Crest of the Wave

M-G-M’s Crest of the Wave (1954) adapted a popular British play, Seagulls Over Sorrento, written by Hugo Hastings (the film retained the stage title for its international release). A non-musical vehicle for Gene Kelly, Crest was an entry in the “training” subgenre of war films in which a clash of cultures and personalities threatens to bog down the development of a vitally needed tool—here, a new type of torpedo. The story begins just after a British submarine experiment goes awry on an island off the Scottish coast. When the U.S. Navy arrives assist with the operation, the nationalistic British sailors who have been toiling on the project express their displeasure. Lt. Bradville (Kelly), an American scientist whose only goal is to solve the mystery behind the unstable warhead, faces latent hostility from Lt. Wharton (John Justin): Wharton believes that Bradville wants to cash in on the work of those who died in the previous experiment. This conflict, as well as mounting tension between the lower-level British and American sailors, is put in perspective when a second experiment once again yields deadly results: a noble British seaman, Haggis Mackintosh (David Orr), respected by both sides, is killed while testing the torpedo. His death exerts a sobering effect on the men, who set aside their jingoism and unite to solve the problem for the greater good of mankind.

The Broadway production of Seagulls had failed a year prior to the release of the film, a sour harbinger for the M-G-M incarnation. Screenwriters Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting dialed back the original comedic tone of the play somewhat, although the message of camaraderie triumphing in the face of adversity still rings clear under the direction of John Boulting and brother Roy. While critics generally applauded the film’s performances, the Los Angeles Times deemed the project a waste of Gene Kelly’s abilities, while The New York Times dubbed it a “standard adventure,” noting the film’s lack of suspense. Kelly himself expressed his unhappiness with the finished product, although he appreciated the sentiment of the story: “I still think it was a nice idea to make a picture about England and America staying friends in peacetime and doing great things together. But the humor in it didn’t work in the States, where it was torpedoed and sunk without a trace.”

For Crest of the Wave, Miklós Rózsa replaced a score recorded at M-G-M British Studios by Hans May (1886–1958). According to M-G-M memos, the British soundtrack also included music by John Addison, possibly library cues, but it is difficult to made heads or tails of the intended—but unused—British score. Very little survives on the film’s master tapes from the British score but we have assembled a short suite (track 46) at the end of disc 9 in monaural sound; see below for further information.

Rózsa’s score, fortunately, survives in gorgeous stereo (remixed here from the original 35mm magnetic film stems), featuring a jaunty, heroic military theme. The music—cited as a “plus factor” by Variety—is sparse and largely transitional in the film, rarely playing during dialogue scenes. Even at its most fleeting, however, the adventurous, peril-tinged main theme is an immediate reminder of the deadly stakes of the mission, conjuring the heroic ideals of the sailors and foreshadowing their eventual bonding. The melody is in minor mode throughout, with the composer saving a triumphant Mixolydian development for the finale, when the men dismiss their petty quarrels. The score also features playful woodwind writing for bickering sailors Butch (Jeff Richards) and Badger (Sidney James), true to the nature of the comedic origins of the story.

Equally prominent is a piece of accordion source material, “Torna a Surriento,” performed by Mackintosh; he associates the tune, composed by brothers Ernesto and Giambattista de Curtis, with the simpler things in life, like basking in the sun and simply “forgetting.” The melody comes to represent the loss of Mackintosh and eventually the bravery of all the men, as Rózsa weaves the piece into the greater body of the score: its sunny, Mediterranean flavor contrasts starkly against the desolate Scottish island of the film’s setting. (“Torna a Surriento” was also recorded in the original May/Addison English score for the film and was evidently a part of the soundtrack’s conception from the start.)

