Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE – David Raksin



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1949 MGM studio executives were seeking a biopic of a famous American for their next film. They decided that the 1946 play The Magnificent Yankee by Emmet Lavery, which had a Broadway theatrical run of 159 performances would be their choice. Armand Deutsch was placed in charge of production with a $1.03 million budget, Emmet Lavery was hired to adapt his play for the film, and John Sturges was tasked with directing. Veteran stage and screen actor Louis Calhern was cast as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Joining him would be Ann Harding as Fanny Bowditch Holmes, Eduard Franz as Justice Louis Brandeis, and Philip Ober as Owen Wister.

The film explores the life of supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (AKA The Great Dissenter) and his beloved wife Fanny, whom he adores. They are well known in Washington D.C. society for their entertaining parties thanks to Fanny, the consummate hostess. They are unable to have children yet with the aid of his life-long debating friend Justice Louis Brandeis he dedicates himself to the Supreme Court and in mentoring the many Harvard law clerks, who he ultimately comes to view as his sons. Tragically Wendell’s life descends into sadness when Fanny unexpectantly dies after 57 years of marriage. The film did not resonate with the public and was a commercial failure, losing $471,000, although critics lauded Calhern’s superb performance. The film received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, and Best Costume Design.

MGM Music Director Johnny Green assigned David Raksin to the film for the first of a trio of films with director John Sturges on which he would collaborate. Raksin understood that the film score would have to provide the necessary Americana, patriotism and nostalgia to support this larger-than-life American legend. To that end, he chose to interpolate “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by William Steffe and Julia Ward Howe, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” by Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz, and “Auld Land Syne,” the traditional Scottish folk song with lyrics by Robert Burns.

For his soundscape, Raksin composed three primary themes. Wendell’s Theme offers seven-note phrasing that speaks of nobility, and solemnity born forthrightly by strings nobile. Throughout the film the theme emotes with a quiet dignity, strength and reverence, although its grand fanfare declarations of the Main Title, boldly speak to this legendary, and larger than life man. For Fanny’s Theme Raksin interpolated the song melody of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, which he transformed into a classic valzer gentile, providing the only feminine identity in the score. It offers both beauty and grace borne by strings eleganti with harp adornment, which carry us gently like a spring morning breeze. Supreme Court Theme offers esteem to the highest court of the land emoting with dignity and solemnity by French horns nobile and strings reverenziale. Its rendering as a processione trionfante in the “End Cast” offers its finest and grandest statements

“Main Title” offers a rousing score highlight where Raksin brings to life the American icon. It opens with a grand declaration by horns trionfanti of Wendell’s Theme as the iconic lion of the MGM Studio logo roars. As Wendell’s Theme unfolds for a proud and forthright rendering the flow of the opening credits commences. At 1:05 we enter the film proper with Wendell’s Theme now voiced by French horn nobile as we see the Washington monument’s image the waters of its reflection pool. The theme flows with restrained dignity as Owen Wister offers narration about this great American patriot, the important people in his life, set against images of America’s government. It is 1902, and at 1:38 a spritely rendering of Wendell’s Theme atop strings felice support as he arrives by carriage at their potential new residence in the capital.

“Welcome to Washington” offers what be the score’s most beautiful cue. It reveals that Wendell is favorably disposed towards the house, but defers a decision with the broker until his wife Fanny, who is running late arrives. As she arrives, we are graced by her theme, an elegant valzer gentile. At 0:57 the music sours as Wendell discovers that Fanny has already committed them to the purchase as their furniture, which is draped, has already been placed in the house. She pacifies him and her theme resumes with sweet gentility. At 2:09 interplay of his theme and a solemn statement of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” unfolds as he reminisces about his action as a soldier against General Lee at the battle of Spotsylvania 40 years ago during the Civil War. Fanny’s waltz carries their departure as Wendell advises Dixon that he will purchase the house. They then board an automobile and depart for a trip to Spotsylvania so she may see the battlefield on which he fought.

“Spotsylvania” reveals their arrival at the historic battlefield caried by a playful rendering of her theme bounding with joie de vie. At 0:15 woodwinds dinitosi voice Wendell’s Theme, joined by a solemn “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” hymn as he describes the flow of the battle. The hymn gains potency as he relates that the battle turned the tide of the war, and that we are now once again, a united nation. At 1:24 the Supreme Court Theme, rendered with dignity by French horns nobile and strings solenne joins as Fanny reassures Wendell that he will find greatness in Washington once he joins the court. Sturges however dialed the theme out of the film, which I believe was a creative error. The next day, back at home Fanny grieves that she was unable to bear Wendell a family, only to have Wendell assuage and comfort her. His new position involves taking the valedictorian of the Harvard Law School each year, with Mr. Clinton being the first, and mentoring them, which will allow him to express his paternalism.

