Mississippi-born writer Wirt Williams learned firsthand about the underbelly of Louisiana politics during his 1946–49 stint as a reporter for The New Orleans Item. His exposés for that paper unearthed corruption in state government and earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Williams subsequently transitioned from journalist to novelist, obtaining a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and accepting a teaching position at Los Angeles City College. His novel Ada Dallas, which brought another Pulitzer nomination, drew upon his Louisiana experiences, telling the story of a woman who puts herself through college working as a prostitute, has an affair with a television reporter, marries a man who becomes governor, and maneuvers herself into becoming the state’s first female chief executive, eventually imposing martial law.
Producer Lawrence Weingarten (under his Avon Productions banner) acquired the film rights to Ada Dallas for M-G-M six weeks prior to its publication by McGraw-Hill on October 29, 1959. Weingarten initially pursued Elizabeth Taylor to take on the lead role, but after BUtterfield 8 the actress had had her fill of playing a prostitute (and was relieved to be finished with her M-G-M contract, in order to star in Fox’s Cleopatra). While Weingarten did not snag BUtterfield 8’s star, he did employ its director, Daniel Mann; by August 1960, Susan Hayward and Dean Martin were also on board, with Arthur Sheekman adapting the novel for the screen.
In December 1960, M-G-M shortened the title of the picture from Ada Dallas to simply Ada, in deference to the 1937 Samuel Goldwyn production Stella Dallas. Consequently, the story’s governor became “Bo Gillis.” The changes to the novel’s scenario did not stop there. The final script, credited to Sheekman and TV writer William Driskill, moved the timeframe from the present day to 1936, the location from Louisiana to an unnamed Southern state (near Alabama) and transformed the novel’s dark plot into a Capra-esque story wherein “regular folks” elected to office outwit machine politicians.
The film’s Ada (Hayward) is an experienced call girl hired to entertain guitar-strummin’ Collins County sheriff—and gubernatorial candidate—Bo Gillis (Martin) for an evening. The two unexpectedly hit it off, and before long Gillis proposes to—and elopes with—Ada, sparking consternation among his advisors, from cynical-but-honest speechwriter Steve Jackson (Martin Balsam) to corrupt political boss Sylvester Marin (Wilfrid Hyde-White). After concocting a fake biography for the candidate’s new wife, Marin engineers a Gillis victory through underhanded dealings spearheaded by Col. Yancey (Ralph Meeker), chief of the state police, who openly expresses his lust for Ada. Once ensconced in the governor’s mansion, Gillis finds himself a mere figurehead; when he and his reform-minded lieutenant governor, Ronnie Hallerton (Frank Maxwell), challenge Marin’s shady backroom dealings, the political boss responds by blackmailing Hallerton into resigning his post. After Ada finagles her way into an appointment as Hallerton’s replacement, Gillis lands in the hospital when an assassination attempt nearly claims his life. Gillis turns on Ada, thinking she conspired with Marin in the failed plot; meanwhile, after assuming the role of acting governor, Ada wastes no time in proving her husband wrong.
Although most of the filming took place on M-G-M’s lot in Culver City, the cast and crew did venture 400 miles north to Sacramento in February 1961 to shoot scenes in the rotunda of the California State Capitol. While other productions had used exterior shots of the capitol building, Ada was the first to film inside the structure. The original schedule called for the location work to coincide with a legislative recess, but delays resulted in the shooting taking place alongside Assemblymen at work and other routine goings-on. On one occasion, filming paused due to a previously scheduled performance by two college choirs, prompting the studio timekeeper to record the cause of the delay as a “choral break.”
Even though Hayward’s previous collaboration with Mann and Weingarten had resulted in an Oscar nomination—for 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow (FSMCD Vol. 7, No. 13)—her by-the-numbers performance in Ada generated considerably less acclaim. Martin proved to be at home playing the folksy candidate, but had little to do during the latter half of the picture, while Variety offered that Balsam, Meeker and Maxwell provided “[e]ffective key support” in their limited roles. The performance that drew the most attention from critics was that of Wilfrid Hyde-White: many reviewers noted that, while he was horribly miscast (his British accent keeps poking through an affected Southern drawl), he stole the picture with his smiling malevolence. Time wrote that the actor “dominates the audience as a waving cobra captivates a mouse,” while Philip K. Scheuer in the Los Angeles Times found him “miscast yet he succeeds in giving the film’s sharpest performance.” On the other hand, Joseph Morgenstern in the New York Herald-Tribune deemed the British actor “utterly and wildly wrong for the part,” failing to believe him as “a Southern political boss and not a raffish Englishman who walked into the wrong studio.”
