The Power and the Prize
Director Henry Koster had the distinction not only of helming the first CinemaScope motion picture—1953’s The Robe for 20th Century-Fox—but also the first black-and-white film in the new widescreen format, The Power and the Prize (1956). Based on a novel by businessman Howard Swiggett, the film focuses on a romance between American junior executive Cliff Barton (Robert Taylor) and widowed Austrian Holocaust survivor Miriam Linka (Elisabeth Mueller), set against the backdrop of international financial dealings and corporate boardrooms.
Sent to London by his boss, George Salt (Burl Ives), to negotiate a business deal, Barton also runs an errand for Salt’s wife (Mary Astor), who asks him to check up on a charity for European refugees with which she is involved. At the organization’s office, he meets Miriam and proceeds to woo her during his stay in England—despite the fact that he is engaged to Salt’s niece. Returning to New York, Barton announces his intentions to marry Miriam: surprisingly, Joan Salt (Nicola Michaels) welcomes the news, but her uncle reacts angrily, concocting a plan to brand Miriam as a Communist and expel Barton from his position at Amalgamated World Metals. In the end, all turns out happily as Cliff ousts Salt, gaining control of the company (the “power”) and winning Miriam’s hand in marriage (the “prize”).
Overall, the film received positive notices, succeeding foremost as a touching romance, but also in its depiction of machinations in the executive boardrooms of the 1950s. In her first Hollywood role, Mueller (who director Koster discovered through photographs in a German film magazine) earned rave reviews from all quarters—but she would only appear in one other American production. The much older Ives also made his film debut in The Power and the Prize, eliciting an equally favorable reaction in a somewhat villainous role that never resorts to clichés; Ives took a sabbatical from his role as Big Daddy in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in order to make the picture. Sir Cedric Hardwick and Charles Coburn both garnered praise for their brief but highly effective performances, while Taylor is earnest and believable (if a bit too old for the part of an up-and-coming young executive). Variety deemed Nicola Michaels (the daughter of studio executive Nicholas Schenck), who had replaced Anne Francis in the role, as the only disappointment in the cast.
Because Miriam is a struggling concert pianist, composer Bronislau Kaper casts his main theme for the picture as a miniature piano concerto. This melody—associated throughout with the romance between Cliff and Miriam—dominates the score, the composer concentrating almost exclusively on their relationship, while virtually ignoring the corporate proceedings. The score is rather brief—made more so because five cues Kaper composed did not survive the final cut. While Film Daily asserted that Kaper’s music “help[ed] in the success of the film,” neither Variety nor The Hollywood Reporter took notice of the score.
- 1. Main Title
- Kaper’s soaring, piano concerto–style main theme plays over the opening credits, subsiding on an introductory shot of the New York skyscraper housing the headquarters of Amalgamated World Metals.
- The next 15 minutes of the film play without music—although Kaper did compose three cues for the early reels of the picture, conductor (and M-G-M music director) John Green did not even record them: “Cliff” likely underscored a phone conversation between Amalgamated’s vice-chairman, Cliff Barton (Robert Taylor), and his fiancée, Joan Salt (Nicola Michaels), while “Father” related to a conversation in the back of a taxicab between Cliff and his dad (Cameron Prud’homme), a Presbyterian minister. “I Understand” may have been intended for a dinner sequence at the home of George Salt (Burl Ives)—Cliff’s boss and Joan’s uncle—during which Joan learns that Salt has ordered Cliff to travel to England, resulting in the postponement of her wedding. (As there is no corresponding line of dialogue at this juncture, the cue may correspond to a scene cut from the picture.)
- 2. It Will
- Kaper provides a brief set of variations on the famous Westminster chimes to underscore establishing shots of London.
- 3. Fifth Floor
- Running an errand for Mr. Salt’s wife (Mary Astor), Cliff checks up on a charity devoted to helping European refugees—and learns that the organization acts as a front for an escort service. Jaunty music marks Cliff’s arrival at the charity’s office building, where he finds that it is located on the fifth floor—and that the “lift” is out of order. The tempo slows upon a segue to Cliff struggling to ascend the last few steps to the charity’s office, where he meets the executive secretary, Mrs. Miriam Linka (Elisabeth Mueller), an Austrian widower and Holocaust survivor.
- 4. Concerto in B-flat Minor
- Smitten with Miriam, Cliff returns to the office the next day and persuades her to dine with him. She rushes to a music shop, where she pays five shillings for the use of a piano, on which she practices Frédéric Chopin’s well-known Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31. The film’s legal cue sheet erroneously identifies the work as a “concerto,” although Kaper does usher in an orchestral accompaniment on a transition to Miriam rushing back to her apartment in the rain.
- In the Rain
- The music segues to the main theme as Miriam checks her watch while waiting for Cliff to pick her up. When he arrives on the scene, Kaper hands off the melody from piano (Miriam’s instrument) to saxophone (attaching it to the American businessman).
