No one “invented” film music. It came spontaneously into being when pianists started playing along with silent movies to mask the sound of the projector and the excited chatter of viewers who were astonished by the unfamiliar spectacle. The music typically consisted in whole or part of snippets of familiar classical and popular melodies performed live by big-city movie-house orchestras. Smaller theaters employed pianists or organists who put together their own “scores” out of published collections of “cue sheets”—musical miniatures indexed by the dramatic situations they were meant to accompany. And since it was not technically possible at the beginning of the sound era to add background music to a film scene without having an orchestra physically present while the scene was being shot, film music before 1930 mainly consisted of fanfare-like cues behind the main and end titles—and nothing in between.
All this changed in 1932, when David O. Selznick, then the head of production at RKO, asked Max Steiner, a Viennese émigré who was in charge of the studio’s music department, to write an original score for Gregory La Cava’s Symphony of Six Million. “The entire picture,” Selznick decreed, “is to be accompanied by a symphonic underscoring.” Thus the first traditional film “score” was born. A year later, Steiner’s bosses, fearing that the primitive special effects in King Kong would strike audiences as laughable, ordered him to underscore the film to heighten its dramatic effect.
Steiner was not a composer by training—he had previously worked as a musical-comedy and operetta conductor and orchestrator on Broadway and in Vienna—but the success of King Kong and his score transformed American film music. More than that of any other composer, his style, a rich, boldly colored mixture of Liszt, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, would become the lingua franca of studio-system film scoring. By the time of his death in 1971, Steiner had scored some 300-odd feature films, including Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), John Ford’s The Informer (1935), John Huston’s Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948), Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager (1942), Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), and—most famously—Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939).
Along the way, he won three Oscars, received 24 nominations, and even wrote a pop-music hit, the theme music for Delmer Daves’s A Summer Place (1959). Jerry Goldsmith summed up the immense impact of his vast body of work when he remarked in 1993 that “the techniques developed by Steiner for [King Kong] are basically the same techniques we use today.”1
Yet Steiner, admired though he was and is by his fellow professionals, was never treated with comparable respect outside Hollywood. The only film composers of the period who were taken at all seriously by American classical-music critics were Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa, both of whom had previously written for the concert hall and (in Korngold’s case) the opera house. Steiner, by contrast, was dismissed as a Broadway pit man turned purveyor of Hollywood schlock, and on the rare occasions when he conducted concerts of film music, the notices ranged from indifferent to brutal.
Typical was Douglas Watt’s 1943 New York Daily News review of Steiner’s lone guest appearance with the New York Philharmonic, at which he conducted excerpts from Gone with the Wind, The Informer, and Now, Voyager. The players treated him with contemptuous indifference at the single 90-minute rehearsal he was granted, and Watt’s review was scarcely more friendly: “The technicolored music spread from the stage like a chemical fog, filling the mind with caressing sound and having a mild narcotic effect….Taken from their film context, the works were amorphous and had little meaning.”
It was not until 1973, when RCA began releasing a series of film-music albums in which Steiner’s work figured prominently, that he began at last to receive his critical due. Three years later, John Williams’s Star Wars score triggered a general revival of interest in symphonic film music that continues to this day. The scores for such popular action films as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989, music by Danny Elfman) and The Dark Knight (2008, music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) bear the unmistakable stamp of Steiner, whom Elfman calls “the godfather of all film music.”2
It is thus surprising that Steiner has only now become the subject of a full-length biography: Steven C. Smith’s Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer. It is both thorough and readable, an estimable effort by a journalist and documentary producer who has a solid grasp of the ins and outs of film scoring (his previous book A Heart at Fire’s Center, is a biography of Bernard Herrmann, the greatest of all film composers). As Smith makes clear, Steiner was the most significant composer in the history of American film music—but how good a composer was he? That is a very different question indeed.
Born in Vienna in 1888, Steiner made his conducting debut at the age of 11, composed an operetta of his own in 1907 (albeit with only modest success), and moved to London the following year, setting up shop as a theater conductor and orchestrator. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1914 to avoid being interned as an enemy alien and spent the next decade and a half on Broadway, conducting such shows as the Gershwins’ Lady Be Good (1924), which starred Fred and Adele Astaire.
Late in 1929, Steiner moved to Hollywood and went to work for RKO and, later, Warner Bros. He scored his first film in 1930—the first time that he had ever written symphonic-style music—and in 1931 alone he worked on two dozen films. While few of them were distinguished, he moved closer to formulating his mature idiom with each project, taking a giant step forward with Symphony of Six Million. In realizing Selznick’s music-related instructions, Steiner employed a technique invented by Richard Wagner, building his score out of short melodic fragments known as “leitmotifs” that are associated with specific characters and dramatic themes in the film. He once went so far as to argue that “if Wagner had lived in our times, he would have been our top film composer.”
Steiner’s use of leitmotifs was both skillful and, at its best, dramatically insightful, as can be heard in his score for Howard Hawks’s 1946 screen version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Hawks turned the book into a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Accordingly, Steiner based his score on a sardonic-sounding leitmotif associated with Bogart, steering clear of overt romanticism until halfway through the film, when Philip Marlowe (played by Bogart) realizes that he has fallen in love with Bacall’s character, marking the moment with a Viennese-style waltz that in context sounds not incongruous but appropriate. Steiner’s music emphasizes the witty, sexually suggestive byplay between the two stars, and its tone is altogether compatible with Hawks’s transformation of Chandler’s hard-boiled mystery into what David Thomson has called “a screwball love story.”
