Monday, October 20, 2008

Neal Hefti, 1922-2008

I learned today that Neal Hefti, former big band trumpeter, arranger, and composer who worked with that era's illustrious band leaders such as Count Basie and Woody Herman, and who later became famous to Baby Boomers for his theme to the 1960s TV series Batman, died on October 11 at age 85. He passed away at his home in Toluca Lake, California, slightly over two weeks before his 86th birthday.

I have a special sentiment for Neal Hefti for two reasons. One reason is that he was born in my neck of the woods, in Hastings, Nebraska, on 29 October 1922. He was a small town kid from a poor family who became one of the most influential big band arrangers of the 1940s and 1950s. After his distinguished career as a big band arranger, he went on to score many successful motion pictures. His film score credits include Sex and the Single Girl (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Harlow (1965), Boeing Boeing (1965), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), A New Leaf (1971), and, significantly, Lord Love a Duck (1966)—this latter film the second reason I’ve a special spot for Neal Hefti.

Despite its occasional misogyny which audiences today may find hopelessly déclassé, Lord Love a Duck, directed and adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (playwright of the Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch) and starring Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Gordon, and Harvey Korman, is one of the most audacious American films of the 1960s, and also one of the best. It is now widely considered a cult film, but its rewards are many, and the film is more accessible than generally perceived. I love Hefti’s score to the film—incidentally, the one written either immediately before or immediately after the composition of the Batman theme—as it is slightly irreverent of pop music, suitably appropriate to the iconoclastic themes in the film. Anticipating the themes of The Graduate (1967) by almost two years, Lord Love a Duck is a satire of the American “Plastic Society” of the 1960s (think of Frank Zappa's “Plastic People” from 1967's Absolutely Free) with particular emphasis on three types of American women: the vacuous teenage girl (Tuesday Weld), the middle-aged, promiscuous divorcee (Lola Albright), and the monstrous, domineering mother (Ruth Gordon). But the film’s satirical targets are many, among them the empty rituals of teen culture, the preoccupation for material acquisition and fame, religious hypocrisy (the drive-in church sequence is wonderful), and, yes, even AIP Beach movies. In a wonderful sequence, a film producer, T. Harrison Belmont (Martin Gabel—pastiching Sam Arkoff?), presented as the producer of such Beach movie "classics" as The Thing that Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini, and Bikini Countdown, is seeking a fresh starlet for his latest picture, titled, we eventually learn, Bikini Widow. Arguably influenced in its aesthetics by the French New Wave, I strongly recommend Lord Love a Duck, although I realize its sense of humor may not appeal to everyone. I, for one, watch the film two to three times a year.

Now hard to find (available only on vinyl LP), Neal Hefti’s score for the film is well worth a listen, as are most of his film scores, widely available from various sources. The comprehensive obituary of Neal Hefti in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, while more information about his career, as well as his extensive discography, can be easily found by conducting a web search.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Here's the vinyl version. Kritzerland issued it on CD. It's OOP but most of the tracks you can probably upload from youtube courtesy of a kindhearted collector.