An Interview with Frank de Vol by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.12/No.45, 1993
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
How can anybody who was around the theater from the age of six, seeing all the shows that came through his city and who had a father who was a pit musician not be destined for a career as a musician with great dramatic instincts? Frank de Vol’s work for motion pictures, television, shows and records was well-prepared in his early teens. With his father being a pit musician, Frank was able to see silent pictures, Broadway plays, musicals and burlesque shows from the cradle. He studied violin from 9 to 15 years of age. When he was 13 he studied piano for a year and a half. When the marching band for the National Guard on Sundays didn’t have enough French horns, Frank De Vol just started to play French horn. He later played saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and flute in the pit with his father’s orchestra when he was 18.
Then, suddenly, pit orchestras went out of style. Travelling bands were brought in instead, and Frank’s father was out of a job. He became an accountant. Frank left home at 19 and went to Cleveland where he found a lot of work in the orchestras of restaurants, cabarets, cafes and nightclubs. The Big Band era had invaded the music scene and De Vol was right in the middle of it. In 1938 he found himself arranging and didn’t play anymore. In 1943 he began to orchestrate for Hollywood. He has been a composer, conductor, arranger and orchestrator for movies and television ever since.
He scored all the classic Doris Day comedies like PILLOW TALK (1959), LOVER COME BACK (1962), THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963), SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964) and CAPRICE (1967). He gave us the uneasy atmospheres for the Bette Davis thrillers, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) and HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). He maintained a productive collaboration with director Robert Aldrich, scoring 16 movies for him including THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), ULZANA’S RAID (1972) and THE CHOIRBOYS (1977). Other movies to have benefited from Frank De Vol’s music include CAT BALLOU (1965), GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967) and KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969). De Vol also scored many episodes of such TV series as MY THREE SONS, FAMILY AFFAIR and THE BRADY BUNCH.
Frank De Vol has received five Academy Award nominations, but hadn’t yet won an award. “I was always a bride’s maid, not a bride, as they say,” he told me. When I met him at the Universal Sheraton Hotel in Los Angeles he was just getting over a very bad cold. I want to thank him for his kindness and patience in providing this interview for Soundtrack!.
Your approach to the Doris Day comedies was very “serious” as opposed to emphasizing the comedy of the films. In his book, The Music of the Movies, Mark Evans writes about your “soap opera score” for SEND ME NO FLOWERS: “… his romantic, pseudo-tragic music added to the fun.”
I know the kind of things you mean. When Rock Hudson and Doris Day has these romantic quarrels… I have a good sense of humor myself. I think that’s a very important thing when you are in a business like music business and when you do motion pictures and TV. When I started out I did serious pictures, like THE BIG KNIFE, MURDER INCORPORATED, a lot of pictures at that time. I was just picked for serious movies. When I got a nomination for PILLOW TALK they called me all the time to do comedy pictures. I got into comedy for a long time. Then I got hack into serious pictures with THE DIRTY DOZEN. You are typecast in a way. I always tried everything. If somebody came up with a picture I took it, regardless of what kind. I figured that if I said “no” and felt that I couldn’t do it, it would be a 100% no. But if I said “yes” I had a 50/50 chance of being successful. Most of the time I was successful.
What was your first picture?
My first score was for a picture called THE WORLD FOR RANSOM in 1954. It was a picture about war and spies. The director was a young man and he liked what I did. So he hired me for his next picture, which was KISS ME, DEADLY. Then he hired me for THE BIG KNIFE. Then he hired me for ATTACK! It turned out that this young man was Robert Aldrich.
You did 16 pictures for him. The last was THE FRISCO KID in 1979.
Yes. THE FRISCO KID was about a Polish rabbi in the Wild West. I’ve got a lot of comments on that picture because there were a lot of Hebrew or Hebrew-sounding melodies in that. I had done some research on it – I had several books about the music of various countries and religions. From those books I was able to get the background, the harmonies and the sadness of Hebrew music and use it in that picture.
Would you describe your working relationship with Robert Aldrich?
I had very good working relationships with everybody that I worked for. Aldrich and I were good friends. Not socially – you know, you can become good friends with people in the work place. I’ve been to his home maybe half a dozen times; I think he was at my home once. But he did like me and he liked what I did because I used my talent and experience to try to give them what they needed and what they wanted. And also to remind them, “you don’t need music in that place.”
By the time they shoot a picture they don’t know whether the plot is interesting. If it’s a comedy, they have seen the jokes hundreds of times. They don’t know whether it’s funny. When I as a composer come in I’m seeing it for the first time. I can get excited if it’s a drama, I can laugh if it’s humorous. They don’t know. So that’s where you have to help and remind them.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE are certainly two of your most important scores. Robert Aldrich was the director, and Bette Davis had two great opportunities to play two larger-than-life mad women. It was a combination of psychological drama, thriller, horror and even grotesque comedy. Very unusual.
Especially if you say, the man who did PILLOW TALK did WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, that’s very different, or THE DIRTY DOZEN. You have to be available. I did one Western with John Wayne, McLINTOCK (1963). Being around with my father in silent pictures where they had to score from the music in their library, I learned all different things that fit a Western, for instance. I knew all these different styles just psychologically. They were inbred in me.
How did you learn to write film scores? Did you study books?
I had books on scoring because I needed books on orchestration. I started out writing by copying records. I was self-taught. I was asked to teach in a school here in Los Angeles. I said that I couldn’t teach anybody anything because I don’t know as much as the students know. Coming from college and having a certain musical education, they want to learn about things I couldn’t tell them. I know how to do it, but I don’t know how to explain it in their terms.
The songs Doris Day sang in the credit titles of her movies were mostly always written by someone else…
I wrote the song for only one Doris Day picture – I forget the name. Anyway, I wrote songs for most of my pictures, but I didn’t have many hits. I had a hit with THE HAPPENING (1967). The Supremes did a recording of that which was a success. HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE was a success too. I got a nomination for the song, and also for the background score.
That was a very gripping song and score. They just fit in right. The way you used this song as a dramatic element in the movie was unusual. Mostly title songs are used for commercial reasons; but on this movie it was different. The song played an important part in the plot, and it was also a very haunting tune…
You can do that with some songs, others you can’t. I once did a concert with Allyn Ferguson and two other people. They asked me to write something from MY THREE SONS for 60 players. I said, “That song is so banal. There’s not much you can do with it. How about doing also THE BRADY BUNCH?” So I wrote that piece and called it “My Three Sons Meet the Brady Bunch.” I made it like they were in competition. I used one theme, and then the other theme, I did bugle calls and parts from the 1812 Overture. It turned out very well.
You can write a song in minor or orchestrate it in a particular way, using a sad instrument like oboe or English Horn. The reason that I told you before that I was self-taught and I had many books on music was because I had to look and see how to write for certain instruments.
I never had to write a symphony, but if somebody asked me on assignment “we have to have this ready in two months. We need a 10-minute symphony,” I would go and look up the form, how a symphony was done. Sometimes symphonies were done from a four bar motif. Then all I would have to do was get a motif and expand it. The information is all there, and as a self-taught musician and with my experience I could write that. It may not be the greatest, but it would be a symphony.
Did you work mainly for one studio or another?
In the earlier days MGM had their own orchestra, their own group of composers, orchestrators and copyist. So did Disney. Most of the studios had people on staff. It changed about 1950-52 and everybody started freelancing. So I worked at MGM, at Warner Brothers, at 20th Century Fox and at Disney. If they wanted somebody they called an agent, “we got a picture here, that’s our budget…” So the agent realized that they can’t afford Hank Mancini. “But we can give you Frank de Vol for that amount of money.
The only time that I ever had a funny request was when somebody called up and said, “we want a composer like Frank de Vol.” My agent said, “I handle Frank de Vol.” They said: “We don’t want him. We want someone like him.” I don’t know who they got!
In some films your credits just read: “Music by De Vol.” Why is this?
Well, originally it was “music by Frank de Vol.” Then I became the head of the Artists & Repertoire section of Columbia Records in Los Angeles. They had me take Mitch Miller’s place. Mitch told me, “Your name is rather stagy.” (By the way – I had people ask me, “what was your name before you changed it?” But that’s my name!) Anyway, Mitch said “Why don’t you leave that off and say, ‘music by de Vol’ and use that?” So I did. A lot of people used to ask me, “Why do you use that?” Finally, when nobody was saying anything any more, I changed back to “Music by Frank de Vol.” People asked, “How’s come you change back?” So I was getting a lot of attention anyway, which you need in show business.
Coming back to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, whose idea was it to use those two songs?
‘Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte’ was the title of the picture. Robert Aldrich had a particular lyric writer. I think I wrote the music first on that, and then he put a lyric to it. In BABY JANE there was a song called ‘I’ve written a letter to Daddy’. Robert Aldrich wanted a song like this woman who was now old and who wanted to wear that baby’s outfit. So the song had to be in the early 1900s. Well, from being around with my father, I knew the feeling for that.
When I heard this song first in the theater I was so overwhelmed and impressed by this innocent tune. It’s a simple 3/4 melody, but it still makes me get goose bumps when I hear it.
Oh, is that right? I think with the picture you probably got that.
It carries all those associations like lost childhood and naiveté, Jane (Bette Davis) is no longer what she thinks she still is. It’s a very “loaded” song, emotionally.
It’s a strange thing. I have tapes of the music, and many times when I go back and play some tapes of something that I’ve done I say to myself, “Why did I ever do that? It doesn’t fit that picture.” You’re always in a learning position, and times change too.
I did a lot of backgrounds for singers. Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, six albums with Ella Fitzgerald, then I was doing a lot of comedy bits on TV as a comedian. So if I wasn’t doing one thing I was doing another thing. Sometimes I look at the amount of music I wrote and it makes me tired just to look at it.
It’s of course a matter of time and taste, but for us today I think that some scenes in BABY JANE and SWEET CHARLOTTE are over-scored. The music is over-dramatic sometimes. It works most of the time, but sometimes it’s just too much.
I see that too in some of the older movies. The music goes on and on. I tried to get out of doing that – even though you get paid for your amount of music from ASCAP. I said, “Look at all the thousands of 3-act plays with never any music.” Sometimes the music is a necessary element; it has to be a kind of cement in scenes that cut back and forth. It can cut to a train with a young man coming back from college, then you cut to his mother waiting at the station for him, then you cut back to him, then you cut to another train on the same track. You know they are going to crash. Musically, you just can’t write one piece of music for these cuts. It has to be a piece of music put together in little sections. It has to be the cement, as I said before. It has got to be just like the picture because the picture is cutting. The human eye will take that. When you hear the music by itself, on an album, for instance, it sounds like hell. It breaks up.
Coming from silent pictures and having worked in show business ever since, how do you feel today?
I’m just happy that I’m not in the music business anymore. It has changed, as everything does change. We went from pit bands to stage bands to the Big Bands, from silent pictures to sound pictures. Now the music is entirely different. They use synthesizers. I don’t play piano. I’m not a keyboard player. So I’m satisfied that I fulfilled everything I knew how to do within the period of my life. I’m a happy man and I had a good time. I wouldn’t have changed anything in my life.