Roy Webb

By Dirk Wickenden
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.77/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Dirk Wickenden

roy-webbHow many times do we talk of Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Horner, John Barry et al? A great deal, almost as often as we mention Korngold, Steiner, Newman, Rozsa and so on. But how often do we think about George Duning, Roy Webb, Frank Skinner, and Cyril J. Mockridge? These men were just as active, if not more so, than many of our favorites in the Golden Age and their contribution to the art and craft of film scoring is often overlooked.

Roy Webb is definitely one of the Golden Age’s underrated composers. Only as late as the ‘nineties did he receive an overdue appreciation, having a chapter devoted to him in Christopher Palmer’s excellent book ‘The Composer in Hollywood’ and a compilation CD from Silva Screen’s Cloud Nine Records label, entitled THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.

Born in New York on the 3rd of October 1888, Webb was exposed to the Metropolitan Opera by his mother and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan by an uncle. Also a painter (of the artist variety, not an interior decorator!), Webb eventually worked on Broadway shows prior to going to Hollywood in 1929 to orchestrate RKO’s RIO RITA for Max Steiner. He returned in 1933 as Steiner’s assistant and remained at RKO for most of his career, where he became their next major music director after Max Steiner, the association only ending when RKO was sold to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu television studios in 1955.

Whilst the invention of the click track for precise timings can be pretty much attributed to the premier animation composers Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling, Webb and Steiner were both pioneers of its use in live action feature films. (Many of Webb’s film scores at RKO were co-conducted by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, another of the studio’s music directors). His work in one capacity or another at RKO figured at over three hundred films across almost a Quarter of a century.

Roy Webb’s first credited film score as composer was ALICE ADAMS in 1935, but his most famous score is for the Alfred Hitchcock film NOTORIOUS (1946) and his other credits include the 1941 musical LET’S MAKE MUSIC, comedies such as 1938’s BRINGING UP BABY; spectacles like 1935’s THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and 1947’s SINBAD THE SAILOR. Webb was particularly adept at scoring films noir, which included the 1944 thriller MURDER, MY SWEET (aka FAREWELL MY LOVELY) and 1945’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE but is also admired, as evidenced by the title of Cloud Nine’s compilation, for his scores for the films of Val Lewton, including CAT PEOPLE from 1942 and its sequel two years later, CURSE… and 1943’s THE SEVENTH VICTIM and THE LEOPARD MAN. Indeed, for the year 2000, the Marco Polo label has revisited the Lewton/Webb films with their newly recorded compilation album CAT PEOPLE. Another notable film in Webb’s oeuvre is the KING KONG inspired MIGHTY JOE YOUNG from 1949, which featured a Steiner-like score in the best tradition and he provided additional music for 1944’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, a fact the irascible Herrmann, the principal composer, did not forget. In fact, Webb worked in practically every genre.

Fixed Bayonets!

This 1951 Twentieth Century Fox film directed by Samuel Fuller is set in its year of production, during the war in Korea. Therefore, it can perhaps be considered a form of propaganda. The basic storyline tells of a soldier, Corporal Denno, who despite rising through the ranks finds himself unable to give orders (although he can take them) and unable to fire upon the enemy. During the course of the squad’s holding off the enemy from a cave, he eventually assumes command by default, when one by one his superior officers are killed and, after hesitating almost too long, succeeds in shooting his first man. He then leads the remainder of the outfit to the rest of the platoon. The leading actors included a pre-VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM Of THE SEA Richard Basehart as Denno, Gene Evans (DONOVAN’S BRAIN) and Michael O’Shea (THE BIG WHEEL) as Sergeants Rock and Lonergan respectively, with James Dean in a bit part as one of the soldiers.

