George Duning: A Hoosier in Hollywood

A Look at the Background of Composer George Duning by John Mansell
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.51, 1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and John Mansell

George DuningGeorge Duning was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1908. He began his musical career in 1921, when he was thirteen years old. His mother who taught organ and piano wanted the young Duning to study piano seriously, but he opted for the trumpet and had lessons from Herman Wogelmuth, who was first trumpet with the Cincinnati Symphony at that time.

By the time he was seventeen years old, George Duning was performing with dance bands and orchestras in Cincinnati. In his late teens he studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio, he majored in theory at the Conservatory and studied composition under Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco. In 1931 he joined the Kay Kyser orchestra as a trumpet player and arranger. It was not until 1934 that George Duning decided that he wanted to write music for movies. The composer recalls what led him to make his decision: “While in New York in 1934, I saw a Warner Brothers movie called THE INFORMER, this had a music score by Max Steiner. Up until this time, most movie scores had consisted mainly of excerpts from standard classics, but Steiner had persuaded Jack Warner into letting him compose an original score, tailored to the movie. I was so impressed by what the music did for the film, that I made a resolve that this was what my goal would be in music.”

During the next ten years, George Duning was kept busy as musical director and arranger for the Kay Kayser radio shows. In 1944 he joined the Navy and was assigned to the Forces Radio Service, during the next two years he arranged and composed for artists such as Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson and Judy Garland.

In 1946 he was discharged from the Navy and was offered a place at Columbia Pictures. It was at Columbia that he was given the opportunity to score his first motion picture. It was at this time that Duning met Morris Stoloff, who was Head of Music at Columbia. Mr. Duning remembers “Morris was a fine musician; he was very sensitive to the types of films for which he had to select composers. He was a wonderfully easy man to work with.”

Duning’s first motion picture score was for a Dick Powell movie entitled JOHNNY O’CLOCK. “The producer and director were pleased, and my score seemed to work beautifully – my career in movies was on its way,” says the composer.

Over the next sixteen years, Duning acted as a contract composer, arranger and conductor for Columbia. I asked the composer what facilities he had at his disposal during his time at Columbia. “Compared to today’s recording facilities, the set-up at Columbia left something to be desired. When Morris was conducting, I was in the recording booth, balancing the orchestra. When I conducted, Arthur Morton supervised the recording.”

A movie that Duning worked on at Columbia was SALOME, but the dance sequence in that movie was scored by Daniele Amfitheatrof. Mr. Duning explains why: “The SALOME score was a very long one for me, and Morris Stoloff felt the background score was very important. It was at my suggestion that he got Daniele to do the dance scene, so I was free to concentrate on the score.”

Throughout most of George Duning’s film career, his regular orchestrator was Arthur Morton, but during the late 1960s when Duning began to work extensively in television he did not use Morton. “Due to low TV budgets, I orchestrated all my TV shows, which included Movies of the Week, THE BIG VALLEY television series, early episodes of STAR TREK… There were a few exceptions however, and at times I would use Walter Sheets as an orchestrator.”

Duning’s film credits are many and varied. I asked the composer whether he had ever turned down a movie? “Josh Logan, for whom I scored PICNIC, wanted to borrow me from Columbia to write the music for SAYONARA, but the producer had accepted a main theme from Irving Berlin. I listened to a demo of the tune and knew that I could never compose a background score upon it, so I turned the film down.”

George DuningFilm scoring in the 1990s has become quite complex and technical, very different from when George Duning was at his busiest, so what did he think about the increased use of synthesizers? “I don’t like it! The present-day scores that use a predominance of electronic instruments sound cold, robotic, drone-like. I still prefer to hear acoustic instruments.”

Duning collaborated with many directors, most of them more than once. He remembers with a particular fondness Delmar Daves, for whom he scored 3:10 TO YUMA and COWBOY. “Delmar Daves was one of the finest directors I ever worked with. We would screen the picture together, spot the scenes that needed musical help, and the rest was up to me, it was a real pleasure.”

George Duning has composed music for over two hundred and fifty movies. Amongst all of these I enquired if he had a particular favorite? “I scored a lot of pictures, and out of my own work, I am particularly fond of PICNIC, BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, THE WOLRD OF SUZIE WONG, 3:10 TO YUMA and some of the early STAR TREK episodes. “Incidentally, I wrote the score for SUZIE WONG while staying in London for three months. Ray Owns was my fine orchestrator on this movie; I fell in love with London then and have been back several times for visits. My wife and I hope to get back for another visit in 1995.

“Getting back to favorite scores, I would say that I think Hugo Friedhofer’s score for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is one of the finest ever written.”

A question I like to ask musicians is how do they compose? At the piano, on a synthesizer, or in their head? Mr. Duning told me, “I was never a proficient pianist, some of my best work has come to me in the middle of the night, on a camping or fishing trip, or even sitting at a bar, etc. My themes could be motivated by a title, a line of dialog, a character’s name, or by the overall plot of the story.”

I also asked George Duning when he liked to become involved with a picture. “I read the script if possible; also I would try to look at the dailies, then at the first rough cut.”

George Duning’s film scoring career has spanned some fifty years and during this time he has received five Academy Award nominations, two Hollywood foreign press association awards, the Career Achievement Award 1987 from the Society for the Preservation of Film Music and the Indiana Composer of the Year Award 1993.

In November 1993, Mr. Duning gave a talk and showed clips from three of his favorite scores at the Indiana Music Festival in Indianapolis. Since his retirement in 1983, Duning has composed a piece for solo clarinet and chamber group entitled ‘Clariflections’, which was performed at the aforementioned music festival.

I will leave the last word of this article to the composer himself: “I retired from professional writing in 1983, but I still write occasionally for my own amusement. At the age of 86, I still hear the notes, they never stop. My final comment on my career is, THERE WAS NEVER A DULL MOMENT.”

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