‘So Crazy-American’ | National Review

‘So Crazy-American’ | National Review


Bugs Bunny greets cast member Steve Martin at the premiere of Looney Tunes: Back in Action in Hollywood, 2003. (Reuters)

My Impromptus today has a peculiar heading: “Bad words, good words, &c.” The issue of words recurs throughout the column: What do people mean by the words they use? Do they know what they’re saying? Anyway, a smorgasbord, for those interested in the dishes available.

In an Impromptus last week, I mentioned cartoons — classic Hollywood cartoons. Specifically, I spoke of the music in them, composed, arranged, or selected by refugees from Europe. Here in the Corner, I’d like to share with you a couple of letters, with a little commentary.

A reader writes,

Of course, when you mention classical music and Hollywood, one immediately thinks of Liszt and Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry. But I always think of Dimitri Tiomkin, a classically trained composer from the Russian Empire who fled the Bolsheviks and wound up in Hollywood, writing for the movies. His work in westerns is well-known, as he scored Red River, High Noon, Rio Bravo, and tons of others.

What is so crazy-American is that this Ukrainian-born Jewish-American classical composer wrote the theme to Rawhide!

Yup.

For reasons I could get into, I was recently re-reading the piece I wrote three years ago for the centenary of Leonard Bernstein. (It’s going into an anthology.) In 1954, Bernstein wrote a film score — to On the Waterfront. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Tiomkin, who had scored a movie called “The High and the Mighty.” (Also nominated that year were two other famous composers: Max Steiner and Franz Waxman.)

Let me quote from my piece:

Bernstein did not take his loss graciously. Not for him was “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” “I am furious about the Academy Awards,” he wrote to his secretary. “It is obviously politics, and I don’t care, except that it would have jacked up my price for the next picture to double. And that is important. Oh well.”

Before we leave Dimitri Tiomkin, and the American West, let me mention Aaron Copland — who, as much as anyone, created the sound of the West (through Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and other scores). He was a gay Jewish composer from Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of immigrants. Culture works in mysterious ways.

Also, we might ponder the question, “Who is a real American?”

A second reader writes,

Hi, Jay,

You took me back to my teaching years (long ago now). I was the head of the English department and, as such, I always made sure that I got the toughest kids in the school. On one occasion, a Friday afternoon, I was out in one of the portable classrooms (I made sure that my teachers had proper inside facilities and I didn’t give a damn where I taught). It was the last period of the week and the lads were anxious to get at their weekend mayhem. So to rattle their cages a bit I informed them that I was assigning some homework.

Loud cries of protest arose. I squashed the civil unrest and told them what the task was to be: They were to listen to 15 minutes of classical music. In the classroom, there was dead silence, as they pondered their assignment — their homework for the weekend. Then, as one, they stood up and made for the door. Also as one, they were singing or humming the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Gobsmacked, I put myself in the doorway to stop their egress. “Where did you guys learn that?” I asked. They laughed and one of them said, “Bugs Bunny.” And off they went. That evening, I had an extra pint in their honor.

Wonderful. Again, today’s Impromptus is here.





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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.

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