Max Steiner - Writer

Composer and Arranger. Nationality: Austrian. Born: Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner in Vienna, 10 May 1888; his father and grandfather were impressarios of operetta. Education: Studied at the Vienna Imperial Academy of Music, with Robert Fuchs, Herman Graedner, Felix Weingartner and briefly Gustav Mahler. Career: Child prodigy, as composer and conductor: his own operetta The Pretty Greek Girl was produced when he was 16; 1905–11—musical comedy conductor, London; then worked in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Johannesburg; 1914–29—worked in New York as a Broadway orchestrator, arranger and conductor; 1929–36—music director for RKO Radio Pictures; 1936–65—with Warner Bros., with loanouts to Selznick Pictures in the earlier years. Awards: Academy Award for The Informer , 1935; Now, Voyager , 1942; Since You Went Away , 1944; Venice Festival award for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , 1948. Died: In Hollywood, 28 December 1971.

Max Steiner (right)
Max Steiner (right)

Films as Composer, Arranger and/or Music Director:


The Bondman (Wilcox); Rio Rita (Reed)


Dixiana (Reed); Half Shot at Sunrise (Sloane); Check and Double Check (Brown); Beau Ideal (Brenon); Cimarron (Ruggles)


Kept Husbands (Bacon); Cracked Nuts (Cline); Young Donovan's Kid (Niblo); Transgression (Brenon); Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger) (co); The Public Defender (Ruben); Traveling Husbands (Sloane); The Runaround (Craft); The Gay Diplomat (Boleslawsky); Way Back Home (Seiter); Fanny Foley Herself (Brown); Secret Service (Ruben); Consolation Marriage (Sloane); Are These Our Children? (Ruggles)


Men of Chance (Archainbaud); Girl of the Rio (Brenon); Ladies of the Jury (L. Sherman); Young Bride (Seiter); The Lost Squadron (Archainbaud); State's Attorney (Archainbaud); Symphony of Six Million ( Melody of Life ) (La Cava); Westward Passage (Milton); Is My Face Red? (Seiter); What Price Hollywood? (Cukor); Roar of the Dragon (Ruggles); Bird of Paradise (K. Vidor); The Phantom of Crestwood (Ruben); The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack and Pichel); A Bill of Divorcement (Cukor); Little Orphan Annie (Robertson); Thirteen Women (Archainbaud); Renegades of the West (Robinson); The Conquerors ( Pioneer Builders ) (Wellman); The Sport Parade (Murphy); Rockabye (Cukor); The Half Naked Truth (La Cava); Penguin Pool Murder (Archainbaud); The Animal Kingdom ( The Woman in His House ) (Griffith); The Monkey's Paw (Ruggles); Lady with a Past ( Reputation ) (Griffith); Secrets of the French Police (Sutherland)


No Other Woman (Ruben); The Cheyenne Kid (Hill); Lucky Devils (R. Ince); The Great Jaspers (Ruben); King Kong (Schoedsack and Cooper); Our Betters (Cukor); Topaze (D'Arrast); Christopher Strong (Arzner); Sweepings (Cromwell); Diplomaniacs (Seiter); The Silver Cord (Cromwell); Son of the Border (Nosler); Emergency Call (Cahn); Professional Sweetheart (Seiter); Flying Devils (Birdwell); Melody Cruise (Sandrich); Bed of Roses (La Cava); Double Harness (Cromwell); Headline Shooter (Brower); Before Dawn (Pichel); No Marriage Ties (Ruben); Morning Glory (L. Sherman); Blind Adventure (Schoedsack); One Man's Journey (Robertson); Rafter Romance (Seiter); Midshipman Jack (Cabanne); Ann Vickers (Cromwell); Ace of Aces (Ruben); Chance at Heaven (Seiter); After Tonight (Archainbaud); Little Women (Cukor); The Right to Romance (Santell); Aggie Appleby, Maker of Man (Sandrich); If I Were Free (Nugent); Flying Down to Rio (Freeland); Son of Kong (Schoedsack) (co)


