Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Walter Scharf, composer

While the songwriters Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were responsible for the emotional anchor points of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the man who tied the various themes together and underscored the emotions between the songs was Walter Scharf.  Like any good film composer, his music was there to heighten the story’s emotions without ever calling attention to itself.  He was the consummate craftsman; his cues for Christmas Carol are so subtle yet so well written and arranged, one is never consciously aware of how much they enhance the film.   Despite his impact on the final product, he never once mentions the film in his autobiography, Composed and Conducted by Walter Scharf, or lists it in his filmography.  He even includes a picture in the book from the Christmas Carol scoring session, in which he is conducting with Jim Backus at his side, but gives no indication of what project it’s from.
His involvement in the process was significant although relatively short.  At the beginning, Scharf was there for all the vocal auditions, accompanied the candidates on the piano and consulted with Jule Styne on final choices.   At the song recording session, he repeatedly rehearsed the singers while Styne meticulously listened in on the performances and Scharf conducted the live orchestra as the performers laid down their tracks to tape.  Much later, after production was complete, he wrote the score that bridged the spaces between Styne and Merrill’s well placed songs, conducting the final scoring and choral sessions.  

Although he overlooked his work on the first animated Christmas television special, Walter Scharf sailed right through the heart of American popular entertainment in the twentieth century.  He began his musical career in New York playing the piano when he was 4 and by the age of 16, orchestrated Manhattan for Richard Rodgers; at 20, he orchestrated Girl Crazy for George Gershwin.  He worked with future film star Alice Faye in New York and soon followed her to Rudy Valle’s radio show, later ending up in the Hollywood film business when Valle came west to make a film for Warner Bros.   While at Warner’s, he worked with Al Jolson and Marion Davies, as well as scoring a number of films.

Before long he headed over to 20th Century Fox to work with his old friend, Alice Faye, who had suggested him to Darryl Zanuck for use on musicals.  It was there that he met Jule Styne, whose job was coaching singers for movies, and the two began a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives and result in a number of collaborations over the years.  Styne eventually ended up at Republic Pictures and several years later, Walter Scharf rejoined his old friend when he was brought in as head of the Republic music department.  While running the department, Scharf still managed to score well over a dozen features including some with John Wayne and Roy Rogers.  Tired of his role as administrator, Scharf wanted to get back to composing and left for Universal Studios, where he worked on a variety of films, some starring the likes of Abbott and Costello and Francis the Talking Mule.

After a brief stint for Howard Hughes at RKO and then for Sam Goldwyn on Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye, he moved to Paramount in the 1950s, working on films starring Bing Crosby.  There he met Irving Berlin, who, according to Scharf, began writing “White Christmas” in Scharf’s office with Walter taking down the first notes; he was the first to hear Berlin play it.  Others he worked with while at Paramount were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (including the 1963 classic, The Nutty Professor,  Frank Sinatra on The Joker’s Wild (which was the debut of the song, “All the Way”, written  by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn), and several Elvis Presley films starting with the second film, Loving You.

The 60s saw Walter Scharf re-unite with his old friend, Jule Styne, first on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, later on The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood and finally on the film version of Funny Girl.  Television scoring began to dominate more of his schedule and film score buffs will likely remember his work from the mid-60s series, The Man From Uncle and Mission: Impossible.  He next turned to documentaries when David Wolper engaged him for the Jacques Cousteau specials; soon he was also scoring National Geographic specials as well.  He was incredibly prolific scoring for TV, doing over 500 shows in his career.  Scharf admitted to having no problem working weekends and holidays.

In the 70s, Walter Scharf worked with Lee Orgel and Mr. Magoo one more time, scoring the NBC special, Uncle Sam Magoo.  Shortly thereafter he contributed to the pop culture classic, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which he orchestrated and arranged from a score by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse.  His next film, Ben, was the sequel to Willard, the movie about a loner obsessed with rats.  To sing the title song he composed (with lyrics by Don Black), he brought in the Jackson 5, led by 13 year old Michael Jackson; within 2 months of making the track, they were #1 on the pop charts.  Both the song and score were nominated for Academy Awards and although neither one won, the song did net him a Golden Globe.  Over his long career, Scharf was nominated 11 times for an Oscar, won 4 Emmys, 2 Radio awards and 1 Golden Globe. 

In addition to composing the score for both Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Uncle Sam Magoo, Walter Scharf worked on two other animated projects-he was an uncredited orchestrator for the Fleischer feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town and wrote the music for Filmation’s Journey Back to Oz!

In his later years, after he done just about anything and everything in film scoring, it was clear that Walter Scharf still retained values in a business that often overlooks them.  Interviewed by a newspaper reporter he said, “…composing for documentaries is what I love to do most.  The creative challenges are varied and endless.  In addition, TV documentaries offer clean, family entertainment, and I’d rather be associated with that kind of project than any other.”


Joe R. Frinzi said...

Thanks for another great blog. Scharf's score is haunting and memorable and it's a shame it isn't available on CD (or as a music only track on the DVD). As a longtime MMCC fan I appreciate all the great information you continue to bring to the fans.
Joe R. Frinzi

NorthernRail said...

Thanks, Darrell, for singling out the superlative work of veteran Walter Scharf in making MMCC so memorable. His arrangements, orchestrations, and underscore add so much to the emotional impact and overall appeal of the cartoon. So many such talented professionals don't get the credit they deserve for the musical cues that go by practically unnoticed, but without which the show would be dramatically and emotionally "flat" (as Gene Kelly observed in his acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award - check it on YouTube). I'm compelled to single out the arrangement of Winter Was Warm as exceptional - subtle, not hackneyed, and haunting.

I received your wonderful "Making of" book just in time for Christmas, and am enjoying it tremendously. Thanks.

NorthernRail said...

Darrel: your wonderful "making of" book reproduces a handwritten page of Scharf's arrangement the chorus sings under the closing credits - which got me wonder if the score itself has ever turned up? As an amateur arranger and orchestrator, I would love to follow along with the music in my hands. Other pix in the book show that the parts were provided to the singers. Is any of that material available? Have Walter's pencil notes been scanned? As I indicated, this is a wonderful orchestration and would be instructive to us non-professionals how a real pro goes about it.

Darrell said...

Yes, Scharf's handwritten score does exist in a private collcetion but I've never seen a copied version for the musicians. The sheet music for the singers has been published in a folio of songs from the special and should still be available.

Andallthatjazz said...

Hi Northern Rail,
Seven years late but better than never if you get this! The orchestrations appear to be available in the U of Wyoming AHC under the Walter Scharf Collection. If the library reopens to the public, that is your best bet!