The music of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

Probably because this was Universal’s first film about invaders from space, the studio felt they needed an original score, as nothing in their music library would impart the appropriate alien gloss to the picture.  The single piece of previously-written music in the movie was a three-second excerpt from a Henry Mancini song (“Jitterbug Routine”) tracked in from Sally And Saint Anne and heard over a radio.  In addition, a plain-old original orchestral score wasn’t deemed sufficient to create the necessary extraterrestrial ambience, and so the film’s composers -- Henry Mancini, Herman Stein, and Irving Gertz -- decided to feature the Theremin in their score.

Even by 1953, this early electronic instrument, which sounds like a wailing woman, was already well-established in films pertaining to outer space (Rocketship X-M, The Thing, The Day The Earth Stood Still), and it also appeared in the same year’s Phantom From Space.  In It Came From Outer Space, the Theremin (played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman) was used to make us aware of an alien presence and to occasionally add a shock layer to the instrumentation.

It Came From Outer Space's 36-minute score was composed fairly equally by the three composers:  Mancini (12:44), Stein (11:35), and Gertz (11:29).  Universal’s collaborative scores could occasionally sound non-uniform, but because of the equality of the composers’ contributions in this film, as well as the way each of the composer’s cues are spread evenly throughout the picture, It Came From Outer Space’s score has a very cohesive feel to it.  Although it was commonly believed that Universal’s composers would each be given their own reels to score in these collaborative efforts, quite frequently more than one composer’s music would be used within a reel, and It Came From Outer Space is an example of how successfully this practice could work.

Another myth about Universal’s collaborative scores is that the composers based their themes on what the other composers had written for the film, but this was the exception more often than the rule.  They were sometimes restricted to using similar thematic material when a score was based on a theme song, as in The Incredible Shrinking Man (“The Girl In A Lonely Room”), but in many cases, one composer’s themes bore little thematic resemblance to what the other composers wrote (The Deadly Mantis, This Island Earth).  This is certainly understandable, considering composers would much rather compose than adapt, and given the time-crunch all the composers were under, it was quicker and easier to write in your own style instead of trying to match somebody else’s.  

In the case of It Came From Outer Space, there were two short motifs that the composers did share between them.  One was the Theremin theme that musically described the aliens, but this did not dominate the score, mainly because the aliens were such a small part of what was essentially a story about human interaction.  The second motif was played on wind chimes, and was used to accent the aliens’ slime trails.  But other than these two instances, there was little intermingling of thematic material from one composer to the other. And despite the fact that Gertz still sounds like Gertz, Stein like Stein, and Mancini like Mancini, the composite score created by them has a very unified feeling, one that creates a moody and unearthly atmosphere filled with aural jolts to complement the 3-D thrills of the picture.  David Tamkin’s orchestrations, the conducting of Joe Gershenson, and the presence of the Theremin further cement the different elements into a seamless whole.  The score was recorded in eight hours on Universal’s Stage 10 on April 24th, 1953, and the quality of the playing coupled with the incredible speed (probably averaging about six minutes of music per hour of recording time) shows the extraordinary talent of the musicians.

Universal’s contract orchestra of 36 players consisted of 2 flutes, 1 oboe/English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 timpani, 1 piano, 1 harp, 2 percussion, and strings.  Many scores needed their own instrumental alterations, and each composer worked with what he liked best, and extra musicians would be brought in when needed.

Five of the cues in It Came From Outer Space had music cut from them, meaning that the film was re-edited after the music was recorded, and some of those harsh edits can be heard in the movie.  Perhaps Universal thought the film was too slowly-paced and they wanted to speed it to its climax, as four of those clipped sequences occur in the last 35 minutes of the picture. 

On the music tracks from Universal’s original recording sessions, the Theremin is absent from the cues featuring that instrument, meaning that the Theremin was overdubbed after the orchestra was recorded.  This was done because the Theremin is a difficult instrument to play precisely, so it was decided to get the orchestra’s performance correctly recorded, and then afterwards to try to record the right Theremin notes.  In It Came From Outer Space, Dr. Hoffman would occasionally play his Theremin on the flat side, perhaps because it offered a warmer tone that way, or perhaps because he wasn’t hitting the notes perfectly.  After all, he wasn’t the world’s premiere Thereminist. 

In many of the cues featuring that instrument, notes and phrases were performed different from the composers’ original intent.  In other cases, the Theremin was dropped altogether from a cue it was to appear in, or else it was included when it wasn’t originally specified.  This implies that not everyone was enthralled with how the Theremin was contributing to the orchestral score.  The first Theremin note in the “Main Title” was “dialed down” in the film and is barely audible, and the long sustain for Theremin and Novachord were likewise diminished on the soundtrack, so all you can hear is the noisy spaceship streaking over the desert.  It’s possible that these and other Theremin notes were mixed quieter in the film because the notes weren’t in precisely the pitches that were requested, and Universal didn't want to spend any additional recording time and exceed their $200 Theremin budget. 

 

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