The film commences with a military pomp-and-circumstance theme over a credit of the filmmakers thanking the US Army for their co-operation, then the first visuals of a jeep carrying a general through snow covered terrain is treated tacitly by the composer. Webb enters again after a brief dialogue at base camp, which precedes the opening credits. Over the titles, Webb scores a military march on brass and snare drums, which fades out after the director’s credit, as if it were a marching band walking past the listener/viewer (the “Doppler” effect). Webb spots the movie very sparsely with transitional cues and brief uses of “Taps” and related fanfares, when I believe the film really required more music, perhaps adopting a gung-ho type of approach to bolster the propaganda feel or a more dramatic approach (the “war is hell” type of score).

An early scene shows the majority of the platoon marching off, whilst leaving a rear guard to outwit the enemy. A male choir sings on the soundtrack, whilst Webb ingeniously layers an eerie, distorted string and organ effect over the top (the sort of sound one might hear in a horror film of the period), playing from the point of view of the soldiers left behind and their anxiety. A similar effect is obtained with “Taps” performed softly on the brass, with the distorted effect as the camera tracks across the soldiers asleep in the cave.

There are a number of voice-overs, which are the men’s thoughts and Webb lays down music underneath, something he was particularly adept at in films. There is also source music, of a sort, as the Chinese play their indigenous bugles from all directions to confuse and play psychological games with the Americans. One of the soldiers says, “They’re playing our Taps”, to which someone else replies that it’s just the last three notes that are the same (sounds like he’s been listening to too many movie scores!).

Two of the men are dispatched to capture a Chinese bugle, so that the Americans may play the enemy at their own game, performing the oriental Taps-like calls to confuse them in turn.

The film, which admittedly is somewhat of a low budget pot-boiler, is a tad plodding in its structure, when more music may have helped the drama and rare suspense (for example Basehart’s unscored tiptoe through a minefield one of his fellow soldiers set out). A soundtrack album would be unworkable, but the score is worth noting for Webb’s weaving of the military tunes and his distorted sounds.

Marty Fine Film

MartyAs a freelance composer following the dissolution of RKO, Roy Webb was lucky enough to become attached to a modestly budgeted $343,000 production, a “sleeper” which would emerge as a multi-award winning film and one of the best dramas of the fifties. United Artists’ sensitive 1955 film MARTY starred Ernest Borgnine as the title character and featured a script by the talented Paddy Chayevsky. Chayevsky, like such writers as Rod Serling and Gore Vidal, directors Delbert Mann and Franklin J. Schaffner, actors Charlton Heston and Paul Newman and composers such as Jerry Goldsmith would find artistic success in television’s STUDIO ONE, PLAYHOUSE 90 and other live dramatic presentations. An earlier production of MARTY had originally been broadcast on television as part of PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE on 24th May 1953, with Rod Steiger in the lead role and it was a more realistic version than the later film. That said, it is today easier to be able to see the film than the television show but there is no denying the inherent quality in Chayefsky’s writing and the direction of Delbert Mann, whose services were both retained from the TV original. Mann was the first television director to go to Hollywood. He went on to direct such fare as 1958’s SEPARATE TABLES, 1967’s A GATHERING Of EAGLES and 1981’s NIGHT CROSSING, although he continued to direct television movies. Chayevsky is perhaps best known to modern audiences as the writer of 1980’s ALTERED STATES but amongst his other feature credits are 1964’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and PAINT YOUR WAGON five years later.

Set in Webb’s home of New York, the story concerns a thirty four year old bachelor butcher (Borgnine) and the twenty nine year old spinster schoolteacher he meets during the course of the narrative. With all his siblings married, he is constantly pushed by his Italian mother and others to find a girl and get married. This is a gentle film which would not do any business if made today.

