The first time I became aware of the music underpinning the action of a movie was in early 1946. I sat in the Avalon between Mom and Dad. They were already separated, (divorced, but I wasn’t to be told that then). There were still confusing times, however, when we did things as a family, giving me false hope of a reunion.
The opening credits of Mildred Pierce began, letters washed away by ocean waves. Accompanying this was a stirring theme, echoing the pulse of the tide. To my eight-year-old mind, it suggested nobility and held the promise of lots of interesting complications to come. I decided to pay attention and see who was writing this heady stuff and sweeping us into the picture. It was Max Steiner.
I never looked back. From that day to this, I’ve made it a point to know who composed the score for what I watch. One after another, I discovered the masters of the field, musicians whose contributions were – or could be – equal partners with the writers, actors, and directors involved. At its best, their work was not mere flashy adornment, “mood music,” or cheesy indicators of the obvious (it drove John bananas every time “La Marseilles” was played when the scene shifted to France). In the right hands, music provides subtle commentary on the essence of the characters, their unexpressed thoughts, and motives sometimes hidden even from themselves.
My next discovery was probably Miklos Rozsa who created deliciously exotic soundscapes for Sabu‘s adventures in The Jungle Book and The Thief of Bagdad. In the 40’s, Rozsa became the go-to choice for film noir and psychological disturbance. The Dragnet theme was pilfered from his score for The Killers (he sued and won).
There were so many others who enriched my movie going experiences. Bear with me while I name just a few. As Montgomery Clift stands hitchhiking at the outset of A Place in the Sun, Franz Waxman‘s sweet, spacious trumpet theme grabs me every time. portending the sadness to come and the passion of one of the all time great movie kiss close-ups. Waxman is unmatched at foreshadowing. His frenetic opening credit blitz for Sunset Boulevard instantly prepares us for the neurotic dangers to come. And who but Waxman could have come up with the eerie romanticism he brings to the creation of The Bride of Frankenstein?
By the time I was able to focus on such sonic treats, Erich Korngold had moved on from the flickers to classical composition, but his epic scores romped on in popular re-releases of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Prince and the Pauper. No one could buckle Errol Flynn‘s swash like Korngold.
Victor Young may have looked like a bouncer or a prize fighter, but this belied the shimmering sweetness of the melodic lines that poured out of him at Paramount. His romantic scores don’t just embellish such films as The Uninvited (“Stella by Starlight”), Samson and Delilah, and The Quiet Man, they caress them. Young remained at the height of his powers to the end. The work that won him a posthumous Oscar was a doozy – Around the World in Eighty Days.
No discussion of film music can omit the towering compositions of Bernard Herrmann. It’s difficult to separate the impact of such classics as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver from Herrmann’s scores. The jittery, propulsive opening of North by Northwest, the sinuous evocation of the sea in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the brooding underwater menace of Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, and the warm hush of intimacy in Marnie and Vertigo – these are all Herrmann and all diversely wonderful.
But before all of them, there was Max, the Max Steiner of King Kong, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and the orchestration of the early Astaire/Rogers musicals. I’ve just finished the brand new biography of him by Steven C. Smith, Music by Max Steiner. It’s a remarkable and engrossing account of his life and the creative process of scoring a film, often under punishing deadlines overseen by meddlesome demons like David O. Selznick.
Smith analyzes many of Steiner’s themes. This was a particular pleasure for me because a lot of them were still lodged in my head. One that isn’t discussed is an example of Steiner’s economy of effect. It’s a simple eight note descending melody that reappears in White Heat each time Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran contemplate betraying Cagney. Just eight notes, but they taught this twelve-year-old a vivid lesson about the power of primal desire to wreak havoc.
I realize that not everyone shares my nerdy enthusiasm for the giants of film scoring. I guess you’ll just have to trust me that Smith’s book is a good read even without that predisposition. Steiner was a brilliant, funny, ribald, sad, generous workaholic. Given the chance, he’d have happily scored every movie Warners churned out. His life, as curated by Smith, is a page turner from start to finish.
As always, with a biography, I skip to the final chapter. Life’s endings are seldom happy or pretty, and I choose to get them out of the way first. In Steiner’s case, it’s a mixed bag. He never got over his son’s suicide. The boy was handsome and simultaneously overindulged and neglected. Reading not too far between the lines, he was also likely gay. Steiner’s finances, however, (always in jeopardy from gambling, a stable of ex-wives, a lavish lifestyle, and an open handed nature), took a surprising upturn toward the end. A simple song, dashed off quickly and not held in high regard by its composer, made Steiner a millionaire – the theme from A Summer Place.
Steiner was an innovator who knew everyone on Broadway or in Hollywood. The book’s anecdotes, and Steiner’s often raunchy notations on his score sheets are worth the price by themselves. Max was the antithesis of Herbert Stothart, an MGM composer for whose dainty, derivative scores John and I had little use. Retreating as far and as fast into the background as they could, they are the musical equivalent of a watercress sandwich with all crusts and flavor trimmed away. Max Steiner is meat and potatoes. I urge you to dig in.