The Golden Age of Movie Music – Max Steiner


Max Steiner, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, grew up in Vienna.  And like Korngold he never intended to write music for movies.  In Steiner’s case he was a brilliant musician as a child and completed a four year course at the Imperial Academy of Music in only one year.  At age 12 he conducted an American operetta, The Belle of New York by Gustave Kerker in his father’s theater.  Since his family had money, Max had the best possible teachers – including Gustav Mahler.  At age 16 he wrote his first operetta.  His father refused to produce it in his theater, so Max took it to one of his father’s rivals.  The rival produced it and it ran for a year.

In 1906 Max went to England and worked there successfully for eight years.  When World War I began, Max was interned as an enemy alien, but with the help of some influential people he was allowed to sail for America though his property and money were impounded.  He reached the U.S. in December of 1914 with $32 in his pockets and not much else.

Over the next fifteen years he worked as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor of many Broadway musicals including some by George Gershwin, Victor Herbert, Vincent Youmans, and Jerome Kern.  He may have been Vienese, but he learned a lot about American musicals during that period of his life.  In 1927 he conducted Harry Tierner’s Rio Rita, and two years later when it was scheduled to be filmed by RKO, Steiner was tapped to go to Hollywood to work on the score.  From that point until his death in 1971 the very prolific Max Steiner was considered to be the Dean of Film Music Composers.

In 1932 David O. Selznick, a young and promising producer, produced the film Symphony of Six Million.  His unhappiness with the film lead him to ask Steiner to add a little music to the film for dramatic effect.  Little did they know that they were changing the course of movie music forever.  Steiner tells us what happened:

“David said, ‘Do you think you could put some music behind this thing?  I think it might help it.  Just do one reel—the scene where Ratoff dies.’  I did as he asked, and he liked it so much he told me to go ahead and do the rest.  Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring—the producer were afraid the audience would ask, ‘Where’s the music coming from?’ unless they saw an orchestra or a radio or phonograph.  But with this picture we proved scoring would work.”

Still, Steiner often found himself adding only small bits of music, such as that for the main title and end credits, to films.  But occasionally he was able to add music to accentuate something that was going on in a film – a man limping along, someone climbing up a mountain or a horse loping along.  In even those short selections Max Steiner made his presence felt.

King Kong

Steiner’s big break came when he scored the original version of King Kong in 1933.  At first no one wanted to add music to the film, but the producer, Merian C. Cooper, finally asked Steiner to add music to what everyone thought was a clunker of a movie with a mechanical ape that didn’t look at all real.  In his excellent book Music for the Movies, Tony Thomas describes what Steiner’s music accomplished:

“The score accents all the strangeness, mystery, and horror in the story; it limms the frightful, giant gorilla but also speaks for the streak of tenderness in the monster, the fascination and the compassion he feels for the terrified girl he picks up in his huge paw.  The music is the voice of the doomed brute.”

Movie makers quickly learned to use music to augment what was happening on screen.  If a scene is happy, the music makes sure that you know that all is well.  It may even put a smile on your face.  If something terrifying is about to happen, the music telegraphs that message so that your heart is pounding long before the monster attacks the helpless maiden or the crazed murderer plunges a knife into his hapless victim.  And most fascinating of all, you probably won’t even remember that music was playing when those scenes were taking place.  That’s how good movie music works, and Max Steiner was one of the composers who discovered how to use it effectively in films.


Steiner enjoyed working with Selznick, but Selznick worked slowly, and the hard-working Steiner soon found that he needed to score more films to be happy, so he signed a contract with Warner Brothers.  There, and with Selznick when he was needed, Steiner would score an average of eight films per year for the next twelve years.  In 1939 he composed the music for an astounding twelve films including Selznick’s masterpiece Gone with the Wind.  It took him twelve weeks to write the three hour score for Gone with the Wind alone.  And keep in mind that Steiner’s scores, like those of Korngold, were symphonic in nature.

Though Steiner wrote hundreds of musical scores he never ran out of ideas.  In fact, music would sometimes come to him unexpectedly in the middle of the night.  When it did, he would get up, write it down, and then go back to sleep.  In addition to the movies mentioned above his many scores include Dark Victory; The Informer; Jezebel; Johny Belinda; Now, Voyager; Since You Went Away; A Summer Place; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; The Big Sleep; Angels with Dirty Faces; Little Women; Anne of Green Gables; She; Dodge City; The Letter; Sergeant York; The Fountainhead; Key Largo; Band of Angels and Parrish.  He was nominated for 24 Academy Awards and won three (for The Informer; Now, Voyager; and Since You Went Away).  By the 1960s Steiner’s music was no longer in demand.  He died from congestive heart failure on December 28, 1971 at the age of 83.


Steiner’s movies usually contained music that came from his prolific musical intellect, but he could also adapt music for a film that could be just a memorable as the music from a movie like Gone with the Wind.  There is no better example of his skills of adaptation than the score Steiner wrote for the 1942 Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman movie Casablanca.  Though Steiner is listed as the music’s composer, the film is dominated by two pieces of music that he adapted for the movie.  The first is the French national anthem “La Marseillaise.”  He used this music to stress the fact that the battle between the Free French and the Nazis is a central theme of the movie.

The second melody that he used so brilliantly was written by a man named Herman Hupfeld for his 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome.  That song is, of course, “As Time Goes By.”  Though it was recorded at the time of Hupfeld’s musical by a few people, including Rudy Vallee, the song was only moderately successful.  Rather than writing a love theme for Rick and Ilsa, Steiner decided to adapt “As Time Goes By” instead.  The melody recurs throughout the film reminding us of the time that Rick and Ilsa shared in Paris, and of the heart rending love that Rick still feels for her.  Who can hear “As Time Goes By” without thinking of Casablanca?  In fact, the American Film Institute ranks it number two in its list “100 Years . . . 100 Songs” (“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz is number one).

Let me end by sharing a little trivia about “As Time Goes By” with you.  Dooley Wilson was a drummer not a pianist, so in the film he is mimicking the playing of pianist Elliot Carpenter, the only other black person on the set. Carpenter was positioned off-camera so that Wilson could see and imitate his hand movements when he is supposedly playing the piano.  Because of a musician’s strike when the movie was released in 1942, the record companies had to settle for reissuing previous versions of the number including that of Rudy Vallee which quickly became a number one hit.  There is a still-popular complete recording of Wilson singing “As Time Goes By,” (he never sang the entire song in the film), but it was not recorded until October 11, 1943.

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