“Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring – the producers were afraid the audience would ask ‘Where’s the music coming from?’ Unless they saw an orchestra or a radio or phonograph. But with this picture we proved scoring would work.” — Max Steiner, speaking about his score for Symphony of Six Million (1932)
Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner (“Max”) was born in Vienna, Austria on May 10, 1888, the only child of Gabor and Marie “Mitzi” Steiner, members of a Jewish theater dynasty. Max Steiner would later be known as the “father of film music.” Some of Hollywood’s most famous motion picture scores were composed by Steiner, including King Kong, Casablanca and Gone with the Wind.
Max Steiner grew up and was educated in Vienna. His paternal grandfather, Maximilian Steiner (1830-1880), for whom he was named, owned a famous operetta theater. His father, Gabor, was an impresario and inventor who built Vienna’s great Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, that still stands in the city’s Prater amusement park. Max’s mother owned three of Vienna’s favorite restaurants. His godfather was the famous Austrian composer Richard Strauss. Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss, Jr. were family friends.
Max was a musical prodigy (Wunderkind). After a brief time at the Vienna School of Technology, he pursued his musical interests at Vienna’s Academy of Music and the Performing Arts (Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst), where Gustav Mahler was one of his teachers. He completed what was normally a four-year course in just one year. He learned to play the piano, the violin and other musical instruments, and learned the techniques and tools of musical composition. By the age of 15, Steiner had written and conducted his first operetta. That success led to offers to conduct in Germany, Russia and England (after 1906). Steiner wrote and conducted theater productions and symphonies in London until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After a brief internment as an enemy alien, a well-connected friend pulled some strings to get Steiner an exit visa for the United States. He arrived in New York City in December 1914 with only $32 in his pocket. Six years later, the Austrian became a US citizen.
The talented composer and conductor soon had a lot of work in his new homeland. (Fellow Austrian film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold also came to the US at this time.) He was a musical director, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor on Broadway until 1929, at which time he accepted an offer to work for RKO Pictures in Hollywood. After 15 years on the East Coast, Steiner moved to California. RKO’s head of production, William LeBaron, was impressed enough by Steiner’s musical talent that he made the Austrian-American the director of RKO’s new music production department in 1930. It was in that same year that the Hollywood studios began to cut back their film productions of Broadway musicals, for which Steiner had done all his work up to that date. But he had no problem adapting to scoring westerns and other film genres. Steiner’s first big Hollywood success was his score for Symphony of Six Million (1932) for a new RKO producer named David O. Selznick. In later years, even after Selznick and Steiner had left RKO, the two men would team up to produce some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, including Gone with the Wind (1939).
Most film critics agree that Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) was one of the main factors that turned that picture into a huge hit for RKO (and saved the studio from bankruptcy). The stop-motion FX film about a giant gorilla turned Steiner into one of Hollywood’s top names and made him popular with film directors such as John Ford. Steiner’s score for Ford’s The Informer (1935) earned the composer his first Oscar.
Also see Germans in Hollywood – German, Austrian and Swiss people in Hollywood
After eight years with RKO, in 1937 Steiner left that studio for Warner Brothers (Warner Bros.), where he would work until completing Two on a Guillotine in 1965. He would score a total of 140 films for Warners, including 18 of Bette Davis’ romantic dramas and 15 Errol Flynn adventures. He also continued to work with independent producer Selznick, most notably on Gone with the Wind. At the beginning of his Warner Bros. career, he composed the instantly recognizable Warner Bros. fanfare (for the film Tovarich) heard at the beginning of almost every WB film since 1937. It became known as the “‘Tovarich’ Fanfare” in WB circles. Steiner and his fellow Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold together made the Warner studio famous for its excellent film music. Max Steiner’s last film project, Those Calloways (1965), was for Walt Disney Productions.
Max Steiner was married four times. His first wife was Beatrice Tilt of Vienna. They married in September 1912. After divorcing Tilt, in 1927 Steiner married Audree van Lieu. They divorced in December 1933. In 1936 he married Louise Klos, a harpist, and had his only child with her. Ronald Steiner, born in 1940, committed suicide in Honolulu, Hawaii in April 1962. Louise and Max divorced in 1946. Steiner married his fourth and last wife in 1947. Leonette “Lee” Blair remained with the composer until his death.
Steiner died of congestive heart failure in Hollywood on December 28, 1971, at 83 years of age. He was laid to rest in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Film Awards and Nominations
Max Steiner has been honored with the following awards and nominations for his film music:
Hollywood Walk of Fame: Steiner’s star was installed on December 30, 1975 at 1559 Vine Street (see photo above).
Songwriters Hall of Fame: Inducted posthumously in 1995.
Golden Globe Award: Life with Father (1947); Steiner was the first recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s award for Best Original Score.
Academy Award Nominations (22): The Lost Patrol (1934), The Gay Divorcee (1934), The Garden of Allah (1936), Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Letter (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Casablanca (1942), The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), Rhapsody in Blue (1945, shared with Ray Heindorf), Night and Day (1946, shared with Ray Heindorf), Life with Father (1947), My Wild Irish Rose (1947, shared with Ray Heindorf), Johnny Belinda (1948), Beyond the Forest (1949), The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), The Jazz Singer (1953, shared with Ray Heindorf), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Battle Cry (1955).
Academy Awards (3): The Informer (1936, best music, score), Now, Voyager (1943, best music, drama/comedy), Since You Went Away (1945, best music, drama/comedy)
Venice Film Festival: Best Music Award for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
For a full list, see Max Steiner – Awards at IMDb.
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