Home > Fathers of Film Music > HERBERT STOTHART – Fathers of Film Music, Part 11

HERBERT STOTHART – Fathers of Film Music, Part 11

Herbert StothartArticle by Craig Lysy

Born: 11 September 1885, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Died: 1 February 1949.

Herbert Stothart was born of Scottish and German ancestry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1885. He studied at Milwaukee Normal School with a curriculum tailored to prepare him for an academic career as a teacher of history. He helped pay for his education by working as a theatre usher, which also elicited a lifelong fascination with movies. It came to pass that he joined an Episcopal Church choir, which kindled a fervent love of music. When he entered the University of Wisconsin, he continued on this path by composing and conducting musicals for the Haresfoot Dramatic Club. His exposure to the musical arts and his extracurricular activities staging school musicals ignited in Stothart a lifelong passion for music, which would now dominate his life. His hard work paid off when one of his productions, “Manicure Shop”, was successfully staged professionally in Chicago, which opened opportunities for further musical studies in Europe. Once this occurred his career path was firmly set, and he returned to America, securing full-time employment as a composer for vaudeville and New York musical theatre.

A huge door opened for him in 1914, when he was hired by legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II as musical director for the operetta “High Jinks”, written by Rudolf Friml. For the next three years Stothart toiled on the road with various shows, which earned him his big shot in scoring his first Broadway musical, the farce “Furs and Frills”, (1917). He followed up with “Always You” (1920), where he collaborated with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein Jr. This seminal collaboration resulted in establishing and important partnership with both Hammerstein Jr. and Otto Harbach. “Tickle Me” (1920) and “Jimmie” (1920), quickly followed, both with lyrics provided by Hammerstein-Harbach. He then took on “Daffy Dill” (1922), again with Hammerstein Jr., which proved fortuitous. Stothart’s on-going success was noticed and resulted in renowned impresario Arthur Hammerstein hiring him for a Broadway directing job on his show “Blue Kitten” (1922). Stothart acquainted himself well and so was hired to write the music for two subsequent shows. Well, success breeds success, and after 1922, Stothart’s own original compositions began to be featured. His growing record of accomplishment opened doors for more serious works where he forged new partnerships with established composers, lyricists and playwrights, such as Vincent Youmans.

Stothart’s approach to his art was simple, to enhance the show’s narrative by integrating music into the fabric of the storyline. Next came one his most successful efforts, the very popular (477 performances) “Wildflower” (1923), where he teamed with Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Hammerstein-Harbach. “Mary Jane McKane” (1923), lyrics by William Cary Duncan-Hammerstein also performed well and sustained his momentum. These triumphs were followed by the highly successful show “Rose Marie” (1924), written by Rudolf Friml, which ran for an impressive 557 performances at the Imperial Theater. Stothart next began collaborations with two of the most accomplished composers of operettas, Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml. This led to a string of successful hits including; “Marjorie” (1924) with Romberg-Grey, ‘”You’re Never Too Old To Learn” (1924), “Twilight Rose” (1924) and “Happy Ending” (1924) with Friml-Harbach-Hammerstein. Stothart’s career was now ascendant and all seemed bright, yet a terrible life event occurred, from which he never fully recovered – the sudden and tragic death of his wife Dorothy. Stothart was emotionally wounded, yet never the less eventually returned to his Broadway work. Collaboration with George Gershwin on the opera/ballet “Song of the Flame” (1925) restarted his career, and he followed up with “Good Boy” (1928), by Kalmar and Ruby, which included the smash hit “I Wanna Be Loved By You”.

The year 1929 not only closed a decade, but also marked the end of an era – that of silent films. The advent of film audio served to open up a new frontier and there was no going back. This new era and media required composers, so Hollywood studio executives began recruiting talent from the elite ranks of Broadway. Well shortly after completing his latest musical “Golden Dawn” (1929) with Oscar Hammerstein, Stothart received an invitation from Louis B. Mayer to join MGM in Hollywood. Stothart took him up on his offer, and the rest is history. Worth noting is that Stothart was thankful to Mayer and remained loyal to MGM for 20 years until his untimely death in 1949. For his first assignment, he was asked to score the silent Russian film “End Of St. Petersburg” (1927), which the studio had acquired for distribution in America. He was next assigned the musical “The Rogue Song” (1930), by Lawrence Tibbett. Well, Mayer was very pleased with Stothart’s work and within just a few years, he established himself as MGM’s foremost film composer. This earned him first rights to securing the studio’s prestige output.