Man of Two Worlds (Ruben); Long Lost Father (Schoedsack); The Meanest Girl in Town (Mack); Two Alone (Nugent); Hips, Hips, Hooray! (Sandrich); The Lost Patrol (Ford); Keep 'em Rolling (Archainbaud); Spitfire (Cromwell); Sing and Like It (Seiter); Success at Any Price (Ruben); This Man Is Mine (Cromwell); The Crime Doctor (Robertson); Finishing School (Tuchock and Nicholls); Strictly Dynamite (Nugent); Where Sinners Meet (Ruben); Stingaree (Wellman); The Life of Vergie Winters (Santell); Murder on the Blackboard (Archainbaud); Let's Try Again (Miner); Of Human Bondage (Cromwell); We're Rich Again (Seiter); His Greatest Gamble (Robertson); Hat, Coat, and Glove (Miner); Bachelor Bait (Stevens); Their Big Moment (Cruze); Down to Their Last Yacht (Sloane); The Fountain (Cromwell); The Age of Innocence (Moeller); The Richest Girl in the World (Seiter); The Gay Divorcee ( The Gay Divorce ) (Sandrich); Dangerous Corner (Rosen); Gridiron Flash (Tryon); Wednesday's Child (Robertson); Kentucky Kernels (Stevens); By Your Leave (Corrigan); Anne of Green Gables (Nicholls); The Little Minister (Wallace); The World Moves On (Ford)


Romance in Manhattan (Roberts); Enchanted April (Beaumont); Roberta (Seiter); Laddie (Stevens); Star of Midnight (Robert); The Informer (Ford); Break of Hearts (Moeller); Becky Sharp (Mamoulian); She (Pichel and Holden); Alice Adams (Stevens); Top Hat (Sandrich); The Three Musketeers (Lee); I Dream Too Much (Cromwell)


Little Lord Fauntleroy (Cromwell); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Curtiz); The Garden of Allah (Boleslawsky); Winterset (Santell); God's Country and the Woman (Keighley), Follow the Fleet (Sandrich); Two in Revolt (Tryon); M'Liss (Nicholls)


Green Light (Borzage); Slim (Enright); Kid Galahad (Curtiz) (co); A Star Is Born (Wellman); The Life of Emile Zola (Dieterle); That Certain Woman (Goulding); First Lady (Logan); Submarine D-1 (Bacon); Tovarich (Litvak)


Gold Is Where You Find It (Curtiz); Jezebel (Wyler); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Taurog); Crime School (Seiler); White Banners (Goulding); The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Litvak); Four Daughters (Curtiz); The Sisters (Litvak); Angels with Dirty Faces (Curtiz); The Dawn Patrol (Goulding)


They Made Me a Criminal (Berkeley); Dodge City (Curtiz); The Oklahoma Kid (Bacon); Dark Victory (Goulding); Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Litvak); Each Dawn I Die (Keighley); Daughters Courageous (Curtiz); The Old Maid (Goulding); Dust Be My Destiny (Seiler); Intermezzo: A Love Story (Ratoff); We Are Not Alone (Goulding); Gone with the Wind (Fleming)


Four Wives (Curtiz); Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (Dieterle); Virginia City (Curtiz); All This, and Heaven Too (Litvak); City for Conquest (Litvak); A Dispatch from Reuter's (Dieterle); The Letter (Wyler); Santa Fe Trail (Curtiz); The Great Lie (Goulding); Shining Victory (Rapper); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley); Dive Bomber (Curtiz); Sergeant York (Curtiz); One Foot in Heaven (Rapper)


They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh); In This Our Life (Huston); Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz); The Gay Sisters (Rapper); Desperate Journey (Walsh); Now, Voyager (Rapper)


Casablanca (Curtiz); Mission to Moscow (Curtiz); Watch on the Rhine (Shumlin); This Is the Army (Curtiz)


Passage to Marseille (Curtiz); The Conspirators (Negulesco); The Adventures of Mark Twain (Rapper); Since You Went Away (Cromwell); Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra)


Roughly Speaking (Curtiz); The Corn Is Green (Rapper); Rhapsody in Blue (Rapper); Mildred Pierce (Curtiz); Tomorrow Is Forever (Pichel)


San Antonio (Butler and Walsh); My Reputation (Bernhardt); Saratoga Trunk (Wood); One More Tomorrow (Godfrey); A Stolen Life (Bernhardt); The Big Sleep (Hawks); Cloak and Dagger (F. Lang), Night and Day (Curtiz)


The Man I Love (Walsh); The Beast with Five Fingers (Florey); Pursued (Walsh); Love and Learn (De Cordova); Cheyenne (Walsh); The Unfaithful (V. Sherman); Deep Valley (Negulesco); Life with Father (Curtiz); The Voice of the Turtle (Rapper); My Wild Irish Rose (Butler) (co)


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston); My Girl Tisa (Nugent); Winter Meeting (Windust); The Woman in White (Godfrey); Silver River (Walsh); Key Largo (Huston); Johnny Belinda (Negulesco); Fighter Squadron (Walsh); The Decision of Christopher Blake (Godfrey); A Kiss in the Dark (Daves)


