Max Steiner is universally acknowledged as the “father of film music,” namely because his work had an extraordinary influence on the conventions and techniques of Hollywood film music for nearly a half-century after he created King Kong (1933), one of his earlier soundtracks and a score that helped make him one of the most sought after composers in the business.
It was Steiner who pioneered using a grand Wagnerian leitmotif in title music and Steiner who synchronized the music with the action on the screen: a technique he undoubtedly learned from scoring silent films. Steiner also created what is now a standard in motion pictures, a complete score. But what Steiner is best remembered for, and what classic film fans are most grateful to him for, was his ability to turn a film into a spectacle through music…extremely powerful music.
Steiner was born in Vienna in 1888 and was a child musical prodigy (he studied under Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler). At the age of 17 he was serving as conductor for His Majesty’s Theater in England. Within 10 years he was in New York City conducting, orchestrating and arranging music for musical shows, working with Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Florenz Ziegfeld.
Steiner’s stage work attracted the attention of RKO Studios, who hired the composer in 1929 to arrange music for their upcoming picture, Rio Rita. Within a few years, Steiner became the studio’s musical director. At first, this role consisted primarily of composing opening and closing music and incidental scoring in between but, in 1932, he collaborated with Merian C. Cooper and created one of the very first full feature scores for The Most Dangerous Game. His next work, King Kong (co-produced by Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack), revolutionized the way music was utilized in film. Hollywood finally realized that it could become an integral part of a film’s language, a subliminal force that could draw an emotional response from the audience.
In the mid-1940s, Max Steiner moved to the Warner Bros. studios, where he remained for the rest of his career. All in all, Steiner composed nearly 300 film scores between 1929-1965 and was nominated for 24 Academy Awards for Best Music, winning three for his work on The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942), and Since You Went Away (1944).
Max Steiner established new conventions for every film genre that he composed music for: the “tear-jerker” music that we come to associate with romances (Since You Went Away, Dark Victory); the mixture of folk tunes and patriotic melodies heard in westerns (Dodge City, They Died with Their Boots On); and the mammoth sound heard in historical epics such as The Charge of the Light Brigade and Gone with the Wind.
Power and sweep; those are two words that can summarize Steiner’s signature style. However, he beautifully balances this power that he brings to his music with a tenderness that could invoke tears with just a few draws of a violin string. His musical style could be playful too, as in the marvelous scores to Parrish and Marjorie Morningstar.
The Noteworthy Five
King Kong (1933) – Steiner unleashed the raw power and beauty of the jungle with this intense theme filled with resounding brass. It remains one of the most influential film scores ever written.
Gone with the Wind (1939) – If King Kong is one of the most influential, then “Tara’s Theme” ranks as one of the most iconic movie themes. Some critics are still upset over Steiner’s loss at the Academy Awards to Herbert Stothart’s The Wizard of Oz theme.
Now, Voyager (1942) – For this title piece Steiner captured all of Charlotte’s inner emotions pent up and just waiting to be released. Like a gust of wind blowing open a door, the music hits hard and then gently calms down. Bette Davis considered Max Steiner her favorite composer.
Mildred Pierce (1945) – The raw emotions that all the characters wrestled with on film can be felt through listening to this score. Elmer Bernstein was clearly influenced by Steiner’s work and his “Hollywood and the Stars” piece (used as the Oscars opening theme for many years) has elements that are reminiscent of Mildred Pierce.
A Summer Place (1959) – The season of summer Steiner captured in 2 minutes and 29 seconds. This score is bright and cheerful and filled with youthful romance. Steiner would go on to score several other popular Troy Donahue films in the 1960s, including Rome Adventure.
- King Kong (1933)
- Little Women (1933)
- The Informer (1935)
- The Charge of the Light Brigade (1938)
- Jezebel (1938)
- Dark Victory (1939)
- Gone With the Wind (1939)
- Sergeant York (1941)
- Now, Voyager (1942)
- Casablanca (1942)
- Since You Went Away (1944)
- The Big Sleep (1946)
- Johnny Belinda (1948)
- The Caine Mutiny (1954)
- A Summer Place (1959)
- Parrish (1961)
- Rome Adventure (1962)
Constance Metzinger is a blogger who runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”