Archive for the ‘Steiner, Max’ Category

by Dr. Michael Pratt

1. Film Music as an American Art Form

Many people had a hand in the birth and early development of the motion picture in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in this country including Thomas Alva Edison who in 1887 invented the movie camera known as the Kinetograph in his New York studio with the help of his assistants and the movie projector known as the Kinetoscope. In 1888 George Eastman began to mass-produce celluloid roll film for still photography at his plant in Rochester, New York. In 1896 Edison brought the Vitascope to the market based on the Cinematopgaphe of the Lumière brothers and Auguste and Louis.[1] In 1903 one of the first milestones in the history of the motion picture was produced by Edison’s “Black Maria” movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey with the production of what is considered the first narrative film and the first film of the so-called “western” genre – The Great Train Robbery (based on an actual incident by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang).[2] By 1908 there were twenty movie producing companies in America and between 8,000 and 10,000 movie theaters (so-called Nickelodeons). “Feature films made motion pictures respectable for the middle class by providing a format that was analogous to that of the legitimate theatre and was suitable for the adaptation of middle-class novels and plays. This new audience had more demanding standards than the older working-class one, and producers readily increased their budgets to provide high technical quality and elaborate productions.” [3] The result was the emergence of the “movie palace”, one of the first of which was the 3,300 seat Strand in the Broadway district of Manhattan in 1914. By 1916 there were more than 21,000 such movies theaters in America, marking an end to the Nickelodeon era and the start of the Hollywood studio system of producing movies (dominating the industry through the 1950s). Literally thousands of films were produced during the silent film era between 1904 and 1927 giving rise to stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Fattie Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Lon Chaney. By the early 1920s there were forty million Americans attending movies each week. (ibid.)

            Everything changed forever in 1927 with the release by Warner Bros. of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. For the first time the audience heard a voice and would never again be content with silent movies. Such was the demand for “talkies” that “The wholesale conversion to sound…took place in less than 15 months between late 1927 and 1929, and the profits of the major companies increased during that period by as much as 600 percent.” [4] Initially film scores were limited to Main Titles and Credits with all else being diegetic (sounds whose sources are visible on the screen or whose sources are implied to be present by the action of the film).[5]  It soon became apparent that a musical score was not only essential to a film but highly beneficial as well and soon non-diegetic scores began to appear (sounds whose sources are neither visible on the screen nor have been implied to be present in the action – ibid.). Dramatic scores appeared. Scores whose presence in sound made the film better (a premise in Hollywood among film composers is that a good score can make a bad film better and a good film cannot be hurt by a bad score). “In the hands of clever composers, a true musical drama is created. Erich Korngold persuaded you that Errol Flynn was really Robin Hood, Max Steiner told you what it was like for a Southern aristocrat to lose the war and a way of life, Miklos Rozza let you know how Ray Milland felt on a lost weekend, and Bernard Hermann terrified you as some weirdo butchered Janet Leigh in the shower. If you believed Dana Andrews really loved Laura, thank David Raskin; or if you shared Dana’s mind wanderings as he sat in the nose of a wrecked B-36, tip your hat to Hugo Friedhofer. If your heart went out to Gary Cooper as he waited for those gunmen at high noon, you might give a thought to Dimitri Tiomkin; and if you really thought Jennifer Jones saw the Virgin Mary, then light a little candle to the memory of the late Alfred Newman. And Joan Fontaine was absolutely right when she felt Manderley was haunted, but it wasn’t spirit of Rebecca – it was Franz Waxman’s music.” [6]

