The Academy Awards were first presented in 1929 — in a 15-minute ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — but it wasn't until 1935 that awards began to be presented for Best Original Score. In this first of a decade-by-decade look back at the winners of that award, I'll run through the scores that won Oscars in the 1930s and '40s. For highlights from every decade, listen to Lynne Warfel's three-hour special on the Movies and the Music.
1935: Alfred Newman, Victor Schertzinger, Louis Silvers, and Howard Jackson for One Night of Love
Initially, awards for Best Score weren't presented directly to the composers: they went to the studios' music departments, on the theory that a score was a collaborative endeavor. In One Night of Love, a romantic musical set in the world of opera, the composers' contributions were further dwarfed by the music of Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti. Still, Newman would earn ample recognition in years to come: he's won more Oscars than any other composer, including 50-time nominee John Williams.
1936: Max Steiner for The Informer
At the 8th Academy Awards, John Ford's The Informer went head-to-head with Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty. When the envelopes were opened, the films split the spoils in an interesting way: Bounty took Best Picture, while The Informer won every other category in which it was nominated. That included Best Score, where Max Steiner's tension-filled music won out over the Bounty score by Herbert Stothart and Nat W. Finston.
You don't step to one of the three Godfathers of Film music. (That would be Steiner and Newman, along with Dimitri Tiomkin.)
1937: Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Anthony Adverse
You've heard of Korngold, but you maybe haven't heard of Anthony Adverse, an 18th-century costume drama about a man (Frederic March) torn between his lover (Olivia de Havilland) and his debt to the man who rescued him from orphanhood. It was the first Oscar for Korngold (though it was technically awarded to the Warner Bros. Studio Music Department), and the movie became a landmark in film-score composition — with continuous scoring throughout its first half-hour.
1938: Charles Previn and Frank Skinner for One Hundred Men and a Girl
The Universal Studio Music Department won out over a lot of competition for this one: no fewer than 13 other films, including Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, were nominated for Best Score. It was the only Oscar for this film, which was a sort of classical-music version of Saving Silverman. An unemployed musician (Adolphe Menjou) forms an orchestra of similarly down-on-their-luck colleagues, and his daughter (Deanna Durbin) sets out to recruit the illustrious Leopold Stokowski to conduct the band.
1939: Erich Wolfgang Korngold The Adventures of Robin Hood
Robin Hood became the classic Errol Flynn movie, with the classic Korngold score. John Williams draws his DNA from this swashbuckling score, which demonstrated how the orchestral color of composers like Wagner and Richard Strauss could be used to great effect on the silver screen. The film holds up to this day: it's one of the few films with a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
1940: Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz
Stothart — the first composer to have an Academy Award given to him personally, rather than to an associated studio department — prevailed over Max Steiner's iconic Gone With the Wind score, in one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. Stothart didn't actually write the music for the classic Oz songs, though: that was Harold Arlen, who took the Best Song award (with lyricist E.Y. Harburg) in a slam-dunk if there ever was one, for "Over the Rainbow."
1941: Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith for Pinocchio
Best Original Score was one of the few awards an animated film could actually win in the early years of that art: the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature wasn't introduced until 2001, and no animated movie was nominated for Best Picture before Disney's Beauty and the Beast earned a nod in 1991. Harline wrote the music for Pinocchio’s songs (with lyrics by Ned Washington), and Smith collaborated on the incidental score. Harline's biggest award for this film may not have been the Oscar, but the fact that his "When You Wish Upon a Star" became the master theme for the entire Disney empire.
1942: Bernard Herrmann for All That Money Can Buy (drama); Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace for Dumbo (musical)
For the 14th Academy Awards, the Best Original Score category was split into two. Dumbo prevailed over forgettable competition (The Chocolate Soldier, anyone?), while Herrmann won his first and only (!) Oscar for the William Dieterle film originally titled The Devil and Daniel Webster. Among the 19 other scores also vying for the 1941 prize was another Herrmann creation, from a little movie you might just have heard of: Citizen Kane.
