Tag Archives: JOHN MORRIS



We often associate the late composer John Morris with the films of Mel Brooks, and why not he did after all score BLAZING SADDLES, THE PRODUCERS, SPACEBALLS, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and SILENT MOVIE, as well as the Brooks films production of the David Lynch directed, THE ELEPHANT MAN. There is little doubt that Morris was an exceptionally talented composer, but sadly was at times underatted by both critics and film music collectors alike. Morris scored several movies and TV productions that often do not get mentioned, maybe this is because the said productions were not that popular with audiences of both the big and small screens. However, the music that the composer penned for them was as always excellent. Take THE SCARLET LETTER for example and also SCARLETT, both I am sure were TV movies, but both contained highly thematic scores and had a luxurious and dramatic musical persona.

The latter starred Timothy Dalton who took on the role of Rhett Butler, which of course is a role we all associate with Clark Gable in the epic drama and romance movie GONE WITH THE WIND. Morris certainly took his cue from composer Max Steiner for this sequel to the classic tale of the American civil war, with lush and melodious themes adorning the production, Morris utilising to maximum effect strings and brass that are supported by delicate and subtle woods, which come into their own conveying a sense of melancholy and romance. The composer also includes proud sounding brass at times that gives the score a golden age sound. The cue THIS WAS TARA being particularly poignant and inspiring.  The compact disc was a round for quite a while in many retail outlets but has since become a little more difficult to obtain. However, I would recommend that you attempt to take a listen to the score, which is available on various digital platforms.

THE SCARLET LETTER is another lush sounding work from the composer, again an American TV movie, it is not to be confused with the Demi Moore, Gary Oldman feature film of the same name, which was eventually scored by John Barry. Morris fashioned a lilting and thematic work for the production, again as in SCARLETT the composer created highly melodic sounding compositions written for woods, brass, percussion and led by the string section. The core theme is a sombre but at the same time rich one, and the composer reinvents this as he utilises it throughout the score, this central thematic property becoming the foundation or backbone of the work. So two John Morris scores both for TV movies, that are filled with an abundance of themes and purvey a sense of the romantic, check them both out.




John Morris was in my opinion such an underrated and undervalued composer of film scores. We all and rightly so associate him with the works of film maker Mel Brooks, but because the Brooks films were invariably comedy many seemed to dismiss Morris as a composer who could only work on comedies or satires as produced by Brooks, these being THE PRODUCERS, SILENT MOVIE, BLAZING SADDLES and also YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. But I was always told by various composers that the hardest genre of film to work on was comedy, because the composer had to get the timing exact and also dare not go over the top musically for fear of stealing the verbal and visual punchlines.



But Morris to coin a cliché was chameleon like when it came to writing for film and I am of the opinion that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a perfect example of his scoring prowess, his innovative talent and his obvious gift for melody and also his precise and accurate execution of placing music in exactly the right place to either highlight a moment of drama or more often than not to underline and add weight to a punchline within the storyline or in a particular scene. Sadly, the actual score for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN has never received an official release, yes there was the version which included excerpts of the composers score but this release focused mainly on the dialogue from the movie itself. I could never understand why the score was not issued as it is probably one of the composers most accomplished works for cinema and stands alongside more serious efforts such as THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS.




There was so much more to this composer than the scores he produced for filmmaker Brooks, Born John Leonard Morris on October 18th 1926 in Elizabeth New Jersey, it was evident that Morris would be involved with music because as a three year old he began to take interest in all things musical and also started to learn how to play the piano. His family re-located to Kansas where Morris continued to take an interest in piano, but in the 1940.s Morris moved back to New York City where he studied music at Julliard School and at The New School for social research. From the early 1950’s through till the 1970’s Morris began to work composing incidental music and writing musical numbers for various Broadway shows. In 1966 he wrote his own musical entitled A TIME FOR SINGING, but also worked on other shows which included HAMLET, MACK AND MABEL, DEAR WORLD and BAKER STREET. It was whilst working on Broadway that Morris met Mel Brooks and they collaborated on two shows, SHINBONE ALLEY in 1957 and ALL AMERICAN in 1962.


It was these early collaborations that led to Morris working with Brooks on THE PRODUCERS when he penned the number SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER and created the underscore for the production. This was the beginning of a collaboration that was to last many years and include twenty movies. Many people in the world of film and film music mention great composer director collaborations such as Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Spielberg and Williams and Herrmann and Hitchcock, but maybe they should focus upon the Brooks, Morris partnership also. It is a partnership that has produced numerous moments of excellence within cinema history, where music and film just come together to create stunning and memorable combinations. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is one of those movies where the composer and the director are in tune with each other, Brooks creating his own take on a classic horror film, and Morris scoring the comedy led movie with music that at times is less than comedic, but is melodic and haunting.




