Bronislau Kaper

Active - 1930 - 2015  |   Born - Feb 5, 1902   |   Died - Apr 25, 1983   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Bronislau Kaper was a composer at MGM for three decades, and although he never achieved the status of his colleague Miklos Rozsa, he did work on many high-profile films. Born in Warsaw, Poland, probably in 1902 (although Kaper himself was never sure of the year), he was a child prodigy at the piano from the age of six. By his teens he was writing music and eventually, after a near-detour into law, he attended the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. He spent the 1920s and early '30s performing and writing popular songs in England, France, and Germany, as well as his native Poland, and in the early and mid-'30s wrote music for films in Germany. Following Hitler's rise to power, Kaper made Paris his base of operations and in 1935 he moved to Hollywood, where he was signed to MGM, partly thanks to studio chief Louis B. Mayer's being a fan of Kaper's, for his song "Ninon." In contrast to his later career, in which he wrote complete instrumental scores, Kaper in his early years at the studio was primarily assigned to write songs, several of which appeared in notable films of the era, including the Marx Brothers' classic A Day at the Races. After 1940, he shifted over to the composition of complete background scores and over the next 20 years Kaper was responsible for music in every kind of vehicle, including satires (Comrade X), romantic comedies (Two-Faced Woman), gangster films (Johnny Eager), and war movies (Bataan). Some of the highest profile work that he did was in movies such as the studio's opulent 1944 remake of Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman. He was also occasionally loaned out to other studios and to independent producers, which was how Kaper ended up writing the score for Orson Welles's thriller The Stranger, made for Sam Spiegel, and for Gordon Douglas's groundbreaking 1954 horror chiller Them! at Warner Bros.. The latter followed by one year Kaper's winning of an Academy Award for the score for the MGM musical Lili, which contained the popular tune "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo." Despite his success with Lili, Kaper was never a major contributor to the studio's biggest musical productions -- he had little to do with the so-called "Freed unit," built around producer Arthur Freed -- but he did get bigger and better dramatic film assignments, including Somebody up There Likes Me, Green Mansions, and The Swan, which was Grace Kelly's final film. It was in the 1960s, after three decades at the studio, that Kaper moved by attrition to the top rank of the staff composers at MGM. In 1961, the studio's management was eager for its top composer, Miklos Rozsa (who had just won his third Oscar for Ben-Hur) to write the music for its new, lavish production of Mutiny on the Bounty. Rozsa had no interest in doing that score, however, and was able to contrive to work in Europe on other projects for the studio. Thus, Kaper was assigned Mutiny on the Bounty; the movie, a high profile, enormously expensive epic, was a critical disaster and a box-office failure, but not because of the music, which (along with Richard Harris's performance) was one of the few things that people liked about the movie. That film was followed by several major assignments from Columbia, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox, as well as MGM. Kaper had big cinematic canvases on which to work, in Lord Jim, Tobruk, and The Way West, but none of the films was notably successful at the box office. By the end of the 1960s, the kind of movies that called for the large-scale melodic scores in which he specialized were becoming increasingly rare and Kaper retired after working as a songwriter on A Flea in Her Ear at Fox. Over a nearly 40-year career, Kaper could write in any range of idioms, from early 20th century light pop music to large, bold, expansive orchestral scores, and even did a credible job in a Western idiom in The Way West, at the end of his professional life. Most of his music was highly melodic and his lighter material fared best, although his score for Them! stands alone and apart, an ominous, sometimes harsh and disquieting body of music in keeping with its subject: the battle between mankind and a species of giant, mutated ants (and if that sounds silly or predictable, bear in mind that this was the first time that plot was used). Like most of his contemporaries, he was swimming against the tide of public taste, so that by the end of the 1960s he seemed like an anachronism in the film world. At the peak of his abilities, however, Kaper was one of the top talents in Hollywood's second tier of film composers.

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