The producer of I Want To Live, Walter Wanger, and the featured jazz artist in the film, Gerry Mulligan, shared a common past. They both served jail time at the Sheriff’s Honor Farm in Castaic, forty miles north of Los Angeles. Wanger served three months in the summer of 1952 for shooting and wounding a Hollywood agent that he suspected of having an affair with his wife, actress Joan Bennett. Mulligan served four months in the fall of 1953 on drug charges following his arrest at The Haig earlier that spring while he and Chet Baker were performing at the club.
Wanger spent his time at Castaic as a librarian’s helper. New inmates typically drew time working in the cement block plant or toiling in the agricultural fields that grew crops to support the farm. His advanced age and physical condition kept him from performing those more demanding tasks. He used his library time to read books in the stacks dealing with the penal system. Upon his release he stated that he wanted to produce a film that drew upon his experience as an inmate. True to his word, Wanger produced Riot in Cell Block 11 in 1954.
Wanger’s I Want to Live! wasn’t another saga about life behind walls in prison. The film did contain scenes depicting jail time and imprisonment, elements of Barbara Graham’s last days before she was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Bringing Graham’s story to the screen was a serious undertaking for Wanger who wanted the film to make statements about the penal system and the death penalty. The film’s soundtrack would be a critical element of telling the story. Johnny Mandel was hired to fill that mission. Mandel spoke with John Tynan about working on the film in the September 4, 1958 issue of Down Beat.
“Johnny Mandel tugged thoughtfully at the point of his brown monastic beard. He jerked a thumb toward the bandstand where seven jazz musicians were playing a fast, nervous bop line.”
“This is probably the most anxiety-producing thing I’ve ever written,” he said with a subdued grin. “I wanted this particular piece to stand like the late, sick ’40s, so I guess I succeeded—it gives even me the jitters.”
“As he lurked behind the camera of movie director Robert Wise, who was busy supervising the filming of this sequence in the make-believe night club, Mandel, his short, rather slight form garbed in tweed jacket and slacks, gave concentrated attention to the jazz being played to a prerecorded soundtrack.”
“The location was one small corner of a huge motion picture sound-stage; the occasion was the shooting of the opening sequence in I Want to Live, Walter Wanger’s chilling story of executed (1955) murderess Barbara Graham.The studio’s re-creation of a “typical San Francisco tenderloin dive” was appropriately sleazy; the garish B girls avariciously maneuvering through the sickly smelling imitation smoke for the favors of well-heeled “customers” struck a jangling note of authenticity.”
“The object of Mandel’s concentration was the jazz group onstand. There was skinny Gerry Mulligan, hunched behind the mouthpiece of his baritone; big, quiet Art Farmer, playing clean-toned trumpet; slim, withdrawn Bud Shank; extroverted, big-mustached trombonist Frank Rosolino; cautious, crew-cut Pete Jolly; bassist Red Mitchell, ginger haired and smiling; grimacing drummer Shelly Manne.”
“After several hours brain-cracking work in getting a variety of takes on the sequence, the company broke for lunch. Mandel took the opportunity between mouthfuls of shrimp salad to speak of his work in writing the jazz underscore for the film. Recognized as one of the best of today’s young jazz arranger-composers, Mandel, 32, had nabbed a meaty assignment in I Want to Live.”
“This picture is not what you’d call a musical comedy,” he commented dryly.”
“With a fond stroke of his beard he added, “Actually, it seems incongruous to have jazz in a film like this—but it’s not at all. In the first place Barbara Graham was quite a jazz fan herself. Her letters from prison contain constant references to the playing of Miles, Brubeck, and other jazz musicians. She was a classics lover, too. Repeatedly she’d refer to the music she was listening to at the time and discourse on it. I read some of the letters; they’re really something.”
“Miss Graham’s personal taste in music was not, of course, the only factor in determining Mandel’s decision to write a jazz underscore for the film.”
“Jazz is nothing new in motion pictures, of course,” Johnny continued. “As such, it has been used in a general sense ever since the advent of talkies. In recent years, it’s been used more and more to characterize a juvenile delinquent . . . a sexy scene … a hangover in a comedy. There are many instances of this, of course.”