The Adventures of Don Juan ( The New Adventures of Don Juan ) (V. Sherman); South of St. Louis (Enright); Flamingo Road (Curtiz); The Fountainhead (K. Vidor); Without Honor (Pichel); Beyond the Forest (K. Vidor); White Heat (Walsh); Mrs. Mike (L. King); The Lady Takes a Sailor (Curtiz), Oh You Beautiful Doll (Stahl)


Caged (Cromwell); The Flame and the Arrow (Tourneur); The Glass Menagerie (Rapper); Rocky Mountain (Keighley); Sugarfoot ( Swirl of Glory ) (Marin); Dallas (Heisler)


Operation Pacific (Waggner); Lightning Strikes Twice (K. Vidor); Raton Pass (Marin); I Was a Communist for the FBI (Douglas); On Moonlight Bay (Del Ruth); Jim Thorpe, All-American (Curtiz); Force of Arms (Curtiz); Close to My Heart (Keighley); Distant Drums (Walsh); Come Fill the Cup (Douglas)


Room for One More (Taurog); The Lion and the Horse (L. King); Mara Maru (Douglas); Springfield Rifle (De Toth); The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (Brahm); The Iron Mistress (Douglas)


The Jazz Singer (Curtiz); This Is Cinerama (Cooper and others); Trouble Along the Way (Curtiz); By the Light of the Silvery Moon (Butler); The Desert Song (Humberstone); So Big (Wise); The Charge at Feather River (Douglas); So This Is Love ( The Grace Moore Story ) (Douglas)


The Boy from Oklahoma (Curtiz); The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk); King Richard and the Crusaders (Butler); The Violent Man (Maté)


Battle Cry (Walsh); The Last Command (Lloyd); The McConnell Story ( Tiger in the Sky ) (Douglas); Illegal (Allen); Come Next Spring (Springsteen)


Hell on Frisco Bay (Tuttle); Helen of Troy (Wise); The Searchers (Ford); Bandido! (Fleischer); All Mine to Give ( The Day They Gave Babies Away ) (Reisner); Death of a Scoundrel (Martin)


Band of Angels (Walsh); Escapade in Japan (Lubin), China Gate (Fuller)


Fort Dobbs (Douglas); Marjorie Morningstar (Rapper); Darby's Raiders ( The Young Invaders ) (Wellman)


The Hanging Tree (Daves); John Paul Jones (Farrow); The FBI Story (LeRoy); A Summer Place (Daves)


Cash McCall (Pevney); Ice Palace (V. Sherman); The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Delbert Mann)


The Sins of Rachel Cade (Douglas); Parrish (Daves); Portrait of a Mobster (Pevney); Susan Slade (Daves); A Majority of One (LeRoy)


Lovers Must Learn ( Rome Adventure ) (Daves)


Spencer's Mountain (Daves)


A Distant Trumpet (Walsh); FBI Code 98 (Martinson); Youngblood Hawke (Daves)


Those Calloways (Tokar); Two on a Guillotine (Conrad)


By STEINER: articles—

"Scoring the Film," in We Make the Movies , edited by Nancy Naumberg, New York, 1937.

In The Real Tinsel , by Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein, New York, 1970.

In Film Score , edited by Tony Thomas, South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1979.

On STEINER: books—

Gorbman, Claudia, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music , Bloomington, Indiana, 1987.

Darby, William, and Jack Du Bois, American Film Music: Major Composers, Techniques, Trends, 1915–1990 , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990.

Kalinak, Kathryn, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film , Madison, Wisconsin, 1992.

On STEINER: articles—

Haun, Harry, and George Raborn, in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1961, corrections in August-September and October 1961.

Films in Review (New York), November 1967.

Cineforum (Bergamo), October-November 1971.

Montage (London), no. 21, 1972.

Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Spring 1972.

Ecran (Paris), March 1972.

Films in Review (New York), March 1972.

International Film Collector , August 1972.

Thomas, Tony, in Music for the Movies , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1973.

Bender, Albert K., in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Fall 1974.

Gollner, Orville, and George E. Turner, in The Making of King Kong , New York, 1975.

Positif (Paris), November 1976.

Fiedel, Robert, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1977.

Ecran Fantastique (Paris), no. 6, 1978.

Dirigido por . . . (Barcelona), nos. 66 and 67, 1979.

Filmcritica (Rome), August 1979.

24 Images (Longueuil, Quebec), May-June 1981.

Rivista del Cinematografo (Rome), December 1981.

Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 19, 1982.

Lacombe, Alain, in Hollywood , Paris, 1983.

Séquences (Montreal), no. 135–6, September 1988.

Palmer, Christopher, in The Composer in Hollywood , New York, 1990.

Buchman, Chris, "The Television Scene," in Films in Review (New York), July-August 1992.

