Friday, March 4, 2011

Have a "Picnic" with George Duning: The Cafe's Composer of the Month

When listing the most accomplished composers of the classic film and TV era, George Duning does not immediately spring to mind. And yet, Duning--who worked on over 300 film and TV scores in some capacity--earned five Oscar nominations for Best Music Score. More importantly, he composed some of the most instantly recognizable music of the 1950s and 1960s, to include the: 
- opening song to 3:10 to Yuma (sung by Frankie Laine).
- bewitching love theme to Bell, Book and Candle.
- score for From Here to Eternity (with Morris Stoloff).
- rousing theme to TV's The Big Valley.

However, my personal favorite has to be the "Love Theme from Picnic." In my favorite scene in the movie, drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) tries to teach young Mille (Susan Strasberg) how to "set the rhythm" to a dance. Millie doesn't pick it up immediately, but her older sister Madge (Kim Novak)--who has been been observing the impromptu dance lesson--captures the beat effortlessly. She joins Hal in a dance that builds to a subtle display of romantic fireworks, where a lingering look is enough to set emotions soaring.

As you watch the clip below, listen carefully to the music. George Duning starts the scene with a quartet playing "Moonglow," a 1933 song covered by Benny Goodman and others. Then, at the two-minute mark, he overlays a full string orchestra playing the "Love Theme from Picnic." It's a magical moment that perfectly complements the loving gaze shared by Hal and Maggie as they move closer to each other--realizing their intimate embrace could be the beginning of so much more. It's a captivating convergence of music and moving image.

From Here to Eternity.
Duning received an Academy Award nomination for his Picnic score (the Oscar went to Alfred Newman for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing). In total, Duning received five Oscar nominations in a seven-year period, with the other nominations being for: Jolson Sings Again (with Morris Stoloff); No Sad Songs for Me; From Here to Eternity; and The Eddy Duchin Story (with Stoloff).

Prior to becoming a film composer, George Duning played piano and trumpet for Kay Kyser's band and appeared on Kyser's popular "Kollege of Musical Knowledge" radio program.

In the latter part of his career, Duning served in various capacities for the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and on the Board of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. You can learn much more about composer George Duning at

For the next few months, the Cafe interrupts its Underrated Performer of the Month feature to pay tribute to some of classic cinema's best composers.


Dawn said...

Rick, Wonderful post, on one of my favorite subjects! I thought the score, "Love Theme from Picnic", was one of the more powerful moments of the film.

I can not believe that George Duning, did not win the Academy Award for his, From Here to Eternity, score.. It was amazing.

Some of my other George Duning's, favorite scores include: Toys in the Attic, Pal Joey and My Sister Elleen.

toto2 said...

This is a wonderful tribute to the very talented George Duning. I visited the link you provided and he stated in one of the interviews posted that his favorite work was on "Bell, Book, and Candle." I was intrigued with how often he worked on "The Big Valley" and that he also did eight episodes for television's "Star Trek."

His work was certainly passionate with the exquisite dance scene from "Picnic" and the unforgettable "From Here to Eternity" scene on the beach. Thanks for a great post!

Page said...

This was a nice post on Duning who made some special films spectacular with his talent.

I'm glad you included that clip from Picnic so I could see it again. A great choice.

ClassicBecky said...

Rick, what a good idea to do a series of tributes to movie composers. I've always believed music to be third in the great triumvurant of film -- acting, technical expertise and music. Music can make all the difference!

It was lovely to be able to see this scene with that incredible music. I liked the beautiful music of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, but my vote would have gone to picnic. Haunting, lilting, unforgettable.

I'm sure this series will reveal many names of composers who have always been our favorites, even if we never them by name before!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Rick, I think this is a great idea for a series. Your post told me a lot about a composer I didn't recognize by name, but once you discussed his work he became quickly familiar. Of course, now I have "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" playing over and over again in my mind!!!

The Lady Eve said...

Nice piece, Rick, and a nice choice. The theme from "Picnic" combined with "Moonglow" is memorable and the scene has got to be one of the most romantic on film. I didn't realize George Duning had composed the score for "Bell Book and Candle," a favorite mine with a wonderful score that serves the film perfectly.

ClassicBecky said...

This is quite a late addendum comment, but I was thinking about the music for Picnic, and remembered that a long time ago someone told me Steve Allen had written the Picnic theme. Later, when I started getting more interested in movie research, I found out that he had written lyrics to it, not the music of course.

I've never heard it sung, and don't know the lyrics. Frankly, I don't want to. I feel like it would cheapen the beauty of it. Just thought I'd mention it.

LEM said...

Always great to read an appreciation of the wonderful music of George Duning. I also love his sexy score to 1960's "Strangers When We Meet" starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. It's terrific!