Max Steiner and The Birth of Modern Movie Music
Exclusive Guest Post by Author Steven C. Smith
An international crisis triggers record unemployment.
Hollywood executives panic, as movie theaters shut their doors.
And one studio faces likely closure, putting all its hopes on a would-be blockbuster.
The year is 1933. The studio is RKO. And the movie is King Kong.
Then as now, audiences made anxious by global upheaval hungered for escapist entertainment; and in March 1933, King Kong delivered the financial rescue its studio prayed for. But the movie might have failed, depriving us of later RKO classics, if not for the ninth-inning involvement of one man: RKO’s 44-year-old music director, Max Steiner.
More than any other composer, the Vienna-born Steiner (1888-1971) established the ground rules of movie music in the sound era. Before Max, orchestral underscore was rare in Hollywood talkies, which officially replaced silent films in 1929.
As Kong neared completion in 1933, nervous RKO brass told Steiner not to waste additional dollars writing music for the movie, after some executives found the ape’s stop-motion movement unconvincing.
But Kong’s visionary producer, Merian C. Cooper, knew better.
As Steiner would recall, “Cooper said to me, ‘Maxie, go ahead and score the picture to the best of your ability. And don’t worry about the cost because I will pay for the orchestra.’”
Steiner’s epic score—a thrilling blend of Stravinsky-like dissonance, Wagnerian opera, and Viennese lyricism—convinced moviegoers that Kong was both terrifying and ultimately tragic. The music’s DNA is still found in the sweeping scores of John Williams and countless others. (Star Wars’ original “temp track” of music, used during editing before its score was written, included music by Steiner.)
By the mid-1930s, Max’s trademarks were widely imitated, if seldom equaled: separate, distinctive musical themes for characters, which he developed throughout a score to reflect the characters’ changing emotions; subtle use of orchestral color to create atmosphere; and a gift for soaring melody that lifted dramas like Now, Voyager and Gone with the Wind into the realm of myth.
Best known for his work at Warner Bros. from 1936 to 1965, Steiner’s 300-plus credits include Casablanca, The Searchers, Mildred Pierce, The Big Sleep, White Heat, Jezebel, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He was nominated for 24 Academy Awards and won three.
His life had the jolting plot twists typical of the biopics he often scored. During a pampered youth in late 19th century Vienna, Max was the presumed inheritor of a theatrical empire. Grandfather Maximilian launched the craze for Viennese operetta in the 1870s, after convincing waltz king Johann Strauss, Jr., composer of “The Blue Danube,” to write for the theater. Die Fledermaus, the world’s most performed operetta, was one of the triumphant results.
Max’s father Gabor was also a showman, fascinated by new technology. His productions ranged from symphony concerts to DeMille-like stage spectacles.
Papa Steiner’s most ambitious creation was the amusement park “Venice in Vienna.” Sixty years before Disneyland, this multi-acre venue offered a recreation of the Italian city, complete with canals and gondolas. Patrons could also ride rollercoasters, listen to gramophone records (then a novelty), and watch silent movies just months after cinema’s invention. Gabor also commissioned the park’s Ferris wheel, which remains one of Venna’s most iconic attractions. (It’s often appeared onscreen, in movies like The Third Man.)
The park’s astonishing blend of “high” and “low” culture proved a perfect training ground for Max, who would spend his life writing sophisticated but accessible music for the masses.
But in 1908, his promising composing career was dealt a blow, when Gabor—whose grand visions were topped only by his spending–declared bankruptcy. Max was forced to reinvent himself twice: first as a wandering conductor of musical revues in London and Paris; then, in the wake of World War One, a new life in America, where Austrians were not considered the enemy.
Europe’s loss was Broadway’s gain. During the 1920s, the tireless, gregarious Max thrived as a conductor of shows by Gershwin, Kern, Hammerstein, and Ziegfeld. Conducting theater orchestras in a time before microphones, Steiner learned how to make sure music didn’t overwhelm a performer’s speech. It was invaluable training for what came next.
In December 1929, Steiner accepted an invite to head west from recently-formed RKO, to join its fledgling music department. By mid-1930, as its films flopped and staff shrank, Max was RKO’s musical director. But his bold attempts to blend underscoring and onscreen dialogue were usually thwarted, by literal-minded producers who asked: where is the music coming from?
Watch almost any Hollywood feature made in 1930 or 1931 and you’ll hear the result: movies whose soundtracks are filled with dead pauses, interrupted only by the hiss and crackle of early film emulsion.
Enter 29-year-old David O. Selznick, RKO’s new production chief, who in 1932 encouraged Max to write full orchestral scores supporting the dialogue and action. Within months, thanks to hits like Symphony of Six Million and The Most Dangerous Game, Steiner proved that audiences would accept the unreality of an unseen orchestra accompanying the drama.
Max’s hastily written score pages ran into the hundreds for a single film. Above his musical notes are handwritten quotes of the screen dialogue being spoken at that moment (“It was beauty killed the beast!”). Despite constantly looming deadlines, Max also found time to scribble notes in the margins sharing studio gossip, lamentations about his love life (he married four times), and sardonic comments on less-than-thrilling screen action.
His audience for those notations was a private one: the orchestrators who, like Steiner, slogged through days with little sleep to turn his pencil scores into final instrumental parts—with the result due in days or even hours.
His jokes in these pages often served a serious purpose: to keep his cohorts alert, and to communicate his dramatic intention. A favorite shorthand was to compare what he wanted to the style of a beloved concert work: “A la Ravel’s Bolero—only better!”
Among the many astonishments of Steiner’s career is his ability to compose full orchestral scores in as little as a week if necessary, while indulging in a life of romantic pursuit, all-night gambling, and alcohol-fueled revelry (W.C. Fields was a drinking pal since 1902, when Max was 14).
That passion for life was reflected in Steiner’s scores–music of intense emotion, reflecting decades of study. (Mahler and Richard Strauss were among his mentors in Vienna.) His music did not simply illustrate what audiences saw: it often reached deep inside the psychology of characters, making their suffering and joys our own.
He would soon achieve even greater success, at the studio whose sound he would define for three decades: Warner Bros.
— Steven C. Smith for Classic Movie Hub
Steven C. Smith is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer, writer, and speaker who specializes in Hollywood history. He is the author of two biographies: Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer (Oxford University Press), and A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press; winner, ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award).
Steven has produced over 200 documentaries for television and other media. They include The Sound of a City: Julie Andrews Returns to Salzburg; A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy; and Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. He can be reached at www.mediasteven.com
Images courtesy of Steven C. Smith.
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