Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in Vienna, Austria, May 10, 1888. His grandfather, Maximillian Steiner, was a variety theater owner in Vienna. Max's father, Gabor Steiner, was an entrepreneur who, in 1894, saw Imre Kirhaly's extravagant exhibition "Venice in London" at the Olympic Hall in London. After returning to Vienna, Gabor bought the Imperial Garden in the Vienna Wurstel Prater from an English real estate speculator. He then hired architects Marmorek and Moser and sent them on a study trip to Venice. Two years later "Venice in Vienna" opened its doors and in 1897 along with the Giant "Riesenrad" Wheel (designed by British naval lieutenant Walter B. Basset and his partner Hitchens) as the show's main attraction. Gabor Steiner became one of Vienna's most prominent producers, bringing to the public the wonderful operettas of, among others, Johann Strauss.
A child prodigy, young Max Steiner completed the four year course of study at Vienna's Hochschule Music Academy in only one year. His professors included Gustav Mahler, Gustav Kirker and Felix Weingartner. At age 16 he composed the music for an original operetta, THE BEAUTIFUL GREEK GIRL. He presented it to his father but Gabor was not enthused. Max then took it to a competitor who agreed to stage it. Not only did Max conduct the opening night performance, but the show ran a year, much to the embarrasment of his father.
By age 20, having been hailed by no less a musical giant than John Phillip Sousa, Steiner was making a living as a professional conductor. He moved briefly to London and then on to New York, where he became one of the top orchestrators and conductors of Broadway musicals, a celebrity enjoyed by his eventual Hollywood colleague Alfred Newman. Steiner worked for the Schuberts, Florenz Ziegfeld, Victor Herbert and conducted original productions of shows by Berlin, Gershwin and Kern. In his unpublished autobiography, Steiner claims to have collaborated with Ferde Grofé on the orchestration of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
In 1929, while he was conducting SONS O' GUNS on Broadway, Steiner was hired by William LeBaron - head of production at RKO - to come to Hollywood and supervise the music for the studio's film version of Ziegfeld's RIO RITA. Steiner remained at the studio for the next seven years. One of his early triumphs was when he stepped in to write the music for CIMARRON, Jerome Kern having turned down the studio's offer to do same. Though Steiner received no screen credit the music was praised by critics. Steiner continued to write mostly main and end title music for RKO features for the next couple of years. At the same time, Alfred Newman, who had scored the Chaplin silent feature CITY LIGHTS, was experimenting with dramatic music for montage in Goldwyn's STREET SCENE. Dramatic music was making inroads.
In 1932 David O. Selznick, who was now in charge of production, wanted Steiner to provide music under several dramatic sequences of the Fannie Hurst story SYMPHONY OF SIX MILLION. Steiner scored one reel - where Gregory Ratoff undergoes an unsuccessful operation - and the reaction at the studio was euphoric. Max went on to score more than a third of the picture. Later that year, King Vidor's BIRD OF PARADISE was given a near-100% score by Steiner. Steiner had earned his mantle of The Dean of Film Music.
STEINER HIRED HARLING BUT ULTIMATELY REPLACED HIM
AS COMPOSER OF SCORE FOR THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
Steiner continued to compose innovative and endearing music at RKO. Hearkening to his Viennese heritage, he regularly employed waltz and march tempos and he approached his films with a Wagnerian leitmotif style of scoring. Multiple characters were often given their own themes, as were icons and ideals. MORNING GLORY with Katharine Hepburn features an astonishingly insightful cue where Steiner conveys the darkening of mood by Hepburn as she recites Hamlet's soliloquy.
Another Hepburn classic, LITTLE WOMEN, received an engaging score highlighted by the central theme "Josephine." The score was so perfectly matched to the material that when MGM remade the film in 1948, Adolph Deutsch (pictured at right with Max) adapted Steiner's material from the 1933 original.
Perhaps the greatest and longest-lasting contribution Max Steiner made to motion picture music is his 1933 score to KING KONG. A massive 75 minute work, the score features multiple themes and endless numbers of complicated agitato sequences. Most importantly, the music was able to aid the audience in suspending believability and, most extraordinarily, engendering sympathy for Kong. The score received high praise from many of the critics of the day, who invariably neglected to mention a film's score in their reviews. In his autobiography MEMOIRS OF AN AMNESIAC, Oscar Levant said that he always felt that KING KONG should have been billed as Music by Max Steiner with accompanying pictures. Levant and many other critics and observers credit Steiner's music as being responsible for at least 25% of the success of KING KONG.
