THE RED PONY – Aaron Copland
Original Review by Craig Lysy
In the 1940s Republic Pictures was struggling to find its place in the sun, and so made a concerted effort to gain equal status with the major studios of the day. To that end they began to take on serious dramas with renowned directors. Producer-Director Lewis Milestone was hired to bring George Steinbeck’s short story series The Red Pony to the big screen. Steinbeck himself was hired to write the screenplay as the multiple story lines had to be blended into a cogent narrative. Milestone brought in a splendid cast which included Myrna Loy as Alice Tiflin, Robert Mitchum as Billy Buck, Louis Calhern as Grandfather, Sheppherd Strudwick as Fred Tiflin, Peter Miles as Tom Tiflin, and Margaret Hamilton as Teacher. The story is classic Americana, set in the 1930s, and takes place in the Salinas Valley ranching communities of central California. A young boy Tom is gifted a red pony colt by his father Fred. The two are not close and Fred hopes that the gift will strengthen the father-son bond. But instead of seeking help from his father, Tom instead asks stableman Billy to help assist him in caring for the pony and in its training. All begins well, however it comes to pass that a terrible rainstorm hits and the pony somehow escapes the barn. It is a cold storm and the pony becomes soaked and chilled. It soon develops a fever and strangles, a breathing problem, which requires Buck to cut open its throat so it may breath. Yet the pony escapes and Tom finds it dead and being eaten by vultures. An inconsolable Tom blames Billy for the death. Now Billy has a mare Rosie that is about to give birth, which he has to kill to save the colt that is breeched. He believes this will make recompense with Tom, yet it does not go as intended as Tom is instead angered that Billy would kill her. Tom steals Billy’s knife to prevent the act only to discover that Rosie has delivered safely and she and the colt are alive and well. Tom gets his new pony and all ends well. The film was neither a commercial or critical success, earning no Academy Award nominations.
Milestone had previously collaborated with Aaron Copland on Of Mice and Men in 1939 and North Star in 1943, and so he was that natural choice for the project. Indeed, he believed that Copland’s archetypal Americana sound was a perfect match for the film. Copland only accepted after reading the Steinbeck short stories. Milestone let it be known early that he would be appealing to family audiences, especially children, which informed Copland that his score would have to be melodic and harmonic to ensure emotional accessibility. He decided early to not employ the usual practice of major modal expression of positive emotions and minor modal expression of negative emotions. Instead he would use consonance both major and minor modal to express positive emotions and dissonance to juxtapose the negative emotions.
For the score he composed five themes including; The Main Theme, which offers classic Americana with its confident and forthright phrasing born by warm strings and horns nobile. It is grand with its confident major modal statement of the open vistas of the American west. Tom has two themes; Theme 1 is playful, exuberant and filled with a carefree Joie de vivre of a young boy. Theme 2 manifests when Tom is under duress and emotes with more pathos and melodrama, expressing his anxiety and inner emotional conflict. The Ranch Theme also embodies the sensibilities of the west, and offers a classic American folksy diatonic melody, which supports the story’s ranch setting. Billy Buck is a free spirited ranchman renowned for his handling of both horses and women. He also has two themes; Theme 1 is simple in construct and emotes a series of bass notes and syncopated chords. It is a non-personalize rendering, which functions as a generalized ambient accompaniment. Notable is how the theme evolves into a more cogent identity as he and Tom become closer. Theme 2 emotes as a series of descending thirds, which Copeland shifts to and fro in varying registers. This theme is more personal and reflective of his genuine bond with Tom. The Training Theme with its repeating triplet phrasing just sparkles with its joyous exuberance of life, which reflects the emotional bond between Tom and the pony. The Sick Pony Theme is simple in construct and emotes as chromatic descending fourths. Lastly, we have the Parental Theme, which offers the most emotional and melodramatic expression of the score, speaking to the shared grief and bond with their son. I advise the reader that the album presentation is not properly sequenced to the film, and joins cues that arise in different sections of the film.
