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Before Kong Was King: Competing Methods in Hollywood Underscore

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 September 2014

Abstract

In many histories of American film music, Max Steiner's score for King Kong (1933) marks a new era by establishing norms in original, symphonic underscoring that would dominate Hollywood for decades. Kong's reign, however, eclipses diverse approaches to underscoring practiced at studios before and after its release. In this study, I compare the methods of Max Steiner at RKO and Nathaniel Finston at Paramount to show how both influenced film music implementation and discourse in the years leading up to Kong. Steeped in the practices of silent cinema, Finston championed collaborative scoring and the use of preexistent music in films like Fighting Caravans (1931). Steiner preferred to compose alone and placed music strategically to delineate narrative space in films, as in Symphony of Six Million (1932), a technique he adapted for mediating exotic encounters in island adventure films preceding Kong. Although press accounts and production materials show that Steiner and Finston's methods proved resilient in subsequent years, Kong's canonic status has marginalized Finston's role and threatens to misdirect appraisals of Steiner's other work. Considering Finston's practices at Paramount alongside Steiner's pre-Kong scores at RKO illuminates the limitations of using only Kong as a model, and shows that Finston's perspective on film scoring in the early 1930s provides a corrective balance for understanding film musicians’ work before and after Kong.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Society for American Music 2014 

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Footnotes

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the AMS Midwest Chapter Meeting at Oakland University (Rochester, MI) in April 2011, and the Society for American Music Conference in Charlotte, NC in March 2012. I would like to thank Kathryn Kalinak, Sally Bick, and the anonymous reviewers of this article for the suggestions they offered at various stages of the project. I am especially grateful for the assistance and insights of Warren Sherk, manager of Special Collections at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Allison Robbins, who helpfully pointed me in the direction of Nathaniel Finston's personal papers at the University of Wyoming. I am also grateful for the prompt and resourceful aid provided by the staff of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Last but not least, I owe a great debt to James Wierzbicki, with whom I discussed many of these ideas in their formative stages. Although I only appreciated the connection much later, I would also like to thank James for beginning his book, Film Music: A History, with an anecdote about the unsung Nathaniel Finston.

