Composer Max Steiner, whose scores for “King Kong,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca” positioned him within the movie-music pantheon, isn’t a lot mentioned right now. He appears to belong to that old-school, pre-synthesizer world of orchestral scoring from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
However as writer Steven C. Smith factors out in his engrossing new biography of the three-time Oscar winner, “Music by Max Steiner” (Oxford College Press), the Austrian wunderkind pioneered the artwork of movie scoring and ranks as “Hollywood’s most influential composer.”
His music basically saved RKO’s “King Kong,” the 1933 giant-ape-wrecks-Manhattan fantasy, forcefully demonstrating the ability of dramatic underscore to create temper, propel the motion and supply emotional help (and disproving the broadly held studio-executive principle that audiences of the time would “marvel the place the music got here from”).
Steiner went on to attain some 300 movies over a 35-year profession, principally for RKO and Warner Bros., though his most well-known work was executed on loan-out to unbiased producer David O. Selznick: 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” which Selection astutely referred to as “a symphonic tone poem of a rating that superbly captured the class, sentimentality, pathos and gallantry of the interval.”
He wrote three hours of music in 12 weeks, together with the immortal “Tara” theme that grew to become synonymous with Hollywood (and, New Yorkers will recall, grew to become the opening music for WOR’s nightly “Million Greenback Film”).
And whereas Smith’s ebook concentrates on his dramatic scores, he additionally discusses intimately Steiner’s essential function as music director of the primary 5 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, collaborating not solely with Astaire on the dance sequences but additionally with such songwriting giants as Irving Berlin (“High Hat”) and Jerome Kern (“Roberta”).
It was like going dwelling for Steiner, whose musical profession started in Vienna — writing operettas on the age of 18 — however shifted to London and New York, the place he orchestrated and performed for the theater (together with the Gershwin musical “Girl Be Good” in 1924).
Summoned to Hollywood in 1930, he quickly started experimenting with dramatic music in such movies as “Cimarron” and “Symphony of Six Million”; perfecting using the press observe (a tool utilized in cartoons to synchronize music and picture), nonetheless in use right now; and adapting Richard Wagner’s idea of the leitmotif — themes for characters, locations and concepts — for the massive display screen.
Even on troublesome initiatives, the devoted composer got here via. “Max Steiner hated ‘As Time Goes By,’” Smith informs us concerning the centerpiece tune of “Casablanca.” But it surely was written into the script, so Steiner turned it right into a love theme for Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and helped to show their complicated relationship into an indelible piece of Hollywood historical past.
Romance, the truth is, was a Steiner specialty, particularly on greater than 20 Bette Davis movies, together with every little thing from “Jezebel” and “Darkish Victory” to “Of Human Bondage” and “The Letter.” Certainly one of his three Oscar winners was Davis’ “Now, Voyager,” the 1942 basic whose heartfelt theme grew to become one of many first hit songs tailored from a movie rating (“It Can’t Be Improper”).
One other Oscar winner was “The Informer,” one among three John Ford movies with Steiner scores, the final of which, 1956’s “The Searchers.” is now thought of one of many best Westerns ever made. Steiner not solely underscored John Wayne, he was a frequent accompanist for Humphrey Bogart (private-eye music for “The Massive Sleep,” a south-of-the-border ambiance for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a Naval march for “The Caine Mutiny”).
By the late 1950s Steiner was broadly thought of old-fashioned and out of style. But amazingly, as Smith recounts, the 71-year-old Steiner rebounded by penning a pop hit. His young-lovers theme for “A Summer time Place,” a broadly panned Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue drama, hit No. 1 on the charts in 1960 and stayed there for 9 weeks.
It was a tragic decline from that peak. Steiner’s son Ronnie dedicated suicide in 1962; he was slowly going blind, discovered assignments tougher to come back by, and at last retired in 1965. But he remained quick-witted, humorous and sarcastic to the top, Smith reviews. As “King Kong” producer Merian C. Cooper declared at Steiner’s 1971 funeral: “His music will reside on like these males of Vienna whom he adopted: Mozart, Beethoven, the Strausses, all of them. Maxie’s music has a real drama, display screen drama, music as immortal as something will ever be.”
As we speak, with practically all his films obtainable by way of both streaming or DVD, Steiner’s work, writes Smith, “transports audiences into worlds bigger than life of their heightened emotion, but immediately relatable of their expressions of pleasure, ache, and romantic success.”
(To learn an interview with Smith about his Steiner biography, click on right here.)