Fanfare for the Uncommon Man A new biography of a trailblazing film composer reveals a life story as compelling as any depicted onscreen.

Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer

By Steven C. Smith (2020, Oxford University Press) 480 pages including index, notes, and list of Steiner’s film credits.

During the production of Dark Victory (1939), director Edmund Goulding was about to shoot a pivotal scene in which the film’s gravely ill heroine ascends the stairs to her bedroom. After a few steps, Bette Davis, the film’s star, suddenly halted. Turning to Goulding, Davis asked, “Is Max Steiner going to underscore this scene?” Goulding reassured her, “Oh no, of course not!  We all know how you feel about that!” “Good!” said Davis, “Because either I’m going up the stairs or Max Steiner is going up the stairs, but we’re goddamn well not going up together!” (222)

The anecdote above is one of many lively moments in Steven C. Smith’s remarkable new biography of Max Steiner, the composer who helped codify the sound of Hollywood film music during its Golden Age. Although Steiner contributed music to more than 300 films, he is best remembered today for his work on several classics: King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), and The Searchers (1956). Steiner also innovated many film scoring techniques still with us. Working with very exact timings and a metronomic click track, Steiner quickly gained a reputation in Hollywood for his ability to match musical effects to gestures and movements made by the actors onscreen. This technique has come to be known as “Mickey-mousing” and Steiner showcased it in several scores he composed in the early thirties, such as Bird of Paradise (1932) and King Kong. Such skills enabled Steiner to gain the respect of trade reviewers and his peers. He earned seven Oscar nominations by the end of the decade, winning for John Ford’s The Informer (1935).¹ Yet, despite his considerable craft, Steiner’s ability to mimic action and movement was not always welcomed. When Davis refers to Max going up the stairs with her, Steiner’s penchant for “Mickey-mousing” is exactly what she is talking about.

This part of Steiner’s story is known to many scholars and film music connoisseurs. If Smith’s biography simply rehearsed that account of Steiner’s career, much of it well established by extant histories of Hollywood film music, I would say, “Move along. Nothing to see here.” But Smith offers much more in a lovingly detailed account of Steiner’s life, his working methods, and his collaborations with various producers and directors. Music by Max Steiner is undoubtedly one of the best film composer biographies ever written, rivaled only by Smith’s previous book on Bernard Herrmann, A Fire at Heart’s Center. Indeed, it is one of the most insightful show biz biographies of any type that I have read in a long time.

Working with very exact timings and a metronomic click track, Steiner quickly gained a reputation in Hollywood for his ability to match musical effects to gestures and movements made by the actors onscreen.

Previous books, like Kate Daubney’s Max Steiner’s Now Voyager and Christopher Palmer’s The Composer in Hollywood, included brief sketches of Steiner’s early life before coming to Hollywood.² None of these accounts runs more than a dozen pages. By contrast, Smith devotes the first five chapters to Steiner’s early musical training and his family’s contribution to Viennese art and entertainment. Max’s father, Gabor, built Vienna’s Reisenrad, the 210-foot Ferris Wheel famously seen in Carol Reed’s classic film, The Third Man (1949). Gabor also created “Venice in Vienna,” a World’s Fair-styled attraction that featured scaled-down versions of St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal. Gondoliers rowed passengers past palazzos and under bridges. Visitors were charmed by Gabor’s simulacrum of Venice and the many cafes, restaurants, theaters, and retail shops found therein. Young Max loved “Venice in Vienna,” and Smith rightly intuits that his fascination with this world of make-believe prepared him well for a career inside Hollywood’s Dream Factory.

Since “Venice in Vienna” offered only seasonal trade, Gabor also participated in the family business, which involved the management of Viennese theaters. Steiner’s grandfather, Maximillian, was the co-director of the Theater an der Wien, which showcased the talents of such luminaries as Johann Strauss Jr. After Maximillian’s untimely death from rectal cancer, Gabor not only inherited this Theater an der Wien, but would go on to expand the Steiners’ ventures. Gabor specialized in vaudeville-styled entertainment, and provided young Max with his first opportunities to show off his talents as a composer. Gabor helped Max publish his first song at age nine and gave him his first opportunity to conduct at age eleven. During his teens, Max spent two years studying at the Imperial Academy, Vienna’s most prestigious music school. Thanks to Gabor’s reputation, Max also had the opportunity to meet a bevy of notable composers and performers, such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, W.C. Fields, and John Philip Sousa. This mix of classical training and real-world experience helped young Max develop the talents, techniques, and work routines that laid the foundation for his later success as Hollywood’s most influential composer.

