HISTORY & SURVEY OF FILM MUSIC

Elmer Bernstein

(1922 - 2004)

1953    Catwomen of the Moon

1955    The Man with the Golden Arm

1956    The Ten Commandments

1960    The Magnificent Seven

1962    Birdman of Alcatraz

1963    To Kill a Mockingbird

1963    The Great Escape

1964    The World of Henry Orient

1969    True Grit

1979    Animal House

1980    Airplane

1984    Ghostbusters

Elmer Bernstein was among the most prolific of all Hollywood composers, having created the scores to over 200 films. His hallmark was his versatility - his ability to composer in many styles- ranging from drama, westerns, epic, and comedies.


A native New Yorker, Bernstein was an established pianist at a young age who excelled in improvisation. Hi musical training at the Juilliard School gave him the toolset to morph between musical styles. His experience as an arranger for the Glenn Miller Band during WWII gave him broad experience writing in the Jazz idiom, while providing music for 80 armed forces radio broadcasts.


His first Hollywood work came in 1951, on the film “Saturday’s Hero”. Soon thereafter, Bernstein’s career was derailed when was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected Communist, due to his writing music reviews for a known Communist newspaper. During the hearings, Bernstein refused to give names of Communists, stating that he had never attended a Communist party meeting.


The incident caused him to be “grey-listed”, and he had difficulty finding work until 1955, when he was hired by the famous director Cecil B. DeMille to score the film “The Ten Commandments”. DeMille’s reputation as a strong conservative worked in Bernstein’s favor, and he once again found regular work in Hollywood. This led to a string of significant films scores, including those for the films “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and “The Great Escape” (1963).


In the 1970’s, Bernstein began scoring comedy films with directors such as John Landis. who’s films included “Animal House” (1978), “The Blues Brothers” (1980), and “Ghostbusters” (1984).

Cat-women of the Moon (1953)

After Bernstein’s run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was forced to score several low-budget sci-fi “B” movies. These films are so bad, they are actually entertaining. These films include “Cat-women of the Moon”, and “Robot Monster”, both from 1953.

Catwomen of the Moon (1953)

Robot Monster (1953)

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956)


“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) features Frank Sinatra as a musician and part-time heroin addict. The jazz-infused score and film were both edgy, delivering Bernstein his first critical success as a film composer. However it would be Bernstein’s newfound relationship with legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille that would fully revive his career, and correct his political standing in Hollywood. Bernstein’s over-the-top score was a great match for the melodramatic film production - the most expensive film ever made at the time.

Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

The Ten Commandments (1956) - Moses parts the Red Sea

The Magnificent Seven (1960)


A western-style adaption of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film “The Seven Samurai”, “The Magnificent Seven” features seven gunmen hired by the peasants in a Mexican border town who are being regularly pillaged by a local gang.  The score is notable for its strong melodies and driving rhythms, which add life to an otherwise slow film. 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) - Standoff at the Cemetery

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


Elmer Bernstein reached new heights with the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird”, creating one of the most iconic main title themes in all of film. Based on the Harper Lee Pulitzer-winning novel with the same title, the film explores relationships in a Jim-Crow era Alabama town. On many levels, the piano-driven score to this film defies time, ushering a new style of Americana, much in the style of American concert composer Aaron Copland. 

To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) - Main Theme

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

This comedy starring Peter Sellers follows the fortunes of a philandering composer/pianist named Henry Orient. At the center of the plot are two teenage girls who view Henry as a rock star, and their innocent obsession with the “modernist” style composer push the boundaries of farcical humor. 


The pivotal scene shows Henry performing his composition for piano and orchestra. Elmer Bernstein shows enormous range as a composer by creating a modern, angular piece of music that would not be out of place in a 1960’s concert hall.

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The World of Henry Orient (1964)

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