References

References

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Platte, Nathan. “Musical Collaboration in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1957.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2010.Google Scholar
Prendergast, Roy. Film Music: A Neglected Art. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.Google Scholar
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Rodriguez, José, ed. Music and Dance in California. Hollywood, CA: Bureau of Musical Research, 1940.Google Scholar
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Rosenberg, Bernard and Harry Silverstein. The Real Tinsel. New York: Macmillan Company, 1970.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Music for the Screen and Stage.” In Who's Who in Music and Dance in Southern California, ed. Ussher, Bruno David, 5862. Hollywood, CA: Bureau of Musical Research, 1933.Google Scholar
Schreibman, Myrl. “On Gone With the Wind, Selznick, and the Art of ‘Mickey Mousing’: An Interview with Max Steiner.” Journal of Film and Video 56/1 (2004): 4150.Google Scholar
Sherk, Warren, ed. Film and Television Music: A Guide to Books, Articles, and Composer Interviews. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.Google Scholar
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Slowik, Michael. “After the Silents: The Early Hollywood Sound Score, 1926–1934.” Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 2012.Google Scholar
Slowik, Michael. “Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds: Film Music Strategies before King Kong, 1927–1933.” Cinema Journal 53/1 (2013): 125.Google Scholar
Slowik, Michael. “Experiments in Early Sound Film Music: Strategies and Rerecording, 1928–1930.” American Music 31/4 (2013): 450–74.Google Scholar
Steiner, Max. “Scoring the Film.” In We Make the Movies, ed. Naumburg, Nancy, 216–38. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1937.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “Max Steiner Establishes Another Film Music Record.” In Gone with the Wind as Book and Film, ed. Harwell, Richard, 160–69. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.Google Scholar
Wierzbicki, James. Film Music: A History. New York: Routledge, 2009.Google Scholar
Wierzbicki, James, Platte, Nathan, and Roust, Colin. The Routledge Film Music Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2012.Google Scholar
Chagollan, Steve. “Add a Song, Make a Movie: Music Supervisors in Film Seek More Recognition.” New York Times, 27 February 2013.Google Scholar
“Classical Composers Banished from Films.” Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1932.Google Scholar
“Finston Gets Studio Post: Veteran in Charge of MGM Music.” Los Angeles Times, 19 October 1935.Google Scholar
Jones, Isabel Morse. “Finston Concert Success.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1933.Google Scholar
Jones, Isabel Morse. “Nat Finston Quits M.G.M. Music Director Post.” Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1944.Google Scholar
Kendall, Speed. “Emotion Rules Music Library.” Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1929.Google Scholar
“King Kong.” Hollywood Herald, 18 February 1933.Google Scholar
Mines, Harry. “Commerce and Art United in Talkie Business.” Los Angeles Daily News, 1 January 1930.Google Scholar
“Picture to be Given Operatic Underscore.” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1932.Google Scholar
Meehan, Leo. “‘Symphony’ Rated As Classic.” The Hollywood Herald, 23 March 1932.Google Scholar
“Music on the Screen.” Variety, 27 February 1934.Google Scholar
Nugent, Frank. “The Screen.” New York Times, 26 July 1935.Google Scholar
Reid, Robert. “Max Steiner.” Author and Composer. October 1933, 9, 13.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Rivalry Seen in Film Plots.” Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1932.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Screen Music Made by Rule.” Los Angeles Times, 8 December 1929.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Slugger Hero in Spotlight, Finston Tabulates Cinema Music Happenings.” Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1932.Google Scholar
Scheuer, Philip K. “Musical Picture Quietly Undergoes Renaissance.” Los Angeles Times, 22 February 1931.Google Scholar
Scheuer, Philip K.. “Witchery of Cinema Intrigues.” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1931.Google Scholar
Shales, Tom. “The Monkey That Made Movie Music.” Washington Post, 13 February 1977.Google Scholar
Thackrey, Ted. “Conductor Brought Melody to Silent Films.” Los Angeles Times, 24 December 1979.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “In the Realm of Music: Point and Counterpoint in the Medium of the Movies.” Los Angeles Daily News, 17 July 1938.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “Music in the Films.” Los Angeles Daily News, 19 August 1940.Google Scholar
Brower, Otto and Burton, David, dirs. Fighting Caravans. 1931.Google Scholar
Cooper, Merian C. and Schoedsack, Ernest B., dirs. King Kong. 1933.Google Scholar
Cromwell, John, dir. Since You Went Away. 1944.Google Scholar
Curtiz, Michael, dir. Casablanca. 1942.Google Scholar
Fleming, Victor, dir. Gone with the Wind. 1939.Google Scholar
Fleming, Victor, dir. The Wizard of Oz. 1939.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. The Informer. 1935.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. The Searchers. 1956.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. Stagecoach. 1939.Google Scholar
