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ClassicsOnline Home » SALTER / DESSAU: House of Frankenstein
By David Denton
Hans J. Salter (1896–1994) and Paul Dessau (1894–1979)
Complete score for the film
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Reconstructed by John Morgan
If there's one reigning irony about composer Hans J. Salter, it is that, after fleeing the nightmarish world of the Third Reich in 1937, he wound up in America scoring Universal's classic Frankenstein films, all centered on mad scientists with names like Niemann and Frankenstein and Edelmann, and all revolving around a superhuman brute whose demise lasted only till the next sequel. But if Salter ever truly pondered this irony, he seldom mentioned it. When, shortly before his death in 1994, he was at last asked about it, he only chuckled, thought a moment, then replied: "It must've been written in the stars."
A mild-mannered Viennese gentleman whose existence in the Old World was spent conducting operettas and concerts and working on early films at Berlin's famed UFA studios, Salter spent most of his productive life in the New World cranking out music for a variety of Universal films, mostly low-budget programmers, and always under oppressive deadlines. Some film scores he later voiced great pride in, especially that for Magnificent Doll (1946), which starred Ginger Rogers as grand socialite and first lady Dolley Madison. Salter revelled in the film's Americana, which, he claimed, "inspired me to greater dimensions" than even he had hoped for in the music. Other scores rate hearings, too, including his many westerns (especially Bend of the River, 1952, and Man Without a Star, 1955) and even an Errol Flynn swashbuckler (Against All Flags, 1952, complete with shades of Ibert's Escales). But film music-lovers of today agree on only one thing regarding Hans J. Salter's work: His lasting fame rests firmly on his role as a maker of monster music.
Beginning with Franz Waxman's brilliant 1935 score to The Bride of Frankenstein and crystallizing three years later with Frank Skinner's Son of Frankenstein score (which Salter, still fresh to American shores, orchestrated), Universal's busy staff composers served up a style of horror film music others imitated but never matched. Characterized by solid craftsmanship, yet imbued with an air of total abandon, it allowed centuries-old menacing mummies to walk the globe, heart-craving ghouls to raid local cemeteries and world-weary werewolves to erupt in fury whenever a full moon rose. Over half a century later, Universal's horror films and their peerless scores retain much of their dark mood, yet also evoke an air of seemingly simpler times –much the way gleeful, vintage cartoon scores and smooth, upbeat Big Band renditions seem to do. (For the record, Salter considered his horror scores distinctly American.) Evidence of this nostalgic simplicity – however illusionary – was offered up in the 1993 film Mad Dog and Glory, in which the fifty-year-old soundtrack to the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man climax briefly served as a sonic backdrop for an equally unlikely romance between a lonely, middle-aged police photographer and a young, down-on-her-luck actress.
Of all the rousing scores Salter contributed for Universal's horror films, House of Frankenstein (1944) proved not only the most colourful but also the most significant in terms of length. For that, we partially have the movie's producer, director and screenwriter to thank. Because of the vast amount of work he faced and the crushing deadlines under which he laboured, Salter tended to furnish music according to each film's strength or weakness. In a film he considered strong, such as director Robert Siodmak's film noir classic Phantom Lady (1944), he sometimes recommended music be used sparingly, if only because he felt the film could stand on its own merits. On the other hand, for Erle C. Kenton's potboiler The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Salter wrote music for almost fifty of its 68 minutes, largely because he felt the film needed all the help it could get.
Kenton's subsequent Universal thriller, House of Frankenstein, is a rollicking if not very serious addition to the Frankenstein saga, complete with vibrant performances by a memorable cast including Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr and J. Carrol Naish. Even so, Salter apparently felt the seventy-minute programmer again needed help because he supplied more than fifty minutes worth of music. The outlandish plot alone explains his decision. In an effort seemingly to outdo far more intelligent Val Lewton horror films by then emanating from RKO, Universal decided to pile as many monsters as possible into the plot of its latest Frankenstein movie. The House of Frankenstein storyline concerns a mad scientist, Dr Gustav Niemann (Karloff), freshly sprung from prison courtesy of a thunderstorm, who, with his homicidal hunchback assistant Daniel (Naish), assumes the guise of a travelling chamber of horrors proprietor, merrily procuring (and within mere days) Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster (portrayed, respectively, by Carradine, Chaney and a former cowboy from Cross Cut, Texas, named Glenn Strange). As this madcap plot continues, Niemann balances his thirst for revenge with his cranium-popping experiments in brain transplants. If all this seems utterly outrageous, it at least appears more realistic alongside the over-the-top plotting behind the film's big-budgeted spiritual descendant, Universal's Van Helsing (2004).
