Franz Waxman (born Franz Wachsmann) was the youngest child in a family of six children. His father was an industrialist who believed that music was not a real profession and encouraged Franz to go into a career in banking. His two and a half years as a teller paid for his piano, harmony and composition lessons. He then stydied music in Dresden and Berlin.
His education was paid for by playing piano in nightclubs and with the Weintraub Syncopaters, a popular jazz band of the late 1920s. He began arranging for the band and found some work orchestrating for German musical films. Frederick Hollander was also writing some music for the Weintraub Syncopaters and hired Waxman to orchestrate and conduct his score for Josef von Sternberg's classic film, The Blue Angel. Erich Pommer, producer of The Blue Angel, gave Waxman his first major composing assignment with Fritz Lang's version of Liliom (1933). Pommer then took Waxman to Hollywoord to arrange the music for Jerome Kern's Music in the Air (1934).
Waxman's first original Hollywood score was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This work led to a job as head of the music department at Universal Studios. He worked as music director for more than 50 Universal films and scored a dozen of them. Among the best known are Magnificent Obsession, Diamond Jim and The Invisible Ray.
At 30 years of age, Waxman signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to compose film scores. He scored several Spencer Tracy films including Captains Courageous, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Woman of the Year. In 1937, he worked with David O. Selznick for The Young at Heart picking up Academy Award nominations for both Best Original Music and Best Score. He again worked with Selznick in 1940 and picked up another Academy Award nomination, this time for Rebecca.
In 1943 Waxman left MGM and began a long stint with Warner Brothers. A few years later, in 1947 Waxman founded the Los Angeles International Music Festival. This group sponsored World and American premieres of 80 major works by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, William Walton, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg during his 20 year tenure as head.
Waxman is best known for his work during the 1950s and 1960s. He is the only composer to have won the Academy Award for Best Score in two successive years, winning for Sunset Boulevard in 1950 and in 1951 for A Place in the Sun. In 32 years in Hollywood, he ultimately received 2 Academy Awards from 12 nominations out of the over 144 films he scored.
Franz Waxman received many honors during his lifetime, including the Cross of Merit from the Federal Republic of West Germany, honorary memberships in the Mahler Society and the International Society of Arts and Letters, and an honorary doctorate of letters and humanities from Columbia College. He died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of 60.