Foy, Bryan. Lights of New York. 1928.Google Scholar
Glazer, Benjamin, dir. Song of My Heart. 1948.Google Scholar
Guillermin, John, dir. King Kong. 1976.Google Scholar
Holden, Lansing C. and Pichel, Irving, dirs. She. 1935.Google Scholar
La Cava, Gregory, dir. Symphony of Six Million. 1932.Google Scholar
Jackson, Peter, dir. King Kong. 2005.Google Scholar
Kern, James V., dir. The Second Woman. 1950.Google Scholar
Reed, Luther, dir. Rio Rita. 1929.Google Scholar
Schoedsack, Ernest and Pichel, Irving, dirs. Most Dangerous Game. 1932.Google Scholar
Schoedsack, Ernest, dir. The Son of Kong. 1933.Google Scholar
Sternberg, Josef von, dir. Dishonored. 1931.Google Scholar
Vidor, King, dir. Bird of Paradise. 1932.Google Scholar
Walsh, Raoul, dir. The Big Trail. 1930.Google Scholar
Nat Finston Collection. American Heritage Center. University of Wyoming. Laramie, Wyoming.Google Scholar
Margaret Herrick Library. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Beverly Hills, California.Google Scholar
RKO Radio Pictures Studio Records. Performing Arts Special Collections. University of California. Los Angeles, California.Google Scholar
Max Steiner Collection. L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library. Harold B. Lee Library. Brigham Young University. Provo, Utah.Google Scholar
Altman, Rick, with Jones, McGraw and Tatroe, Sonia. “Inventing the Cinema Soundtrack: Hollywood's Multiplane Sound System.” In Music and Cinema, ed. Buhler, James, Flinn, Caryl, and Neumeyer, David, 339–59. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.Google Scholar
Antheil, George. “On the Hollywood Front.” Modern Music 12/2 (1935): 6268.Google Scholar
Behlmer, Rudy. “King Kong: Eighth Wonder of the World.” Liner notes essay for Max Steiner, King Kong: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Rhino Movie Music R2 75597, 1999. Compact disc.Google Scholar
Bernstein, Elmer. “A Conversation with David Raksin (Part II).” In Elmer Bernstein's Film Music Notebook: A Complete Collection of the Quarterly Journal, 1974–1978, 263–72. Sherman Oaks, CA: Film Music Society, 2004.Google Scholar
Caps, John. Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.Google Scholar
Carringer, Robert. The Making of Citizen Kane. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.Google Scholar
Cartwright, Dorothea Hawley. “Tuning Up the Talkies: Watching The Music Departments Function.” Talking Screen 1/6 (1930). Reprinted in Cue Sheet 20/3 (2005): 612.Google Scholar
Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
Cooke, Mervyn, ed. The Hollywood Film Music Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Google Scholar
D’Arc, James. “Curiously Appropriate.” Liner notes for Max Steiner, King Kong: The Complete 1933 Film Score. Performed by William Stromberg, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Marco Polo 8.223763, 1997. Compact disc.Google Scholar
D’Arc, James V., and Gillespie, John N., eds. The Max Steiner Collection. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1996.Google Scholar
Finston, Nathaniel. “Time Tells the Tale.” In Music and Dance in California and the West, ed. Richard Drake Saunders, 78. Hollywood, CA: Bureau of Musical Research, 1948.Google Scholar
Franklin, Peter. “King Kong and Film on Music: Out of the Fog.” In Film Music: Critical Approaches, ed. Donnelly, K. J., 88102. New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2001.Google Scholar
Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.Google Scholar
Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick's Hollywood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.Google Scholar
Kalinak, Kathryn. Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Google Scholar
Kalinak, Kathryn.. How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Google Scholar
Levant, Oscar. A Smattering of Ignorance. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1939.Google Scholar
Long, Michael. Beautiful Monsters: Imagining the Classic in Musical Media. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.Google Scholar
Morton, Ray. King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon, From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2005.Google Scholar
McCarty, Clifford. Film Composers in America: A Checklist of Their Works. Glendale, CA: J. Valentine, 1953.Google Scholar
McCarty, Clifford.. Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911–1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Google Scholar
Platte, Nathan. “Musical Collaboration in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1957.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2010.Google Scholar
Prendergast, Roy. Film Music: A Neglected Art. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.Google Scholar
Raksin, David. “Holding a Nineteenth Century Pedal at Twentieth Century-Fox.” In Film Music 1, ed. McCarty, Clifford, 167–82. Los Angeles: Film Music Society, 1989.Google Scholar
Rodriguez, José, ed. Music and Dance in California. Hollywood, CA: Bureau of Musical Research, 1940.Google Scholar
Rosar, William H.Music for the Monsters: Universal Pictures’ Horror Film Scores of the Thirties.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 40/4 (1983): 390420.Google Scholar
Rosenberg, Bernard and Harry Silverstein. The Real Tinsel. New York: Macmillan Company, 1970.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Music for the Screen and Stage.” In Who's Who in Music and Dance in Southern California, ed. Ussher, Bruno David, 5862. Hollywood, CA: Bureau of Musical Research, 1933.Google Scholar