Also in 1933 Steiner supervised the music for the first of several films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In fact, his last film for RKO was FOLLOW THE FLEET. Other notable RKO scores included THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?, MELODY CRUISE, CHRISTOPHER STRONG, OF HUMAN BONDAGE, SWEEPINGS, TOPAZE, THE LOST PATROL, THE INFORMER (Academy Award), THE FOUNTAIN, THE GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT, SHE and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. OF HUMAN BONDAGE featured a musical illustration of the club-footed Leslie Howard. This effect was saluted by none other than Leopold Stokowski, himself a constant innovator who would help revolutionize motion picture sound recording in 1937 at Universal and in 1938 at Walt Disney Studios. John Ford's THE LOST PATROL was originally to be released only with main and end title and transition music cues. But the preview went poorly and it was decided to provide a comprehensive dramatic score. The success was such that Steiner received his first Academy nomination for the film. The next year, Steiner and Ford collaborated at the outset on deciding upon a musical approach to THE INFORMER. The result was an amazing marriage of histrionics, ethnic settings and subconscious musical effects. Steiner won his first Academy Award for THE INFORMER. This was also the film that was most often pointed to as an example of the term "Mickey-Mousing", a derisive description of music that directly accompanies the action on screen. Steiner was an unabashed innovator and employer of this technique but the results were always interesting and, most imporatantly, accessible to audiences. Steiner's music was never complicated or, as he liked to say, "decorative." He made a direct appeal to emotion, all the while subuordinating himself to the drama. H. Rider Haggard's SHE was filmed by KING KONG's Merian C. Cooper and Steiner provided extravagant, modernistic music with heralds and fanfares running all through the score. This was followed by THE THREE MUSKETEERS, another lengthy symphonic work (nearly 80 minutes of music) for which Steiner was given his first solo credit card on screen. With rare exception, Steiner would thereafter receive a solo credit title on all his non-musical films.
In 1936 Steiner left RKO to work for his former boss Selznick, who had opened his own studio Selznick International Pictures. After a promising start in which Steiner scored two major films in 1936, it was apparent that the pace at Selznick was going to be much slower than that to which Max had become accustomed. He was loaned to Warner Bros. to score THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and he made an instant and lifelong fan in Jack L. Warner. Next for Selznick was A STAR IS BORN directed by William Wellman. However, if ever Steiner had reason to jump ship this picture could have been it. An incurable meddler in every department, Selznick insisted that cues be dropped and entire musical sequences be tracked in from earlier films. It was at this point that Jack Warner dangled an offer and the composer grabbed it. Warner was able to buy Steiner's contract under the condition that Steiner be loaned back to Selznick for one picture per year. Thus began a thirty-year association with Warner Bros. where Max Steiner wrote one great score after another. In 1937 he wrote the famous Warner Fanfare, first heard by audiences in the continental comedy TOVARICH.
Memorable works that followed in the 30's and 1940's included ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, FOUR DAUGHTERS, FOUR WIVES (including "Symphony Moderne'), DARK VICTORY, DODGE CITY, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, CITY FOR CONQUEST (for which Steiner composed his "Magic Isle Symphony"), THE LETTER, DIVE BOMBER, ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN, SERGEANT YORK, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, CASABLANCA, NOW VOYAGER, WATCH ON THE RHINE, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, MILDRED PIERCE, SARATOGA TRUNK, THE BIG SLEEP, LIFE WITH FATHER, ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN, JOHNNY BELINDA, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, and THE FOUNTAINHEAD.
To satisfy his Selznick provision, Steiner was loaned back to write the music to GONE WITH THE WIND, a Herculean task that required benzedrine injections as the recording dates approached. In all, over 190 minutes of music was written, though some sequences were farmed out to Heinz Roemheld and Adolph Deutsch. One sequence by Franz Waxman was tracked in from an MGM feature, HIS BROTHER'S WIFE. Incredibly, while Steiner was doing this mammoth job for Selznick, the producer also had him adapt the music for INTERMEZZO. While GONE WITH THE WIND had dozens of themes, the most famous is, of course, "Tara." This theme was an outgrowth of a theme Steiner wrote the previous year for CRIME SCHOOL. It is heard in yet another variation in 1939's THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL. Steiner was one of the few contributors to GONE WITH THE WIND that did NOT receive an Academy Award (another was Mr. Gable). However, the tables turned in 1944 when everybody on the staff of SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was nominated and Steiner the only winner of the Oscar for that picture.