The next day in “To The Supreme Court” Wendell and Fanny travel to the Supreme Court, where he is to be officially sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court. As they depart and travel by carriage, Raksin supports with a vibrant, albeit gentile rendering of his theme. He joins the other justices and enters the courts chamber where he recites the oath of office and then takes his seat on the court. At 0:24 we segue into “First Secretary Sequence” supported by a dignified rendering of Wendell’s Theme as Wister’s narration describes the first two years of Holmes’s life as a Justice. A montage of his yearly secretaries at work unfolds supported by his theme. At 0:40 a spritely rendering of his theme abounding with joie de vie supports his daily walks during springtime in Washington, including climbing over a park fence like a schoolboy to pick a crocus for Fanny. At 1:07 we flow with exuberance atop Fanny’s Theme into “Second Secretary Sequence” as she and Wendell run out for one of their favorite life joys – watching fire brigades extinguish fires. At 1:24 a diminuendo usher in a montage of Holmes training his many law clerks over the years supported by a gentle iteration of the Supreme Court Theme, which includes woodwinds tenero that speak to his paternal mentorship.

“Third Secretary Sequence” reveals another montage over the course of several years where we see Wendell mentoring his many secretaries. Raksin supports with the gentile pleasantries of Wendell’s Theme. At 0:18 we segue into “Waltz From Griebene Girl” atop Fanny’s Waltz offered with elegance and gentility for an exquisite iteration as Wendell and Fanny dine at a prestigious restaurant. Congressman Adams joins them at their table and expresses his pointed disapproval that Woodrow Wilson wishes to name Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Wendell and Fanny are delighted for their dear friend, but not surprised by Adams’ opposition since Brandeis is a Jew. At 2:39 we segue into “The Fight for Brandeis” supported by a solemn rendering of Wendell’s Theme as the long-suffering Brandeis addresses the press while the Senate Judiciary committee debates his nomination to the Supreme Court for the sixth month. We conclude with college friend Owen Wister visiting Wendell and Fanny.

“Holmes and Brandeis” reveals Brandeis winning confirmation and being sworn in as the first Jew to ever serve on the Supreme Court. A montage follows of Wendell and Louis serving together on the court, with an interlude of three of his secretaries saying goodbye, having enlisted to fight in World War I. Raksin supports with a buoyant, strolling Wendell’s Theme offered with gentility as the two friends take walks through Washington. They discuss the vital issues of the day, as well as their status of dissenters to the court’s majority decisions regarding child labor and free speech during war. At 1:110 we segue atop a playful rendering of his theme abounding with happiness into “Crocus” as Wendell reaches over a fence to pluck a crocus for Fanny. In “Auld Lang Syne” Fanny surprises Wendell with a celebration of his 80th birthday, which includes all of his former secretaries. A wistful, heartfelt, and very moving offering of the Scottish ballad “Auld Lang Syne” plays as his many clerks line up, and then one by one congratulate their mentor, who acknowledges each of them as “son.” As his ‘sons’ depart his birthday celebration in “Fourth Secretary Sequence”, they, as Harvard graduates, sing its college song “Gaudeamus Igitur”. The song melody is sustained to support a montage of his final batch of secretaries. At 0:25 his buoyant theme supports another springtime stroll in the park, becoming chagrined when because of his age, he is forced to reach through the fence to pluck Fanny’s crocus.

“Farewell” offers a poignant, tearful, and supremely moving score highlight, unfortunately most of which, Sturges dialed out of the film. It reveals Fanny is ill and taken to her death bed as Wendell confides to Brandeis his struggle to say goodbye to the love of his life for 57 years. He brings her violets as she rests in bed and relates plans for them in the spring. She recognizes that he is in denial, and asks him to sit next to the bed with her. She gently prepares him for the inevitable, insisting that after she dies, that he promises to not retire because of her death, but to instead remain on the Supreme Court until he feels he is no longer fit. The tender moment is bittersweet, and he, with resignation, agrees. Raksin supports with a wistful, heartfelt rendering of Fanny’s waltz, with sad interplay of Wendell’s Theme, which offers beautiful passages for violin d’amore and oboe tenero. At 3:50 the last 0:50 of the cue is used in the film, offering a heartfelt, moto romantico expression of Fanny’s theme on solo violin as Wendell reads to her one last time. At 4:30 we segue into I Am Content” a beautiful and tearful score highlight of unbearable loss. It reveals Wendell walking to her gravesite with a crocus flower in his hand. Fanny’s Theme soars on a stirring crescendo romantico as he reads the tombstone inscription, clearly wounded and missing her – the better part of himself.

