Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The High And The Mighty

I like whistling songs, and I thought I'd write about some favorites.  But that simple idea became overpacked so I have settled on a single song.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Les Baxter

The first whistling song I recall was from the mid-1950s.  It was "The High And The Mighty" and it was theme music to a 1954 Airplane-In-Trouble movie of the same name.   The original movie theme was by Les Baxter, its whistling part dubbed into the film by the wonderfully-named Muzzy Marcellino.  I believe the song I remember is not Baxter's but a popular cover by Victor Young and his Singing Strings (1954). (See The High And The Mighty.)

The Les Baxter original sounds like a 1950s movie theme: percussive, bombastic, turgidly string-heavy.  It gets worse as it proceeds: the haunting promise of the whistled introduction over-inflates, its melody splashed around by horns and strings.  Two-thirds of the way through, a stealth chorus slips in, gathers force, achieves a full-bore climax of spasming angels by the end.  It's dreadful stuff.

But this is film music, an auditory backdrop for visual action, so we can possibly forgive its excesses.  And since the action in the film occurs on an airplane, perhaps soaring background music is suitable.  Or maybe not.  Or maybe you just had to be there: Dimitri Tiomkin, who composed the score for The High And The Mighty film, did win an Academy Award for it in 1954.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Victor Young

Victor Young's cover is leaner than Baxter's original.  True, there is a bit of chorus but it is restrained. And while there are those "singing" strings –– a  cloying staple of the era –– there is also great whistling and lots of it.  Plus, the whistler is that very same Muzzy Marcellino* from the original movie.  As the song proceeds, Muzzy's whistling comes to function as a lead vocal so that the mush of strings complements rather than overwhelms.

*A digression about Muzzy Marcellino.  His is the whistling in the theme music for TV's Lassie (1958 – 64 seasons), beginning with the season in which appealing "Jeff Miller" (Tommy Rettig) is replaced by off-putting "Timmy Martin" (Jon Provost) –– a sea change in the continuum of my early years.  Marcellino also did the whistling in Hugo Montenegro's 1968 cover of the theme from Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966).

There are many other recordings of "The High And The Mighty.”  
Among them are two that deserve special mention, each drawn from separate Reader's Digest compilations.  The first recording is by the Hill Bowen Orchestra and Chorus, from a 2007 release, That's Amore – Great Film Songs of the 50s (Vol. 1) .  The second is by Harry Stoneham, from Going Down? Vol. 7: TV & Hollywood Take The Elevator (2008).  (Yes, you are reading this correctly; those canny editors at Reader's Digest have compiled a series of elevator-music albums, ten CD's in all.)

Each recording is awful in its own fashion.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Hill Bowen

The Bowen version impresses with its treacly and glutinous string arrangement, also with its hash of vocal and orchestral elements.
The chorus, like Baxter's, is overheated.  It appears briefly, swelling and hinting at what it can do, then ebbs, returns, circles, ebbs again, returns, finally crashes (twice) amidst trumpet and drum fanfare.  The aggregate of throbbing chorus, string-laden bog, xylophonic touches, propulsive brass, percussion, vocal climax –– all these things –– gives Bowen's version its noteworthy effect.

Bowen's song does have whistling, that should be said.  But the whistling is lazy and half-hearted, suggesting a walk in the park rather than lofty skyward events.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Harry Stoneham

By contrast, the recording by Harry Stoneham is simpler.  Stoneham plays an electronic organ and the instrumentation is largely organ with backing strings.  Quieter than Bowen's version, there is less going on in it: no whistling and, mercifully, no chorus.  Still it manages to be shockingly cheesy.  The organ warbles like a calliope and there are sections that sound soggy rather than soaring, as if recorded in an underwater carnival.  We're certainly not in the clouds, nor singed by choral heat –– we're on a damp merry-go-round.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Kenny Barron

Finally, I happily mention two jazz renditions of "The High And The Mighty," the first being Kenny Barron's tasteful 1991 recording, a solo piano version which appears on An Officer And Gentlemen, #7 in a JazzCity Label series.

   The High And The Mighty:
   Alex Riel Trio

The second is the Alex Riel Trio's version, from The High And The Mighty, a 2007 album of standards by a Danish trio led by drummer, Alex Riel.

Both songs are stripped down, in contrast to the orchestral grandeur of the film version and its covers.  These artists have taken the melody and lovingly played with it, the small scale of both solo and trio performances lending an appealing intimacy.  We feel invited into a musical space, not strung out on strings.

That's it for the music portion of this post.  Now a few thoughts about The High And The Mighty as movie itself.

At the time, it was a prototype of what became the disaster-film genre. Today, we routinely have snakes, terrorists, bombs in planes, trains, and buses.  And let's not forget the creepy atmosphere inside the spaceship Nostromo in 1979's Alien, the felt dread when badness that should be outside you gets inside you.  Our attention in these movies is split between the logistics of the problem and the personalities of the characters involved.  This combination of confined setting, mechanical details, danger to be dealt with, and attendant personality types has become a standard template.

For a peek at the actual 1954 movie, and a slice of 1950s sociology, click on the trailer below.  Those born, say, after 1960 may find clues here to the mystery of their parents, grandparents, and –– given the resistance of this sociology –– certain contemporaries.

Not much to say after that.  We should land this post now.  My layout editor, Todd –– in uncommonly high color after prolonged listening to Les Baxter and Hill Bowen –– feels my music reviews are a touch snarky.  He may be right: I am no music critic and my apologies if I have seemed uncharitable.  

Still, there might be more whistling songs to follow.


Anonymous said...

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Kit said...

Thanks Vikupeck. I'm passing your link on to Todd, who remains somewhat overheated.

Kit said...

Thank you Mesunazi. Oddly, your link is identical to Vikupeck's...are you twin pharmacists? Anyway, as with Vikupeck's, I'm passing your link on to Todd...who is quite old (far older than those who would have heard a 1954 song) and possibly in need of these products. Though not obviously, to look at him. Thanks again.

Charlotte Mooney said...

Hi Kit, I got comments on my blog from the same jokers! What a cheek they have.

On the subject of whistling songs, in the UK there was a hit record called 'I was Kaiser Bill's Batman'. Instrumental & whistling throughout.
That was the first record I ever bought, way back in 1967.

Kit said...

Thank you, Charlotte. I explored "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman," found a bunch of versions, and (on Wikipedia) a piece crediting the 1967 version to one John O'Neill who went under the name of "Whistling Jack Smith." I don't know if this is what you bought, but what caught my eye was that John O'Neill did the whistling for the original Ennio Morricone theme for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Which adds a bit of whistling-information to this post, gives me Muzzy Marcellino's predecessor so to speak.

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