 2. Max Steiner’s Biography

 Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in Vienna on May 10, 1888 and died in Beverly Hills on December 28, 1971. His father and grandfather were theatrical producers who produced the operettas of Franz von Suppe, Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss. Max was a child prodigy studying piano with Johannes Brahms, orchestration with Richard Strauss and conducting with Gustav Mahler. After completing a four year course of musical study at the Vienna Conservatory in one year, Max worked throughout Europe from 1904 to 1914. Finding himself in London at the outbreak of World War I he was classified as an undesirable alien and quickly emigrated to New York where he worked on Broadway for the next fifteen years as a copyist and later as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor of musicals and revue shows, on and off Broadway. “These shows included the Gershwins’ Lady Be Good! (1924), Kern’s Sitting Pretty (1924) and Youman’s Rainbow (1928). His only Broadway show, Peaches, was composed during this period. He also worked extensively with Victor Herbert, arranging many of the composer’s dance numbers, and acting as the musical director for a touring production of Oui Madame (1920). Herbert’s influence can be seen in the attention to orchestration which characterizes Steiner’s film scores. For musical theatre he learned to combine small numbers of instruments to create the impression of a fuller orchestral sound, a skill which was to prove useful in the under-funded music departments of Hollywood.” [7]

In 1927 Steiner orchestrated a Broadway show called Rio Rita which was later purchased by RKO Pictures for the film. As a result of Steiner’s ability to create big sounding orchestrations with a small orchestra, he was hired by RKO to do the film version. The first original film score by Steiner was in 1930 for the film Cimarron. Steiner’s career as a film composer really took off when the thirty year-old David O. Selznick came to RKO in 1932. With the film Symphony of Six Million: “David said, “Do you think you could put some music behind this thing?” Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring – the producers were afraid the audience would ask “Where’s the music coming from?” unless they saw an orchestra or a radio or phonograph. But with this picture we proved scoring would work.” [8]

Steiner soon became known for his ability to depict things musically: Leslie Howard’s limp in Of Human Bondage, a dog walking along a corridor in Since You Went Away, or the water dripping in Victor McLaglen’s cell in The Informer. This technique, known as “mickey-mousing” proved to be quite effective for Steiner. The film that brought Steiner to everyone’s attention was King Kong in 1933. “In addition to composing scores, Steiner also acted as the arranger-conductor on many RKO musicals. He was the musical director on most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures.” (ibid.) In 1936 Steiner left RKO for Warner Brothers. “It’s doubtful if any composer in history worked harder than Max Steiner. In his first dozen years for Warner Bros. he averaged eight scores a year, and they were symphonic scores calling for forty and fifty minutes each. His peak year was 1939 when he worked on twelve films including Gone With the Wind, the longest score then written. Steiner’s career with Warner Bros. spanned almost thirty years and included scores for nearly 150 films.” (ibid.) A partial list of Steiner film scores would include King Kong, 1933; Little Women, 1933; Of Human Bondage, 1934; The Informer, 1935; The Three Musketeers, 1935; The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936; A Star is Born, 1937; The Life of Emile Zola, 1937; Jezebel, 1938; Gone with the Wind, 1939; They Died with their Boots On, 1941; Now, Voyager, 1942; Casablanca, 1943; Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944; Since You Went Away, 1944; Mildred Pierce, 1945; The Big Sleep, 1946; Life with Father, 1947; Johnny Belinda, 1948; Key Largo, 1948; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948; The Glass Menagerie, 1950; This is Cinerama, 1953; The Caine Mutiny, 1954; The Searchers, 1956; A Summer Place, 1959; The FBI Story, 1959; and Spencer’s Mountain, 1963. He received numerous Oscar nominations, winning the award three times for the films Now Voyager, The Informer and Since you Went Away. The last film scored by Max Steiner was Those Calloways in 1965. Steiner died in 1971 of cancer.

