MAX STEINER: Maestro of Movie Music

A pleasure to see the new documentary,”Max Steiner:Maestro of Movie Music” thanks to The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers.

Shown in a live stream, with discussion afterwards with the program’s maker, Diana Friedberg plus  Stephen C. Smith, John Morgan , William Stromberg – and an opportunity for fans to ask questions.

Max Steiner (1888-1971) worked on over 300 films and literally became the sound of Hollywood in its early years.

Leonard Maltin made the point that it was Steiner who convinced Hollywood about using music in non- musicals, as underscoring and character…

Max Steiner was brought up in Vienna and had the finest education  and mingled in the best of Viennese society. His father, Gabor ran entertainment venues and Max’s musical talents were encouraged.
At the outbreak of WW1, Max was in London and decided to leave for America. He began directing Broadway orchestras in 1916. He orchestrated and conducted the music of Victor Herbert, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin 

With the birth of sound in Hollywood, Steiner was the perfect candidate to come to Hollywood and bring  his Broadway know-how.

Before the sound era, there was music accompanying films, whether just a piano , organ or ,in the case of movie palaces in the silent era, a full orchestra. Music was selected to fit the film – the classics were raided. There was very little original music.

At the age of 41, he came to RKO in 1929. He worked on the Astaire/Rogers musicals, arranging and conducting the studio orchestra. He was head of music at RKO for from 1930 to 1936.

Max Steiner.

Max saw the potential of supplementing an actor’s  performance with musical underscoring. With the advent of the talkies, producers initially didn’t think the public would accept music without seeing its source.

When RKO hired 29 year old David O. Selznick , Max found a kindred spirit who was willing to experiment.

David Selznick,Max Steiner

”Cimarron’ had a limited amount of music – the opening and closing titles, plus the final scene only.

Stephen Smith commented: ”Symphony for Six Million” (1932) had a full underscoring , with Steiner carefully writing music under the dialogue.

With KING KONG, Steiner created such a haunting theme for Kong that the music alone drew the audience’s sympathy to the animal.  The film’s music only begins when the fantasy begins – when they reach Skull Island.
Sound engineer Murray Spivak worked closely with the composer, creating a wonderfully dramatic soundtrack.

KING KONG was a huge success.

Steiner conducting the RKO orchestra of over 40 musicians.


Max on the RKO lot with Mark Sandrich, Fred Astaire


Director Michael Curtiz was full of praise for Max’s “Casablanca “score:

”Dear Max, We previewed “Casablanca” last night. Congratulations to you for marvellous music perfectly  catching all moods and drama. This is your  best and most brilliantly conceived work. Thanks. Mike Curtiz.”



Head of Warner Brothers,  Jack  Warner appreciated Steiner’s work and would often send him a telegram as shown above in which he says:

Dear Max, The rescoring  of “Key Largo” was magnificent , and certainly did a lot for the picture. I want you  to know I appreciate it.”


Daniel Selznick

So interesting to see an interview with David Selznick’ s son Daniel who told a lovely story about visiting the house Max has lived in , then owned by Glenn Ford.
Daniel stood inside and thought about the times he had visited Max, and he speculated on the music that may have been written there.


Max and his fourth wife Lee; and with his son Ronny ( who sadly committed suicide.)


David Selznick asked Max to score GONE WITH THE WIND. As Max was under contract to  Jack Warner, he wrote a letter to Warner explaining how important it was to him to do this film:

“……I’m perfectly willing to do Gone With The Wind on leave of absence or under my contract. But it is necessary for me, my pride,my standing and my future activity to do Gone With The Wind, as it is necessary for an actor to get a break once in while….”

Thankfully, Warner agreed.

Max and Selznick parted when Max joined Warner Brothers   in 1937.  But Selznick knew Steiner was the man to do GONE WITH THE WIND two years later.
Amazingly, G.WT.W.was only one of a number of films Max wrote the music for in 1939.

Amidst all the Oscars showered on “Gone With The Wind”, the only omission was Steiner’s classic  score.
Still, he made up for it with Since You Went Away which had  nine nominations and only one win – for Steiner!

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett.


Dooley Wilson, Ingrid Bergman.CASABLANCA

Max was reluctant to use the 1931 song, As Time  Goes By’ for CASABLANCA, but David Selznick insisted.

The historic song was written by Herman Hupfeld for the Broadway show, “ Everybody’s Welcome” and was,originally sung by Frances Williams. It was recorded in 1931 by Rudy Vallee, and at the time of “Casablanca “, Warners released the Vallee recording again, as a musicians strike meant they could not record Dooley Wilson.

Frances Williams


Max leaves a playful note for his arranger,  Hugo Friedhofer.

