Max Steiner Biographer Breaks Down How the ‘King Kong’ Composer ‘Established the Grammar of Film Music’

Max Steiner Hollywood Composer King Kong
L. Tom Perry Special Collections/Brigham Young University Library

Steven C. Smith’s first book, 1991’s “A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann,” preceded — and arguably helped precipitate — a huge uptick of interest in that once neglected, now practically deified film composer. Almost three decades later, he’s published his second biography, “Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer.” Smith, a scoring historian and Emmy-nominated TV producer, wouldn’t mind prompting a similar surge of consideration for the career of Steiner, whose filmography of nearly 300 films included  “King Kong,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Searchers.” Variety spoke with Smith about his long-aborning second book.

VARIETY: Is there a good case to be made that Steiner’s music for “King Kong” in 1933 is the most important film score of all time?

SMITH: I think there’s no greater way to turn someone off something than to say it’s the greatest or most important. But I will say that on a historic level, “King Kong” is the most influential music score of all time. Because it completely established the grammar of film music in a way that composers ever since, to the present day, still look at and say, “Oh, that’s how you score a film.” A lot of people think “King Kong” is the first film score ever written. It’s not — Steiner himself had been writing for film for about a year at that point — but it’s the first motion picture classic that has a great score.

He’s the one who first put it all together at the dawn of the talkies, this idea of how to write orchestral music under and around dialogue — something that producers and directors really were very suspicious of in the first years of sound film. They didn’t want music in dramatic films. It was okay if it was a musical. And Steiner is the guy who figured out not just how to write music around dialogue, but how to write themes for characters and shape them subtly throughout a film — exactly what John Williams does in a “Star Wars” film, or the composers for a Marvel film do today. There are so many devices that he uses, whether it’s the way he writes a love theme for Ann that becomes a theme of absolute terror for her as the film goes on, or the way that Kong’s theme starts off being about the horror and power of a monster and, by the end, has become an elegy for a fallen antihero.

And Steiner is the one who made film music a medium that did not just simply repeat what we already see but revealed what characters are thinking, which remains one of the most powerful things that film music can do.

Even if the character whose thinking is revealed through the music is… a giant monkey. 

If you watch “Kong” and pay attention to the music, you’ll notice that it initially makes us feel the grandeur and force of Kong, but it also gradually takes us inside his mind and shows his feelings for Ann — call them love, call them whatever. It’s the music that really makes that character transition, so that by the time that Kong is captured and taken to New York, he starts to become a figure of pathos, if still a frightening one, especially when he escapes and wreaks havoc. When he falls, the finale is one of the greatest pieces of dramatic music written for film. I had seen “Kong” dozens of times, but it wasn’t till I wrote the book that I realized every little phrase of music in the last two minutes of the film is all based on different little thematic pieces of score he wrote. He’s basically recapping the whole movie for us in this very sad, touching way and pulling it all together.

Does Steiner get his due today?

One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to show the person who created a whole industry, but who many people have forgotten. … [But] Steven Spielberg’s nickname for John Williams is apparently Max, as an affectionate little nod. And what is the name of Spielberg’s first son? Max. I’m not saying he named him after Max Steiner, but it’s safe to say Spielberg is very appreciative of his place in film music. Danny Elfman has said part of the reason he became a film composer was because of Steiner and “King Kong.” Jerry Goldsmith said, also referring to “King Kong,” “I’m doing what I’m doing because of it.” When “Star Wars” was being put together, among the composers on the temp track before Williams was hired was Steiner; George Lucas has said he wanted a Korngold/Steiner kind of a score. So is Steiner relevant? Well, is “Star Wars” relevant?

You have a story in the book about how disrespected he was the one time he tried to conduct a concert of his film music, which went disastrously.

During his life, film music was held in total contempt by the symphony world. The one time he was invited to conduct, the members of the New York Philharmonic treated him horribly. Max claimed that the lead cellist wouldn’t even take his instrument out of the case during rehearsal. He never tried to conduct a concert again. Now, many symphony orchestras have survived because they play film music, because they either show a film like “Casablanca” with the score played live or they play an evening of film music in suites, and much of it is still Steiner’s. Max didn’t really believe in an afterlife, but I would love to think that somehow he knows his music is heard in these places now.

He was ahead of his time in wanting to pull that off, even if his music wasn’t destined to make it to concert halls until long after his death. Are there other ways in which he was ahead of the curve, on some really practical level?

Since this is Variety, we should say that Max Steiner is one of the reasons that today’s film composers receive the residuals they do. When Max got into film music, ASCAP was not collecting any money for scores, unless it was a song published as sheet music or a record was sold, which was not very often in those days. And Max fought a 27-year battle with ASCAP, and with others, saying that film music is music and film composers should be rewarded for what they do. He united the industry, really — and he did it with many other people; I’m not saying he did it single-handedly. But Max, really starting in 1933, led the battle that is really ultimately the reason why  — when composers’ work is shown on television, when it’s streamed, when a single music cue or a whole soundtrack is downloaded onto our phones — why composers get those royalties. So for that alone, we should remember the name Max Steiner.

