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  • Cineanalyst6 September 2021
    There's probably not many people for whom in an art form over a century old that it may be uncontroversially claimed that they more than anyone shaped the history of that art form, but such as is the case with Max Steiner and film music scoring, as recounted in this documentary, "Max Steiner: Maestro of Movie Music." I'd argue he's the greatest film composer of all time, but he's certainly the most influential. A subsequent generation's John Williams, as the documentary points out, is very much in Steiner's vein of providing lush, full operatic scores to sweeping adventures. Before Williams's themes for "Star Wars" (1977), Steiner's "Gone with the Wind" (1939) was undoubtedly the most iconic cinematic score. Raised in the capital of Western music, Vienna, then moving to Broadway musicals, he went from introducing full scores in Hollywood talkies of the 1930s, composing for over 300 titles by the end of his career in the mid-1960s, working at RKO and Warner Bros., into the age of Cinerama and stereophonic sound and his scores and songs also providing for pioneering work in movie soundtrack albums and hit pop-song records. There wasn't even an Oscar for musical scores until he invented a reason to have one, yet he still ranks third overall for most nominations in the category with 24 of them.

    It's somewhat difficult to appreciate such prolific talent, especially nowadays when one gets excited by just one catchy motif of a character theme song in a superhero flick, such as say that for Wonder Woman, as co-authored by Hans Zimmer, who is spotted in the doc accepting the Max Steiner Award at the Hollywood in Vienna gala. It pales in comparison to such as multi-layered and as proven of lasting memorability throughout generations as the score of "Gone with the Wind," or the groundbreaking nature of his full or nearly-full scores for "King Kong" (1933) or "The Informer" (1935). Watching this, I started wondering, regarding the latter title, whether director John Ford and star Victor McLaglen, otherwise known for a career as a character actor, would've even won Oscars if not for Steiner's score; I doubt it. The most acclaimed actress of classic Hollywood, Bette Davis, understood this, and considered Steiner to be her composer, of which he was on 19 of her pictures, including "Dark Victory" (1939) and "Now, Voyager" (1942).

    The doc does a decent, if familiar and necessarily brief, overview of film scoring preceding Steiner's revolution of the field. There's the varied scoring of silent films, the usual mention of the partially-original symphony orchestra score for "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), the Vitaphone sound-on-disc score for "Don Juan" (1926), the age of talkies ushered in by "The Jazz Singer" (1927), the invention of sound-on-film, and the rise, fall and rise again of the popularity of movie musicals. It rather misses that original scoring and films based around songs has been a part of films since almost their beginning as a commercial entity, but that's outside the scope of this biographical documentary. At least, it conveys that talkies were reviving, as well as reinventing, a tradition of film scoring from the silent era, as well as Steiner, to a large extent, merely transferring the practices he learned from Viennese operettas and Broadway jazz and with an ingrained recognition that music was subservient to the film image. His innovations in "Mickey Mousing," for example, are cited here as but a practice continued from other mediums by past greats like Richard Wagner.

    From there, the picture runs through the greatest hits of Steiner's long career, although even this misses some of his gems. Somewhat of a dress rehearsal for "King Kong," "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) and Steiner's full score for it receive no mention, for instance. But, we do get Steiner's influence of the sweeping scope of classic Westerns, from his limited scoring of the pre-code, black-and-white "Cimarron" (1931) to the colorful VistaVision masterpiece "The Searchers" (1956), his setting the mood of film noir and for stars like Humphrey Bogart, as well as his innovations in fantasy scores for "Bird of Paradise" (1932) and "King Kong," dramatic underscoring in "Symphony of Six Million" (1932) and "The Informer," to his innovations in sound design collaboration with sound engineer Murray Spivack, as in "King Kong," and full scores with producer David O. Selznick, à la Steiner's Benzedrine-fueled score for "Gone with the Wind," and his subsequent memorable tunes from "Casablanca" (1942)--making a heretofore unremarkable tune "As Time Goes By," which Steiner reportedly detested, into one of the most iconic themes in film history--to a hit pop single in "A Summer Place," the latter, by the way, a film that I haven't even seen as of yet, but of course I recognize the theme.

    That the 2-hours documentary spends less time on Stiner's biography outside of his work and influences, talking heads spitting out superlatives aside, doesn't bother me at all, as I'm more interested in the art than the artist. Even here, though, we learn that Steiner was also a prolific husband--marrying four times. Or, that his son committed suicide. That Steiner was Jewish is also briefly touched upon and mostly in regards to his scoring of "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939), which Steiner was uncredited on because he feared reprisals for his relations back in Austria. Also, a silvery lining, I suppose, of the First World War was that Steiner, living in London at the time, left for the United States due to his being from a would-be Axis nation. If America is the land of immigrants, such is even more so the case of Hollywood. Many classic films from the greatest talents from around the world is the result, including how Steiner took opera to Broadway and Hollywood. In more ways than one, this is a well-scored documentary on one of the most important figures in film history.

    (Viewed as part of the live stream for the Cinecon Classic Film Festival, a logo from Flicker Alley appeared before it, so perhaps a home video edition might be forthcoming from that distributor.)