 3. The Score to King Kong (1933)

 RKO was in financial difficulties and nearing bankruptcy. It had already spent nearly a half million dollars producing a film about a fifty foot tall gorilla named King Kong.  Steiner was in charge of the music department at the studio in a time when a single film had a budget for a maximum of a three hour recording session with a ten piece orchestra. For King Kong it was decreed even this would not be allowed and that Steiner had to use music tracks from other recent film scores such as Little Women (!) The film’s director Merian C. Cooper was convinced of the potential for the film and the importance of a good score by Max Steiner. “Cooper said the magic words, which I quote: ‘Maxie, go ahead and score the picture … and don’t worry about the cost, because I will pay for the orchestra.’ And so he did, to the tune of fifty thousand dollars – an enormous sum to expend on music then; and to hear him tell it, it was worth every dime. The music meant everything to that picture, and the picture meant everything to RKO, because it saved the studio from bankruptcy…. The impact of King Kong on the movie going public was astonishing. It emerged into a country frightened, impoverished, in the grip of the Great Depression. Yet, on the very day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks and declared a moratorium – a period of grace on the repayment of debts – the following advertisement appeared in a New York City newspaper: ‘No money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in 4 days to see King Kong at Radio City, setting a new all-time world’s record for attendance at any indoor attraction.’” [9] In a time when the average ticket price to a film was ten cents, the price of admission charged for King Kong by Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood was fifty cents to seventy-five cents for matinees and fifty cents to a dollar for evening screenings. Opening night was an incredible $3.30. The fifty foot gorilla may have been the initial draw but the Max Steiner score certainly contributed to the on-going success of the film over the years. “[Merion C.] Cooper was a strong supporter of [Steiner’s] work on his own The Most Dangerous Game, released several months before Kong, and he continued over the years to secure the services of Steiner whenever possible – sometimes undercover because of contractual conflicts (This is Cinerama, etc.). ‘So far as my experience goes he was the originator, the creator, the dramatist of music on the screen’, said Cooper.” [10]

            “Steiner used what would be considered for the time a large orchestra for film scoring – 46 players).” (ibid.)  Being a classically and European trained musician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Steiner fell under the influence of composer Richard Wagner (as did almost the whole of the musical world at the time). As a result he used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of composing for his film score. Steiner is often quoted as sayingIf Wagner had lived in this century he would have been the number one film composer“. 

 King Kong Orchestra

Max Steiner Conducting the King Kong Studio Orchestra [11]

Utilizing Wagner’s leitmotiv system of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events and using them developmentally in a symphonic fashion allowed Steiner to craft a film score which was both musically dramatic and story enhancing (to the same effect as Wagner’s usage in his Ring Cycle of operas). The “Main Title” music opens with King Kong’s three note motive; heard throughout the entire score in many sections and guises, but always identifying King Kong himself. King Kong’s leitmotiv is usually descending but sometimes rising (or a combination where the three notes descend but are repeated in a rising sequence, for example, as King Kong approaches).

King Kong's Leitmotiv

Scored in full brass and low strings these ominous three notes give the audience the expectation of what is to come in both scope and terror. Followed by a brief fanfare the “Main Title” music continues with the “Stolen Love” theme of the movie’s heroine, Ann Darrow. Eventually this theme refers not only to her love for First Mate Jack Driscoll, who saves her life, but also to her relationship to Kong himself, which is the core of the film (which ends with the famous line “It was beauty killed the beast”).

Ann Darrow's Leitmotiv

 The “Main Title” music continues with its third motive, the jungle dance seen on Skull Island when the main characters first land.

Jungle Dance Leitmotiv

After the jungle dance and a second fanfare, the Kong leitmotiv returns scored in a much more soft, lush, and romantic fashion. The listener is signaled that not everything with Kong will be terrifying. Steiner’s constantly evolving use of these motives not only dramatically underscores the action of the movie but makes the movie maker’s almost impossible task of turning a fifty foot tall gorilla into a sympathetic figure a realistic goal, achievable in large part by audience sympathy aroused by the musical score.            