“But I don’t believe that jazz ever has been generally used as a basis for a complete underscore. It’s never been used as a vehicle for portraying all the emotions in a human being. Pictures like Man with the Golden Arm and Sweet Smell of Success did a lot toward opening producers’ minds to the use of jazz. Leith Stevens, incidentally, has been a major influence in this regard.”
“Mandel said he doesn’t believe there’s a single human emotion that cannot be portrayed with a jazz framework — “that’s my premise in writing this music, and it will govern other movie assignments in the future.”
“Most of the real blowing jazz in the picture will be what’s called ‘source music’ rather than underscore,” he said. “It will be heard, for example, in scenes where Barbara is playing records or listening to the radio. But in the background score itself, also, the changing moods will be accomplished by jazz sounds.”
“Matter of fact,” he added with a thin smile, “there’s not a note of legitimate underscore in the entire picture.-‘”
“Instrumental combinations employed by Mandel in recording the soundtrack ranged from “. . . one man to 30. And there are no strings used at all. The emphasis mainly is on a smaller sound rather than on the usual big orchestral sound. See, my idea is to get away from the big orchestra soundtrack cliche. Especially because of the nature of this picture, I wanted a more personal effect in the music.”
“He smiled a little self-consciously and summed up: “Guess you could call it a stripped-clean effect.”
“On the stroll back to the San Francisco “dive,” Mandel turned to the future of jazz in motion pictures, admitting that “some pictures just wouldn’t adapt to a jazz underscore, of course — period films, westerns, foreign locales, and so on. Obviously jazz wouldn’t fit there. Other than these exceptions, though, jazz is adaptable to far broader usage than it’s had in the past.”
“No kind of jazz,” he added, “period or anything else, should be excluded when a musical characterization is called for. A gamut such as films provide you gives you an awful lot to work with.”
“Mandel called jazz probably “the most all-encompassing type of music” and for that reason he said he feels its usage in films should not be restricted to associations with delinquency, crime, or tensions of the more sordid aspects and settings of American life.”
“Working on the film I Want to Live was a labor of love for the jazzmen involved in cutting the soundtrack. Among the west coast jazzmen participating were Johnny Mandel, who composed the music for the film; drummer Shelly Manne; reed man Bud Shank; pianist Pete Jolly, and trombonist Frank Rosolino.”
“These musicians were eager to express their feelings on the film and the role jazz plays in it. When asked to comment by Down Beat, they said:”
“Mandel: “Jazz has always been used in such a limited sense in pictures. Actually, the music is capable of expressing any human emotion. I was very happy to do this picture, hoping that the whole field could be opened to jazz composers like Bill Holman, Jimmy Giuffre, Quincy Jones, Al Cohn, and others.”
“Manne: “Strictly from a musical standpoint, working on this picture was a complete gas. Mandel’s writing was simply great. And the group he assembled to play the source music couldn’t have been better.”
“Shank: “My strongest recollection of working on this picture is how great it was under the direction of Robert Wise. For the first time I was working on a picture where the musicians were treated with respect. I remember, for example, on previous pictures the musicians were just extras.”
“Jolly: “This was one of the first pictures I’ve worked on where jazz was used to advantage rather than the opposite. Mandel accomplished so much in combining jazz with the action . . . And he captured with great accuracy the, contemporaneousness of the mood. But the only thing that bugs me about working in movies is that, when they shoot a scene, they give you a beat-up, four-octave, upright piano that doesn’t work—a piano half the size of the one you recorded the music on.”
“Rosolino: “This really was a chance to exploit a good jazz composer in a motion picture. For the first time, it shows what the talented jazz composer can do. And I must say, also, that the staff and powers that be had a lot more respect for us as musicians than any others in my experience. The whole thing was a treat.”
Gerry Mulligan was asked about the film when his combo was playing at an exhibition hall in Boston.
“We spent a lot of time synching,” Mulligan said between sets at the International Foreign Car show in Boston recently. “We went in one day and blew on tunes we didn’t know. Then we came in the next day and learned the tunes while we synched. Among the three of us— Shelly, Art, and myself—we had the band buckling down to synchronizing.”