The 1930s was a fine decade for Stothart, perhaps his best, with many of his scores securing critical and public acclaim. He demonstrated skill across a wide swath of genres including; the historical drama “Rasputin And The Empress” (1932), the medical drama “Night Flight” (1933), the period piece romance “The Barretts Of Wimpole Street” (1934) the musical “The Merry Widow” (1934), and the romantic drama “Chained” (1934). But it was in 1935, a banner year in which he composed an amazing twelve scores, that he finally achieved critical acclaim with his first Academy Award nomination. His output in this stellar year included; the comedic musical with the Marx brothers “A Night At The Opera”, the Leo Tolstoy romantic drama “Anna Karenina”, two Charles Dickens dramas “A Tale Of Two Cities” and “David Copperfield”, the musicals “Naughty Marietta” and “The Night Is Young”, the south sea adventure tale “China Seas”, the comedies “Ah! Wilderness”, “The Winning Ticket” and “Pursuit”, the drama “Vanessa: Her Love Story”, and lastly, and most importantly “Mutiny On The Bounty”, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. This score, which I believe reveals Stothart at his best, offers testimony to his intuitive sense and innate understanding of the role of music in film. His working approach was classic pastiche – drawing inspiration from traditional English ship chanteys, source music, ballads and carols, which he masterfully wove together to provide the film’s musical narrative. In an interview concerning the film Stothart related;

“I saw the scope and magnitude of the story an opportunity for something new in music of the screen. I approached the task with the intention of having the score actually tell the story in psychological impressions. The listener can, without seeing the picture, mentally envision the brutalities at sea, the calm, the storms, the idyllic tropics, mutiny, clash of human wills, and retribution.”

He closed the decade with some of his finest efforts including; the classic romance and musical “San Francisco” (1936), Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” (1936) for which he utilized an array of traditional Chinese instruments to infuse his soundscape with classical oriental sensibilities, then came the operetta musicals “Maytime” (1937) and “Sweethearts” (1938), which secured him a 2nd and 3rd Academy Award nominations. For each he astutely updated the original songs to better showcase McDonald’s and Eddy’s voices. For the historical biopic drama “Marie Antoinette” (1938), which secured his third Academy Award nomination, he provided one of his most sweeping, romantic and lush scores ever. For the adventure drama “Northwest Passage” (1939), he once again provided pastiche, by infusing his military scenes with British songs such as “Rule Britannia” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”, and his colonial music with fife and drums. Lastly, and most notable he crowned his 1930’s canon with the now iconic “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), for which he earned his only Academy Award win, triumphing over the superb efforts that year of Max Steiner with “Gone With The Wind”, Alfred Newman with “Wuthering Heights”, Victor Young with “Gulliver’s Travels” and Aaron Copeland with “Of Mice And Men”. The score offers testimony to Stothart’s genius as he successfully integrated the various songs (lyrics by E.Y. Harberg and music by Harold Arlen) with his incidental music to achieve a truly sublime synergy.

Stothart, Oscar in hand, began the new decade of the 1940s on top of the world. Important accomplishments included; the romantic drama “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), which earned him his 6th Academy Award nomination, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1940), which he infused with classic English sensibilities, and the wonderful musicals “Chocolate Soldier” (1941), which earned him a 7th Academy Award nomination. “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941), which starred rising star Judy Garland followed. Lastly with “Thousands Cheer” (1944), which earned him an 8th Academy Award nomination, he offered something to suit everyone’s taste from classic pianist Jose Iturbi, Kathryn Gayson’s “Sempra Libre” to Judy Garland’s “The Joint Is Really Jumpin!”. For the romantic drama “Random Harvest” (1942), Stothart’s brilliantly interpolated the English wedding hymn “O Perfect Love” into the film’s sad narrative, often in beautiful interplay with his evocative, yearning and heartfelt themes. Worth noting is that Stothart was also successful with WWII dramas, and provided memorable music for several including, “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), in which he offered a warm and sumptuous string laden theme for the Miniver family, “The White Cliffs Of Dover” (1944), a romantic drama in which he infused traditional English gentility, and lastly, the grand Heroica Americana of “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1945), where his catchy Main Title tune perfectly captured the spirit of the famous Dolittle raid.

