Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, February 4, 2021


MUSIC BY MAX STEINER: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer. Steven C. Smith. Oxford University Press; 2020. 

Gone with the Wind, Now Voyager, King Kong, Of Human Bondage, Charge of the Light Brigade, White Heat, The Fountainhead, Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, The Letter, Dark Victory, Jezebel, Angels with Dirty Faces, A Star is Born (1937) -- this barely scratches the list of the 241 scores composed by the great Austrian-born Max Steiner. This excellent, well-researched, and very thorough biography examines Steiner's family and early life in Vienna, his early years working on Broadway, the first pictures that he began scoring, up to his triumphs on such as Gone With the Wind (for which he did not win an Oscar and should have) and scores that did win Academy Awards, such as Since You Went Away, Now, Voyager and The Informer. Steiner clearly understood the importance of underscoring to bring out the emotional sub-text in motion pictures, a style that was later implemented by many other composers in Hollywood. At first, some people thought it was strange to hear, say, a symphonic orchestra in the middle of the desert, but eventually audiences came to appreciate the music blaring from the speakers while the actors did their thing onscreen. Music By Max Steiner looks at his various, often troubled, marriages, his problems with the studios and producers such as Selznick, his gambling and profligate spending which left him deeply in debt until, lo and behold, he actually composed a hit song with his theme from A Summer Place. The book also looks at the sad, tragic and all-too-brief life of his handsome only son, Ronald, who committed suicide at 21 (and was possibly gay). Steiner's music has complemented many great movies and enriched movies that even Steiner wished he hadn't had to work on, but although he occasionally wrote a less-than-compelling score, that didn't happen very often. My favorite Steiner theme: the sensitive and lovely waltz that signifies the relationship between Olivia de Havilland and George Brent in In This Our Life. (Author Smith doesn't comment on this, but with so very many movies to choose from it's inevitable that some of your favorites will be overlooked.) The book gets rather technical at times but that shouldn't blunt your enjoyment even if you're not a musicologist. 

Verdict: Excellent biography of a gifted composer whose life and work richly deserves to be re-examined. ****.                                                                                                                                                                                                         


angelman66 said...

Brilliant composer - so many glorious themes, for a variety of film genres. Loved how in GWTW and Since You Went Away (which I just wrote about), Steiner utilized the folk music of the time to give authentic flavor to his scores...

William said...

Yikes, I changed my email so I didn't get a notice of your latest post! I will rectify that asap!

So true about Steiner. Because of his use of folk music etc. it was wrongly asserted in some quarters that he "stole" from people, which is ridiculous. In everything from film scores to operas composers can "quote" from or be influenced by previous works. Most of Steiner's music was original.