“The Father of Film Music”… How’s that for a moniker to live up to? I don’t know when or where that title was given to Max Steiner, or whether it gave him pause or not. Probably not. But few titles are more apropos. Sure, there was film music prior to Steiner’s arrival in Hollywood. But his score for KING KONG in 1933 arguably “invented” the modern film score and set a new standard for dramatic film music.
This month celebrates the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND, arguably Steiner’s most famous score. So what better time to honor the Father of Film Music with a “9 on the 9th” post of his own?
Steiner gets a bad rap these days from non-Golden Age lovers (and probably from some GA fans as well). Complaints about the wall-to-wall scoring and Mickey Mousing are all valid issues in Steiner’s music. But film music in the 1930s and ’40s was still finding its way in the sound era, and to dismiss these films and scores because of a learning curve on the part of the filmmakers is doing a disservice to some of the best films ever made. And those complaints lobbied at Steiner’s expense? They’re still prevalent in today’s film music, and I doubt there’s a composer out there who hasn’t been “guilty” of one or both (or more) of these at some point in his/her career. So it’s time we as fans cut Steiner some slack and view his music as a product of its time, but one that still holds up remarkably well over half a century later.
Steiner was never less than a superb melodist and top-notch dramatist, and these nine scores support that rather broad, sweeping statement. With so many classic films to choose from, narrowing down the list to nine was, as usual, difficult. But all nine of these scores (and many beyond this list) have brought and continue to bring me years of enjoyment, some thirty-odd years after discovering film music’s titular father figure.
9. THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (1950)
Mandolin gives Italian flavor to the galloping main theme from this costumer in Medieval Lombardy as a Robin Hood-like figure (Burt Lancaster) and his loyal followers fight against their Hessian conquerors. Lancaster, a former acrobat with the Kay Brothers circus, is at his athletic best. It may not match the best of the earlier Errol Flynn swashbucklers, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, thanks in no small part to Steiner’s rousing music.
8. THE INFORMER (1935)
Director John Ford’s first Oscar also brought Steiner the first of his three Oscars, and the first purely dramatic score to win the award. (1934’s ONE NIGHT OF LOVE featured underscoring based mainly on famous opera tunes.) Based on the 1925 novel by Liam O’Flaherty, Victor McLaglen stars as the brutish Gypo who informs on his best friend, a member of the Irish Republican Army, in order to collect the reward money and sail to America with his girlfriend. Bleak and atmospheric, the film plays out in the mists and shadows of war-torn Ireland. Steiner’s music is appropriately dark, with brass chords that plod alongside Gypo’s grief-stricken tread. The choral redemption finale is particularly moving.
7. THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944)
If Mark Twain stretched the truth, so did the filmmakers in this historically shaky, yet thoroughly entertaining, biopic. Fredric March makes a fine Twain, but Steiner’s Americana score rises above the Hollywood-isms to create something truly special. Based on a four-note call of “Mark Twa-a-ain” (yes, four) that is called on the riverboats of Twain’s early career, the music is steeped in 19th-century harmonies and banjo strummings. Throw in some unlikely, and delightful, bassoon solos, and you have one of Steiner’s underappreciated jewels.
6. CASABLANCA (1943)
There’s no such thing as a perfect film, but CASABLANCA comes pretty damn close. The perfect (oh, there’s that word again!) marriage of acting, direction and script, the film is simply ageless, emotionally involving no matter how many times you see it, and able to withstand the closest of scrutiny. The score is often mistaken as nothing more than rehashing “As Time Goes By” over and over again, though Steiner never wanted to use the tune. But in the hands of a pro like Steiner, something so seemingly insignificant as a source cue is skillfully and subtly woven into the score, and a decade-old song becomes not only a standard, but movie musical magic.
5. LIFE WITH FATHER (1947)
This delightful adaptation of the long-running stage hit stars William Powell as the imperious, yet loveable, head of his exasperating, carrot-topped family. Steiner’s score weaves in period tunes like “Sweet Genevieve” into a sweet, sentimental score. With a charming main theme that clip-clops along with the horse-drawn carriages of turn-of-the-century New York, Steiner’s music is a major holy grail of mine that I hope sees the light of day at some point.
4. THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936)
Popular CAPTAIN BLOOD co-stars Errol and Olivia de Havilland reteamed for this recreation of the famous charge of the Crimean War, based loosely on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem. The score is one of Steiner’s finest, weaving in quotes of “Rule Brittania” with a memorable march for the British soldiers and rousing (and frightfully difficult) action cues that give the orchestra musicians a real workout. Tribute Film Classic’s restoration of the complete score is definitely worth an honored slot on your shelf.
3. JOHNNY BELINDA (1948)
Jane Wyman’s Oscar-winning performance as a raped deaf mute who must contend with the reactions of her seaside Nova Scotia town grounds the film with lovely, understated work. Steiner rises to her level, contributing a score of heartbreaking tenderness and, on occasion, brutal cruelty. The sweet theme on celeste for the baby captures Belinda’s maternal instincts and inherent goodness.
2. NOW, VOYAGER (1942)
Steiner’s second Oscar is a prime example of the kind of melodramas that Warner Bros. did best. Containing one of Bette Davis’ signature performances as the ugly duckling who turns into a swan away from her overbearing mother (the superb Gladys Cooper), Steiner’s music contains enough drama for three scores. Anchored by one of Steiner’s most famous themes, the score surges passionately in the strings as Davis’ mousy Charlotte finds love from within and without. The drama is beautifully played and that memorable theme tugs at the heartstrings.
1. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Whether you like or hate the film–or like or hate the music–you have to give Steiner credit for pulling together such an intricate, interwoven tapestry of musical invention. Weaving together 11 primary themes and numerous period tunes, Steiner’s musically rich score is dramatic and engaging from beginning to end. Anchored by “Tara’s Theme,” arguably the most famous theme in film music, Steiner and his crackerjack music department (which included orchestrators Hugo Friedhofer and Adolph Deutsch) had only 12 weeks to compose and orchestrate the lengthy score. What emerged was a true film music classic, number one on my list and one of the top film scores ever written.