The Soundtrack


By • May 23rd, 2001 •

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It was June, 1963. Cleopatra opened in New York at Broadway’s Rivoli theater. Some weeks later, I saw it for the first time. I was sixteen.

That was a time when big films were shown in 70mm prints and six track stereo, and the projected image was razor sharp from edge-to-edge. You had to buy reserve seat tickets, and most people dressed formally to attend the event. Seems unbelievable, doesn’t it?

I remember being slightly disappointed in the film, but wouldn’t admit as much to the people who accompanied me. At any rate, I apparently liked it well enough to see it when it finally went into general release and was shown at my local movie theater. I didn’t realize that the film had been cut to 182 minutes from its original four hour running time (itself trimmed to 220 minutes within weeks of its premier).

When I was in college I began collecting films, and a cinemascope 16mm print of Cleopatra was the pride of my collection. I fell in love with the film, with its realistic, modern day tragedy of people wrestling for power on a world scale. My 16mm print, however, was the general release version, and I continued to be tantalized by the missing scenes that I felt I might never see again.

When the Ziegfeld theater opened in Manhattan some years later, their immediate program was to show some of the 70mm classics. I went to see Cleopatra, which annoyingly was a 70mm stereo print that had been physically spliced to match the general release version. The only hint of the longer film was a partial “frieze” dissolve which showed a glimpse of Caesar’s triumph in Rome.

In fact, it was not until Cleopatra was released on video that I could see the complete film, and not until it was released on laser disc that I could see the film in its letterboxed splendor.

One of the things that had always attracted me to Cleopatra was Alex North’s magnificent music score (see Jack Smith’s review). I felt that it was a masterpiece, on a creative scale equal to Spartacus. Back in the early ‘eighties I had obtained about 35 minutes of music not included in the record album. In an act of desperation to find more of this music, back in 1992 I wrote to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film’s director. Mankiewicz had written the literate liner notes to the Fox soundtrack LP of Cleopatra, and I reasoned that someone with an appreciation of North’s score might have the complete tracks.

Cleopatra, however, had apparently been a sore spot with Mankiewicz. Zanuck had taken the film away from him after the rough cut had been completed, and Mankiewicz had little to do with the shape of the final cut. So, with some trepidation I mentioned this possibility in my letter, and told Mankiewicz how special the film and its music was to me.

In November 1992, some eight months after I wrote to Mankiewicz, I received a short reply from him: “I wish I could supply you with what you want, but all I have is what you already have – the record album. I want as much as you to have the full score, just as I would also like all of the scores written for my films by Bernard Herrmann. Are they, by any chance, available?”

In response, I sent Mr. Mankiewicz an audiocassette of the extra Cleopatra cues, as well as some of the Herrmann and Waxman music composed for his films.

I heard nothing further, although subsequently I read of the Museum of Modern Art fete to Mankiewicz.

In February 1993, I received this note from Stefan Petrucha, an assistant to Mankiewicz: “As you probably have heard by now, Joseph Mankiewicz passed away peacefully on February 5, 1993. Among his papers were found the beginnings of a thank-you note he had planned to send you. It read in part: ‘I am also a great fan of the work of Bernard Herrmann. I don’t think that any contemporary film composers equal the excellence of his work, particularly in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Five Fingers – I wish he was able to score more of my films.”

The letter by Petrucha concluded, “I also know that he appreciated both the package and the letter you were kind enough to send, and that Mrs. Mankiewicz is very pleased to have the material.”

Today we see a veritable surfeit of classic film music recordings, ranging from an all-new recording of Five Fingers to a two CD set of the complete, original music score to Cleopatra. I believe that Herrmann, North, and Mankiewicz would be pleased to know that their respective artistic collaborations ranging a half-century have survived to intrigue a new generation of film lovers.

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