Today it's hard to envision the film ever scaring anyone. Just the same, House of Frankenstein remains one of the most lively, broadly enjoyable instalments in the entire series. To quote film historian Gregory William Mank in his excellent book It's Alive: The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein (1981) and House of Frankenstein: The Shooting Script (MagicImage 1994), the film "survives today as a slick, fun, horror mini-epic; it has action (including the exciting chase of mounted gendarmes after Dracula's coach through back lot fields, stream and woods), some mood (particularly in the very impressive ice cavern sequence) and some directorial style (e.g., Kenton's treatment of Chaney's first transformation from man to beast, panning the human footprints that change into paw prints just before a long shot shows the Wolf Man loping madly into the woods." If diehard fans of the Frankenstein series today decry the movie as a step down from the noble stature of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, at least the breakneck pacing, inventive plotting, sturdy cast and lively score of House of Frankenstein ensure most fans will forget its relative silliness and relish its rich atmosphere and creepy catalogue of Universal monsters, all served up by Universal's makeup wizard Jack P. Pierce.
With so many Universal spooks in residence, Salter's House of Frankenstein score was bound to be more varied than, say, the lumbering Ghost of Frankenstein. Despite many wonderful works composed for the cinema (and despite this particular film's own B-movie status), the House of Frankenstein score remains one of a small handful of golden age film scores that truly rate being heard complete and often. (Korngold's The Sea Hawk, Herrmann's Citizen Kane, Max Steiner's King Kong, Waxman's The Bride of Frankenstein and Hugo Friedhofer's The Best Years of Our Lives are others.) The fact the entire House of Frankenstein score works so well, even when heard independently of the film, is a credit to its chief composer, especially considering the time he was given to produce it. "They didn't give you much time in those days," Salter said of the score during a 1994 interview, shortly after turning 98. "I don't think I had more than, maybe, two weeks. I didn't get much sleep when I worked on it."
At least Salter had some help, both from the past and present. Although definitely of the twentieth century, with all the chordal progressions and motoric intensity of Arthur Honegger, the music includes a witty salute to Beethoven's fateful Fifth Symphony in the main title and joyful references to Carl Maria von Weber elsewhere. Then there's the spirited dance Gypsy Tantrums, a bit of uninhibited fun specially assembled by Max Rapp and Milton Rosen and reflecting Universal's penchant for original gypsy material – something seen also in The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). But fifty-year-old Paul Dessau, a free-thinking German composer and communist who had likewise fled Europe, was of even greater assistance. Dessau had a major hand helping Salter, particularly with the electrifying main title, bewitching, out-of-kilter chamber of horrors prelude, and haunting, transparent night music composed for the Dracula segment –music mirroring Dessau's finest concert works. And while the unsettling, ever-present four-note motif symbolizing Dracula's macabre presence ultimately comes from Salter, who had used it previously in Son of Dracula (1943) and even earlier in Universal's Nazi-bashing Invisible Agent (1942), Dessau made it very much his own in his treatment. Certainly, the House of Frankenstein score is more modern than Salter's usual writing, though one is also reminded that, whatever else, Hans Salter was a student of Alban Berg. But then Paul Dessau's influences included Arnold Schoenberg and Otto Klemperer, both musically adventurous personalities in their heydays.