Brooks filmed YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in black and white, which of course was a direct acknowledgement to those Universal horrors of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and Morris too paid his own homage to the Universal years with a score that had many nods to composers such as Hans J Salter and Roy Webb who worked on these monster movies and others. This romantic and melodic approach can be heard within the composition which has become known as THE TRANSYLVANIAN LULLABY, a composition that became the core theme for Morris’s score, the composer introducing the theme within the opening track which played over the films main title credits. It is maybe also the pre-cursor to the theme that John Williams penned for SHCINDLERS LIST.


Morris utilised the lilting and melancholy sounding theme performed by a fragile and heartfelt solo violin as the theme for the Monster, which was a masterful way of accompanying Frankenstein’s creation, and gave it heart and actually made the watching audience feel empathy for it. The theme is central to the films storyline and the composer s affecting and beautiful composition becomes not just a background to the story but an important and integral piece of the film and the foundation on which the composer builds the remainder of his score. Morris also scored films for actors such as Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman who had starred in a few Brooks movies, these included THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOMES SMARTER BROTHER, THE LAST RE-MAKE OF BUE GESTE, and THE WORLDS GREATEST LOVER among them.

Morris dd not score two Brooks films because he was committed elsewhere according to the filmmaker, these were ROBIN HOOD MEN IN TIGHTS and DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT, both of which had scores by composer Hummie Mann. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was released in 1974, and although on reflection on the occasion of the films 40th Anniversary Brooks said he considered it his finest work, but probably not his funniest.

The score for this gothic laced spoof of the classic Mary Shelly story, starred Gene Wilder as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, Marty Feldman as Igor, Peter Boyle as the Monster, Terri Garr as Inga, Madeline Kahn as Elizabeth and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher (thunder and lightning effects with a horse neighing wildly). The film also featured Gene Hackman as Harold the Blind man. I think the movie is something of an acquired taste, but then if you have seen anything by Brooks I am sure you know what I mean, and yes I have to agree with the film maker when he said it was not his funniest move, but it is still a good one and also a movie that itself influenced other productions. Considering the film was in essence a comedy or a satire on a classic tale, composer Morris played it straight when it came to the music, and although there were a handful of punchline musical moments, for example when Frankenstein meets Igor and when Wilder declares he is indeed a Frankenstein.

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For the most part the composer scored away from the comedic content, the score becoming the straight man to the director’s funny man approach which came across wonderfully when the music and image fused and became one as it were. We felt the anguish and the confusion of the Monster within the score, the music purveying a sense of not belonging and also at the same time it underlined the comedy element and probably made that even more prominent because the music was serious and at times over the top dramatically. It is without a doubt the composers Masterpiece, or at least one of them, because we have to consider the brilliance of his score for THE ELEPHANT MAN for example, and also his split second timing on the score for SILENT MOVIE which was key to the gags that were being acted out on screen. And then there is his dark, chilling and atmospheric music for THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, all very different but all superb examples of movie music. Watching the movie YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and focusing upon the actual score is a difficult task as one invariably becomes involved and caught up with the images and the films storyline, but when you do kind of manage to isolate the score and take a listen it is a work of impeccable quality, the composer fashioning this homage to films from days gone by with romantic and dramatic compositions complimenting each other and eloquently underlining and punctuating the proceedings on screen.

There is a romanticism to the work but also an underlying element that suggests madness and unpredictability, the sound and style employed being a million miles away from that of say, SPACEBALLS, BLAZING SADDLES and THE PRODUCERS. The composers central theme becoming mesmerising and strangely attractive. The score was a short one and runs for approximately thirty minutes, but the impact it made was immense. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN without the music of John Morris would be like watching PYSCHO without Herrmann’s shrieking strings and James Bond without his theme.


The score itself was made up of a number of relatively short cues, but it was where these brief musical encounters were placed that was so beguiling and affecting. The composer at times providing literally seconds of music to create an atmosphere or add impact to a scene or underline a punchline. One track in particular I think is effective and that is the scene in the graveyard, Frankenstein (Wilder) and Igor (Feldman) go to the graveyard to get a body as they dig up a coffin from its resting place, Frankenstein says, “What a filthy job” spitting the earth from his mouth. “Could be worse” replies Igor. “How”? enquires the doctor. “Could be raining“. says Igor in a matter of fact way, And at that moment there is a flash of lightning and thunder rumbles as the heavens open upon our hap hazard grave robbers. Morris scored the seconds leading up to this moment with a sombre sounding low brass led composition, which created an eerie atmosphere, but as soon as we see who the grave robbers are the music stops and that’s when the gag or the scene takes over. So, Morris sets up the gag and at the last-minute pulls back allowing it to have centre stage.  Let us also not forget the composers work for TV, as in SCARLET, THE SCARLET LETTER etc and his score for DIRTY DANCING. John Morris was an accomplished and highly talented musician, composer and arranger, the like of which we will be hard pressed to discover again. He died on January 25th 2018.





Mention the name of composer John Morris and what do you think of, well Mel Brooks for one and his scores for movies such as THE PRODUCERS, BLAZIN SADDLES, SILENT MOVIE, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and HIGH ANXIETY. Yes, same as me. So, when you come across a Brooks produced film that was released in 1985 entitled THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS one is certainly surprised in a pleasant way about the atmospheric and powerful musical score that Morris penned for this Freddie Francis directed movie. But, there again one probably should not be surprised as Morris did score THE ELEPHANT MAN for Brooks which included a mesmerising and a powerful soundtrack.


THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS itself is a delight to discover and certainly one for any connoisseur of the horror genre. It is I suppose a film shot in the style of Hammer or Amicus or even Tigon and Tyburn with some influences from the AIP stable. Which is hardly surprising considering that it was directed by Freddie Francis. The film boasts a cast that is like a whos who in British cinema, Timothy Dalton, Johnathan Pryce, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Rea, Twiggy and even Beryl Reid. The gothic horror is based upon the antics and dark but true story of BURKE AND HARE who in Scotland murdered some sixteen people and sold their corpses to the shady side of the medical profession for anatomical dissection and experimentation. Dalton played the part of one such doctor Dr, Rock whos character was based upon a real-life person Dr. Knox who was known to be linked with Burke and Hare. The characters that supply the bodies are for this movie called Fallon and Broom and played respectively superbly by actors Stephen Pryce and Stephen Rea. The movie features a screenplay that was written by Sir Ronald Harwood who adapted his script from an unproduced screenplay that was penned by Dylan Thomas.


So, the film has glowing credentials both in the acting and production areas. Dr. Rock is a well respected and talented anatomist who is lecturing in a much-respected medical establishment. He is passionate about discovering new ways to explore and hopefully improve knowledge of the human body and also advancing medical science. The only way he can do this is to carry out research on the human body, but human corpses are shall we say in short supply, So when he comes into contact with Fallon and Broom who are basically grave robbers he sees a way of getting a steady supply of bodies for his research. Rock enlists the aid of his assistant Dr.Murray played by Julian Sands who is given the task of buying the bodies and if the corpse is fresh then a higher price will be paid. Fallon and Broom hear about this and decide rather than dig up the bodies they will actually go out and murder the local’s, so the body is fresh, thus ensuring them a higher price.



It is not long before Murray becomes suspicious and alerts Dr. Rock, but he is too caught up in his experiments to take any notice. Murray becomes involved with a local prostitute Jennie Bailey, portrayed by Twiggy who just happens to be on Fallon and Brooms list of victims. But, Murray rescues Jennie from the grave robbers and they are soon arrested, but Broom turns on his partner and gives evidence against him saving himself and sending Fallon to the gallows. Rock is also named and shamed but because of his standing remains free and can carry on practicing and lecturing. In the final shots of the movie we see Rock looking over Edinburgh from a windswept hill reflecting on his involvement in the horrors and the murders, the last words on the movie are OH GOD I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING. As he walks off the credits roll, and a haunting vocal performed by Irish band In Tua Nua is heard on the soundtrack. The movie is in my opinion well directed and contains several outstanding performances, photographed well with convincing sets and more than its fair share of bloodletting and violence.

The musical score by composer John Morris opens with a theme that is somewhat strange in its overall sound and style, at first I thought straight away that is was influenced by the orient or maybe Chinese sounding in its formation, but on listening to it over and over maybe it is Celtic influenced, performed by woodwind and supported by choir and underlying strings it is a pleasant and rather lilting sound that is realised and is an instrumental version of TAINTED HANDS giving the film a calm and unassuming opening. The main score by Morris is a great deal more powerful and more in keeping with a gothic horror tale, the composer employs strident strings which play out a nine motif theme on track number two of the recording I was given, which although commanding is also melodic and has to it a romantic yet apprehensive sound, the strings are given more depth and power by the addition of brass and percussion, a short lived piece but one that makes an impact upon the listener and also one that sets the scene perfectly for what is to follow.



Track three is a more diluted version of the elements that we hear in track number two the strings being replaced by wood wind which perform the nine-note motif theme, which is the core theme of the composers score and one on which he builds the remainder of the work. The tense woodwinds are underlined by tremolo strings that also add an air of tension to the proceedings. This core theme is prevalent throughout the work and is given a fresh and vibrant sound on each outing via clever orchestration or arrangements by the composer, each time there is a smouldering and dark atmosphere created with the string section on hand on most occasions to give it a fearsome and foreboding mood.

The score purveys an air of the windswept or an atmosphere of dread with the composer relaying his musical notions utilising in the main strings and ethnic as in Scottish/Celtic sounding woods and whistles, but there is a darkness to this work that is unsettling but at the same time alluring, its sinister musical aura unfolding and becoming stronger with each cue. There are three songs used within the film, Tainted Hands performed by Irish rock band In Tua Nua, Whisper and I shall hear, performed by Twiggy and also But and Ben wi’ Burke and Hare(uncredited) which is a 19th-century Edinburgh children’s skipping rhyme. John Morris fashioned a wonderfully atmospheric and mysterious sounding score for THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS. It is yet to receive an official release, which is a shame as it is a soundtrack that deserves to be heard and yet another impressive work from the pen of a much missed and highly talented film music Maestro.