on this album, all available free of charge (to anyone) right here at www.filmscoremonthly.com/notes. The notes are also available in PDF format for easier printing.
Disc one of this collection features two scores by Bronislau Kaper, who during this era was M-G-M’s “number two” dramatic composer (behind Miklós Rózsa).
The Naked Spur (1953) is one of the finest “psychological” westerns ever made, and is regarded as the best collaboration (of several) between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. Kaper’s score to The Naked Spur is charged with the grandeur of the frontier (kicking off with Coplandesque sweep and open intervals) but predominantly courses with violence, danger and obsession. It is akin to a “western noir,” if there is such a thing, with the exception of the period “love theme” appropriated for the film’s romantic subplot: Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” published in 1864, shortly before the film’s story takes place. Bronislau Kaper’s score for The Naked Spur is presented in complete form from ¼″ monaural tape of sessions that were originally recorded in stereo, but archived by M-G-M in monaural sound; a subtle stereo reverb has been added to enhance the ambiance.
The second Kaper score on disc one, The Wild North (1952), is more of a “northern” than a western. Kaper’s score to The Wild North is of a piece with his work for The Naked Spur, contrasting moments of “big sky” sweep with tense and dark moods for the brutal conflicts between the protagonists. Even more than The Naked Spur, the Wild North score looks ahead to Kaper’s magnum opus at M-G-M, Mutiny on the Bounty (FSMCD Vol. 7, No. 16). The song heard in the program, “Northern Lights,” (disc 1, tracks 18 and 32, and interpolated into Kaper’s dramatic score) was composed by Charles Wolcott. Kaper’s score for The Wild North is presented in near-complete form (except for period source music) and is mastered from ¼″ tape transfers of 35mm monaural optical film, hence it is noisier (and left here in “dead mono’); a few cues missing from the archival tapes have been added from monaural acetate sources.
Disc two of this collection features a pair of scores by Daniele Amfitheatrof to westerns that took a sympathetic look at Native Americans. Very little music by Russian-born composer Amfitheatrof (1901–1983) has been released on CD to date—this release is a major development in correcting that oversight. Amfitheatrof’s scores for the two “Indian” westerns on disc two run the gamut from action to suspense to “big sky” moments, and especially shine in his poetic, sympathetic and spiritual music for the Native American cultures—firmly in the Hollywood style, but elevated by his mastery of advanced composition.
The Last Hunt (1956) paired M-G-M’s two big contract stars of the time, Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor, and was directed and written by Richard Brooks (adapting a novel by Milton Lott). Featuring authentic footage of government sharpshooters thinning a buffalo herd, The Last Hunt comes down firmly on the side of the buffalo and the Native Americans who hunted them wisely, several decades before Dances With Wolves. Amfitheatrof’s score includes a menacing low brass theme that initially scores the buffalo and eventually attaches to Taylor’s marauding character, showcasing the composer’s sophisticated harmonic style. (Like The Naked Spur, The Last Hunt also features a period melody as a romantic theme—here, the Civil War-era tune “Lorena.”) The Last Hunt is the best-sounding score on this collection, presented in glorious stereo from 35mm three-track magnetic film.
Devil’s Doorway (1950), like The Naked Spur, was directed by Anthony Mann, and is the only black-and-white film in this collection, beautifully photographed by John Alton. In the conventions of the day (in which actual Native American leading men were, and still are, exceedingly rare), Robert Taylor plays a Shoshone Indian, “Broken Lance” Poole. He returns from duty in the Civil War to find his people under persecution from white settlers who want their valuable pastureland. Despite his best physical, social and legal efforts, Poole is unable to stop his people from being displaced. The surviving elements of Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score for Devil’s Doorway, filling out disc two, come from ¼″ tape of 35mm optical film, and in this case acetates were not available to fill in missing cues. The last track on disc two is a source cue from Devil’s Doorway composed by André Previn.
Disc three contains the exciting adventure score to Escape From Fort Bravo, created by Jeff Alexander (1910–1989), a valued member of the M-G-M music department with numerous credits as composer, conductor, arranger, songwriter and vocal director. Escape From Fort Bravo was one of his first films as sole dramatic composer.
Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) is a Civil War-era western set at a Union stockade in the Arizona desert where Confederate prisoners plan an escape that involves a romantic diversion. Compared to the sympathetic Indians in The Last Hunt and Devil’s Doorway, Fort Bravo portrays the warlike and dangerous Mescaleros as a common antagonist of Northern and Southern troops. Jeff Alexander wrote both the music and the lyrics to the score’s melancholy love song, “Soothe My Lonely Heart,” sung by Bill Lee. The film’s main title march, “Yellow Stripes,” was composed by Stan Jones (best known for the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky’). Alexander’s dramatic score features prominent instrumentals of the two songs as well as exciting chase and adventure music. The score for Escape From Fort Bravo is, like The Last Hunt, from three-track stereo 35mm magnetic film, but a few cues (such as “Mescaleros Chase,” disc 3, track 10) suffered damage over the years—the sensation of the music oscillating from speaker to speaker (“image shift”) is actually caused by the right channel dropping out. Every effort has been made to minimize this and other problems.
Escape From Fort Bravo’s score was essentially recorded twice: once before and (presumably) after a test screening and re-editing. Disc 3, tracks 1–12 present the score as it appears in the finished film (excluding source music and redundant versions of “Soothe My Lonely Heart”) while tracks 13–21 feature earlier, unused versions. Disc 3, tracks 22–23 feature additional source cues recorded by Bill Lee, with track 24 combining two Civil War tunes not used in the film but sung by Jeff Alexander himself. Closing out disc three are alternates and unused source cues from The Last Hunt (also featuring vocals by Bill Lee). —