An Interview with John Green by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
John Green was MGM’s Music Director from 1948 to 1958, after having established himself in the 1930s as a songwriter in New York. An economics major at Harvard, Green had studied with Adolph Deutsch when he came to Hollywood after gaining experience as an arranger and conductor at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York. Green’s association with such MGM musicals as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, WEST SIDE STORY, and OLIVER! overshadows his effectiveness as a composer of dramatic works, and only a handful of soundtrack LPs exist showcasing Green’s work (RAINTREE COUNTY, also issued on CD, is the only full soundtrack of Green’s music to have been released. The MGM TWILIGHT OF HONOR LP only contained 2 cues – which is actually about all Green wrote for the film – supplemented by standards and excerpts from other MGM scores). His last score, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, was scored primarily with 1930s era dance standards, many of which Green had composed himself. Not quite a dozen of Green’s other film compositions appeared on various compilation LPs, leaving this composer of nearly 3 dozen original or adapted film scores woefully underrepresented on record.
Green died in Los Angeles in 1989 at the age of 81. Interviewed on August 12, 1980, while touring as an orchestra conductor, Green reminisced about his career and his views about motion picture music.
How did you first get interested in music?
I was born interested in music! Music has been the dominant interest in my life. I have one of those crazy, total recall type memories. I have very clear and vivid memories, as far back as when I was three years old, and even then, the one thing I wanted to do was to be totally immersed in the making of music. I never presumed to call it composing, but I was musically creative as a 3 and 4-year old, making things up at the piano.
And of course you pursued this in schooling?
That I did. I started studying piano formally when I was five.
You went to Horace Mann School in New York, and you graduated from Harvard, and you took some music courses there. How did you get involved in stage and screen music?
Background and environment have a great deal to do with what happens with young people. Sometimes it’s not easy to talk about one’s background and environment and not slip into what a younger person like you might consider bad taste, by virtue of the fact that I was born in New York City.
Being born in New York City at the time that I was born was unlike being born in any other city in the country, from the point of view of its cosmopolitan qualities and its unquestioned position as the arts hub of the entire nation. That’s where Carnegie Hall was, that’s where the Metropolitan Opera was, there’s where it all happened. That was the center of theatrical creativity. That’s number one. Number two, I was not born on the lower east side (which, by the way, had its advantages for youngsters or children with an artistic bent, they’re possibly better off being born into surroundings that are geared to the upper middle class, affluent family that I was born into). I was born into a trilingual family, I learned French, German, and English all at the same time, and that brought a cosmopolitan aspect into my life, and into a family that was made up of inveterate concert / theater / opera / ballet / art gallery / chamber music / whatnot enthusiasts of the first order.
So you had a taste of everything at a very early age.
I was fascinated by it. I suppose it’s perfectly possible to be born into that and rebel against it. I didn’t, I was taken by my mother to my first symphony concert when I was 4 1/2 years old, and absolutely reveled in it. I was transfixed by it, and from that moment on I not only wanted to spend my life making up music, but I wanted to spend my life being the conductor.
Some kids, you dump them in the swimming pool and they instinctively swim, but other kids you dump them into a swimming pool and they hate it, they cry bloody murder and can’t wait till somebody pulls them out. Well, if you’ll permit the analogy of the Swimming pool of the arts and the theater, I was dumped into it and loved it.
When did you get into theater and films and such?
My first real job at motion pictures was in 1930. At that time, Paramount had two studios, the one in Hollywood and a large, full scale major production studio in Astoria, Long Island, just across the East River from New York City, and I went to work there in 1930. I started there as a rehearsal pianist, under contract. Those were the days of the big enormous motion picture palaces and the so-called deluxe presentation houses, where, in addition to the films that were shown, there was always a large stage presentation. In those houses they maintained very large house orchestras – the Radio City Music Hall, for example, had a full symphony orchestra of 90 players. At New York Paramount, where I conducted for many, many weeks during the time of my contract, the house orchestra was 60 players. So, as I say, I started as a rehearsal pianist and I became an orchestrator, and then became a composer / conductor.
You also became very much associated with musicals, being an adapter, arranger and conductor for those motion picture musicals.
I worked on a couple during that hitch with Paramount in Astoria. I worked on a picture that starred Ginger Rogers and Jack Oakie called THE SAP OF SYRACUSE (1930) that was a quasi-musical. I both composed and arranged on that one. Then there was a film version of a very successful Broadway show called HEADS UP (1930), for Paramount, and I was arranger on that. Likewise THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931), starring Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier. But the big, major, well-remembered musicals with which I was associated didn’t come until after I came to MGM in 1942, and from that point on and through 1969. That, so to speak, was my golden heyday of being importantly associated with the landmark musicals.