Many critics also pointed out one glaring anachronism: the use of a portable tape recorder as a key plot point late in the film. Another of the picture’s touches possessed more verisimilitude, however: a song crooned by Martin early on, “May the Lord Bless You Real Good.” A 1957 composition by Wally Fowler and Atlanta disc jockey Warren Roberts, the tune had actually been used during a 1958 Alabama gubernatorial campaign. Fowler and a group called the Sons of Song accompanied candidate A.W. Todd across the state during the Democratic primary, singing patriotic and religious selections at each stop. The Todd campaign printed a songbook with some of these tunes, and a May 5, 1958, Life photo essay even included an excerpt from “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” along with a picture of Fowler and his fellow musicians in action. Fowler later recorded the song with the Oak Ridge Boys Quartet (a group he founded, later famously known simply as the Oak Ridge Boys).
Composer Bronislau Kaper, reuniting with director Daniel Mann after BUtterfield 8, employed the Fowler-Roberts tune in his main title and—sparingly—in other cues later in the picture. Kaper’s original contributions center on his theme for Ada, introduced as source music early in the film. Mack David later added lyrics to the theme to create a song called “Ada,” although apparently no singer ever recorded the vocal version. Leroy Holmes, however, did include an arrangement of the theme (featuring wordless chorus) on his album Leroy Holmes & His Orchestra Play the Love Theme From Lolita and Other Movie Favorites (MGM SE 4064), which Billboard described as “[s]olidly musical and easy on the ear all done with gloss and polish.”
As Variety noted in its review of the film, “Bronislau Kaper’s score is unobtrusive, except for the burst of campaign parade melody under the titles that deserves to be heard.” The low-key approach works quite admirably, offering dramatic support when needed, but otherwise staying out of the way during numerous drawn-out dialogue scenes. Jack Mollitt in Limelight wrote that “Bronislau Kaper’s score heighten[s] the emotional values” of the film, while James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter merely stated: “Bronsilau Kaper’s music is an asset.”
While the Ada CD program groups the non-Kaper source music together in a bonus section following the main score presentation, the track-by-track analysis below discusses the cues in film order.
- 1. Main Title/May the Lord Bless You Real Good
- After an opening flourish, Kaper launches into a “variations and theme,” introducing snippets of “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” over the opening credits before culminating with a complete instrumental presentation of the song for marching band as the film shifts from the main titles to a parade.
- The parade leads to a campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Bo Gillis (Dean Martin), who grabs his guitar and sings “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” during his stump speech. Due to licensing restrictions, Martin’s vocal could not be included on this CD.
- 17. Should I?
- After the rally, a police escort whisks Gillis away to a party at a high-class bordello run by Alice Sweet (Connie Sawyer). Piano and bass play this Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed tune (from the 1929 M-G-M musical Lord Byron of Broadway, later used in a number of M-G-M films, most famously Singin’ in the Rain) as source music in the establishment prior to the candidate’s arrival. Alice summons her best employee, Ada (Susan Hayward), and assigns her to entertain Gillis for the evening.
- 16. Don’t Blame Me
- When Gillis arrives (marked by a brief refrain of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” not included on this CD), the house band launches into “Don’t Blame Me” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields (introduced for the 1932 Chicago run of the 1927 musical revue Clowns in Clover, and utilized soon thereafter in the classic 1933 M-G-M film Dinner at Eight). The music begins under a conversation between Gillis and various politicos, continuing as Ada pulls him away to the dance floor and initiates a pro forma conversation as they dance to the music. When Gillis suggests they retire to his room, they proceed upstairs—over the protests of his advisor and speechwriter, Steve Jackson (Martin Balsam)—as the music persists, heard more quietly on the film soundtrack to indicate a greater distance from the party.