The Score

The main theme of MARTY was not composed by Webb but by songwriter Harry Warren and additional music is credited to George Bassman, who was at one time an MGM staff arranger-orchestrator. Webb utilises Warren’s melody throughout the film, with the “pay-off” coming in the end credits, when the tune is heard with its lyrics. The opening credits, over a shot of the Bronx, commences with a brass fanfare, giving way to a jaunty waltz version of the theme, highlighting strings and woodwinds. Our introduction to Marty happens when he is working in the butcher shop and, whilst serving two of the women customers, is subjected to them asking about his brother’s recent wedding and that he should get married himself. “You should be ashamed of yourself”, they both say. As he rings up a sale on the till, he looks very fed up. The film cuts to his local bar, where he grabs a beer and sits with his friend Angie and they embark on a humorous scene as they try to decide what to do for their Saturday night. Angie wants Marty to phone up a couple of girls they met at a cinema a while ago, but he does not want to.

Later in the narrative, Marty’s cousin Tommy and his wife Virginia are at Marty and his mother Theresa’s house, asking if Theresa’s sister Catherine can stay there, as she is driving Tom and Virginia to distraction. Both Marty and Theresa say it’s all right and the couple leave. The first cue of the score proper starts as Marty sits twiddling his thumbs upon their exit, on soft strings, then his theme enters tentatively on flute and clarinet. Combined with the actor’s expression, the music reveals his unspoken thought that seeing his cousin is a sad reminder of his being without a girl. An oboe continues the gentle version of his theme as he decides to telephone Mary, the girl Angie was talking about earlier. The music tails out as he dials the number; Marty asks her out on a double date but things do not go as well as he would have hoped. Although we do not hear her responses, actor Borgnine’s performance says it all – his voice is higher-pitched than normal as he talks to her and then he closes his eyes and the camera tracks toward his face as she gives him a brush off. As he goes to put the receiver back on the hook, the music enters on double basses and strings enter on the crossfade to Theresa serving dinner. The Marty theme is recapitulated on woodwind and strings tail out as Marty eats. Theresa tells him he should go out that night to the Stardust Ballroom. The conversation leads to Marty becoming upset, saying he will remain a bachelor and that he is a “fat, ugly man+ and all he gets from going to the Stardust, a place he has been to before, is “heartache”. Borgnine’s performance in the scene is powerful and is an early indication that he will earn that golden statuette at the Academy Awards.

betsy blair & ernest borgnine - marty 1955

The 1955 drama “Marty” received eight Academy Award® nominations and won four Oscars®, including Best Picture. Director Delbert Mann (second from left) was honored as the year’s Best Director for his work on the film. Pictured left to right: producer Harold Hecht, Mann, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art director Edward S. Haworth and actors Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine.

At the Stardust, where a dance band is playing contemporary tunes, Marty meets Clara, a rather plain-looking schoolteacher who has been upset by her date dumping her (he had actually been going round offering guys, including Marty, five dollars to take her off his hands). Marty, who had berated the man that one cannot treat a girl that way, asks her to dance and she cries into his shoulder. The film crossfades to them dancing and the band plays the Marty theme, thus score moving into source subtly and effectively. As the pair leave the Stardust, Marty observes that he is talking like never before – people talk to him about their troubles but he could never find much to say to girls until now. We later see the two in a cafe, getting along like a house on fire, laughing and enjoying themselves. Then the film crossfades to later and Marty talks about his loneliness to Clara. In these intimate scenes, Borgnine’s acting is so natural that one believes in him totally. There is no underscore and no need for one – the performance carries the scene. Webb enters with a gentle love theme for woodwinds after Clara’s complimentary dialogue and her suggestion that he buys the butcher shop his boss had offered him. The cue becomes louder on trumpets on the crossfade to their walking through town to his house so he can get some money and Marty’s theme on strings emerges in the midst of the cue.