You were also the producer of a series of Oscar-winning short subjects entitled THE MGM CONCERT HALL.
That was a series of short subjects that I produced. They were 10-minute short films in Cinemascope, and in true, actual – not phony or pseudo – but true stereo that presented the MGM Symphony Orchestra in the shorter works of the standard symphonic repertoire. I made six of those shorts. But I didn’t win my Academy Award for conducting – there is no Academy Award for conducting, as such. I won the Academy Award as producer.
I’d like to talk to you about a couple of particular projects. What problems did you run into on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS?
It’s impossible to build any project of the size and scope of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS without having problems! There’s a difference between unsolvable problems and problems that are solved by the application of know-how, inspiration, talent, experience, and teamwork, that product so worthy of a result as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was. Then there are the kinds of problems that inhibit teamwork and that are destructive. I think perhaps the greatest single attribute of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was the incredible team that made it, starting right at the top with its producer, Arthur Freed, its director Vincente Minnelli, its writer, Alan J. Lerner, its choreographer and star, Gene Kelly. There were three music men on the picture, Howard Chaplin, Conrad Salinger, and myself. That could be, I would think, one of the greatest teams that ever worked on any single picture. The expertise, taste, experience, and obvious inspiration that was involved in that picture, and all speaking through one of the most incredible bodies of music ever created, namely the Gershwin catalog. With as an advisor on the team, the enthusiastic Ira Gershwin, who had written all of those lyrics. Then you think of the cast that consisted of Gene Kelly and his then brand new find, Leslie Caron, whom he brought back from the Ballet de Paris, and Nina Foch. The cast was incredible. Everything about the picture, the concept of having the entire design of the picture inspired by the impressionist period in French painting, and then the concept of ending a commercial movie musical with an 181/2 minute ballet – everybody thought we were all out of our minds, you know! And that turned out to be one of the epic-making, landmark events in the history of films. And this is all in one picture!
But you asked about the problems… The problems were enormous! Not the least of the problems was that faced by Saul Chaplin and I in taking George Gershwin’s immortal classic, a concert piece that was written and created for the concert hall, and adapting it to the choreographic needs of Gene Kelly – one hoped without destroying the aesthetic integrity of the Gershwin original! I would think that was the biggest problem on the picture. But it seems to be on the record that we did a rather good job of it. And then, of course, Gene’s problem, in making that ballet work the way he did, and his absolutely inspired read-out, in terms of 1951 visual choreography, to a piece of concert music was one of the masterpieces.
What are your feelings towards RAINTREE COUNTY, which is another landmark in your career?
In total honesty, I think my score for RAINTREE COUNTY is my best writing to date, ever, for the screen.
RAINTREE COUNTY is immensely interesting in the fact that it was such a large epic. I would imagine there was some risk, because it was a similar film, dealing with the Civil War; to GONE WITH THE WIND, which Max Steiner had treaded similar territory on some 20 years earlier. Were you ever consciously concerned that people might be making a comparison between you and Steiner?
That’s a very bright and very perceptive question. Max, of course, was much, much older than I was, we were very good friends. I was a big admirer of Max Steiner; I knew his music intimately, so of course I knew the score of GONE WITH THE WIND. There are those who feel that Max and I and Victor Young and several others at that time were cut out of the same wood – I certainly don’t think that my style of writing and my approach to musical expression in the cinema and Max’s were the same. I recognized the danger of slipping into similarities between what I was going to write and what Steiner had written. I think I was so determined to avoid that, that I think I blocked out successfully Max’s score entirely.
Now, if you want to say that both RAINTREE and GONE WITH THE WIND are carved from the broadly speaking, 19th Century romanticism approach to tonal music, I would have to say yes, that’s true. I think there are many things in my score to RAINTREE that reflect my far younger approach to the subject than Max’s was; a far more contemporary approach. In other words, I think that ‘Tara’ sounds much more like 19th Century romanticism than the song of RAINTREE COUNTY, which has a sparse, melodic line, and a very open harmonic underpinning that is based on intervals of a 4th and a 5th, which are decidedly more contemporary than anything in Max’s score. I’m not saying it’s any better! But one of the things I was determined to do while trying to write what was right for the picture, was to make sure that nobody said “Holy Christmas! Why didn’t he just use Max’s score and call it an adaptation job?!” Well, I was determined not to do that, and I think I succeeded.
You also turned RAINTREE COUNTY into a very widely performed symphonic work.
Yes. That piece gets a lot of performances. It’s a very practical piece, only 8 minutes long, and it’s got the three principal themes.