- 2. Ada
- “Don’t Blame Me” continues to play as Gillis tries to engage Ada in an actual conversation, but she keeps her emotional distance, treating him like a client. The source cue comes to a natural conclusion at the precise moment Ada begins to let down her guard, when Gillis elicits the fact that they share a common rural upbringing. Kaper then introduces his theme for Ada, ostensibly as source music continuing to play from the party below. The composition has the quality of a period standard—not surprising, as Kaper himself wrote a number of standards during the era in question. The music remains unobtrusive throughout their ensuing discussion—as Gillis relates his backstory and Ada opens up (to a degree) about her own—so much so that most viewers likely fail to realize the transition from pure source music to quasi-underscore. The cue fades out on a transition to the next morning after Ada offers to make a “campaign contribution” and the two lock lips. (Al Woodbury orchestrated this cue as well as “Don’t Blame Me,” and arranged “Should I?”; Leonid Raab handled the other orchestration chores for the film.)
- 12–14. May the Lord Bless You Real Good
- On January 3, 1961, prior to the commencement of principal photography, Robert Armbruster recorded these three arrangements of “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” for a six-piece jazz ensemble. About 0:25 of one version is heard in the film as a train carrying Gillis (and a Dixieland band) pulls away from a whistle-stop campaign event.
- 15. May the Lord Bless You Real Good
- At the January 3 session, Armbruster also recorded the solo version of the song featuring Dean Martin backed by guitar (heard in the film after the “Main Title” but not on this CD) as well as two versions of a vocal arrangement for male quartet and orchestra (one of which added Martin’s vocals to those of the quartet). This CD includes the quartet recording minus Martin (again due to licensing restrictions); in the film, approximately 0:30 of this arrangement appears as source music when Gillis crashes a stump speech given by his opponent, the song blaring from loudspeakers mounted on top of an automobile. The film mix initially features just the quartet, with Martin’s vocal discernible toward the end of the sequence.
- 3. The Proposal
- Gillis meets with Ada in a private booth at a tearoom—their relationship has developed from a one-night business relationship into something more serious, but Ada plans to travel to Memphis. Gillis pleads with her to stay, surprising Ada when he proposes marriage. The glassy tones of a vibraphone usher in Ada’s theme, which plays quietly on various solo instruments under their conversation, yielding to solo violin for an especially tender exchange. The theme swells into a statement for full orchestra on a transition to the following morning, with Ada—now Mrs. Gillis—driving her new husband to his townhouse. The cue subsides, concluding uncertainly with solo bassoon and two vibraphone notes when a worried Steve meets them at the door.
- 4. Pardon Me
- Political boss Sylvester Marin (Wilfrid Hyde-White), the mastermind behind the Gillis campaign, responds to the news of Bo’s marriage with orders to conceal the license and have the union annulled. Gillis protests, but it is Ada who stands up most forcefully to Marin. Kaper likely intended this unused cue to cover the end of the scene (with the introductory clarinet line for Marin’s momentary comeuppance, foreshadowing the dark, reedy colors that will attach to him later in the film) and the transition to the next, in which Steve instructs Ada on how to deal with waiting reporters (as a celesta intones fragments of “May the Lord Bless You Real Good,” suggesting the ever-present concerns of the campaign.)
- 5. Barbecue
- This source music, which packs one banjo-flavored melody after another into a cue lasting just over two minutes, plays during a campaign event at Marin’s estate. The opening bars accompany the new Mrs. Gillis charming some of the women in attendance, with the balance playing under a conversation involving Marin and Gillis’s running mate, Ronnie Hallerton (Frank Maxwell).
- 6. Governor
- With the assistance of Col. Yancey (Ralph Meeker), the head of the state police, Marin engineers the arrest of the wife of Gillis’s opponent on drug charges, which leads to the woman’s suicide. Marin responds to the tragic news by greeting Gillis as the next governor. Kaper’s somber setting of “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” enters on a transition to the morning after the election, as a taxi carries Bo and Ada to the state capitol. In contrast to the celebratory music one might expect for a moment of victory such as this, the music reflects the seedy underbelly of the political process—the flipside of the uplifting campaign rally at the beginning of the film.
- The Office
- A guard permits the governor-elect and his wife to enter the building and escorts them to the governor’s office. As they enter, a noble solo horn alternates with solemn, hymn-like string writing, suggesting that the gravity of their newfound power is just beginning to sink in.
- Life Is a Wonder
- After a reel change, the music continues as they discuss Bo’s new responsibilities and his high ideals. Kaper’s writing—predominantly for strings—recalls the harmonic language and chamber orchestra mood (but not the melodic substance) of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a piece of music written for a similar intimate moment between husband and wife.