A lifelong workaholic who had no professional ambitions outside of film scoring—he never wrote any concert music—Steiner’s scores grew increasingly elaborate as he refined his craft. But Steiner’s King Kong score, while it is less interesting than his music of the ’40s and ’50s, is all of a piece with his later work. It makes use of the same techniques, identifying the characters with leitmotifs and intensifying the emotional impact of the performances of the actors who play them—as well as that of the mechanical ape who is the film’s title character. Without Steiner’s soaring music, King Kong’s passion for Fay Wray would almost certainly have struck contemporary audiences as preposterous. Instead, his underscoring makes the ape’s feelings believable.
What is equally striking about the King Kong score is the extreme conservatism of its musical language. It is as if modernism had never happened: Most of King Kong might just as well have been written in the late 19th century. Nor does it contain any distinctively American musical features. Though Steiner spent a decade and a half on Broadway and would later work on several of Fred Astaire’s films, his musical sensibility was wholly European. Even when he based a score on a popular song, as he did with Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca, he treated it like an operatic love theme.
Steiner was also known for a practice referred to by musicians as “Mickey-mousing,” a nod to the way in which the scores for Walt Disney’s early cartoons echoed with exaggerated fidelity the movements of the animated characters on screen. A case in point is the leitmotif associated with Philip Carey, the character played by Leslie Howard in John Cromwell’s 1934 screen version of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Carey has a club foot, and his leitmotif is an endlessly repeated pair of chords that imitate his limp so precisely as to sound comical to modern ears.
Aaron Copland, who took film music seriously enough to score several feature films, described the resulting effect as “very obvious and…vulgarizing.” Steiner himself was proud of it. “It fits the picture,” he claimed. “The regular symphonic writers are unwilling to follow the [novel] in this matter, and so are unwilling to do this work. But there is a unity in my music, exactly similar to the unity in Wagner’s operas.”
But Copland was right, and Steiner’s limitations as a composer were thrown into still higher relief when Erich Wolfgang Korngold came to Hollywood in 1935. Unlike Steiner, Korngold had been a classical pro-digy and a technical virtuoso who worked in a far more sophisticated musical idiom identical to that of his operas. Steiner’s genius, by contrast, was for pure melody—Korngold never wrote anything as instantaneously memorable as the principal themes for Gone with the Wind or Now, Voyager.
In any case, Steiner got there first, and his lush music was a perfect match for the romantic melodramas that became his trademark, especially the ones starring Bette Davis, who was properly appreciative of his contribution to her work (she called him “my beautiful Max Steiner”).
Nowhere, though, did he make more telling use of this idiom than in Gone with the Wind, whose score, filled at Selznick’s insistence with period tunes like “Dixie” and “Old Folks at Home,” evokes with uncanny, at times unsettling fidelity the “lost-cause” nostalgia for the Old South that permeates Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel. While it is by no means Steiner’s finest score, it is his best-loved one and an achievement of which he was justly proud, and he was heartbroken when it failed to win an Oscar for the best original score of 1939 (the prize went instead to The Wizard of Oz).
Over time, Steiner’s work shed much of its naiveté and grew both subtler and tougher. By the late ’40s, he was writing arrestingly dramatic scores in which he drew on a wider (if never challenging) harmonic vocabulary that was more closely suited to the sterner postwar American temper. But film music was about to undergo an even more radical transformation at the hands of American-born composers who, like Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith, were not only conversant with jazz and popular music but also integrated the language of musical modernism into their styles. The Steiner-Korngold idiom sounded quaint by contrast, and younger directors such as Martin Scorsese ultimately found it so unsympathetic that they often “scored” their films not with purpose-written orchestral music but with pop and rock records that served the same mood-setting purpose.
Nevertheless, the symphonic score never went away, and Star Wars introduced a new generation of enthusiastic listeners to its old-fashioned charms. At the same time, concertgoers who disliked avant-garde classical music instead gravitated toward the film scores that their parents had loved, and it has become common in recent years for major symphony orchestras to program such music.
It stands to reason that Steiner should have profited less from this revival than Korngold, Rózsa, and Bernard Herrmann, whose work is rightly held in higher esteem. Still, the best of his scores remain both engaging and superbly listenable, and they will always be central to the continuing appeal of the now-classic films on which he worked. It is impossible to think of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, or Now, Voyager without recalling their generous, open-hearted music—nor is it possible to imagine film music itself without acknowledging the pioneering innovations of its first important practitioner.
1 He also wrote what may be the single best-known piece of golden-age film music, the fanfare-like sequence of ascending trumpet triplets heard at the beginning of nearly every Warner Bros. film of the studio-system era.
2 The best single-CD introduction to Steiner’s music is Now, Voyager: The Classic Film Scores of Max Steiner (RCA), recorded in 1973 by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic, which contains suites compiled by Gerhardt from 10 films scored by Steiner, including The Big Sleep, The Informer, The Fountainhead, and King Kong.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.