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Hollywood’s most unlikely collaboration: Errol Flynn, Adolf Hitler, and a Viennese opera composer

By James Aitchison


Tasmanian-born Errol Flynn was a lucky man.  He literally stepped into Golden Age stardom on the strength of one minor film.  While his acting talent was frequently dismissed, no other star looked so convincing in tunic and tights, or so believable as a roguish pirate.  Only Flynn could lead cavalry charges or win spectacular swordfights with consummate ease.  And certainly, few could rival his legendary sexual exploits that were immortalised by the phrase “in like Flynn”.

Yet, more than any other Hollywood star, Flynn’s movies were blessed with classically symphonic film scores which elevated his flicks into a whole new realm.  He had the famous studio head Jack Warner to thank.  Warner believed, “Films are fantasy — and fantasy needs music”.  He demanded that he really wanted to “hear” the music in his films.


Born into a Jewish family in Moravia in 1879, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy.  By the age of five he could play any melody he heard on the piano, complete with elaborate chords.  Two years later, he was writing original music.  Gustav Mahler hailed him as a genius.

The eleven-year-old boy’s ballet The Snowman was a sensation in Vienna.  By thirteen, he wrote his Second Piano Sonata.  Two one-act operas premiered in 1916.  At twenty-three, his opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) premiered.  He was spared frontline service in World War I, becoming musical director of his army unit.  When his commanding officer remarked that one of Korngold’s marches was rather fast, the composer retorted: “Yes, but it’s for the retreat.”

Korngold’s first taste of Hollywood came in 1934.  The famous German theatre director Max Reinhardt was directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Warner Bros.  He invited his friend to adapt Mendelssohn’s score for the new film.  Korngold’s work left a strong impression on the film industry and caught Jack Warner’s attention.

In 1935, when Warner Bros asked Korngold to write and conduct an original score for Captain Blood, he was shocked.  A pirate movie for a distinguished European composer?  Nein.  Declining at first, he changed his mind when he watched the filming with dynamic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.  Inspired, Korngold composed over an hour of symphonic music in only three weeks.  Captain Blood became an immediate hit, earning Korngold his first Oscar nomination for the score.

Korngold conceived his film scores as “operas without singing”.  He scored theatrically, regarding film scenarios as opera libretti [the text and lyrics of an opera].  He wrote a leitmotif for each of the main characters in a film — like personal signature tunes.  The leitmotifs varied based on the emotional level of the scene.  He felt that by having “musical identifications for characters, places and even abstract ideas” would keep the characters straight in the minds of the audience.

In 1936, he won his first Academy Award for Anthony Adverse, starring Frederic March and Olivia de Havilland, becoming one of the most important and influential composers in film history.

But by January 1938, with Hollywood behind him, Korngold was back in his beloved Vienna, preparing for the premiere of his fifth opera, Die Kathrin.  Casting was bogged down with cancellations.  The scheduled March opening at the Vienna State Opera looked out of the question.  In the midst of the chaos, an urgent cable from Warner Bros arrived asking if he could be in Hollywood within two weeks to compose the music for their new Technicolor epic The Adventures of Robin Hood.  

Korngold’s decision would save his life.


Assured by the manager of the Vienna Opera of an October premiere with Richard Tauber singing and Bruno Walter conducting, Korngold reluctantly returned to Hollywood.  Leaving their eldest son Ernst with Korngold’s parents, Korngold with his wife and young son George set out for California.  After blinding snowstorms in France, one of the roughest crossings aboard the luxury French liner Normandie, and a train crash with an auto, Korngold was whisked from Pasadena railroad station directly to the Warner Bros studio.  There, with a sinking heart, Korngold viewed the first half of the unscored Robin Hood (directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz of later Casablanca fame), not understanding a word of it.  Overwhelmed by the abundance of action in the film, he immediately turned down the assignment.

