Max Steiner: Enduring Master Of Movie Music In Hollywood’s Heyday

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Max Steiner points out a passage in the ‘Gone With the Wind” soundtrack. (Courtesy, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.)

Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer. By Steven C. Smith. Oxford University Press, 480 pages.

BOOK REVIEW – Steven C. Smith’s A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read of an American composer. Now, 30 years later, Smith is out with a bigger and equally impressive book on a major film composer, Music By Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer. The Herrmann book is incisive and slightly cool, as befits its subject, with a smoldering emotional undercurrent. This one feels very different. Steiner – who wrote close to 300 film scores and knew everyone from Mahler to Sinatra – is an endlessly colorful subject. Smith writes in a lavish, lyrical style exactly in tune with the composer and his many worlds. 

The story of Steiner is also the story of Golden Age Hollywood, and Smith, a meticulous cultural historian, delivers a detailed history of the transition from silent to talkie, the growing power of music in movies, the rise and fall of the studio system, and the long struggle of movie composers to receive residuals – largely initiated by Steiner himself. He also treats us to juicy, revealing anecdotes involving Steiner’s many collaborators, including W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, the Gershwins, John Huston, Vivien Leigh, John Ford, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis (who called Steiner “my composer”).

Steiner was the first of the Hollywood émigré composers to make it to America, setting the stage for Korngold, Waxman, and his many colleagues in flight from the Nazis. He grew up in Vienna in the 1880s, and Smith’s book opens with an opulent overture on Viennese culture during the period of Strauss operettas, Klimt paintings, and Freudian psychoanalysis, including an astonishing account of Venice in Vienna, a proto-Disney theme park created by Steiner’s father Gabor, boasting not only gondolas and canals, but also an early recording studio and Vienna’s first moving picture theater. This was a huge influence on an entranced young Max, but it drove Gabor into bankruptcy, impelling his son to launch out on his own in 1914, briefly to London, then permanently to America, where he worked on Broadway before creating some of the first motion-picture scores. (His success enabled him to find connections to get Gabor on one of the last boats to America, saving him from the Anschluss.)

Steiner’s breakthrough came in 1933 with King Kong, a massive score that is both shuddery and sentimental, epic and intimate, establishing, in composer Danny Elfman’s words, “the entire concept of a full-blown synchronized film score.” Steiner depicted characters from the outside with Wagnerian leitmotifs, a method still used by John Williams (whom Steven Spielberg calls “Max”), and more importantly from the inside, evoking their thoughts and feelings – including those of Kong, who becomes an object of tragedy as well as terror. In a fascinating insight, Smith writes that King Kong tapped into a deep identification between composer and subject that lasted through Steiner’s long career. “All three of Steiner’s most famous films – King Kong, Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca – feature heroes or heroines forced to leave their homes, and made vulnerable by their love for another. In music Max would write his truest autobiography.”

Steiner was a gregarious, hard-drinking, card-playing workaholic, sardonic but emotionally vulnerable, much like Rick in Casablanca, whose sensibility he captured in some of his most deeply empathetic music. His personal life was as chaotic as his professional life was disciplined, and Smith doesn’t shrink from chronicling the details of  his gambling addiction, his four marriages, his troubled relationship with a son who committed suicide, his unpredictable mood swings, and his massive financial mismanagement, much on a par with his father’s. Only his 1959 surprise hit, A Summer Place – “pure camp,” in Smith’s words, but also pure gold – saved him from ruin, and only because he and his colleagues had just won the ASCAP battle for royalties that Steiner had long fought for.

Smith chronicles the intense deadline pressure Steiner and his fellow film composers found themselves under, dramatically exemplified by Gone with the Wind. According to his wife Louise, Steiner was lucky to sleep two hours a night. The notoriously micromanaging producer David O. Selznick, who was resistant to the idea of an original score to begin with, subjected him to threats, humiliations, last-second demands for re-writes, and unauthorized insertions of cues from other composers. In my own research, I found that Selznick hired Steiner to score Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca – another huge project that he was making across the street – and then hired Franz Waxman instead and also as an “insurance composer” for Gone With the Wind against “the possibility that Max will not be ready by our deadline.” Despite all this, Steiner produced a masterpiece that has, in Smith’s words, “the intimacy and sweep of grand opera.”

The Romantic effulgence of “Tara’s Theme” in Gone with the Wind is what Steiner is best known for, but he was also a master of concision, evoking the essence of a film with a few deft strokes: the “lustrous beauty and menace” of shimmering keyboards in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, cuing a lust for gold; the distant, Delian banjo strummings in The Adventures of Mark Twain; the delicate celeste in Johnny Belinda; the foggy, forlorn opera fragments in The Informer; the melancholy cello introducing Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, a refined chamber version of the grandiose main title theme; the heart-rending double coda of The Searchers (another drama of a family wrenched apart), juxtaposing a soaring cadence for strings with a lonely choral ballad, delivering a happy ending for the reunited homesteaders and a sad one for John Wayne’s banished anti-hero.

American intellectuals (Leon Botstein, in particular) like to say that Steiner and his fellow émigrés hoodwinked Americans into thinking Hollywood music was American when it is really late 19th-century European Romanticism in disguise. The irony is too easy. Who is to say that the Southernized Steiner idiom of Gone With the Wind, the open-prairie sonorities in the Westerns, or the pop pastiche in A Summer Place are not American just because Steiner was an immigrant? It is what artists do with influences and legacies that matters, and what Steiner did was invent a New World sound, one that combines Straussian opulence with American brashness.

The most beloved example is Casablanca. Variations on “La Marseillaise” appear with heroic decisiveness, but the Broadway riffs in Rick’s Café Américaine create the bittersweet mood and strange timelessness of the film. One of Smith’s most surprising revelations is that Steiner hated the Herman Hupfeld song “As Time Goes By,” which was foisted on him by producer Hal B. Wallis. Professional that Steiner was, he swallowed his distaste and conjured magical orchestration and harmony, lifting the song into a “near-delerious statement of romantic ecstasy.”

Steiner’s greatest frustration in a career of triumphs was the contempt he and his fellow film composers faced from the classical establishment. Smith chronicles in excruciating detail a 1943 concert in which Steiner attempted to conduct the New York Philharmonic, encountering a hostility that began with the rehearsal. “The first cellist sat down,” Steiner recalled, “but never took his cello out of its cover. ‘I don’t have  to rehearse this tripe.’” The Philharmonic played sloppily (as reported in the reviews), and the star presence of Frank Sinatra as the soloist, sucking up the energy in the hall, only made matters worse. (One of the many fascinating photographs in the book shows a miserable Steiner glowering down at Sinatra from the podium.) Steiner never conducted a concert again. The irony, as Smith points out, is that many orchestras now survive because they play film music – often by Max Steiner.