Lazy loaded image
Steven C. Smith, author of “Music by Max Steiner” Oxford University Press; Smith photo by Mark A. Vieira

His scores are known for being extremely accessible — that’s clearly one reason he got so much work — but you bring out the subtlety and brilliance of how he could repeat or transmute themes over the course of a score, in a way that you’d virtually have to be a genius to catch while the film is actually unfolding. And during his lifetime, very few people ever heard his scores twice, to be able to study them in that way.

His music is extremely sophisticated, and also it’s the kind of music that you don’t have to know is sophisticated to just enjoy it. Even Max himself… A friend of mine, John Morgan, would point out to Max, “It’s so interesting how you took Errol Flynn’s theme and then made Olivia de Havilland’s theme is a variation on that, and then this third theme is sort of a combination of those.” And Max would say, “You know, I never thought of that.” Someone wrote an entire book on the score of “Now,” Voyager,” which won Steiner one of his three Oscars, about how all this music subtly intersects and tells us things we wouldn’t know otherwise, and it’s all absolutely valid. And I suspect that Max didn’t think about two-thirds of that. He was very intuitive, and yet beneath that intuition there was incredible subtlety and sophistication, and it was all just pouring out of him.

One of the things he was very conscious about, though, you say in the book, was writing around the tonality of actors’ voices.

He was so concerned that the music not fight the dialogue or sound effects or whatever needed to be heard along with it, that he would determine, say, where Bette Davis’s voice was — if it was a musical note, where it would be on a musical scale — and he would write his music in a key that was above or below her voice. So for someone with a low voice like Orson Welles, whom he scored once, he wrote a little above Welles’ very low baritone. And in the score for “Jezebel,” which is a film that won Bette Davis a best actress Oscar, he writes in his notes to the orchestrator he’ll be handing his score to exactly what the musical pitch of Davis’ voice is, and how he’s writing above and below it. He did that for his whole career. And I think that’s astonishing, how detail-oriented he could be in a situation where there was phenomenal pressure on him to write an enormous amount of music in a very short time with very little sleep.

Your previous biography subject, Herrmann, was clearly a classic sort of tortured artist, right there on the surface. But Steiner joked about his angst. Not just personally, but he literally wrote constant gags into the margins of all his scores, much of which you reproduce. And you also reproduce jokes he told in an unpublished memoir he worked on. This all adds up to “Music by Max Steiner” being a book with a lot of laughs in it — more so than “A Heart at Fire’s Center,” which doesn’t have a lot of personal levity from its subject. But did the fact that Steiner could be personally convivial and lovable, on top of being endlessly prolific, work against his genius being taken as seriously as it should, compared to Herrmann’s?

It’s worth remembering that Max came from Vienna. As a child he knew Johann Strauss Jr., who wrote “The Blue Danube” and these effervescent, romantic, light-as-air but beautiful waltzes. That world at the turn of the century was this amazing time of Strauss music and Gustav Klimt paintings and Freud beginning to develop his theories —there was both a seriousness and a lightness to Vienna at the time. And I think that’s part of what gave Max that wonderful quality of playfulness and a love of life. He wasn’t the handsomest man. He was rather short. He could be wisecracking, and there was always a cigar in his mouth, so you could really picture a kind of Hollywood stereotype. But he was deeply romantic. I mean, think of the music to “Casablanca” — that’s really Max’s soul.

And so one of the things that makes Steiner so fascinating is that he was a funny guy. He was very intense about his music, but he wanted to have fun. Bernard Herrmann, although he had a very wry sense of humor, was a rather tortured man who was in a lot of pain for much of his life. Max was a fun-loving, very well-liked workaholic who was a great artist as well. Knowing that Steiner worked on up to 300 films, that he loved alcohol, cigars and playing cards, that he got married a lot [four times] and told a lot of bad jokes, you might think, “Oh, right, a studio guy — Hollywood hack. He probably farmed out the work to a lot of people. He was about the money.” But he cared deeply. He was an intuitive man who was brilliant in his craft, and kind of like Michael Curtiz, he didn’t advertise it. For decades, Curtiz [the director of “Casablanca”] was kind of written off because he worked on so many different types of films, and now we see him as someone who directed many of the greatest films and did have a voice. It’s much the same with Steiner.

But he was like Herrmann in that he was a very sensitive person, in the good and bad senses of the word. And by that, I mean very empathic to characters and stories, but also very easily hurt and quick to be injured in his own feelings, which many artists are. I think all of that added to why he could be so empathic with Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” or Scarlett O’Hara.

Although he’s sometimes remembered for his jauntier or brassier scores or action pictures, you make the point he might have excelled most at “women’s pictures,” like “Now, Voyager.” 

Bette Davis once said, “He was my composer.” She understood what he brought to her films. Now, she probably also said some sharp words about him from time to time, like she did everyone. But I’m fascinated by how this very masculine, wise-cracking as you say, sometimes in private with the guys kind of loose, dirty-joke-telling guy could be so in touch with that very feminine quality of that interior quality of the characters in his films.

