Despite his participation in the scoring of more than 300 movies from the '30s through the '50s, David Buttolph never ascended to the front rank of Hollywood composers -- yet his name crops up in association with movies that remain popular (and are sometimes even still considered important) in the 21st century, among them Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, and Eugène Lourié's (and Ray Harryhausen's) The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Born James David Buttolph in New York in 1902, he showed an early appreciation of music, and was singing in church at age eight. He began studying the piano at ten, and reached his teens just as jazz was starting to appear as an influence in popular music. Buttolph played in various local groups and took up the study of music formally. After earning a degree in music in New York, he set out for Europe in 1923 and, while studying in Austria and later in Germany, earned a living as a nightclub pianist; his first professional job in serious music was as an operatic singing coach in Munich. Buttolph returned to America in 1927, at a time when radio was starting to boom and the demand for music on the airwaves was growing equally fast. He moved from a spot arranging and conducting on the NBC radio network in New York City to a job as station music director in Schenectady, NY, in 1932.
In 1933 -- the year the talkies discovered what music could do for movies other than musicals -- Buttolph moved to Los Angeles and joined what was then the Fox Film Corporation. He spent most of the next 14 years at Fox and its successor organization, 20th Century Fox, initially as an arranger and later as a composer, starting with uncredited work on the 1933 features Smoky and Mr. Skitch. He got his earliest screen credit in 1934 with Now I'll Tell. More often, however, Buttolph was the musical director and supervisor on pictures such as Show Them No Mercy! (1935) and Pigskin Parade (1936). Beginning in 1937, Buttolph frequently worked on as many as seven movies a year, among them such major titles as Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James (1940), Jean Renoir's Swamp Water (1941), and Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942) -- the latter produced and released by Paramount. Buttolph's best work as an arranger was his work on Alfred Newman's score for The Mark of Zorro (1940).
As a composer, especially in the early days, Buttolph's work was often more difficult to assess, as he was often one of three or four assigned to write different parts of a film's score, in tandem with such familiar names as Rudy Schrager, Cyril Mockridge, and David Raksin; among his other duties, he occasionally wrote short pieces to slot into full-length scores by Alfred Newman, the head of the 20th Century Fox's music department. Buttolph's later credits at the studio included the music for Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945) and John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Buttolph left Fox in 1947, following his scoring of the high-profile Fox title The Foxes of Harrow. He moved to Warner Bros., where he remained for three years, working on movies that included Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Bretaigne Windust's The Enforcer (1951). Between his Warner Bros. work, delays in release on Fox titles, and loan-outs to other studios, he was all over the Hollywood map -- including Kiss of Death (1947), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), June Bride (1948), and The Story of Seabiscuit (1949) -- throughout the latter part of the decade. He subsequently worked freelance in movies for all of the majors, including Warner (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Jump Into Hell), MGM (Lone Star), and United Artists (The Horse Soldiers).
In 1955, Buttolph was lucky enough to be picked by Warner Bros. to work in its newly active television division, and out of that initial season of Warner Brothers Presents, he was later assigned to work on Maverick, for which he created the most popular piece of music of his career, the title theme from the series. He also scored episodes of 77 Sunset Strip and The Alaskans, and, at Fox, Adventures in Paradise. Buttolph continued to work into the early '60s, primarily on such high-profile Western series as The Virginian and Wagon Train, before retiring in 1963, after 30 years in the industry.
Buttolph never had a well-known or established, easily identifiable style, and worked in too many genres to become pegged as an expert in any, although the emphasis on Western scores did give him a considerable body of music in that field. He also seldom got much respect, sometimes not even from people within the motion picture field. Although Ray Harryhausen was kind enough not to say it in interviews until after Buttolph's death in 1983, he ended up slighting Buttolph in his recollections about The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which was bought by Warner Bros. and rescored by Buttolph before release. Harryhausen had hoped that with the movie in Warner Bros.' hands, Max Steiner, who had scored King Kong, would be assigned to write the music, and he professed to never having been fully happy with what Buttolph did with scoring the movie. In truth, Buttolph's score has a lingering, ominous, larger-than-life quality that, if anything, enhances the impact of Harryhausen's special-effects images, especially when seen in a theater, and Buttolph's use of horns and brass is memorable. Additionally, the fact that the movie ended up as the studio's top-grossing movie of 1953 kind of bears out that no wrong decisions were made about it, artistically or any other way. In the late '90s, with the growth of interest in soundtrack music of the 1940s and '50s, the highlights of some of Buttolph's best scores started to get re-recorded for commercial release on CD.