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One of the least-known but most respected composers in film, George Duning earned five Oscar nominations and contributed one of the standards of the space age pop era, the medley of "Moonglow" and Duning's original theme to the motion picture, Picnic.
Duning grew up in a musical family. His father was a concert singer and conductor and his mother a piano and organ teacher. He became playing piano before the age of 5, and took up the trumpet in his early teens. By 15, he was leading his own dance band, and he went on to study at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he took composition from the influential teacher and composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. After leaving the Conservatory, however, he quickly moved from classical to popular music, getting a job with NBC Radio in New York in 1932. Comically-inclined bandleader Kay Kyser joined with Duning to create his hit radio series, "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge" in 1935.
Kyser made a number of musical short films while the show was on the air, and he brought Duning along to Hollywood as his chief arranger and orchestrator. This first exposed Duning to Hollywood, and vice versa, and he was courted by several studios for their musical production staffs. Before he could expect, however, he was enlisted into the U.S. Navy, where he served for three years doing much the same job he had for NBC: arranging and conducting, only this time for Armed Forces Radio.
When Duning mustered out in 1946, Morris Stoloff was quick to hire him to his staff at Columbia. Over the next 15 years, Duning scored an average of seven films a year, everything from forgettable B-movie Westerns and Three Stooges shorts to A-list pictures like From Here to Eternity, Picnic, and That Touch of Mink.
Duning provided the Columbia library with some of its enduring material. John Stanley claims, for example, that horse chase music from Duning's score for the 1948 Glenn Ford western, The Man from Colorado, and a piece titled "Mine Shaft" from another 1948 film, Relentless, was used countless times in Columbia B-movies and serials over the next ten years.
Duning and Stoloff were nominated three times for the Academy Award for best score: The Jolson Story in 1949; From Here to Eternity in 1952; and Picnic in 1955. His other nominations were for No Sad Songs for Me in 1950 and The Eddy Duchin Story in 1956. Duning never won an Oscar, however.
Among his colleagues, however, Duning was considered one of the finest creative talents in the studio business. Orchestrator Arthur Morton once said, "George always had a shrewd sense of what could and wouldn't work in scoring films, of what you could and couldn't do. Working with him was a pleasure." The Composer's Guild of America recognized Duning's work on Picnic with an award for "the best original underscore for a nonmusical film," which is a convoluted way of saying "best score."
Duning himself credited Stoloff for helping him develop as a composer:
Stoloff knew that music was emotion. Get the emotion down on paper and you have achieved your goal. That wasn't always easy, believe me. However, I was always able to sense the emotional content of a film. It was something that was just there for me. At least it lasted long enough for me to get it down on paper.One of Duning's most popular scores among space age pop fans is from the 1958 comedy, Bell, Book and Candle, in part because of several cool and swinging party scenes, complete with hipsters and bongos. Another well-regarded score is from the 1957 "noir" western 3:10 to Yuma (scripted by Elmore Leonard).
Elmer Bernstein credited Duning and Morton for nuturing him through his early years in film music:
My office at Columbia Pictures, my first employer, was right next to George Duning and Arthur Morton, who were under contract to Columbia at the time. And I have to tell you, the atmosphere was amazing. They helped teach me about mechanical things that I didn't know, about how film worked. It was an era in which we went to each other's recordings, and it's amazing to think about that.He began writing for television in the mid-1950s, and contributed to the memorable crime jazz score to "Naked City." In 1962, following Stoloff's departure to Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records, Duning left Columbia and became a free-lancer. He penned a popular theme for the Barbara Stanwyck western, "The Big Valley," and worked on series from "Farmer's Daughter" to "Star Trek." He continued to do an occasional film, and his later credits include Ensign Pulver, Dear Bridgitte, and The Man with Bogart's Face. In the late 1970s, he served as musical director for Aaron Spelling Productions.
Duning was also a leader in his profession. He served on the Board of Directors of ASCAP from 1972 to 1985, and was elected Vice President of ASCAP for 1978-79. He was also on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for several years, and he was recognized by the Society for the Preservation of Film Music with its annual award in 1995. His home state declared him Indiana Composer of the Year in 1993.
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