'Kong's' Powerful Music Recaptured

Jon Burlingame is an occasional contributor to Calendar

A pivotal scene in the 1933 classic "King Kong" has Fay Wray about to be sacrificed to the mysterious, still-unseen creature, as hundreds of natives watch. The music is frenzied, primitive-sounding and percussion-filled, reaching a fever pitch as the screaming blond is tied to a stone altar to await the arrival of the giant ape.

It's one of the great moments in Hollywood history, immeasurably enhanced by one of the pioneers of movie scoring: Viennese-born Max Steiner, who would eventually win three Academy Awards and score more than 300 films in his 35-year career, among them such classics as "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca" and "The Big Sleep."

Composer and legendary wit Oscar Levant once said of the "King Kong" music: "Full of weird chords, strident background noises, rumblings and heavings, it was one of the most enthusiastically written scores ever to be composed in Hollywood. Indeed, it was always my feeling that it should have been advertised as a concert of Steiner's music with accompanying pictures on the screen."

In fact, Steiner's score was highly unusual in that era, notes film historian Leonard Maltin.

"The idea of underscoring was still a rarity," he says. "What Max Steiner did was to give weight and body to the film and enhance the terror. As obvious as that sounds today, it wasn't obvious to filmmakers then. With this one film, he virtually invented dramatic movie scoring."

Despite its hallowed place in movie-music history, Steiner's "King Kong" score has, until now, been available only in truncated form. A new, digitally recorded 72-minute disc containing all of Steiner's music (including several minutes that were cut from the film) has just been released by the Marco Polo record label.

It's the latest in a series of film-music albums over-seen by Los Angeles composers John W. Morgan and William T. Stromberg. Morgan (composer of the score for the forthcoming fantasy "Demon in the Bottle") and Stromberg (who scored the 1996 documentary "Trinity and Beyond") have lately made names for themselves unearthing and rerecording great movie music that has been otherwise unavailable.

Their work often involves months-long, painstaking reconstruction of entire scores based on incomplete studio conductor books and careful listening to existing soundtracks. The result is that such scores as Alfred Newman's powerful "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), Hugo Friedhofer's creepy "The Lodger" (1944) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's heroic "Another Dawn" (1937) can, for the first time, be heard apart from their original cinematic contexts. "King Kong" marks their 10th album for the London-based classical label.

Working from Steiner's original music sketches (now housed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah), Morgan reorchestrated the entire score, attempting to remain faithful to the composer's intentions while nearly doubling the size of Steiner's original RKO ensemble.

Morgan, 50, met the composer in the 1960s and remained friends with him until Steiner's death in 1971. "Max always told me that he wanted a bigger orchestra for 'Kong,' " he says. "If it had been five years later at Warners (where Steiner spent much of his career), he probably would have had anything he wanted. But he left it up to the original orchestrator, Bernard Kaun, to try and reformulate his ideas in the 45-piece orchestra that they finally used."

Stromberg, 33, conducted the 87-piece Moscow Symphony Orchestra over six days in October 1996, exactly 20 years after the last recording of the "Kong" score, in London in 1976 (a project with which Morgan was also involved, selecting the cues and writing the liner notes).

According to composer and musicologist Fred Steiner--no relation to Max--who conducted the earlier sessions, "this is very emotional music. It's technically very difficult, with constant changes of tempo and energy without letup." Max's early use of specific motifs for characters and situations, and the concepts of symphonic development and thematic transformation of musical material, are all apparent in the "Kong" score, he adds.

It wasn't Max Steiner's first major score for RKO. In 1932, he provided wall-to-wall accompaniment for "Bird of Paradise," defied tradition by underscoring dialogue in "Symphony of Six Million" and presaged "Kong" with thrilling music for "The Most Dangerous Game."

But the outlandish fantasy of "Kong" was a much bigger challenge. It fell to the composer to create atmosphere for the film's exotic backdrop; to build excitement into the chases and the battles with prehistoric monsters on Skull Island; and, most crucially, to make credible the infatuation of a giant ape with a winsome beauty. No one can argue that he succeeded on all counts; in fact, portions of the "Kong" score were reused in such RKO films as "Son of Kong" and "The Last Days of Pompeii," and Steiner himself reprised elements in his own scores for "A Stolen Life" and "White Heat."

Surprisingly, a handful of the Moscow Symphony players--who are understandably ignorant of most Western film music--were familiar with "King Kong," Stromberg says. But unlike their RKO predecessors, the Moscow ensemble had to perform several minutes at a time of extremely complex music without error. According to Stromberg, Steiner's method was to record major stretches of music several times, "then basically splice them together to get the best take."

As Steiner himself reflected in a 1965 radio interview: "["King Kong") was made for music. It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything, from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies. When the picture was completed, the studio bosses were pretty skeptical about it and doubtful that the public would take to it. They thought the big gorilla looked unreal and too mechanical."

In fact, Steiner recalled, RKO executives didn't want to spend any more money on the film and asked him to use existing music from the RKO library. Luckily, producer Merian C. Cooper agreed to foot the $50,000 bill for writing and performing original music. The result made all the difference.

"The marvelous thing about that score," says Fred Steiner, "is that Max gave the monkey soul. In that last scene--'it wasn't the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast'--the tears start to flow. People feel sympathy for this huge, destructive monster: The music does that. That's really remarkable. That's why it's a masterpiece."

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