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  • Writer's pictureStefan

Dennis the Menace – Jerry Goldsmith - Soundtrack Review

Just to remind you all, we spent a few days ago the second Easter in lockdown. It is difficult to keep the positive mind up these days, especially with all this madness going around. Not sure if you watched the Academy Awards last year, but this was really the first time I did not care at all about the movies and the winners, but anyway: congratulations to Anthony Hopkins!

I was visiting my brother in a small town in Southern Germany, when we went into a music shop, and I found the soundtrack of Dennis The Menace. At this time, Jerry Goldsmith was already my favourite composer, therefore, I bought the soundtrack without seeing the movie which I did a few weeks later then.

I never heard of Dennis before, so for me, the movie was another one which might be produced because of the success of the Home Alone-movies. With the expanded CD and the very interesting liner notes, the history of Dennis The Menace was nicely explained, and I will summarize it here.

The movie

Illustrator Hank Ketchum created Dennis in 1951. The comic strip ran in more than 1000 newspapers in 14 languages and inspired a live action TV series, starring Jay North as Dennis, that ran for 146 episodes on CBS from 1959 to 1963. What the liner notes do not tell us is that in the UK, there is also a comic strip called Dennis The Menace. It was published in the British children's comic The Beano, published by DC Thomson, and first appeared in issue 452, dated 17 March 1951 (on sale 12 March 1951), and it is considered as the longest-running strip in the comic. The idea and name of the character emerged when the comic's editor heard a British music hall song with the chorus "I'm Dennis the Menace from Venice".

Coincidentally, on 12 March 1951, another comic strip named Dennis the Menace debuted in the US. As a result of this, the US series has initially been retitled Dennis for UK audiences, while the British character's appearances are often titled Dennis and Gnasher outside the UK. There is a very entertaining documentary about the movie, and Ketchum explained that the inspiration for the comic came from Dennis Ketcham, the real-life son of Hank Ketcham who was only four years old when he refused to take a nap and somehow messed up his whole room. Hank tried many possible names for the character and translated them into rough pencil sketches, but when his studio door flew open and his then-wife Alice, in utter exasperation, exclaimed, "Your son is a menace!", the strip was born.

For the 40th anniversary of the character, writer Ernest Chambers developed and wrote the book for a Dennis musical and wanted to make a movie based on the comic. Producers from Warner Bros. suggested Tim Burton as director, but Chambers wanted to have John Hughes. Hughes did not want the movie to be another Home Alone, and Hughes was tired because he worked six months on the sequel to Home Alone. He hired as director Nick Castle who, for example, was the director of The Boy who could fly (1986, with a fabulous score by Bruce Broughton). I found a nice documentary here:

The heart of the movie should be the relationship between Dennis and Mr Wilson, played by the wonderful Walter Matthau. In the liner notes, Hughes explained that he learnt from Ketchum how much Wilson needs Dennis. To find the right kid, 20,000 potential candidates were checked, and finally Mason Gamble was chosen. Mr Wilson’s wife was played by British actress Joan Plowright, and she has some great scenes. Christopher Lloyd gave a marvelous performance as invading criminal Switchblade Sam, so we have in the second half some Home Alone-scenes. He was perhaps a little bit too frightening for a family movie, and Matthau said that Lloyd’s character scared one kid, so he could not work for two days. As a balance, we have Lea Thompson, another famous cast from Back To The Future. here is the trailer:

You can see the genius of John Hughes in his comments of how to develop this story: “Innocence was the core of the story. A 5-year-old is completely innocent. The only person he is menace to is Mr Wilson, and he is a guy who expects all kids to be like 40 years old. Then I thought: These people live in an innocent world, why not threaten that innocence? So, when Dennis is with the thief, he thinks he is on a camping trip.”

The film was a success at the box office. Against a $35 million budget, it grossed $51.3 million domestically and a further $66 million overseas to a total of $117.3 million worldwide. Critics were generally negative. They praised Matthau’s performance, considered Lloyd’s character Swingblade as too scary which might be true, and the movie too close to the humour of Home Alone. That might be true, but compare to Home Alone, we have in Dennis a real story, and that is the reason I really like this movie.

