Back in the 1970s, when film music first began to boom as an area of recording activity, one would have been hard put to find a mention of the name Frank Skinner much less any examples of his movie scores on record. Skinner, although a very important figure in the field of film music, had the misfortune to have done his work at Universal, one of the two "small" majors (along with Columbia Pictures, mainly on genre films that were less than the most prestigious of their era. And, like a lot of Universal composers of the period, much of his work was the subject of mixing and matching by the company's music department, so it was difficult to tell who had written precisely what, even within the scope of a single motion picture. Much has changed since. At the outset of the 21st century, orchestras have recorded and record companies have released multiple CDs of Frank Skinner's best and best-known scores for movies such as Son of Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, among others.
Skinner was born in Chicago and studied at the Chicago Musical College before becoming a vaudeville pianist, and he later joined a dance band and went to work for a music publisher. He was originally brought to Hollywood by MGM to arrange the music for The Great Ziegfeld, and he joined Universal in the late '30s where he remained for the next three decades. Although he never aspired to the kind of artistic explorations of Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rozsa, Skinner used the studio's horror, science fiction, and fantasy films as a vehicle for experimentation and often got impressive results; certainly his music for Son of Frankenstein is among the classics of the horror genre and was good enough to be reused in numerous other features. Even when he didn't reuse that musical material directly, many of Skinner's best scores, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, seemed to point back toward it. Watching the movie, it always seems that, at any moment (especially the tense ones), the music is about to break into a variation on the six-note theme that Skinner devised for Ygor's shepherd's horn (really an instrument called a blute) in Son of Frankenstein. Skinner was often teamed with Hans J. Salter, an expatriate European composer who joined Universal at the end of the 1930's, and the two often orchestrated each other's work, so it it is sometimes difficult to keep straight who wrote what between the two of them. This was one factor, along with the studio's policy of freely reusing thematic material from its vaults without credit, that prevented Skinner from getting his due public recognition for decades. Within the film music community, however, he was widely respected; he was the author of Underscore (1950), the first manual ever written dealing with techniques of film scoring, and he lasted longer at the major studios than almost any other composer.