Dimitri Tiomkin

Active - 1930 - Present  |   Born - May 10, 1894   |   Died - Nov 11, 1979   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Adventure, Romance

Share on

Biography by Bruce Eder

From the end of the 1940s until the beginning of the 1960s, Dimitri Tiomkin was one of the more prominent composers in movies; decades after his death, he remains one of the most problematic creative figures of his era in Hollywood. Tiomkin was born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine in 1894. Raised in St. Petersburg, Russia and educated in that city's conservatory, his teachers included renowned classical composer Alexander Glazunov. He came of age amid the turmoil of revolutionary Russia and fled to Western Europe, studying in Berlin and later establishing himself as a performer as part of a piano duo. Tiomkin subsequently became a concert pianist and, among his other credits as a performing musician, he gave the European premiere of George Gershwin's "Concerto in F," in 1928.

With the advent of talking pictures, Tiomkin and his wife relocated to Hollywood. He made his debut as a film composer in 1930 with Our Blushing Brides, a drama starring Joan Crawford, and his subsequent movie projects included Broadway to Hollywood, Paramount's Alice in Wonderland (both 1933), and Mad Love (1935). His association with director Frank Capra started with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), but he didn't achieve prominence until the release of Capra's Lost Horizon in 1937. That fantasy adventure film featured one of the most prominent scores of any movie of the 1930s; Tiomkin's music was uncommonly bold for the era, the action sequences written in a manner recalling Max Steiner, while the portions of the score covering the parts of the movie depicting Shangri-la, filled with rich, Eastern-sounding melodies and lush choruses, were even more striking, and brought him to the attention of the mass public. Tiomkin became Capra's composer-of-choice for the next few years, helping to close out the director's Columbia Pictures career and open his period as an independent director/producer on Meet John Doe (1941). Tiomkin continued to work on other independent productions, including The Moon and Sixpence (1941), mixed with the occasional big-studio project such as Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and he later scored the Capra-produced wartime documentary series called Why We Fight (1943).

Tiomkin's career took off in the post-World War II era. He worked on independent and medium-budget studio productions such as Dillinger (1945) and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), but it was his selection to write the music for David O. Selznick's mammoth production of Duel in the Sun (1946) that put Tiomkin into the front rank of screen composers. Although ostensibly a Western, Duel in the Sun was really an overheated drama of sex and passion that happened to be set in the 19th-century American West. Tiomkin's main struggle was delivering a piece of music to accompany a love scene between the characters played by Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones that "felt" to Selznick like a sexual climax. Duel in the Sun was ridiculed by most critics, but it did earn a substantial box-office gross.

Tiomkin's relationship with Capra ended with a disagreement over the scoring for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but he was involved in arranging Claude Debussy's music for Selznick's Portrait of Jennie (1948), and his next big break came when Howard Hawks engaged him to write the music for his epic Western Red River (1948). The movie was everything that Selznick's lust-in-the-dust epic hadn't been, and it was a huge hit, critically and commercially, helped in no small measure by Tiomkin's rousing central theme. Around the same time, Tiomkin was engaged by producer Stanley Kramer for the first time, on So This Is New York (1948). The latter was a failure at the box office, but Tiomkin's association with Kramer's next two movies, Home of the Brave and Champion (both 1949) proved fortuitous.

Tiomkin was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood in 1950 and 1951, scoring six movies in each year, among them the pioneering big-studio science fiction production of Howard Hawks' The Thing, for RKO, and Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train at Warner Bros., as well as the independent production The Well. In 1952, he scored nine movies, among them Hawks' epic The Big Sky, but his most important scoring assignment was for a movie that seemed destined for failure. Stanley Kramer's production of High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann, had been pegged as a box-office bomb and was even turned down by Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn as part of Kramer's new contract with the studio. Tiomkin was called in to see if a musical score could save the movie, and he delivered a full score as well as a ballad called "High Noon". The song became a hit several times over, including a pop release by Frankie Laine and a country single by Ritter himself, while Tiomkin earned two Oscars for his work. Additionally, Tiomkin became one of the Hollywood community's more visible composers, thanks to his somewhat flamboyant manner and his mangling of English pronunciation, calling the cowboy singer "Tax Ritter" and otherwise establishing an image as a cheerful, volatile Russian émigré. The movie was more than a career-defining release for Tiomkin -- it was a career-expanding one.

Over the next decade, Tiomkin would periodically write ballads (especially on Western themes) for movies and television shows, and enjoyed another hit with the theme for the television series Rawhide. He would occasionally steal from himself -- some of his music from Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs was borrowed liberally from his own score for Lost Horizon -- and not all of the ballads were memorable (few people remembered the songs from Take the High Ground or Blowing Wild), but he was generally in the top rank of film composers, working on such major (and respected) movies as Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (both 1954), and George Stevens' Giant (1956). The latter yielded a song that was later adopted by the state of Texas as its official song. Tiomkin was engaged by producer Hal Wallis for a pair of Westerns, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Last Train From Gun Hill (1959). Tiomkin also became John Wayne's composer of choice, on the actor/producer's outsized production of The Alamo (1960), in addition to scoring the Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo (1959), also starring Wayne.

The 1960s were less kind to the composer. He started off well enough with The Guns of Navarone and Town Without Pity (both 1961), both of which received Academy Award nominations, but by the middle of the decade, Tiomkin was working on far fewer movies than he had in the previous one. In 1963, Tiomkin moved his base of operations to Europe and became a kind of front-ranked bottom-feeder, replacing Miklos Rozsa as the principal composer at producer Samuel Bronston's Spanish-based studio. Rozsa had walked away from his relationship with Bronston, and no other major composer would go near the man's outsized but frequently shapeless epic films; Tiomkin took the work and was responsible for scoring 55 Days at Peking (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), both of which saw release as soundtrack albums and received Academy Award nominations. He also closed out Bronston's epics with Circus World (1964), but by the end of the 1960s, with the move by most Hollywood producers to a less densely orchestral, more pop-oriented brand of soundtrack music, Tiomkin's activities came to a halt. His last Academy Award nomination was for Tchaikovsky in 1971.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography