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Unsung Heroes of Cinema: Alfred Newman

This week’s Unsung Hero of Cinema definitely deserves his place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame.

Although you might not recognise him or even be familiar with some of his other work, you’ll undoubtedly recognise one piece in particular, especially if you’ve ever watched a 20th Century-Fox film…

Much like we rarely wonder who the “torch lady” at the beginning of a Columbia Pictures movie is modelled on (see my previous Unsung Heroes post about Jenny Joseph), we probably never wonder who composed that timeless and iconic fanfare that plays over the 20th Century-Fox logo (you know, the one with the drum roll and the trumpets that’s played at the beginning of films like Star Wars and Alien..?)

Well, it was this guy…

Alfred Newman

Alfred was a nine-time Academy Award winning film composer and conductor. During his four decade-spanning career he composed the music for over 200 movies as well as contributing ideas for other scores without ever taking credit.

He was considered one of the “three godfathers of film music” along with fellow composers, Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin. These “godfathers” were among the first musicians to compose and conduct original music for movies in the early days when sound was first added to film.

It’s funny to think that there was a time when people didn’t know how music should be used in movies.

In the days of silent films, a piano or orchestral track would be used over the top of the picture, but when spoken lines of dialogue suddenly became possible and movies with actual sound (dubbed “talking pictures” or “talkies”) became popular, filmmakers had no idea how, when or where music should be used. Newman was a pioneer in establishing just how it should be done and developed systems that are still used by composers today.

His film credits include: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Anastasia (1956) and How the West was Won (1962) but his biggest legacy and probably his most well known piece of music is the 20th Century-Fox theme.

In 1933 Newman was commissioned to write a fanfare for the Twentieth Century Pictures logo that was shown at the beginning of all of their motion pictures. He wrote the first half of what we’re all so familiar with today and it continued to be used even after the studio merged with Fox Film Corporation in 1935 (becoming 20th Century-Fox).

In 1954 Newman wrote additional music for the fanfare, adding the string part at the end (my personal favourite part) in order to promote the studio’s adoption of the new CinemaScope presentation (basically a new widescreen format).

Interestingly, the fanfare was re-recorded by his son, David Newman (also a film composer) in 1997 and that’s the version that we still hear today.

Alfred’s son David (who, by the way composed music for films such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Mighty Ducks, Jingle All the Way, Galaxy Quest and Ice Age) isn’t the only other composer in the family either. His other son, Thomas Newman is also a successful film composer who provided the music for films such as The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Finding Nemo and Skyfall.

His daughter is also a musician and composer as were his two brothers.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Alfred’s nephew is none other than Randy Newman, the two time Academy Award winning singer/songwriter who, among many other songs gave us “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” which of course has become the theme song for the Toy Story movies.

I don’t know about you but that 20th Century-Fox theme reminds me of watching movies as a kid and the feeling of excitement of what was to come. I still get that now. 🙌

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