The Mancini Moment
How a composer of memorable songs and striking film scores descended into self-parody
By ERIC FELTEN
Feb. 18, 2012
In a 1956 session for Capitol Records, Milt Bernhart blasted out one of the great trombone solos of all time, the roaring break in Frank Sinatra's recording of the Cole Porter song "I've Got You Under My Skin." Twenty years later, the big-band business wasn't what it used to be, and Bernhart had become a travel agent in Los Angeles. One day his old friend Nelson Riddle—who had written the arrangement for Sinatra's version of "Under My Skin" and other essential scores for the Chairman—came by to pick up some airline tickets. Riddle wasn't exactly cheerful. He was trudging the best he could on the Hollywood hamster wheel, taking whatever work he could get orchestrating TV and movie scores. He lamented that he had never had much luck writing the sort of hit original songs that would produce a legacy of royalties. "You know, Milt," Riddle said, "I would trade all the arrangements I've ever written for one of Hank Mancini's big copyrights."
Goodness knows Henry Mancini had plenty to share. As a composer of scores for television and films, Mancini wrote hit title tracks for shows such as "Peter Gunn" and "Mr. Lucky" and movies such as "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark," and Oscar-winning songs like "Moon River" (from "Breakfast at Tiffany's") and "Days of Wine and Roses." In an admiring musical biography, "Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music," John Caps surveys the composer's career and attempts to make the case that Mancini was a significant figure in modern cinema scoring, an artist worthy of high regard. The challenge is that, though Mancini was a staggering success, few have stepped forward to champion his musical reputation. The general opinion has been captured well by music critic Will Friedwald, who characterized Mancini as "gold-thumbed."
An immigrant steel worker's son from West Aliquippa, Pa., Enrico Nicola Mancini escaped the mills by dint of his talent at the keyboard and after service in World War II found himself on the road with Tex Beneke's incarnation of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. With a knack for writing big-band arrangements, Mancini eventually quit the Beneke/Miller band for Hollywood and the sort of career as an orchestrator of other people's tunes that Riddle would carve out.
It was a Vegas choreographer who clued him in to the importance of writing his own songs: Arrange someone else's composition and you get paid once; write the original song and every time it is performed or a record is sold you get a royalty.
Mancini enjoyed a crucial mid-1950s apprenticeship scoring music on the B-movie assembly line at Universal-International studios. His music can be heard on everything from 1953's "It Came From Outer Space" and 1954's "Creature From the Black Lagoon" to Ma and Pa Kettle comedies. But toward the end of the decade, Universal was among the many studios that moved from the old "system" to a freelancer model. Mr. Caps tells how Mancini put out his own shingle and how, though he suffered a brief period of money-anxiety, he didn't have to worry long about where the next paycheck was coming from. His future would soon be made by the original songs he composed and arranged for a TV series created by Blake Edwards —"Peter Gunn."
"Peter Gunn" had the core elements that would define the Mancini jazz-pop approach: swaggering big-band blues riffs over a slinky-sexy chromatic hook and like-cool-man lounge atmospherics sewn out of a gauze of flutes and strings. The TV show was a hit, and as Mr. Caps notes, Blake Edwards would give Mancini's music half the credit. But the show's success was nothing compared with the success of the soundtrack: When Mancini released the music for "Peter Gunn" as an album, it was a sensation—10 weeks on top of the Billboard LP chart and a Grammy for album of the year.
Mancini had hit on a platinum formula, writing music that helped brand and promote an entertainment but that could be packaged into stand-alone albums. The approach would work brilliantly with the soundtrack to 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," anchored by the instant standard "Moon River." Mancini would write another wistful, sad-sentimental ballad for 1962's "Days of Wine and Roses." And in 1963 he gave the full "Peter Gunn" treatment to a swanky Blake Edwards heist comedy, creating a sly theme song that is still recognized 50 years later: "The Pink Panther."
Mr. Caps rightly credits Mancini's music of that era as something fresh and different in the movies—though he might have taken more note of the work of other composers writing jazz for the screen, such as Johnny Mandel, whose West Coast Cool score for the 1958 film "I Want to Live!" was a revelation of how non-symphonic music could be used dramatically. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that Mancini defined the early to mid-1960s cinema sound with such
scores as "Charade," "A Shot in the Dark" and, later, "Two for the Road."
Yet for all his outsize fame and undeniable talent as a songwriter and orchestrator, the composer has not enjoyed the acclaim of posterity. The subtitle of Mr. Caps's book, "Reinventing Film Music," overstates the effect Mancini had. The dominance of his signature style came and went, to be replaced by the more traditional orchestral approach of composer John Williams (who had once worked as a pianist in Mancini's orchestra). At the time Mr. Williams was writing his great scores for "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), Mancini's most prominent work was the goofball theme song for the TV show "What's Happening!" Which is a question—what happened?
