About this Recording
8.223870 - STEINER: Lost Patrol (The) / Virginia City

The Max Steiner Factor (1888–1971)
Lost Patrol (The) • Virginia City


The coming of sound-on-film in 1927 drastically altered the views of producers on the use of music in films. Silent films had of course never been really silent; indeed, they needed non-stop musical accompaniment to make up for the lack of dialogue and sound-effects, but now, except in the case of musicals, why would there be a need for music in the background? Why describe the emotions and actions people could now see? And would they not wonder where the music was coming from? It took quite some while to overcome these views and prove that original dramatic scoring could be effective subliminally—and the composer who did more than any other to pioneer this new avenue of background scoring was Max Steiner. In doing so he opened up what would quickly become one of the most interesting venues for contemporary composers, provided they also had the skills and knacks demanded by the intricacies of film scoring.

By the time of his death in 1971, in his eighty-third year, Steiner had long been called “the man who invented movie music”. He scoffed and said, “Nonsense. The idea originated with Richard Wagner. Listen to the incidental scoring behind the recitatives in his operas. If Wagner had lived in our times he would have been our top film composer”. Steiner was well qualified to talk about opera. He was born in Vienna and his father was the manager of the Theater-an-der-Wien. As a boy he was exposed to every level of Viennese musical life and at the age of fourteen he wrote and conducted an operetta. It was as a conductor that Steiner first earned a living and in 1914 he arrived in New York to begin what would be permanent American residence. All through the 1920s he was active as an arranger and conductor of musicals on Broadway, and it was composer Harry Tierney who suggested Steiner be brought to Hollywood as the conductor of the screen version of Tierney’s Rio Rita for which Steiner had been the music director on Broadway. This was late 1929, at the time of formation of RKO Radio Pictures. William Le Baron was head of production and it was he who sensed that the adroit Steiner was the man to put in charge of the music department.

Steiner’s job, apart from overseeing musicals, was to write music for the main and end titles of non-musical films. His ideas about underscoring fell on deaf ears until young David O. Selznick joined the Studio. His first production was Symphony of Six Million in 1932 and Steiner suggested that the emotional impact of the film could possibly be improved by the addition of some musical comment. Selznick agreed to experiment, with the results that Steiner had predicted. Then a year later, with his tremendously effective score for King Kong, no one ever again dared ask, “What’s the use of music in movies?”

In 1934 Steiner supplied music for no less than thirty-six RKO films, although most of them were only lightly scored. There were, however, some that he felt needed a lot of musical help, particularly John Ford’s The Lost Patrol. As brilliant as he may have been as a director Ford was not a man of much musical sensitivity. He was not in favour of his film being scored. On the other hand, RKO was not about to issue the film without a score, since they felt it lacked an atmosphere of tension in telling its story of a British army unit lost in the desert and gradually being picked off by unseen Arabs. Steiner supplied the tension, with additional character delineations to help make the plight of the soldiers more dramatic and more touching. The story takes place during the First World War as a patrol of British cavalry finds itself stranded in the Mesopotamian Desert. Only their officer knows their location and he is killed by Arab snipers, leaving a sergeant (Victor McLaglen) in charge. Camped at an oasis their sentries are killed and their horses stolen. One by one they are picked off until only the sergeant is alive when a rescue party arrives.

The Lost Patrol badly needed a musical score to sustain the anguish of the doomed soldiers, and Ford later admitted that yes, the film was helped by the music. Indeed, it became the first dramatic score ever nominated for an Oscar. Some of the other RKO pictures helped by Steiner over the next two years were Of Human Bondage, The Little Minister, and The Three Musketeers. In 1936 he left RKO to accept an offer from Warner Bros. to score their mighty spectacle The Charge of the Light Brigade, the success of which led Warners to place him under long term contract. It was indeed a long term, stretching all the way to 1965, with Steiner scoring most of the best films of Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. He would end up scoring 152 Warner Bros. films, an incredible body of work.

Steiner’s assignments at Warners required him to supply music for every kind of film, but for reasons he himself could not understand he seemed to do well with epic westerns. As a man with no knowledge of the West, he admitted that his musical concepts were of strictly story-book nature, that his job was to supply romance, excitement and drama, leaving the more academic approach to Western musical culture to others. His first major forays into the celluloid West were The Oklahoma Kid, starring James Cagney, and Dodge City, starring Errol Flynn, both in 1939. When Flynn was set to star in Virginia City the following year, there was no doubt as to who would score it. Virginia City is a big, bold adventure story that allowed Steiner ample room for majestic and lilting themes for western landscapes, battles, bar-room action, stage-coach trips and romance. The story is that of a Union army officer (Flynn) who escapes the Confederate Libby Prison (under the command of Randolph Scott) and goes to Virginia City, Nevada, to thwart the schemes of Southern sympathisers to send back gold shipments to the beleaguered Confederacy. There he falls in love with a dance-hall girl who is actually a Southern spy (Miriam Hopkins) and there he also finds his Libby commandant is now in charge of getting the gold back to the South. In time the two enemy officers join forces to fight off the horde of Mexican bandits who attack the wagon-train carrying the gold. The Union officer, out of respect for the Southerners he now admires, buries the gold so that it may later be used to help rebuild the defeated South. For this he is court-martialled and sentenced to death, but his lady-love appeals directly to President Lincoln, who dismisses the charges. Presumably, they live happily thereafter.

Virginia City did not end Max Steiner’s musical excursions out West; in fact, he would be involved over the years in scoring twenty other westerns, five of them with Errol Flynn; of which They Died with their Boots On (1941) is the best on all counts. Although he excelled with these lusty adventure pictures, he admitted they were not the kind he most enjoyed scoring. What he liked better were the kind of romantic dramas in which Bette Davis soared to fame. About the only kind of film at Warners he seldom had a choice to score were horror stories, simply because the studio did not specialise in them. The main exception was The Beast with Five Fingers in 1946, for which Steiner allowed himself leeway in gushes of dark and ominous musical ruminations.

With a lurid screen-play by Curt Siodmak, The Beast With Five Fingers is set in the Italian town of San Stefano in the late nineteenth century, with most of the action taking place in the villa of a rich and eccentric pianist (Victor Francen). He dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving all his estate to his nurse (Andrea King) and not to his secretary (Peter Lorre), a strange man obsessed with books on astrology, or to members of his family. The secretary is ordered to leave the house without his books, which causes him to become demented. Strange and dangerous things start to happen in the house, with the mad secretary claiming to see the severed hand of the late pianist crawling around and even playing the piano. Eventually the hand strangles him to death, even though it is a hand that none of the others can see. With his death the nurse gladly turns over the eerie mansion to his family and leaves with her lover (Robert Alda).

Generally spooky but often bordering on the ludicrous The Beast with Five Fingers is the kind of film composers enjoy scoring, often because the really scary bits are those created by the skilful use of music. It was Curt Siodmak who suggested to Steiner that he utilise the left-hand version of Bach’s D minor Chaconne as the piece played by the severed hand. It was a suggestion Steiner eagerly accepted and one which he put to obviously good use in this dark and sinister score, lightened here and there with those romantic surges that were second nature to this composer with roots in Old Vienna. To him melody was as natural as breathing.

Tony Thomas

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