Stothart was now widely acknowledged as a member of the first tier of Hollywood composers and his success continued with a string of sterling efforts, which included; the astounding fantasy adventure “Kismet” (1944), which earned him his 9th Academy Award for his exciting and exotic score. Next came the biopic drama “Madame Curie” (1944) which earned him his 10th Academy Award, where he penned a score that was integral to the film’s narrative, and although pervasive, never the less supremely subtle, unassuming, and never intrusive. In “Dragon Seed” (1944), Stothart provides a poignant ode to the power of the human spirit, and achieves a sterling Oriental authenticity by employing an array of Chinese instruments to interpolate native hymns, as well as a centuries-old lullaby. He continued his progress with the exceptional efforts of “Valley Of Decision” (1945), for which he received his 11th and final Academy Award nomination, where his music captures the indomitable spirit of the Irish servant girl Mary who becomes indispensable to the rich Pittsburgh family for which she serves. For the tragic and dark narrative of “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” (1945), he expertly wove and interpolated Chopin’s haunting D minor Prelude into the film’s very sinews.

Stothart throughout his career demonstrated his acumen across a multiplicity of film genres. A trio of family films highlights his skills, and offer testimony to his mastery of his craft; in “National Velvet” (1945), his sentimental score spoke to the film’s emotional core – Velvet’s love of Pie. For “Son of Lassie” (1945), his heart-warming main theme for Laddie perfectly captures his loyalty and bond with Joe, while in “The Yearling” (1947), he underpinned his score with the concert piece “Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song”, by Frederick Delius for which he wove flowing melodies that cascaded with sympathy and melancholy. His career was ascendant and all seemed right with the world when tragedy befell him. In 1947 Stothart suffered a near fatal heart attack during a visit to his ancestral Scotland. As he recuperated, he took the time to write the concert piece “Heart Attack: A Symphonic Poem” based on his ordeal. Regretfully, he only lived to score three more films as he died in 1949 at the young age of 63, shortly after writing his last piece, the symphonic poem “The Voices of Liberation.”


Stothart roots were found on the stages of Broadway, not the 19th century European concert halls. He eschewed the grandiose and melodramatic style of the European school, preferring instead a more restrained approach, often employing leitmotifs. His themes, which often prominently featuring violins, were more subtle, and characteristically effective without being obvious or intrusive. One of Stothart’s defining gifts was his understanding of a film’s narrative flow. In the early days when musicals gained prominence their songs were not placed well and so the film’s pacing was often disjointed and its narrative flow disrupted. Stothart understood that the songs exist to serve the film, and that they must add value as a story point. As such he began rearranging these musical numbers so their presentation flowed in concert with the film’s narrative and supported important plot elements.

MGM recognized Stothart’s methods, and began assigning him their prestige projects. He soon gained renown as a musical director for eight MGM films that starred the legendary duo of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, including; “The Merry Widow” (1934), “San Francisco” (1936), “Rose-Marie” (1936), “Maytime” (1937), “The Firefly” (1937), “Sweethearts” (1938), “New Moon” (1940), and “Cairo” (1942). These operetta-musicals which featured old favorites written by Herbert, Friml and Romberg proved quite popular and showcased the amazing synergy of these two singers. Yet, in the final analysis it was Stothart’s masterful adaptations and rearrangements, for which we should attribute their success. He discarded many of the original numbers, especially the more dated and old-fashioned ones and replaced them with more contemporaneous popular tunes, which allowed MacDonald’s sterling vocals to shine.

Stothart’s background and methods in Broadway musical theater were adapted and integrated into his non-musical film scores. Regretfully this served to cause controversy throughout his career. It was common practice in musicals to import and borrow popular tunes or classical pieces, which were then adapted to the operetta for a particular audience and/or guest artist. This practice was called pastiche. While common practice in Broadway musicals it was frowned upon in the realm of film scores. As such, Stothart’s scores often elicited derision from both peers and critics alike that believed it was an indictment of artistic weakness or laziness. Yet time and time again Stothart’s pastiche worked and succeeded in enhancing the film’s narrative. A case in point is his adaptation of Shubert’s G minor Piano Sonata for the film “Oliver Twist” (1933). Stothart felt its simplicity and child-like lullaby nature was perfect for the film’s opening scene. I believe his artistic judgment was proved correct.

In the final analysis, we see in Stothart a composer that would use all the tools at his disposal. Although he frequently interpolated works from classical composers, source music, national anthems, cultural ballads and popular culture into the tapestry of his scores, it was always done with a singular purpose – to support the Director’s vision and the film’s narrative. From my perspective, Stothart was a master of his craft and his contributions to film score art immense.


