Historian of Horror : Max and the 8th Wonder

Before the movies found their voice in 1927, sheet music was sent out to theaters with the cans full of film, so whatever accompanist was available could play along on the house piano or organ and thus provide what we now think of as the film score. A few of the bigger theaters had full orchestras. One assumes that they received more than one copy. One might be incorrect, but oh, well.

Even after the movies began to talk, most cinemas still had pianists and organists on staff, so the sheet music still went out because few films had scores added to the soundtracks. Musicals had the songs and incidental music, of course, usually adapted from whatever Broadway production they were based on, but many films have peculiar stretches of silence where modern viewers are used to hearing music written specifically for the picture.

In fact, the lack of a score can be so jarring to the modern ear that Hitchcock deliberately made The Birds without one, to heighten the tension.

Works, doesn’t it?

It was 1933 before it occurred to anyone to create a film score that would flow with and even punctuate the action on screen. The picture was King Kong, and the genius who essentially invented a whole new genre of music was the Austrian-born composer, Max Steiner.

After a successful theatrical music career in Europe, Steiner came to the United States at the beginning of the First World War. After a rough start – being as how he was flat broke when he arrived – he found work on Broadway as orchestrator, composer, and musical director for a fair number of big hits on the Great White Way. He was hired on by RKO Pictures in 1929 and went west, to Hollywood. There, he composed fairly generic scores for the few films being made with original music, but nothing on the scale of his first great creation, the magnificent score for King Kong.

Remember the strident violins in Psycho during the shower scene? The whole of Kong is like that, where every action gets its punctuating chord accompanying it. For example, when the native king (the great Noble Johnson, whose career deserves a major examination in a future column) notices the crew of the good ship Venture intruding on his ceremony, Sharp! Staccato! Chords! mark the occasion. In most films, the score is barely noticed except when it’s absent. In King Kong, it’s practically a character unto itself, a sort of Greek chorus, and nobody before Max Steiner had ever done that. And thanks to the wonders of the internet, the entire soundtrack can be found here. Enjoy!

Under the old Hollywood system of the Golden Age, there were eight major studios ranked according to funding, distribution, influence, sales, star power, etc. RKO was at or near the bottom of the pile for its entire history. King Kong represented a huge outlay for them. Fortunately, everything about the film was revolutionary, and that paid off. It was the biggest money making film of all time until Gone With the Wind six years later. The special effects might seem quaint now, but they were state of the art, not only at the time but for more than thirty years beyond. It flows quickly through its 100-minute running time (104, including Steiner’s wonderful overture), with a pace that many later films, including the 2005 remake, would do well to emulate. A pace that, by the way, is helped along by the score, one of the greatest in film history.

After King Kong, RKO stayed afloat for the rest of the decade on the earnings from a string of dance musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They hired theater and radio wunderkind, Orson Welles, to make Citizen Kane in 1940, which did not turn out as well for them as it should have. Producer Val Lewton made a batch of wonderfully inventive, low-budget horror pictures in the early 1940s that will get some well-deserved attention here someday. Despite the occasional major success and a distribution deal with Walt Disney Productions, RKO was out of business by 1959. 

But King Kong lives on. If you ever have the chance, see the movie on a big screen. Tell me you don’t shed a little tear when the giant ape falls from the pinnacle of the Empire State Building to the accompaniment of the music Max Steiner created. 

I know I do.

 

Our lagniappe is another stray artifact of the Hound of the Baskervilles. German Schlager duo Cindy und Bert set the tale of the Sherlockian pooch to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Because why not? Crank it up to eleven!

 

Until next time, you gorgeous gluttons of le grand guignol

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

 

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