The Day Comes” offers another powerfully evocative score highlight. Narration reveals that Wendell each day visits Fanny’s gravesite, and that he finally reached a life milestone – his 90th birthday. A radio broadcast at his library commemorates his service, and he gives a thankful speech to the audience. The next day during a Supreme Court case, Wendell falls asleep, the incident marked by aching strings tristi, which offer with remembrance, Fanny’s Theme as he awakens and realizes, that the time to retire had come at last. After the session, he gathers his belongings, informs Brandeis that he will not return, and departs carried by the quiet dignity of his theme. At 1:28 a carefree and playful rendering of Wendell’s Theme take voice as he joins children playing at the reflecting pool of the Washington Monument. A boy’s paper airplane crashes, and as he fixes it, he reads the headline announcing his retirement. At 2:00 a wistful rendering of Fanny’s Theme joins as he contemplates the end of his 30-year career on the Supreme Court. As he departs at 2:19 and walks to the Lincoln Monument his dignified theme is rendered with reverence, which swells when joined by a contrapuntal “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. We conclude with “End” as Wendell is advised of a visit from the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As he awaits his arrival in his library awaiting his secretary asks what he intends to tell his new commander-in-chief, and he answers “Young fella, we are in the middle of a war. Fight like hell”. Music offers the proud dignity of Wendell’s Theme, again joined by a contrapuntal “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. At 0:30 we segue into “Cast Titles” with the Supreme Court Theme rendered as a magnificent processione trionfante.

The score for The Magnificent Yankee has never been released independently, and is only available on the five-disc box set “David Raksin at MGM,” released by Film Score Monthly and producer Lukas Kendall in 2009. The Magnificent Yankee was mastered from ¼″ monaural tapes of what were originally 35mm optical masters, with a few cues (otherwise lost) filled in from acetates. The sound quality is good, but does not achieve 21st century audio qualitative standards. Nevertheless this, and the thirteen other scores provided in the set, have been long sought by collectors, and for me, a Godsend. Composing music for a biopic of an American icon offers a daunting challenge, yet Raksin masterfully created an exemplary soundscape, which fully expressed the requisite patriotism, dignity and nobility of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Wendell’s Theme embodies the very sinews of this legendary larger than life man, providing reverence, nobility and dignity. Attending was the beauty, grace and free-flowing gentility of Fanny’s Theme, a wondrous valzer elegante, which perfectly captured the love of Wendell’s life. Cues such as “Welcome to Washington”, “Farewell”, “I Am Content”, “The Day Comes” and “Holmes Retires” are poignant, deeply moving, and enduring testaments to Raksin’s mastery of his craft. Folks, David Raksin was an exceptional and gifted composer and I am thankful this wonderful five-disc box set “David Raksin at MGM”. I praise his score for “The Magnificent Yankee” as one of the finest in his canon and highly recommend your purchase of this album as essential for your collection.

Buy the Magnificent Yankee soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:13)
  • Welcome to Washington (3:09)
  • Spottsylvania (2:36)
  • To the Supreme Court/First Secretary Sequence/Second Secretary Sequence (2:19)
  • Third Secretary Sequence/Waltz From Griebene Girl/The Fight for Brandeis (3:19)
  • Holmes and Brandeis/Crocus (1:39)
  • Auld Lang Syne (1:54)
  • Fourth Secretary Sequence (1:22)
  • Farewell/I Am Content (6:08)
  • Day Comes/Holmes Retires (3:12)
  • End and Cast Titles (0:59)
  • Main Title (original version) (2:16)

Running Time: 31 minutes 26 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSMCD Vol. 12 No. 2 (1950/2009)

Music composed and conducted by David Raksin. Orchestrations by David Raksin, Leo Arnaud, Robert Franklyn and Paul Marquardt. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by David Raksin. Album produced by Lukas Kendall.

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