“Main Title” is a wondrous score highlight, which opens the film with a rousing and grand statement of the Main Theme as the eagle logo of Republic studios displays. As a narrator tells the story of ranch life the theme perfectly establishes the film’s mood as we bear witness the dawn of a new day, and simple country living as Billy rises to great the day. As he walks past a book “The Red Pony”, it opens to begin the run of the opening credits. Copland introduces Ranch Theme with all its Americana auras, which joins in wondrous interplay with the Main Theme. The scene M101 “Morning on the Ranch” is not included on the album. It reveals life on the Tiflin ranch as we see Billy brushing his horse Rosy, Alice Tiflin preparing breakfast, and Tom rising to wash the sleep from his face. They all join for breakfast and Copland carries the scene with a wonderful rendition of the Ranch Theme. In “Tom’s Theme” his theme carries him to begin his chores of feeding the chickens. At 1:04 we segue into “The Ringmaster – Chickens Into Horses which reveals Tom feeding the chickens. Slowly they are transformed into horses and Tom into a ringmaster of a circus. Faux fanfare, a sparkling rendering of the Ranch Theme and the comic woodwinds support then amazing transformation. A comic circus like dance rhythm develops to support the circular horse procession. This daydream is interrupted by his grandfather, who has returned home from his trip, which Copland supports with interplay of the Main and Ranch Themes.
Following breakfast in “The Clipping – Walk to the Bunkhouse” Tom joins Billy in his bunkhouse to borrow a newspaper clipping about Rosie, his prize mare. When pictures of saloon girls are revealed an uncomfortable Billy deflects Tom’s queries about the pictures. Copland introduces both renderings of Billy’s themes, which perfectly support their interaction. The album closes the cue with an alternative rendering of the Ringmaster music. “The Knights-At-Arms” reveals Tom walking to school. He grabs a stick and begins beating his lunch case as a drum, which initiates a fantasy where we see Billy and he as resplendent knights in armor leading a formal procession across a medieval countryside. Faux fanfare and a marcia grandioso carry their progress. He snaps back to reality after one of his schoolmate’s calls to him. The marriage of film imagery and music is spot on. In “Moth ‘Round A Flame” the family has sat for dinner and grandfather once again cannot resist retelling his legendary exploits where he led a band of settlers across the dangerous plains. The social interaction is most interesting as we see Tom is captivated, Billy and Alice listening politely, while Fred is visibly annoyed. Fred finally can suffer no more, excuses himself, and directs Tom to join him in the barn. Copland supports the scene with the heavy-laden Ranch Theme and a comic ostinato as a wayward moth provides a welcome distraction, as grandfather’s stories tend to go on and on and on.
“The Gift – The Red Pony Debuts” is a beautiful cue. Fred takes Tom to the barn and presents him with an amazing gift – a red pony purchased from a bankrupt circus. Fred informs him that he can ride the pony by Thanksgiving and Bill offers to assist with its training. Tom is overjoyed and we bear witness to a sparkling Training Theme melody on strings, which shifts to clarinet and later flutes gioiosa and Tom’s Theme. At 2:50 we segue into “Tom’s Friends” as next day we see Tom has invited his school friends over to see his pony. Strings animato instill wonder, excitement and vital energy that propel the exuberance of the scene. Grandfather’s relationship with Fred is strained as Fred has openly complained of his constant retelling of the same damn stories. In “Grandfather’s Story” Tom joins a dejected Grandfather on the porch and listens as he reminisces about the spirit of the pioneering days, the “Westerin” which carried him to California. Copland supports the tender scene with one of the score’s most evocative passages. His music is wistful and full of aching nostalgia, which offers a perfect joining of music and film narrative. At 3;05 We segue into “Westerin” atop trumpets and a staccato march, which slowly becomes dissonant, a revelation that the Westerin days are gone, never to return.
