Dimitri Tiomkin - The Composer Living in My Head

It's a joy to know he's there, ready to unleash great music

Dimitri Tiomkin
Dimitri Tiomkin

BEING John Stanley, I totally understand how horrible it is, being John Malkovich. Whoa, I don't mean just being John Malkovich, I mean being John Malkovich in the Academy Award contender "Being John Malkovich" with that human being John Cusack crawling around inside his brain. Whispering suggestions into Malkovich's temporal lobes and trying to take control of his actions. Manipulating Malkovich to carry out private Cusack motives, taking advantage of all that Malkovich is and will be. Taking over all that is the essence of being John Malkovich.

You see, being me, I know all about being him. Because I've got someone inside my head, exactly like John Malkovich. Only the person who crawled into my head has been there a lot longer than Cusack has been inside Malkovich's. And unlike Malkovich, who is flooded with the egotistical desires and evil thought control of others, the voice inside my head is music to my ears and an uplift to my spirit.

It's a joy to know he's always there, waiting to unleash some of his mental notes onto me when I least expect them. I don't know where he stays or what he does when I don't hear him. I suppose he hangs around my medulla oblongata when he wants to stretch out or he loiters around my cerebral hemisphere if he's feeling ethereal or maybe he goes to the inferior temporal sulcus if he's feeling depressed. But when he comes charging through the paracentral lobule or the anterior commissure, he's at his greatest. His motifs have helped me to go galloping through life, as if I were sitting astride a white charger. He has given me grandiose Americana landscape images by which to live. He's given me the sound of man's triumph and a musical portrayal of the best sides to the human spirit.

Majestic is the word that describes his music best.

The voice is that of a music composer who first entered by head, by way of my ears, in 1948 when I was 8 years old, sitting in the Uptown Theater of Napa, listening to the music track of a Howard Hawks movie called "Red River." John Wayne as Tom Dunson and Montgomery Clift as Matthew Garth were pushing hundreds of head of cattle to market, fighting off attacking Indians, jayhawkers, and the forces of nature. As the cowhands--ramrod figures pushing those dogies from sunrise to sunset--herded that mass of beef flesh across a river, and as Walter Brennan urged the chuck-wagon team through the water to banjo strains, the music sent messages to me I'd never forget.

It was the musical counterpart to a Remington frontier painting. It captured the spirit of the West. The conquest of the West. Even if we took the land from the Indians, my composer made it into a victory for all men.

Epic thunder. Crescendo lightning rods.

The music kept coming at me, like stampeding cattle. Grit, the true kind. Energy, the pioneering kind. Determination, the frontiering kind. The sheer weight of hooves trodded on the soundtrack. And the great physical effort required to move those cows from one side of the river to the other was captured in every bar and beat. Sweat, strain, stamina, strength, saddle-soreness.

That was the night that Dimitri Tiomkin, one of the great classical composers of Hollywood, began being John Stanley.

Tiomkin and his grand music weren't about to go away. From then on, as I grew into teenhood and then adulthood, I whistled and/or hummed his tunes wherever I went, often not even being conscious of it. "What're you whistlng?" my wife would say. "Gee, honey, was I whistling?" I'd reply incredulously.

If anything, the number of musical pieces, and the variety of musical pieces that would thunder through my head, increased over the years. There came the Oscar-winning ballad from "High Noon" ("Do not forsake me oh my darling ...") only instead of the grandeur of the American plains, this was about a gray sky and a colorless, sunbaked landscape in which the drawling voice of Tex Ritter, with a single guitar, an accordion and a few drums, sang out a lonely ballad full of sadness and emptiness and loneliness. One man wanting help but not getting it, one man standing alone against all things bad. The glamour was gone, but not the emotional depths into which Tiomkin could pull me and submerge me. Sometimes I felt more than I saw, for it was the music that was always there, ringing unforgettably in my ears. An Oscar for him, a life-long tune for me. And Tiomkin went on forever being John Stanley.

And then came his next soaring score, the music that captured an airliner in flight and the turmoil and trauma of passengers facing a life-or-death situation. I never thought "The High and the Mighty" was as exciting an experience as "Red River," but the music was high and mighty and it was to make Tiomkin feel high and mighty that Wednesday night, March 30, 1955, when they presented him with his second Academy Award at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and he said in his broken English, because he could never get his words out quite as good as he got out his music:

"Ladies and gentlemen, because I am working in this town for 25 years, I like to make some kind of appreciation to very important factor that makes me successful and adds to the quality of this town. For my award, I would very much like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Johann Baptist Strauss, Josef Strauss, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, Hayden, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov ..." He still had other great composers to name but at that point he couldn't go on because the audience broke out into laughter. The cute little guy from Russia had brought a touch of levity to an otherwise somber event, and they would be talking about his acceptance speech for years. For the moment, emcee Bob Hope remarked, "You'll never get on this show again."

