The Max SteinerFactor (1888 - 1971)
The Lost Patrol
The Beast withFive Fingers
(All music arranged and restored I reconstructedby John Morgan)
The coming ofsound-on-film in 1927 drastically altered the views of producers on the use ofmusic in films. Silent films had of course never been really silent; indeed,they needed non-stop musical accompaniment to make up for the lack of dialogueand sound-effects, but now, except in the case of musicals, why would there bea need for music in the background? Why describe the emotions and actionspeople could now see? And would they not wonder where the music was comingfrom? It took quite some while to overcome these views and prove that originaldramatic scoring could be effective subliminally -and the composer who did morethan any other to pioneer this new avenue of background scoring was MaxSteiner. In doing so he opened up what would quickly become one of the mostinteresting venues for contemporary composers, provided they also had theskills and knacks demanded by the intricacies of film scoring.
By the time of hisdeath in 1971, in his eighty-third year, Steiner had long been called "theman who invented movie music." He scoffed and said, "Nonsense. Theidea originated with Richard Wagner. Listen to the incidental scoring behindthe recitatives in his operas. If Wagner had lived in our times he would havebeen our top film composer." Steiner was well qualified to talk aboutopera. He was born in Vienna and his father was the manager of the Theater-an-der-Wien.
As a boy he was exposed to every level of Viennese musical life and at the ageof fourteen he wrote and conducted an operetta. It was as a conductor thatSteiner first earned a living and in 1914 he arrived in New York to begin what would be permanent American residence.
All through the 1920s he was active as an arranger and conductor of musicals onBroadway, and it was composer Harry Tierney who suggested Steiner be brought toHollywood as the conductor of the screen version of Tierney'sRio Rita for which Steiner had been the music director on Broadway. Thiswas late 1929, at the time of formation of RKO Radio Pictures. William Le Baronwas head of production and it was he who sensed that the adroit Steiner was theman to put in charge of the music department.
Steiner's job,apart from overseeing musicals, was to write music for the main and end titlesof non-musical films. His ideas about underscoring fell on deaf ears untilyoung David O. Selznick joined the Studio. His first production was Symphonyof Six Mil/ion in 1932 and Steiner suggested that the emotional impact ofthe film could possibly be improved by the addition of some musical comment.
Selznick agreed to experiment, with the results that Steiner had predicted.
Then a year later, with his tremendously effective score for King Kong, noone ever again dared ask, "What's the use of music in movies?"
In 1934 Steinersupplied music for no less than thirty-six RKO films, although most of themwere only lightly scored. There were, however, some that he felt needed a lotof musical help, particularly John Ford's The Lost Patrol. As brilliantas he may have been as a director Ford was not a man of much musicalsensitivity. He was not in favour of his film being scored. On the other hand,RKO was not about to issue the film without a score, since they felt it lackedan atmosphere of tension in telling its story of a British army unit lost inthe desert and gradually being picked off by unseen Arabs. Steiner supplied thetension, with additional character delineations to help make the plight of thesoldiers more dramatic and more touching. The story takes place during the firstWorld War as a patrol of British cavalry finds itself stranded in the Mesopotamian Desert. Only their officer knows their locationand he is killed by Arab snipers, leaving a sergeant (Victor McLaglen) incharge. Camped at an oasis their sentries are killed and their horses stolen.
One by one they are picked off until only the sergeant is alive when a rescueparty arrives.
The Lost Patrolbadly needed a musicalscore to sustain the anguish of the doomed soldiers, and Ford later admittedthat yes, the film was helped by the music. Indeed, it became the firstdramatic score ever nominated for an Oscar. Some of the other RKO pictureshelped by Steiner over the next two years were Of Human Bondage, The LittleMinister, and The Three Musketeers. In 1936 he left RKO to accept anoffer from Warner Bros. to score their mighty spectacle The Charge of theLight Brigade, the success of which led Warners to place him under longterm contract. It was indeed a long term, stretching all the way to 1965, withSteiner scoring most of the best films of Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, JamesCagney and Humphrey Bogart. He would end up scoring 152 Warner Bros. films, anincredible body of work.
Steiner'sassignments at Warners required him to supply music for every kind of film, butfor reasons he himself could not understand he seemed to do well with epicwesterns. As a man with no knowledge of the West, he admitted that his musicalconcepts were of strictly story-book nature, that his job was to supplyromance, excitement and drama, leaving the more academic approach to Westernmusical culture to others. His first major forays into the celluloid West were TheOklahoma Kid, starring James Cagney, and Dodge City, starringErrol Flynn, both in 1939. When Flynn was set to star in Virginia City the following year, there was no doubt as to who wouldscore it.
Virginia City is a big, bold adventure story that allowed Steinerample room for majestic and lilting themes for western landscapes, battles,bar-room action, stage- coach trips and romance. The story is that of a Unionarmy officer (Flynn) who escapes the Confederate Libby Prison (under thecommand of Randolph Scott) and goes to Virginia City, Nevada, to thwart the schemes of Southernsympathizers to send back gold shipments to the beleaguered Confederacy. Therehe falls in love with a dance-hall girl who is actually a Southern spy (MiriamHopkins) and there he also finds his Libby commandant is now in charge ofgetting the gold back to the South. In time the two enemy officers join forcesto fight off the horde of Mexican bandits who attack the wagon-train carryingthe gold. The Union officer, out of respect for the Southerners he now admires,buries the gold so that it may later be used to help rebuild the defeatedSouth. For this he is court-martialled and sentenced to death, but hislady-love appeals directly to President Lincoln, who dismisses the charges.
Presumably, they live happily thereafter.
Virginia City did not end Max Steiner's musical excursions out West;in fact, he would be involved over the years in scoring twenty other westerns,five of them with Errol Flynn; of which They Died with their Boots On (1941)is the best on all counts. Although he excelled with these lusty adventurepictures,