The scene for “Homecoming” is not included on the album. We see that there is discord in the family following grandfather’s return. Fred complains to Alice that he feels estranged from Tom and his fellow ranchers in the community. Alice encourages him to sort out his feeling with a trip back to San Jose. Copland creates auras of nostalgia by offering a very moving and poignant passage carried by strings doloroso and woodwinds pastorale. In “Tom And The Pony” two out of film sequence cues are joined. What follows is the actual film sequence. Tom makes his first efforts at trying to train the pony for riding. We are graced by a truly sparkling rendering of his theme, which informs us of his joy. Interplay of both Billy themes joins as Billy coaches and watches. The cue “Shall We Gather at the River” was left off the album and reveals Alice later that evening playing this quintessential hymn on piano as Tom asks Grandfather to join him training the pony in the morning. The scene M603 “Morning Training” is omitted from the album. When Tom wakes up Grandfather before dawn he is furious and threatens to shoot him! A furious fortissimo statement supports Tom fleeing out the door. As Billy joins Tom with the training we have sterling interplay of Billy Theme 1, the Main Theme, and a reprise of the music heard in “Tom’s Friends” where strings animato instill wonder, excitement and vital energy that propel Tom’s joy and the exuberance of the pony.
Music for the scene M700 “Prelude To Tom’s Indecision” was omitted from the album. A new day has dawned and a night rain has apparently ended. As Billy and Alice see Tom off to school we are graced by warm exuberant and wondrous interplay of the Main Theme and Billy’s Theme 1. Scene M701 “Tom’s Indecision” was also omitted from the album. Tom is anxious to take the pony out to the corral as it might rain again. Billy comforts him by stating that the storm has rained itself out that he will attend to the pony should more rain come. Copland sustains the interplay of the Main Theme and Billy Theme 1, alluding to the trust Tom feels towards Billy. At 0:46 of the fourth album cue “Tom And The Pony/Storm” we segue into the dissonant “Storm”, where we see a distracted and unsettled Tom at school as a thunderstorm deluge hits. Copland summons up quintessential storm music, and a flurry of thematic interplay, replete with tolling bells, which unsettles us and supports Tom’s anxiety. The music for scene M702 is omitted from the album. Tom returns home to find that his pony has escaped from the barn and become soaked and chilled in the rain. He and Billy bring the pony in the barn and dry it, but Billy notices the start of a fever. He calls for some warm water to begin treatment. Copland supports the scene with a tense rendering of the Sick Pony Theme, which is joined by a string ostinato and dissonance, a portentous allusion to the pony’s fate.
“Night” was inexplicably joined out of sequence with cue 8. The family is at the fireside and Tom cannot sleep, as he is worried about his pony. Alice is sympathetic and agrees to let Tom attend to his pony. There is interplay of the Parental Theme and the Sick Pony Theme carried by dark low register woodwinds, which portends the pony’s doom. The cue for scene M802 is omitted from the album. Fred has returned home and in sympathy relieves Tom of his chores so he can attend to his pony. Tom Theme 2 joins a powerful and dramatic statement of the Parental Theme as he in gratitude leaps into his father’s warm embrace. The marriage of music and film here was exquisite. In “Pony Gets Sick” the pony is suffering from the strangles and will soon suffocate to death. Tom watches as Billy lances an obstruction in the pony’s throat to aid its labored breathing. Tom is clearly distraught, and Bill soothes and reassuring Tom that his pony will heal. Copland sows sadness, hopelessness and sorrow with interplay of Tom Theme 2 and the Sick Pony Theme. We conclude atop a clarinet descending to abyss of its register as the metal breathing tube is inserted in to the pony’s airway. The music for scene M1001 is omitted from the album. Tom’s friends have come to see the pony and he angrily turns them away, not wishing to disclose that the pony is sick. A sad and distressed Tom Theme 2 supports the kids leaving.
We now come to the score’s most dramatic cue for scene M1001A, “The Buzzard Fight”, which is inexplicably omitted from the album. Tom wakes to find that the pony has again left the barn. He follows its hove prints in the mud and distressed pursuit music with mounting anxiety carries his progress. There is rising desperation as he observes vultures circling ahead. As he sees the dead pony being devoured by the vultures he angrily charges done the hill with vengeance and grabs one, initiating a graphic and brutal fight where he suffers repeated beak bites and talon slashes. Copland scores the scene with a fierce assaultive staccato dissonance carried by screeching strings, horns brutale and discordant woodwinds. In “After the Vulture Fight – He Let Him Die” Fred and Billy rescue him, yet Fred’s response is completely lacking in empathy. Billy admonishes Fred and carries Tom back home. Plaintive strings emoting Billy Theme 1 carry their progress, with cold clarinets informing us that Tom blames Billy for the pony’s death. Billy understands Tom’s loss and offers him his mare Rosie’s colt when it born. In “Rosie at the Pond” Tom initially rejects Billy’s offer, but in the coming months Rosie takes a liking to him, and worms her way into his heart. Copland supports the bonding with a pastorale full of sentimentality, which offers a perfect joining of music and film narrative. In “I Want Rosie’s Colt” the sentimental pastorale is sustained with prominent endearing strings.