Because I wasn't there to see his speech--I would only learn about it years later during my unquenchable quest for information about Tiomkin--there was never an image of the man Tiomkin, only the soaring and roaring and flooring sounds of his music.

Until one night in 1956, during a TV show called "Warner Brothers Presents," when Gig Young came on to introduce a piece about a soon-to-be-released movie, George Stevens' "Giant." Sitting there beside Young, his fingers poised over a piano keyboard, was The Man, the movie composer who had come to be considered one of the great soundtrack artists of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dimitri Tiomkin, in real flesh and blood even if the picture was black and white monochrome.

Gary Cooper won an Oscar facing the bad guys to Tiomkin's memorable "High Noon" music.
Gary Cooper won an Oscar
facing the bad guys to Tiomkin's
memorable "High Noon" music.

For the first time I was seeing the man who had crawled around in my head for all those years. Whether I had a choice about it or not, he was all I wanted him to look like: A cherubic little man with a twinkle in his eye, a head that was swiftly balding, and that terribly accented English that you could barely understand. And an utterly disarming smile and a playfulness as he kidded with Young. Here was an artist showing off the same sense of humor that had endeared him to the Academy Award audience of '55. He made me want to whistle the "Red River" theme again, for this was a night for a 16-year-old to remember.

First Tiomkin did a recreation of his famous Oscar speech. Same broken English. Some of the composers' names barely understood.
"Why thank them?" queried Young, once Tiomkin had finished.

Tiomkin: "For their help."

Young: "But they were long dead when you wrote your music."

Tiomkin: "Lucky for me."

Young: "Seriously, how'd you start composing?"

Tiomkin: "I don't start composing. I start by improvising during silent days of movies, in St. Petersburg, Russia." [Tiomkin, studying in his early years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, made extra money by providing piano accompaniment in movie theaters. Working without sheet music, he made up his scores as the images flashed in front of him, racing to keep up to the everchanging emotional needs of the story.]

Young: "Strange how after you spent so much time in foreign countries, you can capture the flavor of the American people so exactly."

Tiomkin: "The American people inspired me to write this Western music. I enjoy using American folk tunes. The United States is the greatest treasury of original folk music. As for 'Giant,' the music must capture a feeling for the great land and the great state of Texas."

As if to prove his point, Tiomkin took a sheet of music from his pocket ("I just happen to have this ...") and handed it to Young. While Tiomkin tinkled out the "Giant" theme that would open the picture a few months later to great box-office success, Young sang: "This then is Texas/Lone Star state of Texas/This then is Texas/Land that I love ..."

Finally, Young asked: "What do you owe your success as a composer to?"

Tiomkin: "I must say this sincerely. If I may obtain certain success, I attribute this success to the great wonderful land where I live, and the wonderful people with whom I have great love to be associated with for so many years."

Now I had the image of the man as well as the sound of his music in my head. And I began to learn more about this impish soul. Born in Russia in 1899, he had studied under the classic composer Alexander Glazunov. When he left Russia in 1925 for America, he carried both a law degree and a music degree in his pocket. Earning his U.S. Citizenship 12 years later, he married choreographer Albertina Raasch and made his conducting debut with the L.A. Philharmonic in 1937. By the following year, after all the studios had vied for his talents, he was scoring Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon."

There was the legendary story of how he had shouted out "Switt lyand of lyaberty" while orchestrating "The Star-Spangled Banner" for Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." And there were stories about his volatility. He would hold back his dissatisfaction with a producer for just so long, then would explode with outrage. For example, he had been asked by producer David O. Selznick to write music for a passionate love scene between Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in "Duel in the Sun." Twice Selznick rejected Tiomkin's approach. On the third try, when Selznick objected that it wasn't sexy enough, Tiomkin exclaimed: "You make love your way, I make love my way." The finality in Tiomkin's voice convinced Selznick: He went with the third cut.

Apparently Tiomkin had held his tongue for a long time on certain disagreements with Capra, until the making of "It's a Wonderful Life," after which the two artists split and never worked again. Even a pixie has to have bad days, I guess.

Tiomkin became the first producer to have his theme music turned into Top-Ten hits: The ballad from "High Noon"; the whistled theme music from "The High and the Mighty"; the main title from "Friendly Persuasion" and "The Green Leaves of Summer" from John Wayne's "The Alamo." He had become one of the most visible, and sought after, composers in Hollywood.

There were many Oscar nominations that didn't pay off: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Corsican Brothers," "Moon and Sixpence," "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," Kirk Douglas' "Champion," "Giant," "The Guns of Navarone." But he kept scoring movies until he was almost 70, still turning out a couple each year even as the body aged and conducting became more difficult.