Herbert Stothart’s talent was immense and he gained enduring public recognition as a songwriter, arranger, conductor, film score composer as well as a composer for the concert halls. He provided music for countless Broadway musicals, working with some of the greatest lyricists and composers of his time including George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein Jr., Otto Harbach. Arthur Hammerstein, Cliff Grey, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Vincent Youmans. He also collaborated with these same lyricists and achieved pop chart success with standards like “Cute Little Two by Four”, “Wildflower”, “Bambalina”, “The Mounties”, “Totem Tom-Tom”, “Why Shouldn’t We?”, “Fly Away”, “Song of the Flame”, “The Cossack Love Song”, “Dawn”, “I Wanna Be Loved by You”, “Cuban Love Song”, “The Rogue Song” and “The Donkey Serenade.” To a large extent, singers Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy owe much of their success to Stothart’s ability to structure their musicals to showcase their voices. In acknowledgement of his talent and contributions, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Late in life Stothart also wrote a trio of instrumental works. His first was “China: A Symphonic Narrative” (1943) commissioned by David O. Selznick for a celebration of Chinese culture. His second work as he recuperated from his heart attack was “Heart Attack: A Symphonic Poem” (1947) based on his ordeal. His third and final work, which was published posthumously, was the symphonic poem “The Voices of Liberation” (1949). In the last realm, that of film scores, Stothart’s career was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 63. Yet in his short twenty-two year career, he achieved a significant canon of 111 scores, eleven of which garnered Academy Award nominations. His one win in 1939 against a truly formidable field, “The Wizard of Oz”, was his crowning achievement. For me, Stothart will be most remembered for his modernizing of the Hollywood musical, which thanks to his efforts continues on to this day as a vital and enjoyable art form. Additionally, for me I believe his pastiche also defines his legacy. Unlike sanctimonious and purist critics, I believe there is a legitimate place for Pastiche in film score art, as long as it dutifully maintains fidelity to the Director’s vision and supports the film’s narrative.


Stothart received 11 Academy Awards nominations, winning one.

Academy Award Best Original Score Wins:

  • 1939 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – The Wizard of Oz

Academy Award Nominations:

  • 1935 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Mutiny on the Bounty
  • 1937 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Maytime
  • 1938 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Marie Antoinette
  • 1938 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Sweethearts
  • 1940 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Waterloo Bridge
  • 1941 Best Music, Scoring a Musical Picture – The Chocolate Soldier
  • 1942 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Random Harvest
  • 1943 Best Music, Scoring a Musical Picture – Thousands Cheer
  • 1944 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Thousands Cheer
  • 1944 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Madame Curie
  • 1944 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Kismet
  • 1945 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – The Valley of Decision


1920s and 30s:

Devil-May-Care (1927), The End of St. Petersburg (1928), The Florodora Girl (1929), The Prodigal (1930), Sevilla de Mis Amores (1930), The Son-Daughter (1931), The Cuban Love Song (1931), The Squaw Man (1931), Le Chanteur de Séville (1931), The White Sister (1932), Rasputin and the Empress (1932), The Cat and the Fiddle (1933), Queen Christina (1933), Going Hollywood (1933), Christopher Bean (1933), Night Flight (1933), Turn Back the Clock (1933), Peg o’ My Heart (1933), The Barbarian (1933), Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1934), Sequoia (1934), The Painted Veil (1934), What Every Woman Knows (1934), The Spectacle Maker (1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Chained (1934), Treasure Island (1934), Laughing Boy (1934), Viva Villa! (1934), Riptide (1934), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Ah, Wilderness! (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), China Seas (1935), Pursuit (1935), Vanessa: Her Love Story (1935), The Winning Ticket (1935), David Copperfield (1935), The Night Is Young (1935), The Good Earth (1936), After the Thin Man (1936), Camille (1936), The Devil Is a Sissy (1936), The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Romeo and Juliet (1936), San Francisco (1936), Master Will Shakespeare (1936), Small Town Girl (1936), Moonlight Murder (1936), Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Rose-Marie (1936), Of Human Hearts (1937), The Firefly (1937), Conquest (1937), Idiot’s Delight (1938), Sweethearts (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), The Firefly (1938), The Girl of the Golden West (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Northwest Passage (1939), Balalaika (1939), Broadway Serenade (1939).