- 5. Claridge
- Cliff and Miriam dine at Claridge’s Hotel. An elegant waltz plays quietly in the background as Miriam relates her backstory, telling Cliff about her husband’s death in a concentration camp during the war. After 32 bars of understated continental elegance, the waltz’s second strain turns out to be a triple-meter setting of the film’s main theme as Miriam steers the conversation back to Cliff and explains that she has just quit her job with the charity. Becoming more and more animated, she finally catches herself speaking too loudly—the music nearly stops at this point, then reprises the opening waltz theme, but soon returns to a more tender setting of the main theme as Cliff suggests they leave the restaurant.
- 6. Miriam
- Cliff escorts Miriam back to her apartment and they make a date for the following evening. Kaper concludes the scene with a snippet of the main theme, dominated by piano to indicate that Miriam is on Cliff’s mind as he walks back to his hotel.
- Let’s Go
- Impressionistic string writing plays up Cliff’s impatience as he calls on Miriam the next night but she fails to answer her buzzer; the main theme returns when he gives up and departs in a waiting cab.
- 7. Flowers
- Playful woodwinds accompany Cliff ordering six dozen roses for Miriam, subsiding briefly as Cliff engages in a conversation with a business associate. Celesta intones the main theme as Cliff arrives at Miriam’s apartment, the cue ending with a comical woodwind tag as Cliff buzzes an elderly gentleman’s apartment in order to gain entrance to the building.
- 8. In the Park
- When Cliff informs Miriam that he may be leaving London soon, she gives in and agrees to walk with him in a nearby square. Kaper’s music shifts with the moods of their conversation, from playfulness to surprise as Cliff proposes marriage. The main theme returns on solo piano and tender strings as Cliff confesses that he is engaged to Joan but plans to break it off, the cue concluding with a rapturous but unresolved variation on the melody as an ecstatic Miriam rushes back to her apartment.
- 9. Come In
- The next evening, Cliff arranges an elegant dinner in his hotel suite. The main theme plays dreamily on muted trombone—but listen for the leering saxophone interjections as Miriam enters the room, and then again as Cliff admires her dress. Solo saxophone then takes up theme for a transition to the pair conversing along the banks of the Thames, with piano nowhere to be heard: the instrumentation signifies Miriam having fallen completely in love with Cliff. (While Robert Franklyn orchestrated nearly all of Kaper’s score, Skip Martin took up those duties for this one cue, likely due to the jazz-based instrumentation.)
- 10. Because
- The main theme enters tenderly on solo strings as Miriam agrees to follow Cliff to America once he secures her a visa, the music swelling for a transition back to New York.
- 11. Salt
- The next 15 minutes of the film play without score, as the professional relationship between Cliff and Salt break down and Cliff fights through red tape in an attempt to get Miriam a visa. Kaper’s music finally returns with neutral woodwind textures covering a transition from a meeting between Salt and his British counterparts to Salt’s arrival at Cliff’s apartment building. The material from “Fifth Floor” returns, here no longer playful or energetic, underlining the contrast between the youthful Cliff trudging up five flights of stairs in the earlier scene and the elderly Salt ascending in an elevator and walking with a cane to the apartment door. The cue closes with a meandering unison string line, settling on a low pedal, as Cliff admits Salt to his residence.
- 12. Any Time
- Salt gives Cliff an ultimatum: resign by the end of the week or be forced out. The “Fifth Floor” material returns somberly on solo bassoon, then oboe, for Cliff lost in thought after Salt’s departure, but the main theme enters delicately on solo violin when Miriam phones from London.
- What Is It?
- After arriving in New York, Cliff shows Miriam his apartment; she senses something is amiss, but he elects not to divulge his troubles at Amalgamated, fearing that she will return to London—for his sake. This unused cue opens with a brass flourish of the main theme, subsiding to more tender strains under their conversation.
- When Cliff cannot locate Miriam and learns that she recently met with Mrs. Salt, he believes that she ran off. This unused cue—featuring tortured developments of the main theme—likely accompanied a montage of Cliff searching for her far and wide.
- 13. End Title/Cast
- All ends well, with Salt removed by the Amalgamated board of directors and Cliff taking his place. The film concludes at an airport, with Cliff and Miriam about to depart on their honeymoon—a grand piano in tow. A celebratory bit of the main theme and a final piano flourish greet the end title card, with a brief, jubilant waltz variation for the concluding cast list.
- 14. Spinning Song
- In addition to the Chopin Scherzo (track 4), pianist Max Rabinowitz recorded two solo selections on April 17, 1956, under the supervision of Charles Wolcott—a Robert Schumann Arabesque and Felix Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song, heard here (which Miriam plays at Cliff’s apartment late in the picture). Rabinowitz returned on May 2 to re-record excerpts from the same works, along with a Chopin Polonaise (this time supervised by Harold Gelman). —