Max Steiner, Fred Astaire, and the RKO Movie Musical
(Exclusive by Author Steven C. Smith)
In 1933 — the same year he recorded his landmark score for King Kong —Max Steiner achieved another ambition he’d sought since becoming RKO’s musical director: oversight of a sophisticated, successful movie musical.
Nine years earlier, Steiner — then a top Broadway conductor — first worked with Fred Astaire, on George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! The show would be a turning point in the American musical, thanks to jazzy standards like “Fascinating Rhythm” and the title song.
In 1933, Steiner was thrilled to re-team with Astaire at RKO, after the stage star was hired to play a supporting role in Flying Down to Rio. 21-year-old Ginger Rogers, a frequent RKO player, would be Fred’s dance partner during the film’s final number.
Rio marked the studio’s most ambitious return to a genre Hollywood had mostly abandoned. By 1930, moviegoers had tired of watching creaky musicals that seldom made use of cinematic techniques. Limited recording technology and locked-down cameras were partly to blame.
Flying Down to Rio began as a vague concept in search of a story. RKO production chief Merian C. Cooper approved the project after producer Lou Brock pitched a flying scene–something he knew that Coop, a pilot, would love.
Dolores Del Rio signed on to star. Gus Kahn and Edward Eliscu were hired as lyricists; and for composer, Brock chose another of Max’s former Broadway collaborators, Vincent Youmans. Max was elated: he revered Youmans as a songwriter (“Tea for Two,” “I Want to Be Happy”), and their all-night sprees in 1920s Manhattan were among Max’s happiest memories.
At RKO, Youmans wrote melodies as fine as his Broadway work: “The Carioca,” “Orchids in the Moonlight,” and Rio’s title tune. Steiner’s orchestra sometimes played live on set; an upside of that approach was a spontaneity in playing.
On September 7th, 1933, cameras rolled on Astaire’s first movie dance solo, “Music Makes Me.” Prior to the shoot, Astaire spent weeks developing each step in partnership with a rehearsal pianist, dance director Dave Gould, his assistant Hermes Pan, and Steiner.
Once the dance was set, the team “wrote out a score indicating all the important musical points for the arrangers and orchestrators,” observed Astaire scholar Todd Decker. At this point, Steiner became essential, as he assigned and critiqued the orchestrators’ work.
On September 21st at 9 a.m., Astaire and Rogers reported to Stage #8 to rehearse their first screen dance together. The following day, filming of “The Carioca” — Fred and Ginger’s only dance in the movie — began. After four days of shooting, their two-minute segment was complete.
Max’s simpatico work with Astaire contrasted sharply with the helter-skelter shooting of Rio’s non-musical scenes. Producer Lou Brock was so obsessed with secrecy — or so unprepared — that according to co-star Gene Raymond, script pages were distributed on the day of shooting. “When we finished the picture we thought, ‘This is going to be the bomb of all bombs.’”
Two months later, Flying Down to Rio was previewed in Los Angeles. After Fred and Ginger’s dance, “The audience cheered,” Hermes Pan recalled. “Right away, the studio knew: we’ve got something big.”
RKO producer Pandro S. Berman was quick to capitalize on that success by pairing Astaire and Rogers in a movie of their own. On a trip to London, he had seen Fred onstage in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce, which Berman “thought would be an ideal vehicle.”
In 1934 the project moved ahead, now titled The Gay Divorcee — the extra “e” due to censors who would not condone the idea of a gay (happy) divorce. Berman assigned Mark Sandrich to direct, and commissioned songs from two teams — Con Conrad & Herb Magidson, and Mack Gordon & Harry Revel — retaining only “Night and Day” from Porter’s stage score.
Max was tasked with providing Astaire with musicians during rehearsals, composing underscore, supervising orchestration of songs and dances, and conducting recording sessions.
Astaire often came to those sessions to discuss tempos and other details. Harpist Louise Klos recalled with delight days when Fred and Ginger visited the orchestra, to compare dance steps with the music being recorded. During an arrangement, Astaire and Steiner often stopped the orchestra to showcase the taps, a percussive instrument of their own.
By now, Steiner was using a “soft piano” recording as a guide track for a song’s filming. The full orchestra would be added later.
One exception was Astaire’s tap dance to Divorcee’s first song, “Don’t Let it Bother You.” The use of live orchestra on set, Steiner wrote, was “a very difficult procedure…because of the camera set-ups my orchestra and I were sometimes as far as a hundred feet away from [Astaire]. On a big stage where sound might have traveled at a rate of ¾ [of a] second, I had to be a little ahead of Mr. Astaire’s taps…to offset this sound lag.”
