Louis F. Gottschalk: The Royal Composer of Oz

Every person who aspires to write film scores should know the name Louis F. Gottschalk (1863-1934). He was the first guy to do it, at least the first to compose complete scores; prior to him the standard was just cue sheets. But there is much more to tell about him.

First, he was the namesake of his great uncle, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), who in some ways is just as signficant, but was strictly a figure of the music world, which is a little outside my wheelhouse, so rather than getting his own post on Travalanche, we make him a footnote to his great-nephew. Born in New Orleans, the elder Gottschalk was a virtuoso pianist who performed his own original compositions. He became the toast of Europe, where he rubbed elbows with admirers as eminent as Chopin and Liszt. He was one of the first to incorporate African American influences into his compositions. Unfortunately, he died of yellow fever at age 40 while touring in Brazil. He is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery.

The younger Gottschalk was born and raised in St. Louis. His father (yet another Louis) was Governor of Missouri and later American Consul to Germany. This is where our Louis studied music. No doubt the family name opened doors for him. From 1899 through 1912 he was musical director (arranger, conductor) of over a dozen Broadway shows, including the original American production of The Merry Widow (1907), and the Lew Fields production Old Dutch (1909-1910), with John Bunny, Vernon Castle, Charlotte Cushman, et al.

These productions brought him to the attention of L. Frank Baum, who’d scored a major theatrical hit with his stage version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Broadway and throughout the country between 1901 and 1911. In 1912, the pair became collaborators. First, Gottschalk wrote the music for the show The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, which was produced in L.A. by Oliver Morosco, and ran from 1913 to 1914, but didn’t move to New York. They then co-founded The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, producing the films The Patchwork Girl of OzThe Magic Cloak of OzHis Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, and The Last Egyptian (all in 1914). Gottschalk composed the scores for these movies, which were distributed with the films to be played by pit bands at cinemas when they were screened. He also wrote the scores for several other live musicals for Baum between 1914 and 1917. Baum died in 1919.

In 1916, Gottschalk returned to Broadway one last time to be musical director for the Ziegfeld show The Century Girl starring Hazel Dawn. In 1919 he collaborated with novelist Harold Bell Wright, co-directing the original silent screen version of the latter’s The Shepherd of the Hills. The film was later remade in 1928, 1941, and 1964. The novel is set in Branson, Missouri. A live annual adaption of the novel has been presented there since 1960, a major factor in Branson’s becoming a tourist destination. Gottschalk was only involved with that first adaptation in 1919, however.

After Baum, Gottschalk’s other major collaborator was D.W. Griffth. For Griffith, Gottschalk did musical arrangements for Intolerance (1918 re-release), and Broken Blossoms (1919), and composed original scores for The Great Love (1918) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). He also wrote scores for Cecil B. Demille’s Old Wives for New (1918), Rex Ingram’s The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921), Fred Niblo’s The Three Musketeers (1921), and Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), among others. Chaplin of course wrote his own score for A Woman of Paris in 1976, his last major artistic work, and that has naturally eclipsed Gottschalk’s. The only talkie bearing original music by Gottschalk is the 1929 musical The Rainbow Man, starring Eddie Dowling.

For more on early show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.