How about another score you did for films, TWILIGHT OF HONOR. How would you characterize the music for that?
I’ll tell you, there’s only one piece of music in TWILIGHT OF HONOR. In the first place, the picture was a disaster, as you probably know. It was Richard Chamberlain’s first venture into motion pictures after being DR. KILDARE on television for God-knows how long. It was a good idea, but it just didn’t work from the point of view of a story and as a film. But I wrote one piece of music for that film that can be heard to this day on MGM Records. The film had an extended Main Title, it was almost five minutes long, one of those Main Titles with intermittent action interspersed with the credits. Five minutes is a very substantive length for a piece of music. A lot of very important pieces of music have been written in the history of musical literature which are only 5 minutes long. So the Main Title of TWILIGHT OF HONOR is one of the best pieces of music I’ve ever written in my life. Not only am I very proud of that piece, but from my own colleagues, I’ve got more fan mail on that Main Title than just about anything I’ve ever written.
I hope that some more of your straight scores come out on record some day.
Well, the only one that is on record at all at the moment, aside from my adaptations, is TWILIGHT OF HONOR. Lasher’s Entr’acte recording of RAINTREE COUNTY, it’s a 2-disc recording of 80 minutes of score, is so fabulously recorded and it is so well done…
Was the album re-recorded for a double LP when the film came out or are these the original tracks that were in the movie?
We went back to the original tracks (for the Entr’acte LP) and re-recorded them with all of the sophisticated technology of late 1976.
Lasher probably wants to digitally remaster it now.
He’s going to remaster it again if he makes the deal that he’s working on now. The Entr’acte recording of the full score – I’m not talking about the music, that speaks for itself, good, bad, or indifferent – but recording-wise, engineering-wise, he did such a great job. The RCA Victor people never released a stereo version.
Did you know that the original still goes for a lot of bucks?
Oh I know that! The top price that I know was ever paid was $400, at Sam Goody’s in New York. Somebody paid that for a mint copy of the original.
And then Lasher comes out with a stereo version, and everybody goes “Oh no!”
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? was your last feature. That’s a very interesting film, because Jane Fonda was in it and it was about marathon dancing during the ’30s, and you got an Academy Award nomination for that…
I got the Academy Award nomination for my musical adaptation of the music in the picture, but there were also seven of my songs on it. They were big standards of mine that had been written years before, like ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, and “Coquette’, and ‘I’m Yours’.
Why haven’t you written for films since then?
There are two reasons, being very honest about it. For some reason, I became one of the great number of so-called guys from a previous period who were kind of drummed out of the corps. There were very few who bridged that gap, who, after only a very minor dip in their activity, recaptured momentum and went forward with almost the same speed and the same quantity of work as they did previously. They included Hank Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein. They were the principal ones. The younger guys coming along, that’s something else again, that’s David Shire, Lalo Schifrin, Charles Fox, and all of those people, all of whom are enormously talented. But Miklos Rozsa got the axe, I got the axe, Bronislau Kaper got the axe, David Raksin got it. I was in very good company. The only thing I did was to leap ahead with my conducting career. I’m not one to sit around being bitter about work I’m not getting, I’m one to get out and get work that will keep me busy and keep me solvent!
Did you run into any trouble? A lot of people who are “serious musicians” seem to look down their nose at people who have written for films and such.
Oh, there’s no question about that.
Did you run into much trouble with that attitude?
To answer you very simply, lots! Bundles, if you prefer that! Plenty! Yeah, it’s a tough thing to overcome, to be a Hollywood composer. In those days of my concert career, Andre Previn and I were something of a team, we concertized a lot together, with me as conductor and him as piano soloist. Our principal attraction was our way with Gershwin’s music, but our activities were not confined to Gershwin, we had a broad spectrum of repertoire. We had a lot of engagements. What drove both of us crazy was simple: here we were with the Denver Symphony Orchestra or the Louisville Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, wherever we were, ‘Hollywood’s John Green and Andre Previn!’ ‘Hollywood’s This!’ ‘Hollywood’s That!’ You know, when Eugene Ormandy comes to Los Angeles to conduct, he’s not billed as ‘Philadelphia’s Ormandy’! I mean, somewhere in the article or in the review it may say something about his long tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra — fine, but Andre and I were ‘Hollywood’s Previn & Green’ or ‘Hollywood’s Green & Previn’. And we once made a fatal mistake. When we were appearing with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, all the press came, and we copped a plea with them, saying “please, let us off this hook! What we’re doing here this week, with your great Symphony Orchestra, has nothing to do with what we did in Hollywood. We’re not here as Hollywood musicians, we’re here as purveyors of symphonic repertoire, and we’d like to be judged on that basis. If you pan us, and place us in those terms, okay, but don’t tar us with this brush, saying we’re film musicians trying to be something other that we’re not.