The scene M1101 “The Promise” is omitted from the album. Billy has had a dream, in which the pony is lost due to a breech birth. He sharpens his knife, prepares to cut the pony out to ensure Tom gets his colt. Grandfather tries to dissuade him, but Billy is resolved to ensure Tom gets his colt. Unbeknownst to him, Tom has been listening in the barn shadows and discloses that he does not want Billy to kill Rosie. Dire horn declarations, the Sick Pony Theme and Billy Theme 1 carry the scene. We see Tom steal Billy’s knife to prevent him from killing Rosie. Billy takes it back and runs to the barn with Tom and the family in hot pursuit. Tense dissonant flight music supports the scene. They arrive to find Rosie alive and well having delivered her colt. We conclude with a wondrous score highlight. The family is overjoyed at the birth and we shift to months later as we see Tom riding his now fully-grown horse. We open with “Tom’s Theme”, which offers splendid thematic interplay with a reprise of Tom’s Theme 1, the Ringmaster music and the resplendent Training Theme. At 1:28 we segue into “I Want Rosie’s Colt”, which I discussed earlier in correct film sequence. At 3:34 we segue into “End Title”, which offers a splendid bravado presentation of the Main Theme, concluding the film magnificently with great satisfaction.
This was a difficult score to review, as I did not know whether to use the pristine Koch recordings of the Red Pony Suites by James Sedares, or this traditional album. I took my editor’s counsel and used the album produced by Intrada Records, which was issued this year. They took the original Republic Pictures 78 rpm acetate masters from the 1948 recording sessions for their recording. These masters were never intended for commercial release; as such I commend the audio restoration by Chris Malone, and the remastering of the monaural sound by Douglass Fake – nicely done gentlemen. Sonic purists may take issue with the recording, but I applaud Intrada’s efforts. Additionally the cues were not sequenced correctly, and some cues from different parts of the film were joined together. This was done in my judgment to create a wonderful album presentation, which I affirm here. Accepting these challenges I never the less preceded, as I believe this essential film score merited a review. Copland’s archetypal Americana sound was a perfect match for this classic film. He created a multiplicity of wondrous themes long recognized by critics as some of the best in film score art. He brought the ranch culture of Salinas to life, and gave heart to Tom’s story, a complex narrative of love, the pathos of loss, and the joy of rebirth. In scene after scene the music perfectly supported the film’s imagery and character developmental arcs, achieving an extraordinary confluence. This remarkable score has at last found voice with this Intrada album, which also offers “The Heiress”, another outstanding Copland film score. I highly recommend it for your collection.
For those of you unfamiliar with the score I have embedded a YouTube link to “The Morning On The Ranch” conducted by John Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrNYbAE3ekk
Buy the Red Pony soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title (1:29)
- Tom’s Theme/The Ringmaster (2:51)
- The Clipping/Walk to the Bunkhouse (1:54)
- Tom and the Pony/The Storm (1:51)
- The Gift/The Red Pony Debuts (5:07)
- The Knights at Arms (2:19)
- Moth ’Round a Flame (1:50)
- Night/Grandfather’s Story – Westerin’ (4:17)
- The Pony Gets Sick/Rosie at the Pond (1:29)
- After the Vulture Fight/He Let Him Die (2:52)
- Tom’s Theme/I Want Rosie’s Colt/End Title (4:02)
Running Time: 30 minutes 20 seconds
Intrada ISC-373 (1949/2017)
Music composed and conducted by Aaron Copland. Orchestrations by Aaron Copland. Album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.