The music

Jerry Goldsmith did not compose a lot of comedy soundtracks. In the liner notes, it is mentioned that Richard Kraft recommended Goldsmith to do a career change and concentrate more on smaller and intimate projects that were short on violence. Jerry Goldsmith always said that he preferred these more human movies over the horror and SF material he became famous for.

It looks like that Goldsmith was also frustrated with the feedback from Total Recall. Like usually, his music was mostly buried under machine-gun fire. Goldsmith commented: “I really thought Total Recall was a terrific score. I really liked it musically but nobody seemed to give a damn.” That is not true: Goldsmith was again nominated for a Saturn Award, and Total Recall is considered as a milestone in action-scoring.

But nobody can blame the composer after this busy score to go back to smaller movies which allowed Goldsmith to develop more lovely themes and compose more intimate movies. The result is astonishing! Goldsmith composed one of his best scores for The Russia House (1990), one of my favourite movies with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, and he continued to work for director Fred Schepisi on Mr. Baseball (1992, one of his most unusual scores), Six Degrees of Separation (1993, a tango score), I.Q. (1994, a lovely romantic comedy with a main theme very similar to the German children song Alle Voegel sind schon da) and finally Fierce Creatures (1997, the mediocre sequel to A Fish named Wanda).

Goldsmith also composed in these year the music to Not Without My Daughter (1991, the highly controversial Family-Polit-Thriller), Julia Roberts’ Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Mel Gibson romantic drama Forever Young (1992) and another Sean Connery movie called Medicine Man (1992) where Connery was jealous about Goldsmith’s ponytail, and another Michelle Pfeiffer Drama called Love Field (1992) – to name a few. Even though these soundtracks are not so mind-blowing such as Total Recall, they demonstrate Goldsmith’s ability to write beautiful love themes, and I am especially a fan of the main theme from The Russian House and love Medicine Man with its combination of orchestra and electronics.

The Main Title of Dennis The Menace starts with a slamming of the orchestra to announce Dennis with his bicycle and introduced then the theme for Dennis played on a harmonic performed by Tommy Morgan who played this instrument for Goldsmith when he was working on The Twilight Zone. A second theme, a lovely theme, mostly played on strings, underscores Dennis already mentioned “innocence”, and for Mr Wilson, we have a theme played on the tuba which is also introduced in the main title. Here you can listen to it:

Because of the storytelling, we have a lot of Micky Mousing, e. g. in Take An Aspirin, Babysitting (for a very funny scene and the fabulous comment of Matthau: Just a child!), and Shaggy Dog Story, just to mention three of them. There is also some comedy music in the score, e.g. The Doll, Spilled Paint or A funny taste, it is the fast change of atmosphere and rhythm that makes these pieces fun to listen to.

There is a kind of lullaby Goldsmith wrote for the scene when Mrs Wilson brings Dennis to bed and recites a bedtime story, a lovely scene. Mr and Mrs Wilson do not have any kids, and you can see that Mrs Wilson is clearly missing having a child. Real Love, not used in the film, is another short track with this theme.

Christopher Lloyd’s character gets a sneaky theme, played first time on the brass in Dollnapping, a great haunting theme with a wonderful effect in the movie. Even if you do not see Swingblade Sam, you hear the music and know he is not far away! The expanded CD edition has a lot of shorter tracks which are very dependent of the movie which therefore can be skipped.

The Heist is the music for the very important scene when Mr Wilson finally has enough of Dennis and ends their friendship in a furious outburst. Dennis, really sorry and desperate about what he has done, rides his bike through the woods towards his tree house, but then Sam bursts out of the night (a fabulous part to underscore the emotions of Dennis can be heard from 2’54) and grabs the boy. Here is the music:

He’s back is a track that shows Goldsmith’s ability to create sadness, drama, action and love in one track, and this talent of Goldsmith cannot be praised enough! Dennis is still missing, Mr Wilson is really sad about his previous comment, but then the music slowly builds up after this sad moment, and you can feel that there is something coming, and finally the Dennis theme is telling us: The boy is back!

A highlight of the score is the end title music called Toasted Marshmallows which gave Goldsmith finally a chance to put all his material together and write a very enjoyable piece which brings the CD to an end.

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