Come Live with Me (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940), New Moon (1940), Susan and God (1940), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Edison, the Man (1940), Rio Rita (1941), Smilin’ Through (1941), They Met in Bombay (1941), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Men of Boys Town (1941), The Human Comedy (1942), Random Harvest (1942), Tennessee Johnson (1942), Cairo (1942), I Married an Angel (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The White Cliffs of Dover (1943), Combat America (1943), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Madame Curie (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Three Hearts for Julia (1943), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1944), National Velvet (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Kismet (1944), Dragon Seed (1944), The Green Years (1945), Adventure (1945), They Were Expendable (1945), The Valley of Decision (1945), Son of Lassie (1945), The Sea of Grass (1946), The Yearling (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Three Daring Daughters (1947), If Winter Comes (1947), Desire Me (1947), The Unfinished Dance (1947), High Barbaree (1947), Big Jack (1948), Hills of Home (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948).


Stothart, unlike his peers, does not have as many scores commercially available. However, there are several that are of fine quality and worthy of your exploration. I offer the following for your consideration.

wizardofoz-smallTHE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

This multi disc collector’s edition showcases this amazing score in its entirety. A significant amount of Stothart’s score was edited for the film. This CD presentation offers the original score sequence without audible breaks and with many of Stothart’s cues in extended form. These two discs contain a total of 82 tracks, 59 of which are the songs and score. You will be treated to extended pieces of score as well as score that were entirely deleted. In addition, some of the songs we all know and love contain additional material, such as the Scarecrow’s deleted dance from “If I Only Had A Brain”. The fact that all this material has been completely preserved and is made available to the public is to be commended. The sound was digitally remastered and for the most part, is absolutely amazing and clear. Some tracks have a minimal amount of tape hiss, enough that you notice it, but not enough to detract from the listening experience. I highly recommend this masterwork!

dragonseedDRAGON SEED (1944)

This is yet another Film Score Monthly (FSM) gem. Stothart achieved great success with his first foray into the orient with “The Good Earth” (1936) and he sustained its quality by composing yet another evocative score rich and abounding with exotic and authentic Asian colors. His lavish themes are joined by authentic folk songs, native hymns, a centuries-old lullaby and national anthems. Worth noting is that Stothart made extensive use of pentatonic scales, what were then considered “orientalisms.” Folks, Stothart’s marriage of eastern and western sensibilities, replete with Asian percussion buffeted with waves of patriotic brass and sumptuous strings offers a sweeping display of film score art at its finest.

randomharvestRANDOM HARVEST (1942) and THE YEARLING (1946)

This is a dual score album. “Random Harvest” (1942) offers a classic love story set in the aftermath of World War I. For the score, Stothart’ brilliantly interpolated the traditional English wedding hymn “O Perfect Love” into the film’s sad narrative, often in beautiful interplay with his evocative, yearning and heartfelt themes. “The Yearling” (1946) is a coming of age story that tells a story of a boy and his pet deer. Stothart underpinned his score with the concert piece “Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song”, by Frederick Delius for which he wove flowing melodies that cascaded with sympathy and melancholy. One caveat, unfortunately, the recordings of both scores suffered deterioration over the years, and each is about one-half complete. The sound quality is largely “archival,” particularly for “The Yearling”,

sonoflassieSON OF LASSIE (1945)

The score (co-composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco) tells the story of the bond between Joe and Laddie (Lassie’s son) with a tender string melody that speaks to the courage and loyalty Laddie discovers within himself as the story unfolds. The theme alludes to Daniele Amfitheatrof’s primary theme from the original score, which Stothart reprises for Lassie herself. Stothart’s main theme underpins the film and speaks to the loyalty and determination of Laddie’s quest to find his master. A gentile and whimsical line that casually rises and falls, as well as an ornamental idea, which allude to his mischievous and playful behavior provide secondary musical themes for Laddie. Lastly, Stothart provided a beautiful Love Theme for Joe and Priscilla, yet it is only heard early in the film, left behind like her as he embarked on his mission. Worth noting is that Stothart again used Pastiche by interpolating three theme’s from Edvard Grieg to speak to the Norwegian scenes, the first two coming from his famous Piano Concerto, and a third from his Peer Gynt piece.


  1. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard books, 2000.
  2. Herbert Stothart – Wikipedia
  3. Herbert Stothart at the Internet Movie Database
  4. Herbert Stothart at the Internet Broadway Database
  5. Herbert Stothart Biography, http://www.allmusic.com
  6. Herbert Stothart biography, http://www.nytimes.com
  7. Herbert Stothart at AmericanComposers.com
  8. Herbert Stothart, Songwriters Hall of Fame
  9. Music and Cinema, James Buhler, Caryl Flinn and David Neurmeyer. Wesleyan University Press, 2000
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  1. March 21, 2018 at 10:37 am

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