“What we did was have them put the speakers on top of us . . . up over the stand and turned on as loud as we could stand it. Then we could blow to match what we had played for the soundtrack.”
“The results as seen in the opening long scene of the film are realistic, perhaps more so than any film involving musicians. The fingerings and lip compressions and breathing all mesh with the soundtrack. There were no noticeable lapses or overlaps between the shots of the men playing and the music coming from the sound system.”
“I had a ball blowing against the choruses,” Mulligan chuckled. “Of course, it sort of blew things for all of us, but it was fun.”
“United Artists’ Jack Lewis, who selected Mandel for the film was the artists and repertoire man for the soundtrack and the two LPs that will be issued, featuring the small group and a big band. Mandel’s name has been cropping up in New York gossip columns and among the music trade people as a strong candidate for an Academy award for his score.”
“Johnny’s music was very interesting,” Mulligan said. “And I think that the way it’s presented will be more intelligent than the usual. Johnny worked with the cutter all the way.
“He tried to write music with all the nervousness and anxiety of the ’40s in it . . . He wanted to make it very frenetic music. It fits the mood of the times and ties in with Barbara Graham’s character.
“I was on the coast when this case came up, and I can remember feeling then that she wasn’t guilty.”
Jack Lewis moved back to the West Coast after RCA Victor laid him off in December of 1956.
Lewis Discharged From RCA Position
“New York—Jack Lewis, RCA Victor’s A&R man and more recently assistant to the recording director at the RCA subsidiary label, Vik, was discharged late in December.”
“W. W. Bullock, chief of the RCA Victor single records department, declared the move “was nothing personal against Jack. We are reorganizing and getting ready for the new year. In our plans for 1957, we had to reduce the number of A&R personnel, and he didn’t fit into our plans.” Lewis said, “This is a pretty weird Christmas present.”
The October 14, 1957 issue of Billboard magazine published an article noting that film executive Max Youngstein of United Artists was entering the record business, establishing United Artist Records. Youngstein was in the process of hiring A&R heads to guide production. The primary focus of the new label was the production of soundtrack albums to accompany film releases. Jack Lewis joined United Artists that Fall and worked on two film soundtrack projects that were in the works, I Want to Live! and Porgy and Bess. A massive fire on the soundstage where Porgy and Bess was being filmed set that project back. I Want to Live! opened in theaters in the Fall of 1958.
The press kits for the movie invited theater owners to promote several tie-ins with phonograph records and books.
Jack Lewis persuaded United Artists to purchase a fold out cover of the November 27, 1958 issue of Down Beat that advertised the albums featuring music from I Want to Live!
Two LPs featuring Johnny Mandel’s music for I Want to Live! were released simultaneously, one with the jazz combo from the film and the other with the jazz score from the film.
Everyone associated with the film had hopes that the annual Academy Awards process would nominate Johnny Mandel’s score for consideration in the film score category. The headline is the March 5, 1959 issue of Down Beat noted:
Wanger Defends Mandel
“As producer of the film, I Want To Live!, Walter Wanger understandably had a large stake in a possible Oscar nomination for composer Johnny Mandel, whose underscore to the film aroused considerable favorable comment among the music fraternity in Hollywood.”
“When the 140 members of the music division of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month failed to name Mandel’s score in the first 10 preliminary selections for nominations, Wanger had a few salty comments on the situation.”
“I don’t know what this development shows,” Wanger told Down Beat, “except perhaps that the musicians in the Academy music division don’t care for modern music. They don’t seem to be in tune with the public’s taste.”
“Stating that Mandel’s music is “… a great contribution to the picture,” Wanger opined “… to me it seems a very strange thing that Mandel’s music didn’t make it in the one area you’d expect it to.”
“Added the producer, “I think Down Beat ought to give Johnny a special award for not making it. The citation might read, ‘From the uncommitted music lovers of America.’”
“Frankly,” concluded Wanger, “I’m pretty disgusted with this situation.”
“Academy awards, to be formally announced April 6 on NBC network television will include music Oscars in the categories Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Song.”