This is where it all started.*
[*If the first original music written for the screen is disregarded – i.e. music for the early French film, The Death of the Duke of Guise (1908) composed by Saint-Saëns, no less.]
In the six and a half years or so that he was at RKO Radio, Max Steiner, affectionately known as ‘the father of modern film music’ forged a new art form, i.e. original film music, based on accessible Viennese/European Late Romantic music traditions that were fast giving way to the new, less listener-friendly atonal music that was invading the concert halls. Steiner made liberal use of Wagner’s system of leitmotifs to underline characterisations. At RKO, he scored, or was musical director of, 70 motion pictures. Amongst these was perhaps his most famous and most lauded ground-breaking score for King Kong (1933) not included in this compilation).
The suites on these CDs are taken from materials, including the original film soundtracks, laid down in the early 1930s so they are in recorded in that era’s more constricted mono sound. But the ear soon becomes accustomed and the listener is rewarded by a full appreciation of the genuine Steiner sound.
[Listeners can hear highlights of some of Max Steiner’s greatest scores in modern stereo sound, including The Informer, on RCA Victor GD80136 (original LP release, 1973) – ‘Now Voyager Classic Film Scores of Max Steiner’ recorded by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra].
One of the most interesting tracks in this compilation is the second bonus of CD2 in which we hear the voice of Max Steiner rehearsing the sweet sentimental cue that is Brave Little Women’ from the Katherine Hepburn film Little Women.
The first CD begins with the arresting Main Title music for the 1931 Academy Award winning western, Cimarron that starred Richard Dix and Irene Dunne. Here in the space of just over two minutes Steiner states one of those memorable, heroic marches that would become one of his trade marks, and establishes time and locale by the inclusion of that type of Indian war-cry music that would be another Steiner fingerprint - and cantering-paced traditional cavalry tune material. This relatively sparse contribution to Cimarron would set a pattern for so many other westerns.
Symphony of Six Million also had another memorable noble march for its Main Title a theme that would wend through variations of many moods according to the twists of the plot. This was a breakthrough film for its producer, the great David O’Selznick, who encouraged the studio’s thinking to progress beyond a minimal assortment of themes to enable Steiner to develop an extended score. The film, based on a Fannie Hurst tear-jerking novel of love, sacrifice, struggle and eventual success against an ethnic background, related the tale of a brilliant Jewish doctor who abandons his ghetto clinic for a more lucrative practice uptown before he rediscovers his roots. Here, Steiner established the pattern that would recur in most of his subsequent RKO scores: leitmotifs for all the main characters with variations and one theme dominating the Main Title and the balance of the score. The music is sometimes reminiscent of Liszt and Wagner and utilises traditional Jewish music. The notes that accompany the album indicate how Steiner collaborated with his long-time orchestrator, Bernhard Kaun.
Bird of Paradise was another landmark film score with music played almost continuously from beginning to end. It was an exotic production with a Hawaiian location. It starred Joel McCrea as an American sailor whose romance with a native girl (Dolores Del Rio) violates tribal taboos and precipitates tragedy. Steiner striving for authenticity, hired Hawaiian musicians and singers to add spice to an already sumptuous tropical score that included shimmering strings and sultry Hawaiian guitars; and music suggestive of exotic birdsong, the comic drunkenness of one of the sailors, the menace of a shark and turbulent storms etc.
Sweepings, starring Lionel Barrymore, was a somewhat downbeat multi-generational saga about the owners of a departmental store. Steiner’s theme ‘The Store’ dominates the score. The music is playful, sweetly sentimental, and melodramatic (‘Mother’s Death’) with some unashamed mickey-mousing’.
Morning Glory won Katherine Hepburn her first Academy Award. She played a hopeful young actress who endures disappointments in her ultimately successful bid for a career on Broadway. Steiner created a lovely waltz for her character that nicely expresses her gentility. (The waltz bears a close resemblance to that used in the ballroom scene in Jezebel (1938), the Warner Bros film, again scored by Steiner, that would win an Academy Award for Bette Davis.). The waltz is treated to show her quiet determination and the highlight of the score, the cue ‘Romeo and Juliet’, is richly, persuasively and sensitively scored as Eva plied with drink is persuaded to recite Shakespeare.
The first CD concludes with a short suite of two cues from the Leslie Howard and Bette Davis vehicle Of Human Bondage based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel about a young man’s self-destructive obsession with a cheap tart played by Davis in her breakthrough role. Steiner’s Main Title has an opening flourish that anticipates his score for The Foutainhead and sets the action in a glamorous Paris (with taxi cab noises and a reference to the Marseillaise and sophisticated café music) but is mainly concerned with the sweet ‘Mildred’s theme. Sweet, plaintive, sentimentality pervades ‘Norah’, the other short cue.
CD2 is devoted to two Steiner scores for pictures starring the great Katherine Hepburn: films of Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and Sir James M. Barrie’s The Little Minister. This is Steiner in sentimental mood, his music is unabashedly sentimental played with all the stops out and plentiful use of rubati and portamenti.
Little Women’s Main Title beginning with harpsichord chords leading into a sweet, demure setting of the Josephine (played by Hepburn) theme soon gives way to the brashness of Civil War songs immediately stating time and locale. (Steiner would repeat this effect in his Gone With the Wind score). Another prominent theme is that for Beth the sickly sister; it is heard in a variety of colours especially when sombre minor variations give way to joy as she enjoys a temporary recovery.