Steiner's incredible pace began to slow in the mid-1950's. By 1954 he was freelancing and doing only a couple of pictures per year. In 1958 he was more-or-less back at Warners exclusively scoring not only their more traditional feature films but also dabbling a bit in television. Some of Max's most notable scores of the 1950's include CAGED, THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, DISTANT DRUMS, THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA, SPRINGFIELD RIFLE, SO BIG, THE CAINE MUTINY, KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS, LAST COMMAND, HELEN OF TROY, THE SEARCHERS (a score later pilloried by John Ford as sounding like Attack of the Cossacks!), ESCAPADE IN JAPAN and JOHN PAUL JONES.
By the late 1950's the Steiners were in pretty poor financial shape and Max was admonished against giving out cases of brandy and cigars and keeping away from credit cards. However, all that changed when Steiner's theme song from A SUMMER PLACE became a million-seller hit. Through the years, Steiner had published many songs. Two of his most popular were "As Long As I Live" from SARATOGA TRUNK and "It Can't Be Wrong" from NOW, VOYAGER. The latter was used in seeemingly every other Warner Bros. cartoon but since it was a library title Steiner received no extra compensation. "Theme From A Summer Place", however, made the Steiners very comfortable for the rest of their lives. It is perhaps ironic that since Percy Faith's recording was the most popular in sales that many people assumed it was his song. This was a constant sore point with Steiner.
Steiner continued to score at Warners during the early 1960's, mostly for producer-director Delmer Daves, whose soap opera spectaculars were just the type of picture that Max liked to do best. In 1965, Steiner wrote a beautiful, lyrical score for the Walt Disney film THOSE CALLOWAYS. Upon return to Warners he scored a film for producer-director William Conrad, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE. As Steiner recalls, after the preview Conrad went up to Max and told him that his music ruined "his film." That was all Steiner needed to call it a day and the composer retired from scoring. Undoubtedly, the sore point must have been the potato-pipe theme Steiner wrote for the magician's rabbit who popped up - with his theme - at various points in the picture (even in the midst of a harrowing dream sequence). To this viewer's ear the theme sounds as if it were actually tracked in for several of its appearances and Steiner may not be the actual culprit. But the damage was done and TWO ON A GUILLOTINE sent Steiner packing. However, leisure did not agree with Max and when he learned that a new film about George Custer was being made he interviewed with one of the producers. Steiner was asked if he had ever scored a western. At that point, he realized he was definitely retired. Almost completely blind from gloucoma, Steiner lived out his few remaining years surrounded by his old friends and colleagues. The Dean of Film Music passed away on December 28, 1971. But the Max Steiner story does not end there.
In July of 1980, Brigham Young University's Fine Arts Curator James V. D'Arc met Mrs. Lee Steiner and suggested BYU as a repository for her late husband's collection of manuscripts, memorabilia and recordings. On April 16, 1981, the BYU Department of Music presented an evening of tribute to Max Steiner. The evening was hosted by BBC broadcaster and Steiner megafan Tony Thomas (Music For Films) and included a concert of several pieces performed by the BYU Symphony from the original orchestra parts. Also presented were several vocal performances of Steiner's most famous songs. The evening was a grand success and in June of 1981, BYU began to receive the Max Steiner collection. The entire Steiner acetate library has since been transferred to digital audio tape and has been undergoing full restoration by Chelsea Rialto Studios.
As license allows, BYU has produced for release through Screen Archives Entertainment a number of CD's of Max Steiner scores. With the exception of the first release, THE SEARCHERS, all have been restored and mastered by Chelsea Rialto Studios.**
Max Steiner continues to influence moviegoers and moviemakers alike. GONE WITH THE WIND is perpetually being restored and re-released and CASABLANCA is one of the most often viewed films of all time. While Steiner and his contemporaries studied with the Old Masters, film composers of today have been mostly influenced by the Movie Masters, of whom Max Steiner remains one of the most prolific and admired.
** In 2014, the BYUFMA series re-released, with new notes and artwork, THE SEARCHERS. This re-release was restored and newly produced by Chelsea Rialto Studios.