Steiner Set King Kong, Clark Gable to Music: Rainer File

Max Steiner
Max Steiner at the piano with his main score for "Life With Father" (1947). Winner of three Oscars and nominated 15 times, Steiner is best known for his music for "Gone With the Wind" and his many movies with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, among them "Casablanca" and "Jezebel." Source: The Film Music Society via Bloomberg

Max Steiner, composer of the quintessential American film score for “Gone With the Wind,” was born Maximilian Raoul Steiner in 1888, in Vienna. One of his earliest memories was sitting on Emperor Franz Joseph’s lap.

Steiner’s show-biz lineage was stellar: His grandfather was a powerful theater manager who convinced Johann Strauss to write “Die Fledermaus.”

His father was one of Europe’s great theatrical impresarios and was responsible for the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater, the same one that airlifts Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in a classic scene from “The Third Man.”

His godfather was Richard Strauss. A child prodigy in composing, Steiner studied with Brahms and Mahler. At 16, he wrote and conducted his first operetta, “The Beautiful Greek Girl.” Emigrating in 1914 to New York, he became a sought-after conductor and orchestrator of operettas and musicals by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert.

When sound came in, he went to Hollywood, becoming one of the most prolific and honored film composers of all time with more than 200 scores in all, including three Oscars and 15 other nominations.

Background Noise

Until he arrived on the scene, most movie scores were glorified background noise. Steiner, often called the “father of film music,” changed all that. His lush, early score for the Dolores Del Rio-Joel McCrea South Seas romance “Bird of Paradise” (1932) is like a trip to the tropics.

For “King Kong” (1933), a movie he declared “made for music,” he threw in cymbals, timpani, gongs. It’s a great pounding score, so ominous and out-there that it became the template for almost every film of its kind ever since. (You can even hear snippets of it in the 1945 John Wayne movie “Back to Bataan.”)

Steiner won his first Oscar for John Ford’s “The Informer” (1935), with its memorable choral finale in which the hounded Victor McLaglen, in church, asks for forgiveness. He left RKO, where he was music director on several Astaire-Rogers movies, for Selznick International Pictures and then went to Warner Brothers, where he spent most of the next three decades.

Of course, there was that loan-out to Selznick in 1939 for “Gone With the Wind.” According to most accounts, he was hired before Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Signature Tunes

Steiner gave all the leading players their own Wagnerian leitmotif. He even gave Tara its own theme. A great big soaring cornball mood enhancer, it’s perhaps the most famous score in film history. (The sound quality on the Warner Home Video DVD/Blu-Ray anniversary disc is especially fine).

Steiner’s music was sometimes criticized for battling rather than enhancing the imagery. There’s a marvelous anecdote in Jon Burlingame’s terrific 2009 NPR tribute to the composer, where Bette Davis, playing the socialite-with-tumor in “Dark Victory” (1939), halts production as she ascends a staircase to inquire if Steiner is going to score the scene.

“Either I’m going up the stairs or Max is going up the stairs,” she said, “but we’re damn well not going up together.”

Bette Davis

But it was also Davis -- for whom Steiner composed the music for such classics as “Of Human Bondage” (1934), “Jezebel” (1938), “The Letter” (1940) and “Now, Voyager” (1942) -- who said, upon his death in 1971, that “Max understood more about drama than any of us.”

Steiner himself had this to say about his methods: “When I started, everybody said a good picture score is when you don’t notice. I’ve always said, ‘What good is it if you don’t notice it?’”

Although Steiner worked in an essentially 19th-century romantic idiom, he was highly versatile. The Fredric March-Janet Gaynor “A Star is Born” (1937) owes much of its pathos to the composer. He scored over a dozen movies for Humphrey Bogart, sexing up the confabs with Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep” (1946) and heightening the south of the border paranoia of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948).

His skills as orchestrator came into play with “Casablanca” (1942), incorporating everything from “La Marseillaise” to Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.”

Steiner’s score for Ford’s western “The Searchers” (1956), with its flutes and folk tunes, is uncommonly delicate. He doesn’t try to go all Indian on us. His last, improbable hurrah was the Troy Donahue-Sandra Dee melodrama “A Summer Place” (1959). The love theme, arranged by Percy Faith, became one of the most successful instrumental singles of all time.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

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