- Wait and See
- Kaper covers a transition from the inauguration ceremony to Steve arriving at the governor’s mansion (some weeks later) with this energetic triple-meter passage, which lends urgency to an otherwise static shot of a car parking in front of a building. The music subsides from full orchestra down to solo strings as Steve enters the residence to meet with Ada.
- 7. Tea Party
- Ada orders Steve to secure her an invitation to a tea party attended by the wives of the state’s most powerful businessmen. Only 0:25 of this cue appears in the film, with Kaper adding mild Prokofiev-style dissonances to a dainty tune, gently sending up the pretentiousness of the tea party attendees.
- 8. Sylvester
- Not long after taking office, Gillis becomes aware that he is a mere figurehead, signing legislation and executive orders placed in front of him by Marin. He complains—to no avail—but when Ronnie Hallerton informs Bo about the graft and corruption contained in those documents, the governor storms up to Marin’s office. Kaper’s music is appropriately dark and energetic, subsiding briefly to allow Marin’s secretary to inform Gillis that her boss is at a health club. The musical vigor returns as Bo arrives at the club, full of bluster.
- Marin rebuffs Gillis, who ends the conversation with a threat not to sign any more legislation. Kaper’s brief transition cue bridging the health club scene with the next (back in Marin’s office) begins with a dramatic outburst from strings, then subsides into a tone pyramid as Ronnie Hallteron arrives for a meeting with Marin.
- 9. Visit
- After Marin blackmails Hallerton into resigning his post as lieutenant governor, he pays a visit to Ada at the governor’s mansion. Kaper’s cue, marked by stark, imitative string phrases, covers Marin arriving and proceeding upstairs, where he enters Ada’s bedroom to find her not fully clothed.
- 10. The Car
- Ada manages to have herself appointed lieutenant governor—over Bo’s objections—and a meeting between Gillis, Ada and Marin ends badly, with Bo threatening to expose Marin’s corrupt ways. After Marin departs, Gillis implies his belief that Ada has sold herself out to Marin, then storms out. Cellos and basses initiate a somber reading of Ada’s theme on a transition from a reaction shot of Ada to Gillis leaving his office and taking an elevator to the parking garage below. Violas eventually enter in fugal imitation when he gets in the back seat of his car and waits impatiently for his chauffeur, with violins joining as he moves to the driver’s seat—and an explosion ejects him from the vehicle.
- The stark phrases from “Sylvester” return. This cue’s title—and the film’s legal cue sheet—places it at the beginning of the scene following “The Car,” in which Ada visits the injured Bo in his hospital room. But in the finished film it follows “I Don’t Care,” covering a transition out of the hospital sequence, as Ada returns to the governor’s mansion to find Marin waiting for her.
- I Don’t Care
- Kaper’s solemn string writing continues in Bo’s hospital room as Gillis accuses Ada of being complicit in the attempt on his life. Solo oboe and English horn contribute to the texture, yielding to aching violin phrases that eventually lead to a somber statement of Ada’s theme. Kaper develops phrases from the melody, a tender string statement finally leading to a more optimistic—yet understated—dance-band orchestration as Gillis recalls his happy first moments with Ada. The cue ends on an uncertain note as Ada refuses to protest her innocence more vociferously, thinking that he would not believe her anyway.
- 11. Elected
- A solo horn, two clarinets and snare drum quietly intone snippets of “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” as the state’s chief justice swears in Ada as acting governor.
- In the governor’s office at the capitol, Ada receives a call from Alice Sweet (Connie Sawyer), her old madam, who persuades Ada to meet her at a motel. The cue begins mysteriously with bass clarinet, shifting to a troubled setting of Ada’s theme over a bassoon counterline for their conversation, then to the energetic triple-meter material from “Wait and See” as Ada drives herself to the meeting.
- End Title
- The remainder of the film—in which Ada engineers the repeal of Marin’s corrupt legislation, Marin and Yancey respond by making public Ada’s sordid past, and Gillis returns to the legislature to offer an impassioned defense of his wife—plays without music. For the optimistic resolution, with husband and wife reunited, Kaper employs “May the Lord Bless You Real Good” one last time. The composer introduces the tune gently on guitar (Gillis’s instrument) against tolling chimes, swelling to a full orchestra statement for the end title card. —