1. Prelude
A warm string processional plays for a shot of the Atlantic Ocean, while text introduces the brave men of “the Royal and American navies.” Floating woodwinds and brass capture the airborne freedom of a flock of seagulls before the score introduces its noble main theme as a British ship speeds toward a distant island.
Torna a Surriento
An establishing shot identifying the island nicknamed Sorrento is underscored with a nostalgic piece for accordion. This theme is performed twice on screen by Mackintosh (David Orr), with Sprog (Ray Jackson) noting its “sad” quality.
2. Nocturne
A brief bit of rapturous impressionism for English horn, strings and harp was dropped from the film (presumably due to deleted footage).
Also missing in the film is a militaristic trumpet solo, its line becoming the basis for a subsequent bit of up-tempo orchestral bustling—an M-G-M memo confirms a training sequence was deleted from the finished film.
3. Surprise
The American officers arrive on Sorrento and are almost immediately at odds with their hosts: British “Lofty” Turner (Bernard Lee) deduces that American Butch (Jeff Richards) has stolen the ex-fiancée of fellow seaman Badger (Sidney James) and runs off to tell his comrades. The score reinforces the irony of the situation with impish, imitative writing for clarinet, bassoon and strings.
Zed Boat
Trilling strings underline a foreboding low brass rendition of the main theme for the arrival of the submarine, and the threat it poses to the men. Sprog is unsettled by its presence after the disaster of the previous trial, but Turner claims that he would rather die a swift death aboard the sub than waste away under the supervision of snide Petty Officer Herbert (Patric Doonan). Low, murky statements of the theme sound as the scene segues to the base where Lt. Bradville (Gene Kelly) and Lt. Wharton (John Justin) conduct an experiment on the warhead.
4. Discovery
Bradville addresses one of the American sailors (Butch) as “Clelland” (his last name), and Badger recognizes the name: the comedic woodwind writing from “Surprise” is further developed as Badger, like Lofty before him, realizes that one of the “Yanks” is married to his former lover. The score trades a hiccupping line between two clarinets, a bassoon and strings as the scene segues to the barracks, where the heartbroken seaman awaits the arrival of the Americans, Butch and Shorty (Fredd Wayne).
5. The Fight
Brewing tension between Badger and Butch results in a fistfight underscored with pulsating low brass and ever-playful racing strings that recall the latter half of “Training.” The other sailors attempt to break up the scuffle, with the syncopated cue building toward a harsh, chromatic climax for P.O. Herbert entering the barracks and flipping on the light.
6. Reminiscing
In the kitchen, Badger sits by his lonesome, lost in thought, with a contrastingly cheerful piano rag evoking happier times. The magazine he reads boasts an article, “Be Popular With Women,” and the score mocks his dilemma with coy woodwinds, muted trumpets and tuba.
7. Trial
Mackintosh is randomly selected to man the submarine for the next experiment. The score sets the main theme portentously over trilling woodwinds while the men watch a sub set sail from Sorrento with Mackintosh aboard.
Mackintosh launches the torpedo toward an empty target-vessel, but the missile explodes prematurely, killing him and Lt. Sterling. A panicked rendition of the main theme is traded around the orchestra as the British command ship deploys a boat to check for survivors. An anguished five-note motive alternates with the main theme to underscore the rescue attempt: only pieces of debris and Mackintosh’s cap are found. A quietly austere version of the main theme sounds when the men row back to the command ship.
Torno a Surriento
A black flag is set afloat to honor the fallen sailors; Mackintosh’s yearning accordion theme plays unaltered but takes on a mournful quality given the tragic circumstances.
8. Exuberance
The research project is cancelled after the fatal trial and Sprog runs to tell Badger and Lofty the news. Rózsa offers a third development of the material from “Training” and “The Fight,” re-imagined with a slightly new shape, gentle woodwind interludes and snarling, muted brass punctuation, while retaining the excited, motor-like flavor of the previous cues. The piece comes to an abrupt halt when Herbert shows up once again to interrupt the sailors.
9. Meditation
A tortured version of the main theme is voiced on strings and then oboe for Sprog confessing to Lofty that he is relieved the experiment has been cancelled and admits to being afraid after the death of Mackintosh. Lofty assures him that they are all afraid, but some are better at hiding it than others.
10. Decision
Wharton lays awake in bed while Bradville’s words echo in his head: “The problem lies somewhere behind the warhead.” An orchestral outburst of brass and strings emphasizes Wharton’s sudden epiphany and a tentative, seven-note motive drives him toward the research facility, slowly building in confidence as he becomes convinced he has solved the mystery behind the faulty torpedo: the guidance controls are causing the explosion, not the warhead itself. An enlightened, contrapuntal setting of the main theme surges under Wharton’s unauthorized experiment to prove his theory.
11. Realization
Wharton is given permission by his superiors to conduct one more torpedo trial, and Bradville and Lofty are to test the missile. The other sailors are under the impression that Lofty was randomly selected for the mission by drawing a marked piece of paper from his own cap; as Sprog watches the sub set sail, he unfolds the paper to see that it was not marked at all and that Lofty rigged the lottery, choosing to go of his own accord. The score plays through Sprog’s moment of understanding with a tragically heroic rendition of the main theme, similar to its setting in “Meditation,” but more forceful. The submarine arrives at the test site and the main theme dies out on a note of uncertainty.
After hearing the torpedo explode in the distance, the sailors on Sorrento wait with bated breath for the submarine to return, with silence hanging in the air like a shroud. Badger bonds with Butch, who explains that his promiscuous wife Doris ran off with another officer shortly after their marriage. Sprog cries, explaining that Lofty actually volunteered for the potentially deadly experiment. His fears are allayed when Lofty enters the barracks, the third trial having been a success. The sailors, American and British alike, celebrate his return before the scene transitions to the island’s dock, where Wharton and Bradville shake hands. A strident version of the main theme sounds as the seamen board their ship and leave the island, with an impassioned orchestral statement of “Torna a Surriento” accentuating Lofty’s farewell to the island while reminding of Mackintosh’s sacrifice and the good fellowship it yielded. The main theme, bright and celebratory, is reprised for the end title card and continues through the credits, climaxing with a triumphant coda.

Unused Score Composed and Conducted by Hans May

Born in Vienna in 1886, Hans May began his career writing scores for German silent films. In the mid-1930s the center of his activity shifted from Berlin to Paris and then to London, where he settled permanently and eventually joined the staff of the Rank Organization. Much of his work centered on lighter films and operettas. In 1954 he was hired to score Seagulls Over Sorrento (the U.K. title for Crest of the Wave) for the British arm of M-G-M. About 17½ minutes of this rejected score survive, although much of it consists only of accordion cues (sometimes with a few other instruments) focused primarily on “Torna a Sorriento.” FSM has assembled the following short suite from existing materials; it hints at what might have been an expansive, lovely main theme while incorporating some obviously comedic passages and a wistful sea shanty for flute and accordion. At the same time, it is easy to see from Rózsa’s more dynamic and muscular main title what the studio found lacking in the May score.

46. Suite
This brief suite has been assembled from Hans May cues 2M3, 4M1, 5M2, 6M1, 4M1A and 8M2. There were no surviving takes in the master tapes that correspond to Rózsa’s more dramatic main and end titles and it is possible that the May score was not conceived to include such cues. —