He loved beauty, and when he saw Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” or Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind,” he was very affected by them — not just on a level of seeing a beautiful woman, but he really fell in love with those characters, and then he stepped back to be them. So as a man, he was very drawn in. He could be Humphrey Bogart, if you will, and feel that intoxicating romance, but then he could also channel — and this is something he certainly never talked about — this incredible feminine side and write the voice of Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” in which she’s dying, or “Now, Voyager,” when she is this repressed woman emerging, and write music that is completely from her soul.

Do you have a Steiner score you think is most underrated?

A great score he wrote for a film that’s really forgotten now is “Johnny Belinda.” That was one of his favorites. It’s a beautiful score for a film that is both very dark and very hopeful. It has very modern music in that it has very dark music that sounds like the kind of scratchy, harsh violin sound that a Jerry Goldsmith might’ve done later in the ’60s or ’70s, for an excruciating rape sequence. But it also has this beautiful theme of childlike lyricism for this woman who can’t speak and who can’t hear. I think when Max was at his best was when he would be given a story about someone with great vulnerability and desperately seeking love and being in pain.

He loved writing for those kinds of films, much more than he liked writing an action movie. The movies he dreaded doing were movies that were wall-to-wall action because in those days, when composers had to physically write every single note with their hands, he would say, only half-kidding, “I will be blind by the end of this film.” And indeed he lost most of his eyesight over his lifetime. But I think what unites his best scores is his empathy for human longing and and desire and romance. “Mildred Pierce” is a great score.

Howard Hawks hired Max specifically for “The Big Sleep,” and I think that’s a sign that he didn’t want it to be a movie that was a mystery, so much. He wanted to play up this kind of almost screwball romance and certainly the romantic intensity between Bogart and Bacall, who were having an affair during the filming of that movieHawks, who had worked with Max once before, knew that Steiner would really bring out the sexiness of the movie.

The book goes into his family psychology a great deal, suggesting that he became a workaholic in part because he wanted to make good on what was lost after his very successful father fell from grace. And then that workaholism causes him to ignore a wife he seemed to at least theoretically want to remain close to, and their young son, with tragic results.

Part of his story is how he wanted to redeem the legacy of his father and grandfather back in Vienna. “Gone With the Wind” is a story ultimately about a character who is trying to restore a lost family dynasty. Take away the dated aspects — the frankly offensive aspects of the film with the Civil War and its racial depictions — put all that aside and you can see how Max saw the film, which is not a movie about the Civil War, but about someone trying to regain a family and ironically losing great love that is close to that person at the same time. That was true of Scarlett O’Hara, and it turned out to be true of Max’s life as well. He reclaimed that family name, but at considerable personal cost.

There is tragedy to go around toward the end of the book, personally. But one of the things that may come as a relief to the reader is that, unlike so many figures from the golden age of Hollywood, his is not a story of a quick rise followed by a long, protracted fall into irrelevance. Thirty years or so into his film career, he produces one of his great scores in “The Searchers,” and then has a fluke pop blockbuster with “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’.”

That’s a gift to a biographer. This is a man who worked with George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, who worked on all these shows that had classic American standards in them; Max was often the conductor conducting the theater orchestra of those great Broadway shows of the ’20s. Then he becomes the musical director of the Astaire/Rogers series for the first three years, so he’s the man conducting “Cheek to Cheek” and all the great songs from “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “The Gay Divorcee,” etc. So Max knew all of the great songwriters, and he desperately wanted to have hit songs like an Irving Berlin and a Gershwin. And although certainly Max is one of the great melodists of the 20th century — I mean, if you’ve seen “Gone With the Wind” once, you could probably think of the theme — he didn’t write popular songs the way a Gershwin did. He kept trying and trying, and some of them deserved a better fate, but they just didn’t catch on with people.

He had all but given up when he was hired to score “A Summer Place,” which was considered kind of trashy, even though it was a big Warner Brothers movie with stars and a big budget. It was about teenagers wanting to have sex and their horny parents, things that as the production code was starting to fall were outraging older moviegoers and titillating younger moviegoers. Max, being always aware of the music of his time and listening to the kind of Fats Domino/”Blueberry Hill” triplet that we think of as rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s… as a friend of his said, as soon as Max had that rhythm, he couldn’t help but write a kind of nice melody over it.

He had stopped trying to write a hit song. Well, that was the one that became a hit record. In one of the great kind of underdog stories or ironies of musical history, a 71-year-old composer from Vienna, born in 1888, had the No. 1 instrumental bestseller of the early rock era. It won record of the year at the Grammys over Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles. You can certainly debate that choice, but you can’t debate the fact that people loved this song. And it made Max so much money just as he was winning his battle over over royalties in film music. He was set financially at the age of 71 after being broke almost all of his life, after owing the equivalent of well over half a million dollars or more to the government. His accidental pop hit is one of the great “how to succeed without really trying” stories.