Schreibman, Myrl. “On Gone With the Wind, Selznick, and the Art of ‘Mickey Mousing’: An Interview with Max Steiner.” Journal of Film and Video 56/1 (2004): 4150.Google Scholar
Sherk, Warren, ed. Film and Television Music: A Guide to Books, Articles, and Composer Interviews. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.Google Scholar
Slobin, Mark. “The Steiner Superculture.” In Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music, ed. Slobin, Mark, 335. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
Slowik, Michael. “After the Silents: The Early Hollywood Sound Score, 1926–1934.” Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 2012.Google Scholar
Slowik, Michael. “Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds: Film Music Strategies before King Kong, 1927–1933.” Cinema Journal 53/1 (2013): 125.Google Scholar
Slowik, Michael. “Experiments in Early Sound Film Music: Strategies and Rerecording, 1928–1930.” American Music 31/4 (2013): 450–74.Google Scholar
Steiner, Max. “Scoring the Film.” In We Make the Movies, ed. Naumburg, Nancy, 216–38. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1937.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “Max Steiner Establishes Another Film Music Record.” In Gone with the Wind as Book and Film, ed. Harwell, Richard, 160–69. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.Google Scholar
Wierzbicki, James. Film Music: A History. New York: Routledge, 2009.Google Scholar
Wierzbicki, James, Platte, Nathan, and Roust, Colin. The Routledge Film Music Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2012.Google Scholar
Chagollan, Steve. “Add a Song, Make a Movie: Music Supervisors in Film Seek More Recognition.” New York Times, 27 February 2013.Google Scholar
“Classical Composers Banished from Films.” Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1932.Google Scholar
“Finston Gets Studio Post: Veteran in Charge of MGM Music.” Los Angeles Times, 19 October 1935.Google Scholar
Jones, Isabel Morse. “Finston Concert Success.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1933.Google Scholar
Jones, Isabel Morse. “Nat Finston Quits M.G.M. Music Director Post.” Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1944.Google Scholar
Kendall, Speed. “Emotion Rules Music Library.” Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1929.Google Scholar
“King Kong.” Hollywood Herald, 18 February 1933.Google Scholar
Mines, Harry. “Commerce and Art United in Talkie Business.” Los Angeles Daily News, 1 January 1930.Google Scholar
“Picture to be Given Operatic Underscore.” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1932.Google Scholar
Meehan, Leo. “‘Symphony’ Rated As Classic.” The Hollywood Herald, 23 March 1932.Google Scholar
“Music on the Screen.” Variety, 27 February 1934.Google Scholar
Nugent, Frank. “The Screen.” New York Times, 26 July 1935.Google Scholar
Reid, Robert. “Max Steiner.” Author and Composer. October 1933, 9, 13.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Rivalry Seen in Film Plots.” Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1932.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Screen Music Made by Rule.” Los Angeles Times, 8 December 1929.Google Scholar
Schallert, Edwin. “Slugger Hero in Spotlight, Finston Tabulates Cinema Music Happenings.” Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1932.Google Scholar
Scheuer, Philip K. “Musical Picture Quietly Undergoes Renaissance.” Los Angeles Times, 22 February 1931.Google Scholar
Scheuer, Philip K.. “Witchery of Cinema Intrigues.” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1931.Google Scholar
Shales, Tom. “The Monkey That Made Movie Music.” Washington Post, 13 February 1977.Google Scholar
Thackrey, Ted. “Conductor Brought Melody to Silent Films.” Los Angeles Times, 24 December 1979.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “In the Realm of Music: Point and Counterpoint in the Medium of the Movies.” Los Angeles Daily News, 17 July 1938.Google Scholar
Ussher, Bruno David. “Music in the Films.” Los Angeles Daily News, 19 August 1940.Google Scholar
Brower, Otto and Burton, David, dirs. Fighting Caravans. 1931.Google Scholar
Cooper, Merian C. and Schoedsack, Ernest B., dirs. King Kong. 1933.Google Scholar
Cromwell, John, dir. Since You Went Away. 1944.Google Scholar
Curtiz, Michael, dir. Casablanca. 1942.Google Scholar
Fleming, Victor, dir. Gone with the Wind. 1939.Google Scholar
Fleming, Victor, dir. The Wizard of Oz. 1939.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. The Informer. 1935.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. The Searchers. 1956.Google Scholar
Ford, John, dir. Stagecoach. 1939.Google Scholar
Foy, Bryan. Lights of New York. 1928.Google Scholar
Glazer, Benjamin, dir. Song of My Heart. 1948.Google Scholar
Guillermin, John, dir. King Kong. 1976.Google Scholar
Holden, Lansing C. and Pichel, Irving, dirs. She. 1935.Google Scholar
La Cava, Gregory, dir. Symphony of Six Million. 1932.Google Scholar
Jackson, Peter, dir. King Kong. 2005.Google Scholar
Kern, James V., dir. The Second Woman. 1950.Google Scholar
Reed, Luther, dir. Rio Rita. 1929.Google Scholar
Schoedsack, Ernest and Pichel, Irving, dirs. Most Dangerous Game. 1932.Google Scholar
Schoedsack, Ernest, dir. The Son of Kong. 1933.Google Scholar
Sternberg, Josef von, dir. Dishonored. 1931.Google Scholar
Vidor, King, dir. Bird of Paradise. 1932.Google Scholar
Walsh, Raoul, dir. The Big Trail. 1930.Google Scholar