One of the most striking and amusing tracks is the tongue-in-cheek melodramatic ‘watch out for the dastardly villain’ music Steiner uses for the play the sisters put on, ‘The Witches Curse’ that employs the most outrageously cheeky glissandi and takes off Rossini’s William Tell music. Attractive period-style waltzes and polkas are dotted through the score all uninhibitedly played.
The Little Minister is a fey tale set in Scotland and it represents Steiner at his lush sentimental best. The score makes use of a number of well known Scottish folk melodies but cleverly arranged so that they glitter and enhance the storyline (beautiful use is made – as in Little Women – of the harp). As usual Steiner employs a variety of themes used as leitmotifs, often used in counterpoint to delineate different characters. Babbit (Hepburn) the supposed gypsy girl who transforms Gavin Dishart, the minister, and his community’. Babbit, Gavin and their love are all allotted strong individual themes, the latter reaching a powerful emotional crescendo in ‘Babbit and the Minister at the Well’.
The opening glisten of the Main Title immediately suggests a fairy-tale-like magic. The main romantic theme, one of Steiner’s loveliest tunes, is wrought in the Scottish tradition. There is wry humour too especially in the drone-like music for Wearyworld the policeman and darker shadings over the sentimentality for ‘The Minister Wounded’.
The fourth CD is devoted to two sturdy masculine dramas. The Informer, starring Victor McLaglen, Margot Graham and Preston Foster, and directed by John Ford, gained Steiner the first of his Academy Awards and is represented here by an eleven-track 31½ minute suite. Set in Dublin, in the early 1920s, the years of struggle against English domination, it is a dark score befitting a Judas-like tale of betrayal of a colleague-in-arms by the anti-hero Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) for money so that he and his girl Katie, might escape to America. Steiner uses a grimly black relentless march to represent Gypo and its feminine inversion for his girl friend Katie that is expressed in a variety of colours depending on the context (e.g. with a bluesy saxophone or by strings and harp for her intimate moments with Gypo). Gypo’s theme is developed and used to make musical associations between Gypo and the rest of the characters. The warmest, most sympathetic music is reserved for, the victim’s sister Mary (played by Heather Angel) while the source music, the traditional ‘The Wearing of the Green’ represents Frankie and the rebels. A dissonant descending four-note progression signifies the tainted money. The score closes with a moving chorus signifying Forgiveness’ for a shot showing Gypo being pursued into a church. Steiner had the advantage of conferring with screenwriter, Dudley Nichols before the film’s production and was very meticulous in his scoring so much so that at one point he spent ages timing his music to coincide with every drip of water that falls on McGlagen on his prison cell.
But the main part of the second CD is devoted to the music for another, earlier John Ford film, The Lost Patrol, another bleak story, this time an adventure film set in Mesopotamia during the First World War when a patrol of British soldiers is lost in the desert and picked off one-by-one by off-screen Arab snipers. The cast is headed by Victor McLaglen as the sergeant and Boris Karloff,cast against type, as the religious fanatic, Sanders.
Steiner’s score for The Lost Patrol won him an Oscar nomination. It was the first purely dramatic score to be so nominated. Only when the film was completed was Steiner approached to write the music. At first it was intended that only the first reel was to be scored but when it was seen how superbly Steiner’s music enhanced the film, its release date was pushed back so that the composer could proceed to score the whole film. His music, for me one of the best of his RKO years, brilliantly deepens and intensifies the drama. Belying the intense pressure Steiner and his arrangers must have worked under to complete the music, it does not sound scimped or rushed. On the contrary, Steiner took pains to maximize his orchestral colours. Take for example his use of droning woodwinds to suggest bagpipes (as they had done also in The Little Minister) and his instruction to the chorus to sing in cupped hands to suggest a moaning, scouring desert wind. On hearing this suite, the listener will be immediately struck by the familiar-sounding ‘Arab’ theme for Steiner would use it again, eight years later, over at Warner Bros., as the Main Title music for Casablanca. Strains of his The Charge of the Light Brigade march will also be recognised. As might be expected a military march is strongly featured, first proud and patriotic, then weary and despairing. Bugle calls are heard throughout, imaginatively coloured, at one point ‘trumpeted in the hat’ and often suggesting the ‘Last Post’. Much of the music refers to the characters and backgrounds of the individual doomed soldiers. Gentleman soldier, Brown (Reginald Denny) in ‘Memories of Malaysia’ has a rollicking urbane theme (reminiscent of the swagger of Steiner’s Charge of the Light Brigade music), Sanders has a prayer-like motif that darkens and becomes desperate as, in his madness, he rushes from the protection of the trench to his death. Pearson, the idealist is represented by a harmonica rendition of ‘Pack up your troubles’ and noble material that, in its continued usage, ensures his ideals linger on after his death. The sergeant is the only man left when rescue ultimately arrives; his thoughts of home are represented by waltz music and by measures reminiscent of a music box that suggests small children in the nursery.
The accompanying 72-page booklet is a mine of information about the films featured in this compilation (with many advertising poster illustrations as well as a number of studio production photos showing Max Steiner at work in the RKO Music Department). There are notes about all the scores together with a succinct introductory background article by James D’Arc, Curator, Brigham Young University Film Music Archives, and a remembrance of Max Steiner essayed by Louise Steiner Elian who was the harpist in the RKO Studio Orchestra and was married to Max from 1936 to 1946.
A compilation that no student of the earliest days of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Film Music can afford to ignore.