The three Warner Brothers wartime musicals released in the new Homefront Collection boxed set are all uneven. (Thank Your Lucky Stars is the best of them because even the weaker segments are at least fun, and the Arthur Schwartz/Frank Loesser score is one of the best ever written for a film musical, but it's not available separately.) But one thing that's consistent in all three of them is the excellence of the orchestral arrangements, and that's due to Warner Brothers' Ray Heindorf, by far the best orchestrator/arranger in Hollywood musicals.
But first let me confess my prejudice about Hollywood musicals: I think most of them are over-orchestrated. That's just my own personal prejudice, not a universal belief; many people are disappointed with the original small-band Broadway orchestrations of South Pacific or The Sound of Music after experiencing the Fox movie versions. But I find that most of the movie-studio orchestrators, equipped with bands much larger than any Broadway pit orchestra, tended to soup everything up too much. The worst was MGM's orchestrator, Conrad Salinger, whose arrangements could drain the life out of a song: he let the strings and brass ride over everything, and cultivated an all-purpose glitzy sound that had no relationship to any trend in popular music at any time in history.
But even better musicians, like Alfred Newman and his orchestrators at Fox or Joseph Lilley's team at Paramount, seemed to let the size of the orchestra overwhelm the songs, rarely providing the kind of wit or distinctive sounds that you got from the best Broadway orchestrators. (Compare, for example, Robert Ginzler's superb orchestrations for Bye Bye Birdie, with their memorable flute-heavy sound and their references to all kinds of different trends in late '50s/early '60s pop, to the bigger, blander arrangements in the movie version. The movie had a bigger orchestra to work with, but the orchestra makes hardly any interesting sounds, while the Broadway orchestra has something new and interesting in almost every bar.)
The exception to this rule is Heindorf, who started at Warners soon after sound came in and stayed there for 40 years, eventually succeeding Leo Forbstein as head of the music department. He orchestrated many non-musical films, including several scores by Erich Korngold, but his specialty was the musical; he orchestrated all three of the musicals in this new DVD box. And of all the big studios, it was Warner Brothers whose musicals had the smartest and snappiest orchestrations, as well as the most awareness of what was going on in pop music at a particular time. Some of that was just inherent in the studio's way of working; they had a more pop-friendly orchestra than Fox's basically classical-oriented group, and they also had the best music mixing department in the business (David Selznick wrote a memo to his music people asking them how Warners was so much better than anyone else at recording music and combining it with dialogue), but some of it is Heindorf.
He had a strong jazz influence in his scoring -- he was a friend and sometime collaborator of Art Tatum -- but he also used the orchestra the way Broadway orchestrators did, making his points with specific instrumental details. He'd let the trumpets or woodwinds comment at the end of a phrase, while thinning out the orchestration while the singer was singing (and if it was someone who couldn't really sing, like Bette Davis, doubling the melody in the orchestra). And when he wanted a "big" sound, he'd get it through a really contemporary, hip sound, rather than a wash of strings or some kind of fake swing arrangement like Alfred Newman would usually give us. And under Heindorf, Warners was one of the few studios to re-orchestrate Broadway scores without trashing them; Yip Harburg wrote a complimentary letter to Heindorf after hearing the orchestrations for his last Warners project, Finian's Rainbow.
Heindorf was also responsible for many of the orchestrations/arrangements in the Busby Berkeley musicals, where he did an amazing job with an impossible task. Instead of having dance arrangements specially written, Berkeley would plan most of his numbers to the refrain of the song, repeated over and over -- meaning that the arranger had to figure out how to play the same song without variation for ten minutes, without getting the audience aggravated. It's a tribute to Heindorf that he was able to make all that repetition tolerable through changes in orchestral color (also, of course, a tribute to Harry Warren that he wrote tunes that can be repeated endlessly). But I think his best work may be on Thank Your Lucky Stars, since he had to work in so many different styles and provide appropriate orchestral support for many performers who weren't singers. And besides, ending this post with Thank Your Lucky Stars allows me to post "Ice Cold Katie" again.