A virtual Hollywood camp Symphonie Fantastique when heard in its entirety, and one that could have only come from Universal's busy music department in the 1940s, the House of Frankenstein score offers numerous delights to accompany its cast of accursed characters, beginning with its vigorous main title. Within the first fourteen seconds, the brass in the main title unleash a somersaulting version of the Wolf Man's anxious, three-note motif, then Dracula's ominous four-note motif, before the strings introduce a yearning, operatic-sounding theme for Daniel, indicating he is very much the heart and soul of the film. The eerie scene in the glacial cavern, where the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man are found encased in ice, is mostly vintage Salter, much of it ingeniously built around the Wolf Man's woeful motif (beginning at the end of The Ruins) and evoking the gloomy Symphonic Nocturne of Busoni. Only occasionally does another three-note motif present itself, this a lumbering one for the Frankenstein Monster (heard among the lower instruments at the end of the cue The Monstrosities). Especially exhilarating is the music written for the Dracula chase scene, beginning slowly and mysteriously in The World Beyond and then, with a quirky proclamation by the strings and woodwinds, launching into a mad gallop. Marred as heard in the film due to careless editing, this romp of a cue, reflecting Paul Dessau's prickly musical tendencies, is heard largely as intended here.
Infectious moments of tender melancholy occasionally surface when gypsy dancer Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) is present, such as in Dan's Love, which begins with a motif from the main title that conveys Daniel's love for the girl – a bit that shows up in more disturbed form in the aptly titled cue Hunchback's Jealousy, when Daniel realizes the gypsy girl's affections are now lost. Overall, though, moments of fury and madness arise far more often, such as in The Pentagram, when the broken-hearted hunchback takes his frustrations out on the strapped-down, semi-conscious Frankenstein Monster by lashing him insanely – a passage marked by demented runs in the strings and sinister harmonies in the brass. Motifs for the Wolf Man and Frankenstein Monster hover about during these moments of rage, both reflecting and foretelling the film's developments.
But the score's final section serves up the real showstoppers, with most of the monstrous motifs that have gone before now exploding into a musical maelstrom. This astonishing finale begins in Dr Niemann Successful with massive chords from the orchestra as the Frankenstein Monster is finally recharged, then continues as nervous winds denote the almost tragicomic overtones of Dr Niemann's monster-filled lab. Later it moves to a surging variation of the gypsy love theme in The Moon is Full as Ilonka contemplates with dread shooting her werewolf-lover with a silver bullet – and just as troubled Larry Talbot undergoes his final lycanthropic transformation. By the time Daniel, grief-stricken over Ilonka's death, turns violently on Dr Niemann (in Dr Niemann Attacked), the revived Frankenstein Monster decides to break free, make short work of Daniel and then rescue the mad doctor. In the score, this is captured through a last, desperate variation of Daniel's motif and a grandly energized, thoroughly unstoppable one for the Frankenstein Monster. House of Frankenstein concludes with an unforgettable musical climax in Death of the Unholy Two: the timpani's relentless pounding signifying doom, the woodwinds shrieking in full panic and the strings and brass capturing the utter chaos of the film's bizarre, one-of-a-kind resolution in which, very oddly for a Hollywood programmer of the early 1940s, everybody dies. After this, all that remains is the end cast music, a brief and blunt tribute to the gypsy Ilonka, her sacrifice and the very little true love glimpsed in this horror film. Lasting mere seconds, this final cue makes its point like an epitaph, then all is done.
The decision by Marco Polo in the mid-1990s to finally give Salter and Dessau their due by recording one of Universal's classic horror scores complete (a much-abbreviated suite from House of Frankenstein appeared on an earlier Marco Polo release) did not become reality without major headaches. In what appears to have been a reckless house-cleaning operation, Universal's old horror scores were trashed by Universal. Those later chosen for re-recording had to be painstakingly reconstructed by film composers John Morgan and William Stromberg from three-line piano reductions unearthed elsewhere, including at Salter's home. There was no doubting Morgan and Stromberg's zeal in the project. In his mid-forties when he began working on House of Frankenstein, Morgan proved to be like many of his generation who know and treasure Salter's horror music; he grew to love it as a youngster watching Universal's horrors on TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both the movies and their music, he said, are "something cozy that we grew up with in our homes and I think they're now part of our psyche." In fact, Morgan later introduced Stromberg, a family friend eighteen years his junior, to this old cinema music, ultimately resulting in the latter's decision also to pursue a career in film music.