1943: Max Steiner for Now, Voyager (drama); Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roehmheld for Yankee Doodle Dandy (musical)
Though Mrs. Miniver and lead actress Greer Garson were the headline winners at the 1943 ceremony, Steiner took the Best Dramatic Score award for his contribution to a Bette Davis chestnut about a woman working her way out from under the thumb of a repressive mother. Although not as well-known as his work on King Kong or Gone with the Wind, the Now, Voyager score was one of Steiner's personal favorites.
1944: Alfred Newman for The Song of Bernadette (drama); Ray Heinsdorf for This is the Army (musical)
Steiner was at it again this year, writing the music for Casablanca. That film took Best Picture and other awards, but the Best Dramatic Score Oscar went to Newman, who got the job scoring The Song of Bernadette when the producers failed to ink a contract with Igor Stravinsky, who'd even started writing the music. Newman later integrated music from this movie — based on the true story of the 19th-century girl who was sainted after claiming the Virgin Mary appeared to her on multiple occasions — into his Symphony in Three Movements.
1945: Max Steiner for Since You Went Away (drama or comedy); Morris Stoloff and Carmen Dragon for Cover Girl (musical)
Going My Way? Things sure weren't for Robert Emmett Dolan, who couldn't land a Best Original Score nod among 14 nominees even when his film dominated the 17th Academy Awards. Instead, the Best Musical Score award went to the fluffy Rita Hayworth vehicle Cover Girl, while Steiner scooped another statuette for a swooning score to the sweeping home-front story Since You Went Away. Did he interpolate "There's No Place Like Home"? You bet your bottom dollar he did.
1946: Miklós Rózsa for Spellbound (drama or comedy), Georgie Stoll for Anchors Aweigh (musical)
Already a highly successful film composer, Rózsa won his first of three Oscars in 1946, for the Hitchcock thriller Spellbound — a score notable for Rózsa's use of the theremin, introducing that strange new instrument as the signature sound of "eerie." He was also nominated for two other films including The Lost Weekend, which won Best Picture that year. MGM hero Georgie Stoll took the Best Musical Score award for the shore-leave comedy Anchors Aweigh.
1947: Hugo Friedhofer for The Best Years of Our Lives (drama or comedy); Morris Stoloff for The Jolson Story (musical)
Hardly the most distinguished composer of his era, Friedhofer was hired at Newman's behest to write the score for The Best Years of Our Lives, ultimately riding the film's Oscar gravy train to a Best Original Score win over Herrmann (Anna and the King of Siam), Rózsa (The Killers), William Walton (Laurence Olivier's Henry V), and Franz Waxman (Humoresque). Meanwhile, Newman (Centennial Summer) lost the Best Musical Score Oscar to Stoloff's work on The Jolson Story.
1948: Miklós Rózsa for A Double Life (drama or comedy); Alfred Newman for Mother Wore Tights (musical)
The 20th Academy Awards were notable for spreading the wealth: no individual film won more than three awards, a situation that wouldn't repeat for almost 60 years. George Cukor's noir A Double Life won an acting trophy for star Ronald Colman, and Rózsa took the scoring statuette. Newman's work on the vaudeville romp Mother Wore Tights took the prize over nominees including the controversial Song of the South.
1949: Brian Easdale for The Red Shoes (drama or comedy); Johnny Green and Roger Edens for Easter Parade (musical)
Olivier's Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards, but its composer, Walton, lost out to fellow Brit Brian Easdale, whose music was integral to the success of ballet flick The Red Shoes. Best Musical Score went to Green and Edens for their work on Easter Parade, a massive hit starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.
1950: Aaron Copland for The Heiress (drama or comedy); Roger Edens and Lennie Hayton for On the Town (musical)
The last Academy Awards for films released in the 1940s marked another landmark: the last time all Best Picture nominees were black-and-white films. One of them was The Heiress, a William Wyler drama that lost to All the King's Men but won out in the Best Dramatic or Comedy Score category — a reminder that Aaron Copland, the definitive American composer of the 20th century, made his mark in movies as well.