What did they do?
Oh, they tore us apart!
That bad, huh?
Oh yeah, and we learned our lesson.
The strange thing is that, after 10 years, Andre Previn is considered to be one of the finest conductors, and so are you…
A comparatively short time later, Andre (a) cut himself off from me, entirely, and (b), he flatly refused to play Gershwin, in any shape or form, and (c) he walked out on his contract with RCA Victor and refused to make the three more jazz albums that he owed them. He said, if I don’t work an hour, let alone a day, I have had my last thing to do with popular or light or jazz or whatever music in any shape or form. I am a fellow with Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc. If you don’t want me on that basis, well that’s my tough luck, but that’s the only basis you can have me on. Now Andre did that, I did not do it, and he made it work. I kept on doing my pop concerts.
I heard one of your Boston Pops concerts, which also had some very serious music.
Yeah. Well, that’s what I do in Boston, you see. But at the Hollywood Bowl, Mr. Fleischman has even taken Gershwin away from me. And I built the Gershwin concerts at the Hollywood Bowl! They were synonymous with my name. But Fleischman has relegated me, at least for the present, for out-and-out pop concerts, and rather strange ones at that. But, go fight City Hall, and go fight success — I still sell the place out!
What is your opinion toward your concert music as opposed what you’ve written for films? Is there a difference of attitude?
Well, yes. Elmer Bernstein and I were on the same panel on one of the talk shows at the time I was just completing the writing of my Symphony, and we were asked about that difference. There is a very specific, technical difference, and that is what is known in the field of musical composition as the “long line”. The long line does not exist in film music. In films, a LONG musical sequence is three minutes, three-and-a-half minutes!
Of course there are exceptions, and there is that seven or eight minute sequence, but then that is already an epic, you know what I mean? Film music, by its very nature, its very definition, and by the fact that it is absolutely locked to dramatic action, is necessarily fragmentary and episodic. The essence of non-film music, or music for the concert hall, music for the chamber music hall, is that the essence of its quality is measured in terms of its sustained long line. The art of development is the key to the qualification of a so-called serious music composer.
That brings up an interesting paradox. For many years, you and many of your colleagues have written what people hail “great scores” but yet for that very same reason, it defeats you when you want your own, more personal music, and you can’t get that performed, because people have that bias.
I think the greatest single example of success in that area that comes to my mind at this point is Miklos Rozsa. Miklos Rozsa had one of the greatest film composition careers that anybody had in the history of the medium, and happily Rozsa is now heavily back at work again as a film composer after a hiatus of almost 12 years. But Rozsa, throughout his film composition career, maintained a career as a composer of music for the concert and chamber hall, and that’s the music of Rozsa that never stopped being performed.
Now that we’ve come through the whole thing that we have with the recording of film scores and the enormous resurgence of interest in film scores, everything of Rozsa’s gets performed! Rozsa has definitely had a double life as a leading, monumentally revered film composer, and an equally, importantly performed serious composer.
And people say, “well, he’s not the only one, what about Aaron Copland?” The difference between Rozsa and Copland is, Copland made occasional forays into film music – true, they were important – RED PONY, THE HEIRESS, etc – but his principal avenue of endeavor is the concert hall, with an occasional side trip to Hollywood, where, every time he made one, he was brilliant.
Rozsa, on the other hand, had his home base in films. But while he was maintaining a very lucrative and a very celebrated and a very worthwhile home base career as a film composer, simultaneously went his career as a composer of so-called absolute music.
The odd thing about it is, some producer had him turn his Violin Concerto into a film score, which is rather ironic! Now, I guess the question I should ask is where you think John Green’s musical career is going into the future, and do you think you’ll ever go back into films ever again?
Oh, let me say this… answering you quite dramatically, and yet I think realistically, because God has seen fit to make me almost bizarrely young for my years, I mean, medically speaking. I hope you won’t infer that I’m senile or in my second childhood, but I mean chemically, bio chemically, the degenerative processes in my body are freakishly delayed!
Okay, if I am allowed to live as long as the doctors say I have a chance of living, and I haven’t done at least another couple of films, I will die with great regret. I also feel the same way about songs. I don’t have any guilt, where film writing is concerned. I have actual guilt about having neglected my song writing career as I have, because there seems to be very little doubt that God gave me the ability to write songs. So not only do I want to write for more songs, but I feel very guilty for not having done so. At the moment, I’m working on a new concert overture for my publisher.