The Composer Who Saved King Kong—and Transformed Movie Music

An international crisis triggers record unemployment. Hollywood bleeds red as movie theaters shutter. And one major studio faces imminent closure, putting all its hopes on a would-be blockbuster. The year is 1933. The studio is RKO. And the movie is King Kong. Then as now, audiences made anxious by global upheaval hungered for escapism; and in March 1933, Kong delivered the financial rescue its makers prayed for. But the movie might have failed, depriving us of later RKO classics like Citizen Kane, if not for the ninth-inning involvement of one man: RKO’s 44-year-old music director, Max Steiner. You may not know the name, but you do know his music. More than any other composer, the Vienna-born Steiner established the ground rules of writing movie music that are still in use today. Pre-Steiner, orchestral underscore was rare in talking pictures, which replaced silent films in 1929. As King Kong neared completion, nervous RKO brass told Steiner not to waste additional dollars … Continue reading The Composer Who Saved King Kong—and Transformed Movie Music