Alfred Newman (1901-1970) was, for much of his career, the most influential and respected composer and music director in Hollywood. His 44 Oscar nominations and nine Academy Awards are both records that are unlikely ever to be broken. The first-born of ten children to an impoverished produce seller in New Haven, CT, Newman manifested his musical interests very early, and by the age of eight was well-known locally as a piano prodigy. He played for virtuoso Jan Ignace Paderewski, who arranged a New York recital for the boy, and a performing career seemed in the offing, until he was forced to begin earning a living for his family. Newman worked his way up from vaudeville to the orchestra pit of the Broadway theaters, and eventually became an established conductor and arranger known and respected by all of the best composers, including Irving Berlin. When Berlin was brought to Hollywood at the dawn of the sound era, he arranged for Newman to come with him. There he was taken on by movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and United Artists, and established himself as one of the movie capitol's two undisputed masters of music (the other was Max Steiner). Soon, he also began working for 20th Century-Fox.
Newman spent the '30s scoring some of the most prestigious movies of the decade, including Street Scene, Dodsworth, Stella Dallas, Dead End, The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din, and Young Mr. Lincoln, among many others. Even when he wasn't working on a particular movie, he was often approached by studio production heads in need of advice when the scoring of a movie ran into trouble. Following his installation as Fox's music director in 1940, Newman worked on How Green Was My Valley, Heaven Can Wait, Song of Bernadette, The Razor's Edge, Captain from Castille, The Robe, and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, among numerous other films; and, equally telling in his capacity as head of the studio's music department, he assigned the scoring of Laura to David Raksin, who wrote an immortal piece of movie music, and Jane Eyre, Hangover Square, and The Day the Earth Stood Still to Bernard Herrmann. In 1959, he left Fox for a career as an independent artist, and in 1961 conducted the Oscar-nominated score to Flower Drum Song. The next year, he wrote what may be his most familiar film score, How the West Was Won, with lyricist Ken Darby.
Ironically, for all of his accumulated honors, Newman remains viewed as a far greater arranger and conductor than composer. He could assimilate folk tunes or pseudo-folk tunes, as in How Green Was My Valley and How the West Was Won, and transform them into orchestral/choral works of tremendous power, and take a good original melody or two and turn them into something haunting and memorable, as in The Razor's Edge or The Robe. His compositions, however, lacked the boldness or adventurousness of Bernard Herrmann's or Miklos Rozsa's most inspired work -- his was tonal and accessible music that didn't demand too much of the viewer. But it was the palatable nature of Newman's music, coupled with his diplomatic skills, that helped him achieve his success. His scores were accessible without being trite, original in execution as film music without being jarring or troubling, and his affable nature, in contrast the the volatile, neurotic Herrmann or the seemingly aloof Rozsa, made him a favorite of studio executives. And all of that made his word about music the law in Hollywood for close to 30 years. He died in 1970, and his final soundtrack, for George Seaton's mega-hit Airport, became the last of Newman's 44 Oscar nominations. ~ Bruce Eder