Kong’s motive, utilized throughout the entire score, is heard in sections such as “The Entrance of Kong”, “Log Sequence”,  “The Cave”, “The Theater Sequence” (in New York), “Kong Escapes”, “Elevated Train Sequence”, “Aeroplanes”, and, or course, the “Finale”. The Stolen Love motive of Ann Darrow is heard in “The Sea at Night – Forgotten Island” with Jack Driscoll, and later in “The Cave” with Kong (it is largely through Steiner’s score that the fondness of the gorilla for a woman is portrayed). Christopher Palmer notes the three note Kong motive “greatly facilitates its contrapuntal inclusion in many different contexts. At one point it becomes the motif of Kong’s approach. Later it is transformed into the first phrase of the march played in the theater when Kong is put on public display in New York (doubtless a nostalgic backward look on Steiner’s part at his years in the pit on Broadway). A particular subtlety is the way in which at certain critical moments – notable in the finale, in which Kong falls to his death from the Empire State Building after depositing Fay Wray in a place of safety – the Kong theme and the Fay Wray theme [Secret Love] (which in its pristine state is a pretty waltz melody) actually converge and become one thus musically underlining the tale of Beauty and the Beast.” [12]  The Jungle Dance motive begins with the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance” and is heard later in the “Return of Kong”. In the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance”, when the leader of the tribe first sees the Americans he stops the dance and approaches them as they continue to film what appears to be some sort of ceremony. As he approaches them he walks with heavy and deliberate footsteps. Steiner’s score uses a descending scale in perfect synchronization with these footsteps. This deliberate use of music to not only underscore but mimic the action on the screen is Steiner’s first use of what would later be know as “mickey-mousing”.

            “Steiner composed this music in the full Wagnerian orchestral tradition…com[ing] up with compromises such as woodwind players being asked to play up to four different instruments within a given cue, or a viola player to run quickly (but quietly) over to the celesta and play a few notes, or even having some of the violin players change over to violas for some passages. Excerpts from Steiner’s score turned up in several subsequent scores, such as The Son of Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Last of the Mohicans, and Back to Bataan.” (ibid., The Complete 1933 Film Score)

            Noted film composer Danny Elfman says “I think it is important to remember that when Steiner set down to score King Kong there were almost no references. He was practically starting from a clean slate – uncharted territory. So many things that Steiner did we take for granted now that the language has been defined. Steiner really is the granddaddy of this wonderful art form.” (ibid.)

 4. The Score to Gone With the Wind (1939)

            In 1936 one of the most popular and best selling books of all time was published, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. David O. Selznick immediately acquired the rights to film the book and actual filming began after many delays in December 1938. In a memo in 1935 Selznick stated that “’he considered the right score a major element in the success of a picture…and there is no one in the entire field within miles of Max’ [Steiner]. Two months later Steiner was signed as musical director of Selznick International.” [13]  Two years later Selznick refers to the music for GWTW for the first time saying “My first choice for the job is Max Steiner and I am sure Max would give anything in the world to do it” (ibid.) The deadline for the premier was set for Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 1939. Steiner was busy completing the scores for We Are not Alone, Four Wives, and Intermezzo (three of the twelve movies Steiner scored in 1939 (!) including the longest score which had ever been written for a movie for GWTW). Steiner complained to Selznick that it was impossible for him to meet this deadline but Selznick discounted this “largely because Steiner is notorious for such statements and works well under pressure, and I am inclined to take that chance and drive him through.” (ibid.) About the process of writing, orchestrating and recording the music to GWTW, Hugo Friedhofer recalls “The whole thing had a really nightmare quality about it, because we were really under pressure. We never started recording until after dinner and then until two, sometimes three in the morning…then we would go home, grab a couple of hour’s sleep, write with orchestrators and copyists breathing down our necks, grab a bite before recording, and then start the whole thing over again. And this went on for I don’t know how many weeks.” (ibid.) According to Tony Thomas “Steiner says he managed to live through these weeks only with medical aid; a doctor came frequently to his home and gave him Benzedrine so that he could maintain a daily work routine of twenty hours at a stretch.” (ibid., Themes from The Vienna Woods)

            As was his practice, Steiner used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events. In addition Steiner used patriotic tunes from the era (Civil War) and other Southern and popular songs (many composed by Stephen Foster). All eleven principal characters have their own motive. More important than all of them, though, is the theme for Tara, the O’Hara family plantation. Not only is this motive the theme which identifies the film, it has become an iconic musical symbol for the grandeur of the Southern, aristocratic way of life itself. Steiner masterfully uses the upwardly leaping octave to musically capture both the grandeur of Tara (and the South) and the huge scope of the topic (and of the motion picture itself). 

