David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
The music of KING KONG, the film score that began the second period in movie music, was almost not written at all. In the early Thirties, RKO Studio was in trouble--RKO was always in trouble! Most of the musical staff had been laid off, and Max Steiner had been asked to assume operation of the department with a drastically reduced budget: the limit for any picture was a three-hour recording session with a maximum of ten musicians. The Studio had no stage set aside for music recording; so, on whatever stage was available, whichever sound mixer (musically literate or not) was free would set up four large wooden panels to act as reflecting surfaces. Usually, only one rather primitive microphone was used, so that placement was crucial. In those days there were no immediate playbacks to check for accuracy of performance; the optical film was developed overnight, and the music department personnel hoped for the best.
1933: a group of visionaries and special-effects wizards were expending some 430,000 of RKO's dwindling dollars on a picture about a gigantic ape. The director was Ernest B. Schoedsack. When the movie was ready for music, the Studio's president, a prudent man, took one look at the footage and decreed that there was no reason to throw good money after bad. His orders to the composer were explicit: No recording. "Use some music tracks we already have." As it happens, this composer (who is the subject of our story) had also written the music for nearly all of the Studio's recent pictures, and therefore knew that there were very few forty-foot apes in any of them. "Old music tracks!" he cried, "For God's sake, Ben, what am I gonna use-music from LITTLE WOMEN?"
If this were reel (instead of real) life, you would now hear the sound of distant bugles, and we would cut to John Wayne leading a troop of cavalry to the rescue. What actually happened back there in '33 may have been less dramatic, but it was no less effective. Into the breach stepped an extraordinary personage named Merian C. Cooper-adventurer, explorer, news correspondent, combat pilot, visionary, co-producer with Schoedsack of GRASS -and KING KONG was his baby. Cooper said the magic words, which I quote: "Maxie, go ahead and score the picture ... and don't worry about the cost, because I will pay for the orchestra." And so he did, to the tune of fifty thousand dollars-an enormous sum to expend on music then; and to hear him tell it, it was worth every dime. The music meant everything to that picture, and the picture meant everything to RKO, because it saved the Studio from bankruptcy
The impact of KING KONG on the moviegoing public was astonishing. It emerged into a country frightened, impoverished, in the grip of the Great Depression. Yet, on the very day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks and declared a moratorium-a period of grace on the repayment of debts-the following advertisement appeared in a New York City newspaper: "No money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in 4 days to see KING KONG at Radio City, setting a new all-time world's record for attendance at any indoor attraction."
What kind of man was it who, in a period that began in 1929 and ended in 1971, composed and/or conducted the music of some three hundred films? Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in 1888 into a remarkable Viennese family. His grandfather owned a famous theatre in which he produced operettas of the kind for which Vienna is celebrated. His father built the great Ferris wheel which is called the Riesenrad, and his mother owned three of Vienna's favorite restaurants. Max's godfather was Richard Strauss, no less, and among the family friends were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss, Jr. With such auspicious lineage, it is small wonder that the boy was a prodigy; but before he could begin a career in music he had to enroll for a while at the Vienna School of Technology. Eventually he entered the Imperial Academy of Music; among his teachers was Gustav Mahler.
After completing the Academy's eight-year curriculum-in one year- Max was awarded their gold medal. He was then 15 years old. Within a year he had written the book, lyrics and music of a musical comedy, "The Beautiful Greek Girl," which ran for another year, with Max conducting the orchestra. From then on, his career had its ups and downs in a manner we have been led to expect. "Led to expect"--by what? By movies about the lives of composers-that's what.
Steiner came to Hollywood in 1929 and remained there for 42 years, during which he worked, sometimes as conductor or arranger, sometimes as both, but principally as composer. His record is unparalleled; it includes music for: KING KONG, OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE INFORMER, THE GARDEN OF ALLAH, THE LETTER, DARK VICTORY, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, THE BIG SLEEP, THE FOUNTAINHEAD, SERGEANT YORK, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, A STAR IS BORN, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, GONE WITH THE WIND, A SUMMER PLACE, NOW VOYAGER, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, CASABLANCA, THE CAINE MUTINY.
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author