I've heard them all but it will always be Tiomkin's Westerns and epics that I will love the most. There was the battle music from "The Alamo," and the dramatic use of "Deguello," the bugle call to give no quarter, to kill to the last man; the great sequence in "Duel in the Sun" in which hundreds of horsemen thunder across rolling hills (possibly the most exciting and spectacular scene of its kind in a movie); the ancient pseudo-Egyptian march music from "Land of the Pharaohs" and from "The Egyptian," and the showdown stalking music from "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." (Frankie Laine's rendition of the title song was one that didn't make the Top Ten.)

During all these years of discovery, I thought I was the only being who had been invaded by Tiomkin.

Until 1979, when I met Bruce Boxleitner. It didn't take me long that night at the Stanford Court in San Francisco to discover that he too had Tiomkin roiling around inside his brain. Boxleitner was there in Fournou's Ovens to talk about his role as Luke Macahan on the TV series "How the West Was Won." Boxleitner, who would go on to star for four seasons in "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and who would play Kenny Rogers' partner in episodes of "The Gambler" TV series, was lean and hard like a real cowboy, and stood 6'2". And he talked a lot about his costar James Arness, the tall drink of water John Wayne had first discovered and put into such movies as "Big Jim McLain" and "Hondo."

Boxleitner even sat with his back to the wall, as any self-respecting gunfighter would have done in a dangerously large San Francisco restaurant. And he talked like a pioneer, a frontiersman of yore. "There's no adventure anymore in our lives, and that's why I've learned to ride a horse and shoot a six-gun. In this day and age you have to strike out on our own or you become lost as an individual. And believe me, there're still frontiers to fight for. Energy, oil, mineral rights, protection of our natural resources." He even talked like a character from a Tiomkin movie.

Then Boxleitner talked about his love for Western movies. Something stirred in my brain. "The first thing I can remember is going to the movies and loving the things. I never thought about anything else. My favorites were Westerns and adventure pictures. John Wayne, Crash Corrigan and Gary Cooper would shoot up the screen and I'd love every moment of it. I knew then there was only one thing: Movies. I wanted to be in the movies. Western movies. By the way, do you know a film called 'Red River'?"

My heart leaped. The stirring in my brain was turning to fire.

Boxleitner kept on going without any reply from me. "It's one of John Wayne's greatest westerns. I loved the fistfight between Wayne and Clift." He went on a long time describing the fistfight, scene by scene. Punch by punch.

"Yeah," I finally punched back, "and remember the scene where Harry Carey Jr. wants red shoes for his wife, and there's a stampede and Carey gets killed, and then the burial scene, and John Wayne says he's going to buy Carey's widow that pair of red shoes."

Boxleitner waxed enthusiastically about the red shoes for all of three minutes, then: "And man, do I love the theme music." He mentioned Tiomkin by name. Crescendo. Brothers under the skin we were.

No doubt feeling the effects of several glasses of white burgundy wine, Boxleitner began humming the main theme from "Red River." People at other tables glanced over, but both of us were oblivious to anything other than being swept away on the hoofbeats of Tiomkin's cattle drive. Because I joined in--my first duo humming "Red River." That was the moment when Boxleitner and I became close intimate friends. It was only in our heads because we never saw each other again, but I've continued to feel a kinship to this day.

That same year Tiomkin died, on November 11, 1979, having not written a score since "Great Catherine" and "War Wagon" in 1967. He was gone but not his music, and his voice lived on inside my brain.

And he's still there, today, very much alive.

Lately I've been hearing "The Green Leaves of Summer" from "The Alamo," and the main theme from "The Old Man and the Sea" (for which he won his third Oscar) and there's always that "Giant" Texas theme. And once in a great while, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" works its way out, especially if I'm falling down tired.

But mostly, and inevitably, it's "Red River." It will always be "Red River."

But the other day, something odd happened. In the shower? I found myself whistling the theme from "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Good music. Captures a sense of camaraderie among men prospecting for gold; there's even a musical sound for the "glitter" of gold nuggets. Hard to hum, but it came bursting through my lips nevertheless.

Only problem is, that's not a Tiomkin score. Max Steiner wrote that one.

Then, the next morning, I caught myself humming "Casablanca."

As time goes by, I'm beginning to get worried. Because just last weekend? I started doing the Gary Cooper theme from his Seminole Indian western, "Distant Drums." And that eerie swamp theme when he canoes through the Everglades. Steiner again. And then I realized something was very very really wrong when I caught myself doing the Tara theme from "Gone With the Wind."

I had to ask the question:

Can it be that when I wasn't looking, and least expected it, Max Steiner somehow got into my head? And is now crawling around in my brain? Whispering those sweet suites into my ears?

Is it possible that somehow, in this time when so many of us have John Malkovich on the brain, that Max Steiner sneaked past everyone and began being John Stanley?