On 11 February 1938, he resigned to executive producer Hal Wallis: “…please believe a desperate man who has to be true to himself and to you, a man who knows what he can do and what he cannot do.  Robin Hood is no picture for me.  I have no relation to it and therefore cannot produce any music for it.  I am a musician of the heart, of passions and psychology: I am not a musical illustrator for a 90% action picture.  Being a conscientious person, I cannot take the responsibility for a job which, as I already know, would leave me artistically completely dissatisfied…”

The next day news came from Austria that Hitler was planning an invasion.  Korngold did not need reminding of the consequences of Nazi rule for Austria’s 192,000-strong Jewish population.  As a prominent Jew himself, he would be high on the Gestapo’s list and Vienna would offer no protection.  Warners’ head of music Leo Forbstein pleaded with Korngold to stay.  He agreed.

His young son George would later recall: “Six weeks of concentrated hectic work ensued during which my father was on the verge of stopping several times.  I shall never forget his anguished protestations of ‘I just can’t do it,’ which I overheard in the middle of the night through my bedroom wall.  He was suffering, and at the same time producing one of his finest scores…”

How great was the music for Robin Hood?  Film historian Rudy Behlmer stated: “Korngold’s score was a splendid added dimension.  His style for the Flynn swashbucklers resembled that of the creators of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century symphonic tone poems.  It incorporated chromatic harmonies, lush instrumental effects, passionate climaxes — all performed in a generally romantic manner.  Korngold’s original and distinctive style was influenced by the Wagnerian leitmotif [a recurring musical phrase associated with a person or idea], the orchestral virtuosity of Richard Strauss, the delicacy and broad melodic sweep of Puccini, and the long-line development [delaying the climax for as long as possible] of Gustav Mahler.”

On 13 March 1938, Hitler’s armies invaded Austria.  The Gestapo occupied Korngold’s house in Vienna, confiscating all the family’s possessions.  Miraculously, the Korngold parents and Ernst escaped on the last train to Switzerland, eventually arriving safely in Hollywood.

“My father laboured with even more intensity,” George Korngold recalled.  “I quite clearly remember going to the studio and sitting with him while he worked in the special screening room provided by Warner Bros.  Composing music at the piano to the running film, he made preliminary sketches, then came home to finalise the particular sequence he was scoring.  The following day, he would return to the studio as a last check…”

Working against the clock, Korngold was aided by Hugo Friedhofer, a young American composer and cellist who also spoke German.  Friedhofer orchestrated from Korngold’s detailed four-part piano score.  All orchestral details were marked in this score, and every texture and nuance — even exacting voicing of chords — were discussed by the two men.

Korngold was never happier than at the recording sessions.  “What composer can write music and immediately hear it played by a wonderful orchestra!” he enthused.  He felt film music was a new art form that provided a unique vehicle for dramatic music.

In Robin Hood, Korngold came closest to creating an opera without singing, bolstering and carrying along the action with an almost uninterrupted stream of colourful music.  As one critic observed, “He made the leaves of Sherwood Forest even greener and brought Robin and his Merry Men to life.”

Robin Hood won Korngold his second Academy Award for Best Musical Score.  And while more films followed, including The Sea Hawk, Kings Row (co-starring Ronald Reagan), and Of Human Bondage, Korngold eventually stepped away from Hollywood.

Korngold was the first internationally renowned composer to work in Hollywood, joining two other Jewish exponents of middle-European symphonic composition: Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind) and Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard).  Korngold’s film scores established a symphonic style that has endured to this day.  His rich orchestrations and passionate melodies provided the template for modern day epics.  Conductor André Previn said, “If Korngold sounds like film music, that is because film music sounds like Korngold.”  Composer John Williams has cited Korngold as his inspiration for scoring the Star Wars series.

Korngold spent the last ten years of his life composing for the concert hall.  His famous violin concerto is one of his most performed works.  Korngold died in 1957, at his home just a few blocks from Warner Bros.  Believing his film music had died with the old films themselves, he would have been amazed to see his scores performed at concerts and readily available on CDs and the Internet.  But back in the day, when asked why his early enthusiasm for music in films had evaporated, Korngold simply replied: “When I first came to Hollywood, I could not understand the dialogue.  Now I can.”


  1. I really enjoyed this well written story. It is fascinating, educational and a piece of Hollywood history!

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