A couple of scenes later, Marty and Clara walk toward his house and Marty’s theme is presented in a very attractive setting, with a cor anglais (English horn) over a string pad, tailing out as they enter the house. Marty observes that Clara appears tense and agrees to escort her home. Music enters softly and as Marty places her coat around her shoulders, he holds her, the music growing in volume when he tries to kiss her but she pulls away. He shouts and says all he wanted was a “lousy kiss”. Accompanied by the soft music, his theme drifting in and out, he sits dejectedly and she sits alongside him, saying that she didn’t kiss him as she “didn’t know how to handle the situation”. She tells him he is the kindest man she has ever met and says she’d like to see him again. As she continues, Marty closes his eyes and when he opens them again, they are watery. Again, just in this simple action, Borgnine shows the right stuff to get that Oscar, this time with Webb’s soft but powerful underscoring. With a shaky voice, he suggests they go out the following night to see a movie and he’ll phone her, to which she agrees wholeheartedly. They then kiss gently and embrace.

As they say goodnight, the film cuts from Marty walking back down the pavement to Clara climbing the stairs to her parent’s apartment and a flourish in the strings is scored, with the gentle violin, cello and harp music representing Clara’s happy state of mind, which segues to playful music for Marty as he wanders grinning like the Cheshire cat, crescendoing as he spins around and whacks the bus stop sign, then runs across the road, narrowly avoiding being run over, yelling for a taxi. To hell with waiting for a bus – he’s the happiest he’s been in a long time. The film cuts to the Sunday morning, as Marty gets ready to go to church, whistling away.

Later, his friends say he should not call Clara up as she is ‘a dog’ (a term used a number of times in the film), the film crossfades to that night and he still hasn’t phoned Clara. The music is forlorn, again weaving Marty’s theme in and out of the cue as he tells his mother he’s going to see what Angie and the boys are doing. The cue tails out on the cut to Clara watching television with her parents and she is very tearful, still waiting for Marty’s call. Crossfade to Marty hanging outside the bar with his friends; they are asking each other what they should do for the night. Marty just leans against the wall with his eyes closed and then snaps- “Am I crazy or something? I got something good here. What am I hanging around with you guys for?” and he runs into the bar. After he dials Clara’s number, he says to a sorrowful Angie “Hey, Ang – when are you gonna get married… you oughta be ashamed of yourself”. Over the course of the film, the character has learnt that he is no different to other people and in turn, his friends are no different to him – they too are around the same age and still single. The phone is answered and Marty closes the phone booth door and says “Hello, Clara?” and his theme enters on the soundtrack as the film fades to black and the joyful vocal version of the Marty theme is then presented over silent footage of the lead actors and their credits.

Whilst it won Academy Awards for director Delbert Mann, writer Paddy Chayevsky, leading actor Ernest Borgnine and the coveted Best Picture Oscar and four other nominations, MARTY was not nominated in the music category. This is understandable when one considers the nominated films of the year in the category: Max Steiner’s BATTLE CRY, Elmer Bernstein’s seminal THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, George Duning’s PICNIC and THE ROSE TATTOO by Alex North, with LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING winning best score for Alfred Newman and also best song for Sammy Fain (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics).


Roy Webb’s final film score was for 1958’s TEACHER’S PET and he went on to write for television programmes such as WAGON TRAIN. He effectively retired from film composing when his house burned down in 1961, although he maintained his position as a charter member of ASCAP and SCA. His personal outlook on film scoring can be best summed up with his comment, “I think you can hurt a motion picture a great deal by making audiences conscious of the music, unless you want them to be aware of it for a particular reason”. This is very revealing and may suggest why, amongst his colleagues, he and his output is not given as much attention – by design, it was subservient to the film, much more so than for example, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Roy Webb passed away on the 10th December 1982 at the age of 94, in a Santa Monica, California hospital from a heart attack. Although he never achieved the fame of some of his contemporaries, he left behind a vast amount of movie music for our enjoyment.



  • J Viosca on said:

    I am very interested in the score for Hitchcock’s Notorious. There is a piece in the film that I have been trying to track down for over a year. This piece can also be heard in two other RKO films of the same era, ‘The Company She Keeps’, and ‘They Won’t Believe Me’. I do not know if the piece is a real song of the era, or a studio ‘incidental’ as I’ve been told it’s called, written by Roy Webb. Is there a score/track list available anywhere online or elsewhere? Thank You.

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