13 July 2020

You are the best musical composer in the industry

Austrian-born music composer Max Steiner moved to Hollywood in 1929 and was one of the first composers to write music scores for films. According to Steiner, filmmakers at the time generally regarded film music as a "necessary evil" but this would all change in the early 1930's. Put under contract at RKO, Steiner composed his first film score for Cimarron (1931) and after several films was asked by David Selznick (the studio's new head of production) to write the score for Symphony of Six Million (1932). The score for Symphony was groundbreaking. It was the first time underscoring (music played under dialogue or a scene) was used throughout an entire picture. Steiner later said that Symphony was "the most important picture [he] did as far as trendsetting". But while the film was a turning point for both Steiner's career and the film industry, it wasn't until a year later with King Kong (1933) that Steiner had his big breakthrough. Many people believe it's this score which marks the true beginning of the Hollywood film score.

In 1936, due to salary issues with RKO, Steiner went to work for David Selznick at his new studio Selznick International Pictures. A year later, following a professional disagreement with Selznick over A Star is Born (1937), Steiner left Selznick and signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. under the condition that he was still allowed to work for Selznick if needed. Steiner desperately wanted the assignment to write the score for Gone with the Wind (1939), the rights to the novel having been purchased by Selznick in 1936.

In April 1939, Warners agreed to lend Steiner to Selznick who had never considered any other composer for GWTW than Steiner. Steiner had only three months to write the score and worked around the clock to meet the deadline (meanwhile also composing scores for Warners, 1939 being his busiest year with thirteen (!) films). Worried that Steiner wouldn't make it in time, Selznick asked Franz Waxman to write an additional score. In the end, Steiner came through and delivered a great score, which at nearly three hours is still one of the longest scores ever composed.

Max Steiner credited on screen for Gone With The Wind (above) and for Now, Voyager, My Reputation, Since You Went Away and Mildred Pierce (below, clockwise), which are some of my favourite Steiner scores.
As said, Steiner had been quite eager to work on GWTW and to make sure his boss Jack Warner would lend him to Selznick, he wrote Warner a letter in the spring of 1939. Warner wrote back immediately, giving Steiner the go-ahead while emphasising the composer's importance to the studio and calling him "the best musical composer in the industry". Steiner's letter (shown in part and only in transcript) as well as Warner's reply can be read below. 

Incidentally, the film score for GWTW (with its famous Tara's Theme) remains one of Steiner's most famous and best loved scores. Steiner was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz. (That same year, Steiner was also nominated for another film, Dark Victory.) In all, Steiner composed more than 300 film scores and was nominated for an Oscar 24 times, ultimately winning three, i.e. for The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944).

My dear Mr Warner: 
Charlie Feldman told me ... that it would be all right for me to do the music for Gone with the Wind .... When I came over to work at Warners, I had an understanding with Leo [Forbstein, responsible for Warners' contracts] that whatever happened I was to do Gone with the Wind .... In fact, the only way I could get my release from Mr. Selznick was with that promise .... It is absolutely necessary that I do a top picture of the type of ... Gone with the Wind with their vast opportunity for music .... One cannot win Academy Awards with ... Oklahoma Kid, etc.... Please do not misunderstand me .... I haven't slept for days, and it is all can [do to] try and get [Confessions of a] Nazi Spy finished in time. Really, Mr. Warner, I'm counting on you .... Will you please give your consent and tell ... Mr. Selznick ... should he find it necessary to get someone else, I would never get over it ...  
Source: Max Steiner: Composing, Casablanca, and the Golden Age of Film Music

Source: AuctionZip


April 6, 1939

Dear Max:

Received your circular letter about doing GONE WITH THE WIND, and first I want to say that irrespective of what pictures you score, you are the best musical composer in the industry. If this is not true, I am sufficiently a music critic to prove it.

Therefore, I come to the point of replying to your letter reference your doing GONE WITH THE WIND. I have told Leo and Hal Wallis that this is satisfactory and that you can do it, and Mr. Forbstein and Mr. Obringer will handle the business of loaning you over there.

Just want to add that while I realize we have brought another composer in to do certain pictures from time to time, it is with great pride that we can point to the important music in pictures such as ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, DODGE CITY, OKLAHOMA KID, FOUR DAUGHTERS, CRIME SCHOOL and JEZEBEL and I am sure that the important music you have placed in these and many other films, have contributed much to their success, and I assure you it isn't the bigness of the picture that counts.... for you won an Academy Award for doing a picture no one ever heard of, THE INFORMER.

However, I do hope that with GONE WITH THE WIND you will not only win the Academy Award, but the plaudits of the public, who are after all, our most important judges.

Yours for more work and longer hours,

Jack Warner

P.S. Keep away from the Hollywood Turf Club .... because I am going to be there every Saturday.

Mr. Max Steiner


  1. The gold standard indeed for film scores is Max Steiner.

    1. Indeed. He was the greatest.
      Thanks for dropping by!