The Movies and the Music: Oscar-winning scores of the 1950s

The famous chariot race scene in 'Ben-Hur'MGM

January 20, 2017

As our decade-by-decade look at Oscar-winning film music continues, we're looking at scores from the 1950s: when the movies were big, but somehow the music seemed even bigger. Catch up with our look at Oscar-winning scores of the '30s and '40s — and for highlights from every decade, listen to Lynne Warfel's three-hour special on the Movies and the Music.

1951: Franz Waxman, Sunset Boulevard (drama or comedy); Adolph Deutsch and Roger Edens, Annie Get Your Gun (musical)

The 1950s were ushered in by Franz Waxman's colorful Sunset Boulevard score, contrasting elements of tango and bebop. It bested Alfred Newman's score for All About Eve, which took Best Picture. Over on the Musical side, Alolph Deutsch and Roger Edens landed the Annie Oakley movie its only Oscar.

1952: Franz Waxman, A Place in the Sun (drama or comedy); Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin, An American in Paris

Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin landed a well-earned Oscar for their score to An American in Paris, one of the most iconic of all movie musicals. That movie also earned best picture (only the second color film to do so, after Gone with the Wind), while A Streetcar Named Desire landed three acting wins, but poor Alex North couldn't pick up a statuette for its score — or for Death of a Salesman, a second nominated score for him this year. Instead, the Oscar for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score went to Franz Waxman for A Place in the Sun.

1953: Dimitri Tiomkin, High Noon (drama or comedy); Alfred Newman, With a Song in My Heart (musical)

Italian composer Ennio Morricone would become the foreign-born composer most closely associated with Westerns, but the first to win an Oscar for a Western score was Dimitri Tiomkin, a Russian. This was the first Oscars ceremony to be televised, and the audience got to see some drama when High Noon was upset for Best Picture by The Greatest Show on Earth, a movie that makes just about every list of worst-ever Best Picture winners. Here's another one you probably haven't seen: With a Song in My Heart, which landed Newman another Oscar to throw on his pile.

1954: Bronislau Kaper, Lili (drama or comedy); Alfred Newman, Call Me Madam (musical)

Yet another Newman win for an otherwise neglected musical, Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam — with, who else, Ethel Merman in the leading role. Bronislau Kaper's scoring win was also the only Oscar for Lili, which, as Wikipedia puts it, "stars Leslie Caron as a touchingly naive French girl whose emotional relationship with a carnival puppeteer is conducted through the medium of four puppets." They don't make 'em like they used to.

1955: Dimitri Tiomkin, The High and the Mighty (drama or comedy); Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (musical)

The gritty On the Waterfront swept Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress — but Leonard Bernstein lost the Oscar for best drama/comedy score to Dimitri Tiomkin's music for the Cinemascope disaster epic The High and the Mighty. Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin took the musical scoring award for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Barn dance, anyone?

1956: Alfred Newman, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (drama or comedy); Robert Russell Bennett, Jay Blackton, and Adolph Deutsch, Oklahoma! (musical)

A weird little Ernest Borgnine trifle named Marty somehow landed Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay (adapted) this year — but Roy Webb wasn't even nominated for Best Score. Instead, Newman got another one, for Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, in which William Holden plays an American journalist in love with a Chinese doctor played by Jennifer Jones, a white Oklahoman. On the musical side, the lauded Oklahoma! scooped a statuette. It wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, but it's now in the National Film Registry (unlike Marty).

1957: Victor Young, Around the World in 80 Days (drama or comedy); Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, The King and I (musical)

This was the first year that all Best Picture nominees were in color, and one of them won both that award and Best Score: the all-star, globetrotting Around the World in 80 Days. Composer Victor Young, a 22-time nominee, didn't live to see his sole win: he died in late 1956. The King and I, starring Yul Brynner in his most iconic role before Westworld, earned an Oscar for composers Newman and Ken Darby.

1958: Malcolm Arnold, The Bridge on the River Kwai

This year, the Best Original Score award was consolidated into a single category, with a modest five total nominees. British composer Malcolm Arnold joined the River Kwai party (it won several more Oscars, including Best Picture), despite not having written the film's most famous melody. That would be the "Colonel Bogey" march, written by Kenneth J. Alford in 1914.

1959: Dimitri Tiomkin, The Old Man and the Sea (drama or comedy); André Previn, Gigi (musical)

Gigi, the last great MGM musical, set a then-record for most wins, taking nine trophies including a best score Oscar for André Previn — with the categories split again. In the other best score category, the reliable Tiomkin earned the only Oscar for a Spencer Tracy movie that's more notable as the first major film to make use of bluescreen.

1960: Miklós Rózsa, Ben-Hur (drama or comedy); André Previn and Ken Darby, Porgy and Bess

André Previn went back-to-back, winning with Ken Darby for Porgy and Bess, a controversial film that starred Sidney Poitier as Porgy after Henry Belafonte turned the role down because he thought it was demeaning. Rózsa took the drama/comedy scoring Oscar for his richly dramatic score to one of the great sword-and-sandal Hollywood epics. Ben-Hur holds the distinction of being the longest original score ever featured in a major motion picture: the 212-minute movie includes over 150 minutes of music.