A couple of weeks ago, I made my way through The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, which I found to be a pretty good book. It’s not so much about the production of the 1956 John Ford/John Wayne movie as about the story behind the movie.
And for Frankel, that starts in Texas in the mid-1830s, with the kidnapping by the Comanche of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was about 10 at the time. Her uncle’s increasingly obsessive search for her and her recapture and return to Anglo life after twenty-four years is obviously the seed behind Alan Le May’s 1954 novel The Searchers and the film that followed two years later.
Along the way, Frankel tells as much as can be determined – from many sources, some original – what life was like for Cynthia Ann both among the Comanche and when she was returned to Anglo life. (That latter portion of her life – only ten years – was unhappy, as she longed to return to the Comanche and her sons; she had brought a daughter with her when she was, in effect, recaptured by U.S. Cavalry and Texas volunteers.)
In his book, Frankel tells Cynthia Ann’s story; the story of one of her sons, Comanche chief Quanah Parker; Le May’s story; and the better-known stories of John Ford and John Wayne, as he winds his way to the tale of the making of the film version of The Searchers, discussing along the way the themes of obsession, racism, and fear of the other found in both the book and the movie. It’s a good read, one that was more compelling than I thought it would be when I opened it. (If there’s a section that moves a little slowly and seems to have more of Frankel’s attention than necessary, it’s Quanah Parker’s story.)
The book touched a lot of sweet spots for me: I’m a history buff, I have an interest in Native American culture (especially the Plains tribes), I’m a writer, and I’m a movie fan. And of course, I’m a music fan, so when Frankel got around to talking about the scoring of the movie, I paid attention. The score was written by Max Steiner, whose name I knew.
Steiner was one of the first composers to score a film, and Wikipedia says that he’s been called “the father of film music.” He scored more than 300 films, including Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, to name two of the more prominent. And in his discussion of Steiner’s work on The Searchers, Frankel threw out two tidbits of information that honestly made stop reading in surprise and awe: When he was a child in Vienna, Steiner studied piano under Johannes Brahms, and he later studied composition with Gustav Mahler.
Then, the other day, I saw a Facebook post about the theme to the 1959 movie A Summer Place, and I wandered off to YouTube to find versions of the theme. (I have, of course, the hit version by Percy Faith and a few more, but I wondered if there were some obscure versions I’d not heard.) And I learned that the score to the film, including the famous main theme, was composed by Max Steiner.
I found a truncated version of Steiner’s version of the main theme at YouTube, and then went wandering to Amazon and learned that a CD of the score runs more than sixty bucks, which is well out of the sanity range for me. Back at YouTube, I found a couple of videos with highlights of the score. Here’s the better of the two. It offers a good sampling of Steiner’s approach to scoring a film. (The piece at Wikipedia offers a detailed assessment of his thoughts and techniques.) And, of course, it includes what is likely Steiner’s most famous piece of music: The main theme to A Summer Place, which comes in at the four-minute mark.