George Bassman

Active - 1937 - 1987  |   Born - Feb 2, 1914 in New York, NY  |   Died - 1997 in Los Angeles, CA  |   Genres - Comedy, Musical, Drama, Romance, Western

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George Bassman is one of the more tragic figures in the history of Hollywood film music, a field that is usually thought of as relatively sedate. Bassman would seem to have had everything needed to thrive in Hollywood, for in addition to being a composer, conductor, and arranger, he was a gourmet chef, a serious bridge and tennis player, and a ladies man. Born in New York City to a Russian Jewish émigré couple, Bassman was later raised in Boston and began studying music at the Boston Conservatory while still a boy. He studied orchestration and composition formally, but in his teens he left home against his father's wishes to play piano in an itinerant jazz group, and subsequently worked as an arranger for Fletcher Henderson in New York. Through that gig, he became part of the burgeoning swing/big band scene and was soon writing songs as well. Bassman peaked in that career when he and Ned Washington delivered "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" to Tommy Dorsey. Bassman also worked in radio as an arranger for Andre Kostelanetz, and he made the move to Hollywood in the mid-'30s. Among his earliest film jobs was orchestrating the Gershwin songs in the Fred Astaire movie A Damsel in Distress at RKO. He later went to work at MGM, where he composed music for the Marx Brothers vehicles A Day at the Races, Go West, and The Big Store, as well as writing or arranging music for such musicals as Lady Be Good and Cabin in the Sky. He also worked on the Judy Garland musicals The Wizard of Oz (for which he wrote the music used in the cyclone and poppy-field scenes and many of the Emerald City sequences), Babes in Arms, and For Me and My Gal. Somewhere in the middle of all of that work at Metro, he was back at RKO to supervise the adaptation of the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart musical Too Many Girls to the big screen. He also worked on dramas, including Vincente Minnelli's The Clock and Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Bassman's career was interrupted in the midst of the Red Scare, however, when he admitted in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had been a member of the Communist party (it was virtually a family legacy, his mother apparently having been a dedicated Communist in the 1910s, when it had a very different meaning than it did in the 1950s). Bassman left Hollywood after the studios closed their doors to him and returned to New York where he found the theater still open to him -- Broadway producers were an independent lot, and most couldn't be scared by congressional investigations. He was engaged to orchestrate the show Guys and Dolls, and also composed music for various shows and revues. Ironically, although Hollywood was closed to him, Bassman was able to work in television in its early days, as a composer for various live shows and also as a conductor; he eventually composed the music for the filmed series Producers' Showcase as well. He also quietly kept his hand in movies, where independent producers were willing to hire him -- it wasn't the same as being on salary at MGM, but it was work, and he was happy to do it. Among his best scores during this period was his music for The Joe Louis Story (1955); he also got hired to write some music for the Hollywood movie Marty (1955), and Columbia hired him in 1958 to score Middle of the Night.

Bassman had seemingly beaten the blacklist, and without too much inconvenience, but then his professional luck ran out, oddly enough upon his return to MGM for the first time in more than a decade. He clashed with the makers (including director Sam Peckinpah) of what could have been a triumphant comeback, on Ride the High Country (1962). He closed out his film career with Mail Order Bride (1964), and saw several of his scores (including one for Bonnie and Clyde) rejected. Bassman's later life was marred by tragedy -- his personal life involved three marriages, and the last had a duration of scarcely a year. By the late '70s, he was cut loose from his career, and he later fell in with the wrong people. He died forgotten by his profession and alone in Los Angeles in 1997.

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