Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Henry Mancini: An Appreciation

When I think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, two things come to mind: Audrey’s Holly Golightly character eating (a cruller? bear claw?) and drinking coffee outside early in the a.m., and Henry Mancini’s beautiful, immortal score. The film is remembered more for "Moon River" than for almost anything else, though for me Audrey Hepburn's reputation as a top-notch actress was also cemented in this film. She expressed her appreciation for Mancini’s score in a note to him:

Dear Henry,

I have just seen our picture- BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S- this time with your score.

A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun, and beauty.

You are the hippest of cats—and most sensitive of composers!

Thank you, dear Hank.

Lots of love,


Henry Mancini (1924-1994) owned the early 1960s, musically speaking. While the baby boomers were scalding the air with rock music, the "Greatest Generation" needed something that they could enjoy and Mancini was their man. The composer was popular with the public and beloved by his peers. Mancini won three Oscars in 1961-62: Best Song (“Moon River”) and Score for Breakfast at Tiffany’s in addition to a nod for the song "Bachelor in Paradise." He was awarded Best Song again in ‘62 for Days of Wine and Roses. Mancini compositions would receive Oscar nominations in 1963 ("Charade"), '64 ("Dear Heart"), and '65 ("The Sweetheart Tree"). His memorable melodies played continually on the radio and would continue to do so for the next forty years. Mancini’s reputation was never much with the terminally “hip” baby boom generation and he became known as an Easy Listening lightweight, due to his popularity among the older generation and his "heavy rotation" on “Beautiful Music” stations in the 1970s. Mancini’s arrangement of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet made that composition his own.

In the years after his death from cancer in 1994, Henry Mancini's work received newfound popularity and his melodies earned a kitschy, yet hip reputation. It's a pity he wasn't around to appreciate the wave of adulation the mid-1990s "Lounge Music" revival brought, as it made believers out of the baby boomers who had previously thought of Mancini as "Schmaltzy" or "Old-Fashioned." His music became the epitome of Rat Pack-era cool. I never saw him or his music that way, because even when his music is swinging, there’s an undeniable pathos to Mancini, and it’s in most everything he composed. With that in mind, his music doesn't seem so ideal for alcohol consumption, even if those RCA albums were supposed to be for happy cocktail parties. People also seem to think that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was just a comedy, but it wasn’t (have these people seen the movie?) and Henry Mancini's work was never strictly loungey pop music. It could be enjoyed as such, there's always something more there. He was a quiet, self-effacing man, and guarded his emotions, yet that sensitive personality was often present in his music.

Speaking at a tribute for composer Jerry Goldsmith, Mancini was quoted as saying, “Frankly, he [meaning Goldsmith’s talent] scares the hell out of us.” That compliment could also be applied to Mancini. He was a singular combination of classy sophistication and tasteful melodicism, sort of a George Cukor of Composition. Mancini’s melodies could break your heart (Soldier in the Rain), scare the hell out of you (the ominously hip “Experiment in Terror”), or make for fun party music ("It Had Better Be Tonight"; "A Shot in the Dark"). His session men were the best West Coast Jazz musicians, he had a great "white bread" chorus which gave Ray Conniff's gaggle of better-known warblers a run for its money, and he sold millions of excellent easy listening/soundtrack albums. Mancini could also claim that film music legend John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars) was a Mancini acolyte. But we didn't really know how good this guy was until his better film scores were issued on CD, not the easy listening re-records from the 1960s-70s, but the actual tracks as heard in the films, like A Touch of Evil and Wait Until Dark, and yes, even Breakfast at Tiffany's. (the music heard on the LP is markedly different from what is heard in the film; a release of the actual underscore is unlikely because Paramount shows no interest in releasing or liscensing releases of their film score library). These works are a step towards revising Mancini's legacy and removing the undeserved, idiotic appellation, "lightweight tunesmith." Time has proven him to be fine dramatic composer and the absence of melody in today's film scores only make those of us who loved Mancini's music adore his work all the more, because no one has replaced him.

And that’s the truth, my huckleberry friend…

The Maestro, Henry Mancini


  1. Oh! My favorite post to date!

  2. Now that's what I call a splendid post about one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

    It has been said before, but I'd like to point out once again that Moon River was made with Audrey's limited singing abilities (?) in mind. Mancini was told to make a melody that didn't have a big tune-span. Did he make the best of it? The result is pure genius, limited tune-span or not. Moon River was also inches from being cut from the movie when some Paramount boss thought it stalled the picture. Audrey almost went on strike to make them keep it. Luckily they did. A total classic!

  3. Thanks for a great look at a great composer! I'm quite fond of his main theme for "What Did You do in the War, Daddy?"

  4. Henry Mancini is probably my favorite film composer. I like that you point out the dichotomy between the baby boomer generation with their interest in rock'n'roll and the greatest generation who appreciated Mancini. I think the same dichotomy would be true with the songwriting brothers, Dick and Robert Sherman. Although the Sherman brothers were songwriters, not composers, like Mancini and his work, I believe their great tunes were underappreciated. After "Moon River" my favorite Mancini melody would be "Baby Elephant Walk."

  5. I'm so glad I discovered your blog, it's wonderful! And what a nice post to start my "Hollywood Dreamland Blog" addiction on!
    ps. It's a danish, and Audrey Hepburn absolutely despised them!

  6. “George Cukor of Composition” - very nicely put! Have been a fan of Henry Mancini for years and enjoyed reading your thoughts on him. And what a darling note from Audrey, too. Thank you for putting that, here. What a lady!

    As for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film, I too could never understand why it is considered a romantic-comedy. Even though the script strayed from Capote’s novella, it still has his mark on it. The film manages to gnaw at certain, hidden recesses, at least for me. Follows me like a ghost - with Mancini’s score playing in the background. Mancini’s magic, musical touch helps underscore all the different feelings evoked by what the plot is actually about - and also the scenery in which it all takes place. “Holly“ is a gem. “Moon River“ and “Sally’s Tomato,“ like the film, are haunting. I wouldn’t be without this score. I’m glad the world was graced with Henry Mancini’s spirit-through-music.

  7. What a great write-up on Mancini. He's one of my favorites. I love the various scores he did throughout his career. He's truly a legend. I've got plenty of friends who are lounge music fans (I am too) that got into Mancini during this time. I know that I've got a CD called Martinis with Mancini or something like that.

  8. Mancini also wrote the theme song for REMINGTON STEELE tv show


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