Herbert Stothart

Herbert Stothart was to become the in-house composer for MGM and was responsible for composing and overseeing many scores for their films starting with early sound pictures through untill his death in 1949. The composer worked exclusively for Metro Goldwyn Mayer and was responsible for the musical score for The Wizard of Oz. The style and sound that the composer employed is often overlooked and even dismissed by many critics as being light and fleeting.

But what would movies such as The Wizard of Oz be like without his distinct and inventive musical soundtrack. It was the music that made me feel uneasy when the wicked witch was around, and the composer created key themes for many of the characters, so that the watching audience would be aware that they would be coming into a scene etc.

I think his way of scoring movies was unique and it is his style and sound that many film music composers who followed in the 1950’s through to the end of the 1960’s would draw upon and base their own writing upon. He was an important figure in the world of movie music and as influential as the likes of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, and their like.

Stothart was of German/Scottish decent, and was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 11th 1885. Initially he was headed for a career as a history teacher, but his fascination and love of music soon made him realise that it was music that he wanted to do as a career. While attending the University of Wisconsin he composed and conducted musicals for the Haresfoot Dramatic Club. A show he worked on entitled Manicure Shop became a success and was later staged in Chicago, this gave Stothart the break he needed and led him to undertake further musical studies in Europe, which in turn led the composer to working full time writing music for musical theatre and vaudeville. It was in 1914 that the composer was given a job by Oscar Hammerstein ll as musical director for the operette High Jinks. After three years travelling around the country with various shows, Stothart was given the opportunity to work on his first Broadway musical production Furs and Frills was a farce and was met with favourable reviews.

Over the next ten years or so the composer worked on a string of successful productions and collaborated with many top names in the music business such as Vincent Youmans.  It was around 1923 that Stothart’s own compositions began to take centre stage, and in 1925 he was celebrating a hit show of his own which was Rose Marie, written with Rudolf Frimi.This success was soon built upon and Stothart wrote the opera and ballet Song of the Flame with George Gershwin.

 In the late 1920’s the talkies had arrived and soon established themselves as a popular form of entertainment with audiences. Seeing the potential of combining musical theatre and film Louis B Meyer asked the composer to come to Hollywood. It did not take long for Stothart to become a respected and also a sought-after composer in tinsel town, and soon established himself MGM’s foremost composer and musical director.  Many of his early film scores were for movies based upon literary classics, such as the 1935 version of The Mutiny on the Bounty and Pride and Prejudice.

The composer’s preferred musical style was to create subtle and melodic interludes, occasionally slipping into a more serious and near mournful style when the storyline called for it. He wrote predominantly for strings, and it was the string section that featured large within his movie scores. He would also weave classical leitmotifs into the fabric of his scores at times referencing the likes of Chopin in his score for The Tale of Two Cities (1935), and Tchaikovsky in movies such as Waterloo Bridge and Conquest from 1940 and 1937 respectively. He was not only a composer of scores for films, Stothart had many roles and one of these was to act as musical supervisor on several the Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald operettas that were so popular with audiences.  The composer often supervising, orchestrating, and conducting on these assignments. He also penned a handful of songs one of his best-known was The Donkey Serenade, which was used in the movie The Firefly in 1937, where it was performed by Allan Jones.

In the 1940’s he worked on films such as Dragon Seed, National Velvet, The Yearling, Northwest Passage, Son of Lassie, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and so many more. He became the first composer at MGM to win an Academy Award for the musical score to The Wizard of Oz (1939). A studio where the composer spent most of his career. He died at the age of 63 from cancer of the spine.