Dear Hugo, Thanks for everything. I am very pleased with you!   From Herman Hupfeld.”

Warner Brothers would subsequently use ‘As Time Goes By’ as a signature tune  for many advertising campaigns.

The original lyrics had a  verse which  was  not used in Casablanca:

“This day and age we’re living in, Gives cause for apprehension,

With speed and new invention, And things like third dimension,

Yet we get a trifle weary, With Mister  Einstein’s theory,

So we must get down to Earth, At times relax, relieve the tension……..

No matter what the progress, Or what may yet be proved.

The similar facts of life are such, They cannot be removed.”

Chorus: “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss…….



Edward G. Robinson

Max took no screen credit for his music for “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in case relatives and friends in Europe would be targeted.


In a rare 1965 television interview shown in the documentary, Max himself talks about his working  methods:

“When a picture is finished, I watch it and ‘spot’  my music and time  it….. I run the picture reel by reel again.”

“Music can help a picture but it cannot save it.”


The sheer variety of films which Max wrote for. I particularly like the theme from Ann Sheridan’s THE UNFAITHFUL.
According to records, he wrote the music for 18 Bette Davis films, 14 for Errol Flynn, and 14 for  Humphrey Bogart. His output really was phenomenal. Small wonder Bette Davis called him her favourite composer.

In his first decade at Warner Brothers, he averaged about 8 scores a year. Music just poured out of him.



Max’s song , ‘It can’t  Be Wrong’ makes it into the Hit Parade.

Barbara Stanwyck makes the cover in “Lady Of Burlesque.”

The documentary has Michael Feinstein singing “It Can’t Be Wrong”.

At the age of 71, Max had a massive hit with the title song for “A Summer Place”, with lyrics by Mack  Discant and recorded by Percy Faith.

Max’s  royalties  ended his financial struggles ( caused by gambling and alimony payments.) Max and fellow composers had fought and won the battle for royalties when their music was played.

A shame he never conducted his music on the concert platform, aside from one concert with the New York Philharmonic which didn’t go well- Max felt the musicians didn’t appreciate his music.

(I’ll always remember seeing Elmer Bernstein  conduct his own music with the Scottish National Orchestra.


Not sure what the occasion is but I like this casual photo of Max with Claudette Colbert.


Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah has the Max Steiner Archives, donated by his wife Lee in  1981. The archive includes 250 of his film scores, plus his Oscars ( THE INFORMER, NOW VOYAGER, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY), plus original studio recordings and other memorabilia.

Max kept studio acetate recordings of around half of his films and ,together with his original musical scores, have enabled John Morgan and William Stromberg to recreate and record many of the Steiner scores.

Tribute Film Classics is a record label dedicated to preserving classic film scores.



Steven  C. Smith’s biography of Steiner is excellent.


A wonderful documentary and a labour of love by Diana Friedberg. Her husband Lionel does the commentary and an actor (Ray Faiola)voices Max Steiner’s comments from his unpublished autobiographical notes.

I hope it gets a wide showing. There is a dvd recording –


P.S. I found a radio interview Max did with the late writer Tony Thomas, and the following are some quotes from the maestro:

“In those days you did not use any music as underscoring – unless you  saw the source – an orchestra, piano – people will say, where ‘s the music coming from…”

“The hardest thing  for a motion picture scorer is to know where to start and where to stop….”

King Kong. It was a picture made for  music ……I think it put  music on the map….”

“It took me three months to write Gone With The Wind – in between I did another picture, Intermezzo. I loved Gone  With The Wind – my kind of story.”


7 responses »

  1. As always, a very fine post.

    A very merry Christmas to you and to all of the people who, Iike me, consistently enjoy this blog. 🎄🎅🎁

  2. Vienna, what a wonderful write-up of MAX STEINER MAESTRO OF MOVIE MUSIC. Whenever I think of Warner Bros. movies, I can hear Max Steiner’s memorable music.

    Vienna, I wish you a very MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    Best Wishes,

  3. Nice to see a comprehensive and appreciative blog post about Max – and the new documentary about him. His music typifies what I consider to be THE Golden Age of Hollywood – the 1930’s and 1940’s. I think in his time, Max was overworked and under appreciated by many. Only in the last couple of decades has his music been really loved by film fans – and lovers of great film music.

    A Merry Christmas to you, Vienna – and all your other blog readers.


  4. Chrisk, thanks. He wrote for some great films.
    Steve, your support is much appreciated .
    Walter, you are always a great booster. Thank you
    Siriami, I know how much you like Steiner’s music. As you say, he is now getting the credit he deserves.
    Best wishes for the holiday season.

  5. Without doubt, Steiner’s theme for “Gone With the Wind” is the most beautiful and moving title music ever written.

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