Music Webmaster Len Mullenger



Max STEINER Distant Drums; South of St Louis; Cloak and Dagger; My Girl Tisa   2CDs SCREEN ARCHIVES SAE –CSR –0001 [103:00]



I had been campaigning for years for the release of Max Steiner’s music from Distant Drums so I have to confess that I was predisposed to like this album. I remember being so stunned by the music when I saw the film back in the early 1950s, that I sat through the movie twice just to hear the music again. (Despite Ray Fiola’s rather harsh view of the film itself, I remember thoroughly enjoying its fabulous Florida Everglades locations and non-stop action; but, then, my critical faculties were rather immature.)

Distant Drums is one of four Steiner scores on this double album dedicated to United States Film Productions - an independent production unit operating on the Warner Bros. lot and having their product distributed by Warners. Max Steiner’s scores are clearly under the influence of the ‘parent’ studio for they carry that unmistakable Warner Bros sound.

For Distant Drums, Max wrote one of his most exciting scores highlighted by one of his most inspired heroic march themes - that for Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper looking very dashing in buckskins and sporting that distinctive banded headgear). Supporting Wyatt’s theme, are other strong themes for the well-meaning if inept Lt Tufts (played by a rather wooden Richard Webb) and for the Everglades itself. The former is another stirring march motif and the latter a broad melody suggesting the beauty of the location. This melody, however, is never allowed to flower properly because it is shot through with a Seminole motif and other menacing material to suggest lurking danger from Indians and alligators. For comic relief, a lugubrious hornpipe motif underscores the naval lieutenant’s gaffes. Spanish-type rhythms are also heard in the Fortress episodes, sometimes assertively sometimes furtively as when Quincy’s men attack by stealth. Steiner’s music for the Seminole Indians is vividly and colourfully scored. As usual with any action movie that Max scored, the music races along and the tension is screwed up notch by notch. What a shame that the music from the last two reels of this film has been lost. A succession of themes for this part of the film has been reconstructed (presumably by John Morgan?)

The other major western score is that for South of St Louis (1948) that starred Joel McCrea, Zachary Scott, Alexis Scott, Dorothy Malone, Alan Hale and that oily villain Victor Jory. Again, this was a screenplay full of action with a rather more dubious hero than was the norm in those days. Steiner responds with another robust, rip-roaring score with music that races headlong or lumbers at the pace of the covered wagons. Listening to this music, I was once again impressed how Steiner can respond to lightening changes of scene and mood with equally speedy yet smooth musical gear changes, and how he can suggest so many moods and events simultaneously. The showdown gunfight is masterly, percussive piano doubling timps to strike a stark, dramatic rhythm as well as screwing up the tension. For me, only Tiomkin using similar techniques in his western scores, could equal this type of writing. The score uses a number of source tunes like ‘Dixie’ and ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ appropriate to its Civil War setting. Other strong points: Steiner’s use of Latin themes and rhythms for the Matamoras (Mexico) settings and his striking arrangement of the popular La Paloma.

Only the overture of Cloak and Dagger (1946) is included. It is a sombre march implying intrigue and espionage before the music moves into a more upbeat mode suggesting victory.

My Girl Tisa (1948) was more kindly received by the critics. It starred Lili Palmer, Sam Wanamaker, Alan Hale and Akim Tamiroff. It was about an immigrant girl in New York in the 1890s who falls for an aspiring politician. She is threatened with deportation when her attempts to bring her father into the country from Hungary cause conflict with a dastardly white slaver.

With the exception of Distant Drums, all these excerpts commence with the Warner Bros. imposing fanfare composed by Max Steiner. (Max thought it inappropriate for Distant Drums.) I make this point because it is always a marvel how Max manages to modulate this fanfare so well and so smoothly into the Main Titles themes of his scores. For My Girl Tisa, Max’s main theme is one of his loveliest sweepingly romantic creations. Immediately afterwards we hear Max’s take on the type of melody one would hear being whistled in the streets or sung in the music halls of turn-of –the-century New York followed by caring, compassionate motifs associated with Tisa. Darker material denotes the evil machinations of Tescu. Steiner cleverly uses harps and zither to create a warm sentimental Hungarian atmosphere (after all he came from Vienna so this was home territory).

The packaging for this production is excellent. Despite my little carp above, Ray Faiola’ notes, including a full track-by-track analysis, are excellent. Ray reminds us that United States Productions also released Pursued, Marjorie Morningstar (both scored by Max Steiner) and The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (boldly scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). Let’s hope that Screen Archives are considering releasing these?

Finally, seeing John Morgan’s name amongst the credits, I wonder if he might also consider a new modern recording - a Max Steiner compilation album to include the best of Distant Drums, together with The Hanging Tree and several other of Steiner’s western scores such as The Oklahoma Kid, The Lion and the Horse and Silver River?


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

Return to Index