Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 141: The strange journey of the 'Glen or Glenda' theme

William Lava smiles with pride, having learned his music is in an Ed Wood movie.

Ed Wood never had the luxury of working with a composer on his films. From one end of his directing career to the other, he had to rely on so-called stock or library music, occasionally to great effect. Who can forget Trevor Duncan's bombastic "Grip of the Law," which plays during the opening credits of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957)? Or Hoyt Curtin's queasy, discordant music heard throughout Jail Bait (1954)? Today, though, I'd like to turn your attention to a bit of stock music that Ed used not once but twice: "Presenting the Doctor" aka "Secret of the Silent Hills" by William Lava (1911-1971).

The end of the line for Looney Tunes.
If you know William Lava's name at all, you're probably a fan of classic cartoons. Bill is best known as the composer for Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes series from 1962 to 1969. Unfortunately, these were the dying days for that franchise, so William Lava's name is on a lot of uninspired, cheaply-made cartoons. If you've ever suffered through a lackluster Cool Cat or Bunny & Claude short, you were listening to Bill's music. 

Cartoon historians tend to take a dim view of William Lava, comparing him unfavorably to his predecessors, Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, and dismissing his music as "mechanical." It's important to remember, though, that Bill was working under relatively spartan conditions during his Looney Tunes tenure. Theatrical cartoons were less in demand in the 1960s, largely thanks to television, and their budgets shrank accordingly. Sometimes, these cartoons would even be scored with stock cues that Bill had composed previously. The original Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series finally petered out with the abysmal Injun Trouble (1969), and Bill himself passed on two years later at the age of only 59.

It was an ignoble end to a surprisingly varied and interesting career that merits further attention. What can you say about a man who co-wrote the theme for F-Troop (1965-67) and composed the score for Al Adamson's notorious Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)? He was no slacker, that's for sure. A Minnesota native, Bill Lava arrived in Hollywood in 1936 and soon embarked upon a career writing music for radio, film, and (eventually) television that would keep him busy for the rest of his life. Until he became associated with animation, laboring on both Looney Tunes and Pink Panther, Bill was never confined to one genre. In his early days, he scored comedies, dramas, Westerns, and more. 

In 1940, Bill wrote the music for RKO's The Courageous Dr. Christian, the first entry in a five-film series starring Jean Hersholt (yes, the namesake of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award) as a crusading doctor. Over the opening credits of this medical melodrama, we hear a lush, orchestral theme known as "Presenting the Doctor." 

In 1951, Ed Wood brazenly purloined "Presenting the Doctor" and used it as the theme song for his soapy made-for-TV short, The Sun Was Setting. The film credits no composer, certainly not Bill Lava, but Eddie gave himself a credit for "Music Arrangement," suggesting perhaps that he personally selected this bit of stock music. He must have been especially pleased with this choice, because he re-recycled "Presenting the Doctor" as the theme to his debut feature, Glen or Glenda (1953). Decades later, Howard Shore cleverly quoted "Presenting the Doctor" in his score for the biopic Ed Wood (1994). If you own the soundtrack album (and you should), you can hear the Glenda theme in the tracks "Ed and Kathy" and "Ed Takes Control."

But "Presenting the Doctor" had a life of its own, beyond its association with Ed Wood. In 1954, just a year after Glenda, Bill Lava's familiar Courageous Dr. Christian music reappeared as the theme to CBS' canine adventure series Lassie and got a new name: "Secret of the Silent Hills." But there was some behind-the-scenes skullduggery at work! It seems that Lassie's musical director, Raoul Kraushaar, had simply slapped his name on Bill's composition and claimed it as his own. Bill objected, naturally, and Raoul begrudgingly changed the theme just enough in Lassie's second season to avoid copyright infringement.

For some arcane reason, the slightly-rewritten Lassie theme also turned up during the opening sequence of Milos Forman's Man on the Moon (1999). I've long assumed that this was an in-joke, because Man on the Moon was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote Ed Wood. But perhaps this is just a bizarre coincidence. Either way, the credits for Man on the Moon rightfully list William Lava, not Raoul Kraushaar, as the composer.

And there is more! Apparently, "Secret of the Silent Hills" has a set of lyrics! The next time you screen Glen or Glenda, perhaps you can sing along. Here are the words:
One still night among the silent hills,
I learned a secret that I will share with you.
In the hush, I heard the whippoorwills reveal
The Secret of the Silent Hills.

Not a secret men scheme and plot for,
Only true words, we should not forget.
"Love can cure the world of all its ills."
And that's the Secret of the Silent Hills.
I found this detail so amusing because I've been singing along with the Glen or Glenda theme for years. My lyrics go:
Here comes Glen!
He's dressed up like a girl!
See him wear his angora sweater set!

Here comes Glen!
He's dressed up like a girl!
See him there in his angora sweater!
Okay, so maybe it's not poetry, but it's honestly what comes to mind every time I watch the opening credits of the film.

Special thanks to Angel Scott, who first pointed out that the Glen or Glenda theme appears in The Courageous Dr. Christian, thus leading me down this particular rabbit hole of movie and music trivia.

BONUS #1: In September 2021, a YouTuber named Gary Swerdlow uploaded a video of himself playing "The Secret of the Silent Hills" on piano. Very interestingly, Gary credits the song to William Lava and Charles Newman. Who the hell is Charles Newman, I wondered? Well, my research indicates that Charles was the one who added those aforementioned lyrics to Bill's melody. 

BONUS #2: One of William Lava's steady gigs in the 1940s and '50s was scoring the Joe McDoakes (or Behind the Eight Ball) shorts at Warner Bros. This was a series of one-reel comedies starring George O'Hanlon (the voice of George Jetson) that ran from 1942 to 1956, eventually amassing 63 episodes. You'll see them from time to time on TCM.  Bill was the composer for most of those, joining the franchise in 1945. The entire series revolves around Joe, a put-upon suburban everyman who fails (comedically) at everything he tries. He's the proverbial "man behind the eight ball," never catching a break.

One especially interesting entry in the series, at least for Ed Wood fans, was So You Want a Television Set (1953). For one thing, it features Phyllis Coates, who worked with Eddie on both The Sun is Setting (1951) and his infamous lost Wesson Oil commercial. For another thing, it includes a cameo (or two) by Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, who even gets to say a line! "Ytniad!" Thanks to James Tinder for hipping me to this movie.