Once a decision had been made by Marco Polo to record the complete House of Frankenstein score (and with Salter's full blessing, just weeks before his death), the young composers' passion reached the point that they even reassembled the delightful, forty-second chamber of horrors prelude heard shortly before Dracula's revival in the film. Other sections proved more challenging, including the aforementioned climax. "My hand was about to fall off by the time I got finished, there was so much going on," Morgan said of reassembling the final, bring-down-the-house section. Morgan was not surprised, either, when, during recording sessions with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in early December 1994, instrumentalists wondered aloud if the House of Frankenstein score was, in fact, a contemporary one. Again, the combination of Dessau and Salter fifty years earlier seems to have provided an orchestral score as advanced as many film scores written decades later.
While Salter sometimes borrowed from other film scores by himself and colleague Frank Skinner – common practice at Universal with its hectic deadlines – the House of Frankenstein score is largely original, even though motifs from other films are used (such as the germ of an idea from The Wolf Man, wonderfully woven into the main title of House of Frankenstein as a motif for Daniel and reworked throughout the film). Several passages were adapted from earlier movies, including the scene where Dr Niemann and Daniel explore the Frankenstein ruins and the ice cavern (borrowed from the crypt-defiling scene and a similar ice cavern episode in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man); those sequences in which Dr Niemann's circus of horrors is on the road (adapted from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, this time for a sequence in which lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot and Maleva the gypsy travel to Vasaria); and, finally, the brooding passage underlining Dr Niemann's return to his old, vine-shrouded laboratory (adapted from The Ghost of Frankenstein score). For this recording, the more extensive arrangement of ice cavern music from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man has been substituted for that in House of Frankenstein. In the case of the traveling music, both the high-spirited cue from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as well as the more ambiguous one from House of Frankenstein have been recorded. Finally, the brief bit of music for the early sequence when the storm destroys Neustadt Prison – penned by Frank Skinner for Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Saboteur (1942) and barely audible in that picture amidst the lightning bolts – practically represents a première here since the music is also effectively drowned out in House of Frankenstein, thanks to crashing thunder and collapsing walls.
If an analysis of the House of Frankenstein score sometimes suggests a crazy quilting of music from different hands and even different films, it only reveals standard practice at Universal at the time. Staff composers (ranging from Skinner and Salter to, in the 1950s, Henry Mancini) routinely collaborated on films, cultivating a style similar enough to allow what some called "Salterizing" – the seamless patching together of such cues into a score. Whatever the case, Randall D. Larson, in his exhaustive survey Musique Fantastique (Scarecrow Press, 1985), suggests the only score of the Frankenstein sequels entirely by Salter is that for The Ghost of Frankenstein. And in House of Dracula (1945), the utterly wretched sequel to follow House of Frankenstein, the music of no less than eight composers, including Salter, Skinner and Dessau, was hastily patched together by music director Edgar Fairchild. However, by the time House of Dracula was produced, any pretense of upholding the grand tradition of Universal's finest horror films had vanished. Only the music and photography helped prop the film up.
Soon after World War II, Dessau settled in East Berlin where his compositions, at last free of the confining influences of the American cinema, eagerly celebrated communism through operas such as Puntila (1959), a comic allegory on the ruling class and the common people based on friend Bertolt Brecht's play; Einstein (1970), offering a Marxist perspective on the century's most famous scientist; and orchestral suites such as Sea of Tempests, which commemorates a Russian moon probe landing. Till his death in 1979 at age 84, he also continued to display his mastery at reworking other composers' materials, such as his stately Bach Variations (1963) and playful symphonic adaptation of Mozart's String Quintet, K614 (1965). Whatever his thoughts on Hollywood, it is interesting to note that, besides bogeyman-filled House of Frankenstein, Dessau could also claim to have scored cartoon films for Walt Disney such as Alice's Monkey Business (though it is unlikely he ever rushed to make such claims).
Salter remained in Hollywood, unwittingly commemorating the atomic age and the Cold War by co-scoring Universal sci-fi films such as This Island Earth (1955) and The Mole People (1956). Incidentally, the strange irony of Hans Salter came full circle eighteen years after House of Frankenstein when, near the end of his career as a film composer, he found himself scoring Hitler (1962). However, the film was anything but distinguished, and Salter's score, for all its merits, never approached the rousing power, creepy atmosphere and raw inventiveness found in the composer's undying horror scores for Universal.
Bill Whitaker, 1995, revised 2007
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SALTER / DESSAU: House of Frankenstein