Neumeyer, David, "Melodrama as a Compositional Resource in Early Hollywood Sound Cinema," in Current Musicology , January 1995.

Handzo, Stephen, "The Golden Age of Film Music," in Cineaste (New York), Winter-Spring 1995.

Walsh, J.S., "The Ten Most Influential Film Composers," in Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), January/February/March 1996.

Berthomieu, Pierre, in Positif (Paris), October 1998.

* * *

The jungle drums of King Kong , the soaring theme from Gone With the Wind , the brooding dramatic music for Mildred Pierce and The Big Sleep : all come from the pen of Max Steiner, one of the most influential of all Hollywood film composers. Though criticized by some for sentimentality, excessive scoring and "mickeymousing," Steiner is widely acknowledged as one of the first to use an extended original background score for a motion picture, and to work with click tracks to aid in the synchronization of music to film action. Steiner was also one of the most prolific of all film composers, famed for going with extremely little sleep while completing major projects, including the three hours and twenty minutes of music for Gone With the Wind . Though most of his RKO films required only opening and closing music, or arrangements of preexisting music for musicals, he began in 1932 to compose full scores, and created the music for most of Warner Brothers' biggest films from the late 1930s though the 1940s.

While films of the silent era normally had a continuous musical accompaniment (usually pastiches of classical, popular and folk tunes), early talkies normally included no background music at all, except for opening and closing credits, and for music that was diegetic, i.e., part of the film's story world. This absence had to do with both the lack of available technology for postdubbing and an assumption that talkie audiences would always want to see the source of the music it was hearing (a party in the next room, perhaps). But in 1932 Steiner began writing nondiegetic music to heighten the drama in selected scenes throughout such films as Symphony of Six Million , Bird of Paradise , and The Most Dangerous Game , and in the following year contributed importantly to the success of King Kong . In the latter film Steiner used no background music, after the opening credits, until the arrival at Skull Island, a quarter of the way into the picture; but then, beginning with harp and strings on the soundtrack to suggest the island in the mist, followed by skillfully blended diegetic and nondiegetic "primitive" music for the natives, Steiner's music takes us from the mundane world of the Depression and a sea voyage into the fantastic realm of Kong.

At least three prominent characteristics of Steiner's film music style have always been singled out. One is his skillful blending of original music with popular or folk tunes. Prominent examples are found in his Oscar-winning scores for The Informer , with its Irish melodies (establishing a musical pattern for other composers to follow in John Ford films, a tradition Steiner himself continued years later in his mixing of original and traditional Western tunes in The Searchers ), and for Gone With the Wind ("Dixie" and Stephen Foster songs). For Casablanca Steiner worked many permutations upon the song "As Time Goes By," and made great use of "La Marseillaise" as well: e.g., when it is heard in a minor key as Captain Renault contemptuously looks down at a bottle of Vichy water.

Another common Steiner practice was his use of the Wagnerian leitmotif: not merely labelling a character or object with a musical theme, but transforming that theme to reflect changes in the drama. MIldred Pierce provides especially good examples. Mildred's theme, heard in the opening credits, is in a major key, but its first three notes are soon restated with tragic force in a minor key as Mildred contemplates suicide, and near the end of the film the theme is harmonized in a way to suggest resignation as Mildred tells the police the true story. Another theme, jaunty and innocent-sounding, accompanies the first shot of her daughter Veda, but is heard in quite distorted form when Veda reveals the full extent of her wickedness in the final flashback.

The third characteristic is one for which Steiner has most often been criticized: his mickeymousing, i.e., writing musical cues that very closely mirror (or ape, if one disapproves) onscreen actions. The name comes from the practice common in cartoons ever since Disney's first talkie, Steamboat Willie , but examples can be found much earlier in operatic music (even if such cues are pointedly ignored by modern stage directors), most notably in Richard Wagner, as in the sword-forging scene in Siegfried . In The Informer , for example, music precisely imitates a wanted poster blowing against the informer-to-be's leg, and later mimics the arc of coins tossed onto a table. In Steiner's defense, one might note that the musical emphasis most often simply accompanies visual emphasis through close-ups and other strategies; whether such emphasis should be considered redundency or effective reinforcement may be debated.

During the 1950s Steiner's style of musicmaking began to seem old-fashioned, as the pop score (featuring a marketable title song, as in Three Coins in the Fountain ) and the occasional jazz score (e.g, The Man with the Golden Arm ) became more favored. Yet Steiner continued to write scores for Warner Brothers, most often romantic melodramas, until the mid-1960s, and retired reluctantly. In retrospect, his prominent place in the history of music in motion pictures seems very secure.

—Joseph Milicia

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