Tara's Leitmotiv

            In King Kong Steiner used orchestrations which were heavy with woodwinds, brass, and percussion and short, “punchy” themes for dramatic effect. In the score to GWTW he utilizes more string orchestrations, writing with a much more sweeping scope to the melodies. Some of the writing, for instance “In the Library” where Scarlet first meets Rhett Butler, contains many sections for solo violin.

Scarlett Meets Rhett Leitmotiv

            The 1939 Academy Awards nominations for best original score included twelve films including Of Mice and Men (Aaron Copland), Wuthering Heights (Alfred Newman), and Dark Victory and Gone With the Wind (both Max Steiner) with the award going to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz (about the only category in which it beat GWTW). In 1942 Margaret Mitchell wrote to David O. Selznick “At the Grand Theater here in Atlanta, they play the theme music from Gone With the Wind in the interludes of the pictures and when the last performance of the night is over. Frequently I remain in my seat to listen to it because it is so beautiful.” (ibid.)          

An interesting footnote is that the huge fire created to simulate the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind was achieved primarily by burning the gigantic wall from King Kong.

 5. Max Steiner’s position as a landmark composer of American film music

            Ray Harryhausen (the creator of the magical effects seen in such films Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and, of course, King Kong) had the following to say about Max Steiner: “Steiner’s output varied to such extremes of filmed subject matter that it really boggles the mind…He was one of the few “Hollywood Greats” who could instantly inject “the spirit” of the screen story into the audio accompaniment thus enhancing the visual image many times over with emotional values only the ear can perceive…Steiner tackled these subjects with originality, dramatic charisma, and aplomb, indelibly enhancing our visual images to unforgettable proportions. His many imitators soon fell into oblivion.” (ibid., King Kong, Marco Polo)

            Ray Bradbury (author of The Martian Chronicles) says “At one of the Academy Awards broadcasts, an eminent composer said: ‘Thanks to the Academy, the members of the Academy, and to Tschaikovsky, Berlioz, Vivaldi, Moussorgsky, and Bach.’ My response to cinema music history would go like this: ‘Thanks to Max Steiner’” (ibid.)

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Motion Picture, History of the,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52136/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[2] Tim Dirks, “The Great Train Robbery (1903),” The Greatest Films, 1996, http://www.filmsite.org/grea.html. (accessed January 22, 2006).

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Pre-world War I American Cinema,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52140/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Conversion to Sound,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52149/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[5] Bordwell-Thompsson & Reize-Millar, “Diegetic And Non-diegetic Sounds,” The Art Of Filmsound.org, 2006, http://www.filmsound.org/terminology/diegetic.htm#nondiegetic/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[6] Tony Thomas, “What’s the Score?” [Page 5] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[7] Kate Daubney (with Janet B. Bradford), “Steiner, Max,” Grove Music Online, 2006, http://www.grovemusic.com/ (accessed January 28, 2006).

[8] Tony Thomas, “Themes from the Vienna Woods,” [Page 146] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[9] David Raskin, “Max Steiner,” American Composers Orchestra, 1995, http://www.americancomposers.org/raksin_steiner.htm. (accessed January 28, 2006).

[10] Max Steiner, “King Kong,” Original Motion Picture Sound Track, Turner Classic Movies R275597, 1933, CD.

[11] Max Steiner, “The Complete 1933 Film Score,” King Kong, Marco Polo B-223763, 1997, CD.

[12] Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood [Pages 28-9] (Great Britain: Marion Boyars, 1990).

[13] Max Steiner, “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Gone With the Wind, Turner Classic Movies R272822, 1939, CD.


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