Thursday, April 2, 8922

Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) - The Great Escape

Although Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922, New York, NY - 18 August 2004) was not in any way related to composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, there was a slight facial similarity between the two men and, within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames, Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard). During his childhood he performed professionally as a dancer and an actor, in the latter case playing the part of Caliban in The Tempest on Broadway and he also won several prizes for his painting.Throughout his life, he demonstrated an enthusiam for an even wider spectrum of the arts than his childhood interests would imply and, in 1959, when he was scoring The Story on Page One, he considered becoming a novelist and asked the film's screenwriter, Clifford Odets, to give him lessons in writing fiction. He gravitated toward music by his own choice at the age of 12, at which time he was given a scholarship in piano by Henriette Michelson, a Juilliard teacher who guided him throughout his entire career as a pianist. She took him to play some of his improvisations for composer Aaron Copland. Copland was encouraging and selected Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for the young boy. Bernstein's music has some stylistic similarities to Copland's music, most notably in his western scores and in his spirited score for the 1958 film adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's novel, God's Little Acre.

He wrote the theme songs or other music for more than 200 films and TV shows, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments (1956), The Man with the Golden Arm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robot Monster, Ghostbusters, and the fanfare used in the National Geographic television specials. His theme for The Magnificent Seven is also familiar to television viewers, as it was used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. Bernstein also provided the score to many of the short films of Ray and Charles Eames.

Along with many in Hollywood, Bernstein faced censure during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. He was "gray-listed" (not banned, but kept off major projects) due to sympathy with left-wing causes, and had to work on low-budget science fiction films.

Bernstein was recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with Golden Globes for his scores for To Kill a Mockingbird and Hawaii. In 1963 he was awarded the Emmy for Excellence in Television for his score of The Making of The President, 1960. He is the recipient of Western Heritage Awards for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965). He received five Grammy nominations from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and garnered two of Broadway's coveted Tony Award nominations for How Now Dow Jones and Merlin.

Bernstein died of cancer in his sleep, at his home in Ojai, California, on August 18, 2004.


The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape, written by James Clavell, W.R. Burnett, and Walter Newman (uncredited), and directed by John Sturges is a popular 1963 World War II film starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and James Garner, based on a true story about Allied prisoners of war with a record for escaping from German prisoner-of-war camps. The Luftwaffe placed them in a new more secure camp, Stalag Luft III, from which they promptly formed a plan to break out 250 men.

The film was based upon the factual book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, who observed the actual events as a prisoner, as did George Harsh who supplied the introduction. Harsh, one of the few Americans in the British section of Stalag Luft III, died in 1980 at age 72.

Featuring an all-star cast including McQueen (whose motorcycle chase is the film's most remembered action scene; he also did many of his own stunts), James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Gordon Jackson, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence, The Great Escape is regarded as a classic and frequently repeated on television. The film marked Attenborough's first appearance in a major Hollywood blockbuster.

The march tune that serves as the film's theme, written by Elmer Bernstein, has also become a classic, particularly in English football.

[8922 Hefti / 8922 E. Bernstein / 8921 Piazzolla]