Oscar Pfofile #442: Frank Skinner

Born December 31, 1897 in Meredosia, Illinois, Frank Skinner was the composer of more than 200 film scores utilized in close to 500 films. He was the author of several textbooks on arranging, composing and orchestrating music, most notably 1934’s F. Skinner’s Simplified Method for Modern Arranging and 1950’s Underscore.

A graduate of the Chicago Musical College (now known as the Chicago Conservatory of Music) in 1914, 16-year-old Frank gravitated toward vaudeville and began playing in local areas with his brother Carl Skinner on drums. They were billed as the Skinner Brothers Dance Band. From there they began playing on the steamboats that went up and down the Illinois River. It was during this time that he began writing and arranging music for dance bands. This brought him to New York, where from 1925 to 1935, he arranged about 2000 popular songs for Robbins Publishing.

After a short period at MGM, working on musical settings for 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, Skinner was hired by Universal. Although he continued to work on musicals, most notably the Deanna Durbin musicals, he quickly mastered the art of dramatic scores, earning five Oscar nominations in the span of six years from 1938–1943, two of them for Durbin musicals.

His distinctive approach to scoring horror films, such as 1939’s Son of Frankenstein and 1941’s The Wolf Man, has been characterized as “a passion for chromatic lines, mirrored contours and restrained, yet ominously mythical orchestrations”. Other films from the 1930s through the 1940s that he was associated with include such diverse productions as Destry Rides Again, My Little Chickadee, Seven Sinners, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and other Universal Holmes films, Gung Ho! , The Suspect, Black Angel, The Egg and I and The Naked City.

Despite many changes in the film industry, Skinner’s 1950 book Underscore survives as an excellent introduction to film music composition. He gained new recognition in the 1950s for his lush romantic scores, especially those for such Douglas Sirk films as Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels and Imitation of Life.

Other 1950s films included Harvey, Bright Victory, Because of You, Never Say Goodbye, Tammy and the Bachelor and Man of a Thousand Faces. His 1960s films included Portrait in Black, Midnight Lace, Back Street, Tammy and the Doctor, Captain Newman, M.D. , Shenandoah and Madame X, after which he retired.

Frank Skinner died on October 8, 1968. He was survived by his wife, Dolly Repine Skinner and over thirty years of great Hollywood music. He was 70.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936), directed by Robert Z. Leonard

By the time Skinner went to work on MGM’s behemoth musical, he had already published two books on arranging music. He spent two years arranging the music for the film which won Oscars for Best Picture, Actress (Luise Rainer as Anna Held) and Dance Direction for the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” sequence in which Tony Martin voiced Dennis Morgan. The film had also been nominated for Best Director, Original Story, Art Direction and Film Editing. William Powell, who played Florenz Ziegfeld, was nominated for My Man Godfrey instead. Myrna Loy who played his widow Billie Burke was not nominated.

THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY (1943), directed by Bruce Manning

Skinner’s first Oscar nomination had been for the 1938 Deanna Durbin musical, Mad About Music, the same year as his scoring of another Durbin musical, That Certain Age. His fifth and final nomination was for this film in which the teenager of the other two was now a full-grown woman playing a missionary with a scheme to smuggle eight orphans under her care into the U.S. pretending to be the widow of an elderly commodore. The legendary Jean Renoir had shot most of the film when he was taken off and replaced by Manning. Edmond O’Brien and Barry Fitzgerald co-star.

HARVEY (1950), directed by Henry Koster

Skinner composed one of his most delightful scores for this classic comedy in which alcoholic James Stewart befriends an invisible 6 ft.-3 in. rabbit. The actor considered it one of his favorite films, up there with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. It was a role he first played on Broadway replacing original star Frank Fay in preparation for the film which won Josephine Hull an Oscar as his exasperated sister. It returned to the property yet again on Broadway and then TV in the 1970s with Helen Hayes as his sister. It was a hit all over again.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1956), directed by Douglas Sirk

Skinner’s reputation grew with the lush romantic scores he composed for Douglas Sirk’s 1950s films including Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, Imitation of Life and of course, this magnificently filmed soap opera, the most romantic of them all, with Jane Wyman at her peak as the middle-aged widow who finds herself falling in love with her young gardener (Rock Hudson) over the objections of her grown children (Gloria Talbot, William Reynolds) who give her a television for Christmas, hoping that will take her mind off the gardener.

SHENANDOAH (1965), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen

One of Skinner’ first scores for Universal was the 1939 smash hit western, Destry Rides Again starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. How fortuitous it was that one of his last should be this bittersweet Civil War drama from western director McLaglan starring Stewart as the sorely tested head of a family of Virginia farmers who wish to remain neutral in the war. Skinner’s haunting arrangements of the title song underscores numerous scenes in the film that also stars Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Wayne, Rosemary Forsyth, Phillip Alford, Katharine Ross and Charles Robinson.

FRANK SKINNER AND OSCAR

  • Mad About Music (1938) – nominated – Best Scoring
  • The House of the Seven Gables (1940) – nominated – Original Score
  • Back Street (1941) – nominated – Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture
  • Arabian Nights (1942) – nominated – Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
  • The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) – nominated – Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

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