No such challenge occurred during the filming of Divorcee’s most famous sequence: Astaire and Rogers’s “courtship” dance to “Night and Day.” By then, excitement about the movie was spreading at the studio; and as expectations climbed, Divorcee’s dance finale “The Continental” expanded to a record 17-1/2 minutes.
Max and team were under the gun, and Steiner grew defensive. His attitude wasn’t helped by the scant amount of sleep he’d had since joining RKO in 1929.
Music costs nearly doubled. Overage reports exude passive-aggressive frustration. “It was necessary to remake guide track for the CONTINENTAL Number due to the metronome being inaccurate.” “This overage is due to the extreme difficulty in scoring the CONTINENTAL and the inadequate time we had to prepare same.”
Handed one such report for his signature, Max exploded. In oversized handwriting, he wrote, “I resent this as a slur on my unimpeachable integrity for the last five years. We can easily offset this overage by cutting ‘The Continental’ number out entirely.” His suggestion was sarcastic, but his anger was genuine.
Max’s burst of temperament may have had another cause. His mother Mitzi remained in Austria, a country now described by its chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, as a “German state.” Annexation with Nazi Germany would follow four years later.
Mitzi also needed money, leading Max to borrow heavily from his bosses. That amount was subtracted from his weekly salary, leaving him with a few hundred dollars. His resentment festered; and after three draining months on The Gay Divorcee, with some recording sessions lasting until 3:30 a.m., Steiner snapped.
On Saturday, September 29th, RKO vice president B.B. Kahane received a telegram. He probably expected it to confirm the shipping of Divorcee’s final negative. Instead, he read the following.
From: Max Steiner
Subject: Office Hours
TO ALL LOVERS OF NIGHT SHIFTS!
Effective Monday morning, October First, I can be found at the Studio during the hours: 9:00 am to 12:30 pm; and from 1:30 pm to 6:00 pm, every day except Sundays and Holidays. However, I WILL NOT be found, any longer, during the hours from 6:00pm to 9:00am next morning, as in the past.
Should this not be satisfactory to anyone, I shall be only too happy to cancel my contract.
Furthermore, I just received an offer from the President of the May Company, Eighth at Broadway, Los Angeles, California, who wants to obtain my services, on a long term contract, as a “BED-TRYER” and that looks awfully good to me.
By the time his memo was delivered, Max was en route to Mexico for a weekend of gambling at Agua Caliente, Hollywood’s favorite south-of-the-border resort. If he meant his note to inspire a sympathetic chuckle from the boss, he grossly miscalculated. Kahane wanted Steiner’s head–and after that, a new musical director.
With Max away, the telegram was read first by his secretary, then Murray Spivack, the brilliant sound engineer who co-managed the music department.
According to Spivack, Kahane “said, ‘I did not like your letter, and it only remains for you to set the date that your resignation becomes effective.’ I didn’t know what the devil to do. I wanted to save Max’s job, because he was a very fine composer and a good conductor.”
Fast forward to the following Thursday, and another memo:
Dear Mr. Kahane,
Forgive me for not answering your note before this, but I have been away from the studio for three days sick and exhausted..
If my note has offended you, I am sincerely sorry. Believe me, it was not intended to be offensive and should never have been sent to you personally at all…
Please set the date as soon as you see fit for my resignation to become effective, as I have no intention whatsoever of embarrassing the company in any way.
Thanking you for your kindness and good-will in the past, I remain,
The memo saved his job. But according to Spivack, Max had not written it. He had.
“I dictated a letter to [Max’s secretary] stating, ‘I’m sorry that you read my joking letter of a serious nature, and since you apparently are dissatisfied with my work, it now remains for you to set the date that my resignation is to become effective.’ So in other words, I passed the buck to him.”
Steiner returned from Mexico a chastened employee.
The Gay Divorcee was the triumph its struggling studio prayed for, earning $584,000 in profit. It received five Academy Award nominations, taking home one for “The Continental”–the first Best Song winner. Hollywood Reporter swooned over cast, songs, and “the excellent arrangements of all the music as conceived by Max Steiner.”
The makers of The Gay Divorcee had cracked a musical code that, for a time, would generate RKO’s most reliable money-earners.
The movie also planted the seeds for Steiner’s departure. Two years later he would leave RKO, and find even greater success working for two of the industry’s most demanding taskmasters: Jack L. Warner and David O. Selznick.
–Steven C. Smith for Classic Movie Hub
Steven C. Smith is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and the author of Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer (Oxford University Press). His previous book, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (UC Press), received the 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
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