The rap on Mancini started early, with an angry push-back from the more established film composers who found themselves being passed over for the Mancini crowd. A cymbal-crash of disdain came from Bernard Herrmann, the romantic modernist who wrote the music for "Citizen Kane" and for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," "North by Northwest" and "Vertigo." Herrmann is now considered among the greatest composers of golden-age Hollywood. But in the early 1960s he found himself eclipsed by a new school of film-score scribblers with a light, jazzy sensibility, composers with a taste for quirky instrumentation and catchy hooks that would help make their movie theme songs into pop hits. In the summer of 1964, Herrmann groused to the Hollywood Reporter that quality film writing had become "as rare as whales in telephone booths."
The root of the problem, according to Herrmann, was all this grabby, greedy hustling for hit tunes when the composer should be focused, instead, on contributing to the dramatic affect of a picture. "They're looking for a musical gimmick to lure the public," Herrmann griped, singling out such soundtrack schticks as "a harmonica surrounded by a choral group, the twanging sound of an electric zither, or the wail of a kazoo in an espresso cafe. Stuff like that. It only
takes away from what's happening on the screen."
The harmonica and chorus crack was a gibe at Mancini's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" soundtrack. Page Cook, the music critic for Films in Review, was even less generous. He described the work of Mancini and his imitators as a succession of "non-filmusical improvisations, haphazardries, banalities, and auditory disturbances." Even though the complaints put no dent in Mancini's booming career at the time, Herrmann did identify the key part of Mancini's success that would ultimately drag down his film-scoring career—the quest for LP-record revenues.
As Mancini tried to move into writing music that more carefully supported the action onscreen (perhaps feeling stung by Herrmann's criticisms), he didn't have as many separate radio-ready themes to fill out the record albums he was under contract to deliver to RCA. Some of the records, such as "Mancini '67," were a weird mix of Swing Era classics ("Satin Doll," "Cherokee") and painful pop ephemera ("Tijuana Taxi") and even some period rock. All of it was done with a smooth gloss—a luscious coating of strings on top of an airy flute nougat with a caramel-dense core of trombones and French horns. That signature candy-bar richness could be lovely. To listen to "Dreamsville" from Mancini's "Peter Gunn" score is to marvel that anything so beautiful was ever written for a TV show. But when that lush approach is applied to, say, "The House of the Rising Sun," the results are at best peculiar.
For most of his pop LP work, Mancini hewed to his roles as arranger and conductor. But in 1969 he sat down at the keyboard for a record that would be called "A Warm Shade of Ivory." He played melodies simply—almost simplistically—on the piano, cushioned by a cloud-confection of strings, winds and voices. The album was a monster hit, in particular the love theme written by Nino Rota for Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" (1968). That cut from went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, displacing the Beatles' "Get Back." Mancini was nominated for a record-of-the-year Grammy, and though he didn't take that trophy home, he won a Grammy for the orchestral arrangement on the recording.
One would think that, after a decade as the most in-demand of film composers, such success as a performer and recording artist would have solidified Mancini's place in the Hollywood pantheon. Instead, Mancini found himself in the position Bernard Herrmann had been in just a few years before—wondering why he wasn't getting much in the way of good movies to score. The answer may be that "A Warm Shade of Ivory" wasn't so much a disc as a golden millstone around Mancini's neck.
The problem with the record was that the soothing warmth of the Mancini sound had devolved into near self-parody. Mr. Caps ruefully notes that many critics "heard it as Mancini's blandest music ever—destined to be packaged for use in restaurants and elevators all over the country, instant background music, devoid of profile or ambition." In a decade Mancini had gone from jet-setting sophistication and Audrey Hepburn chic to being the guy with the sheepish grin and comb-over playing Muzak for the blue-hairs.
It wasn't good for business. Mancini found no shortage of work playing on the symphony pops circuit but fewer and fewer A-list film commissions. When Blake Edwards hired him to pen songs for Dudley Moore's character in "10," the only music anyone remembered from the film was Maurice Ravel's "Bolero."
Which is a shame, for Mancini's gifts may be too easily overlooked if he is categorized as Mr. Easy Listening. He had great skill as an arranger, and though he created an original approach to voicing, he had the grasp of varied styles necessary for a versatile film composer. He also showed great creativity when it came to finding new sounds for soundtracks: There is that wonderfully, weirdly funky Indian pump organ for the theme from "A Shot in the Dark" and his pairing of two pianos—one properly in tune, the other a quarter-tone flat—for 1967's "Wait Until Dark," a stroke of creepy-sounding genius. And Mancini should be remembered for the best of his songwriting. With "Moon River" and even more so with "Days of Wine and Roses," he had found a way to sustain the melodic virtues of traditional American popular song in the age of rock 'n' roll. No mean trick.
Some academic musicologists, most notably Timothy Scheurer and Jeff Smith, have been championing Mancini in recent years, looking carefully at his scores and suggesting that the patina of neglect should be polished off the composer's legacy. Mr. Caps takes that defense to book length. Though he spends too much time recounting plot details from the films Mancini scored, he does succeed in arguing that we should look past the pop pablum and credit Mancini with creating an original and compelling sound for films—however short-lived the Mancini moment may have been.