Smith also provides a vivid account of the two decades that Steiner spent as an émigré conductor of theater orchestras. This phase of Steiner’s career is anchored by the time he spent in London and New York respectively. As a composer and conductor for the Tillers Girls, a touring dance troupe similar to the Rockettes, Steiner traveled the world with stops in Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Egypt, and South Africa. The outbreak of World War I would hasten Max’s decision to emigrate to the United States. As an Austrian, Max was subject to new policies in Britain regarding enemy aliens. Thanks to the intercession of the Duke of Westminster, Steiner secured a passport and fled to the United States, leaving both his father and his first wife, Beatrice, behind.

That might seem hard-hearted, but it illustrates the difficulties Steiner would have juggling career demands with family responsibilities throughout his life. Steiner would wed four times. Yet his marriage to Leonette Blair, just short of Max’s 59th birthday, was the only one that proved to be both lasting and fulfilling. Smith ably documents Steiner’s history of marital troubles, much of them caused by the fact that Max was a neglectful husband and father. The daily grind of being a studio composer left Steiner little free time. What time he had was usually spent gambling and carousing rather than at home. Max often complained bitterly about the amount of income that went to the support of his ex-wives. These alimony payments would strain Steiner’s finances throughout much of his life. But, truth be told, Max was often his own worst enemy, incurring further debts due to his fondness for games of chance like roulette and gin rummy.

Whereas top songwriters like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin collected thousands of dollars in annual royalties, Steiner got little to nothing.

Parts Three and Four of Music by Max Steiner focus on the composer’s work in Hollywood, first for RKO and later for Warner Bros. Smith wisely does not try to cover all of the nearly 200 scores Steiner wrote while under studio contract. Still, Music by Max Steiner provides by far the most thorough survey of his film work, shedding light on several underrated efforts, such as We Are Not Alone (1939), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). Smith also reveals Steiner’s contributions to films for which he received no credit, among them This is Cinerama, which earned nearly $42 million in 1952.³

Several important themes emerge in Smith’s analysis of Steiner’s scores. The first involves the close relationships that the composer developed with his orchestrators. Working on as many as a dozen films each year, Steiner relied heavily on these collaborators to translate his sketches into full conductor’s scores. Occasionally, the orchestrators also would write individual cues based on Steiner’s musical themes. Such teamwork proved absolutely crucial to Steiner’s success on Gone with the Wind as Max juggled his work on Warner Bros.’ Four Wives (1939) with his loanout assignment for producer David O. Selznick’s four-hour epic. According to Smith, Steiner supervised a small platoon of orchestrators on Gone with the Wind with Hugo Friedhofer, Adolph Deutsch, Heinz Roemheld, and Joseph Nussbaum all contributing music for “scenes that Max would have preferred to write himself.” (242)

The trust that Steiner placed in his orchestrators is well documented in the handwritten addenda that are found in the margins of his sketches. These also display Max’s facetious wit. His sketches are full of humorous faux descriptions of tempi and dynamics. A death scene might be characterized as “molto schmaltzissimo.” An exciting bit of action could be designated “agitato con fuoco (yourself).” Steiner’s love themes would be decorated with elaborate drawings of male genitalia, graphic enough to make a Human Resources director blush. I have seen this firsthand in a sketch for the Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland western Dodge City (1939). In the righthand margin is a rather detailed penis drawing with a note scribbled next to it that says, “This is not supposed to be a six shooter.”⁴

Such locker room humor shows that Steiner never took his assignments too seriously even as he worked tirelessly to improve film composers’ standing with respect to the music industry as a whole. Despite writing some of the most memorable scores in the early sound era, Max struggled to gain entry to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the industry’s main performing rights organization. Whereas top songwriters like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin collected thousands of dollars in annual royalties, Steiner got little to nothing. He would attack the problem on two fronts. On the one hand, Max roused his fellow composers into agitating for fairer royalty distributions, efforts that would eventually culminate in the formation of the Screen Composers Association in 1945. On the other hand, in a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” spirit, Steiner pushed hard to have his most hummable themes recorded and published. His love theme from Now Voyager (1942) would sell more than 300,000 copies of sheet music. Yet Steiner’s attempts to craft commercial themes all too often missed the mark. As Smith notes, Steiner preferred to write original themes for films rather than arrange songs or classical repertory. Perhaps Max would not have written a more suitable song for Sam to play for Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. But whatever he came up with would have been more lucrative than the meager compensation he earned for his arrangements of Herman Hupfield’s chestnut, “As Time Goes By.”

His sketches are full of humorous faux descriptions of tempi and dynamics. A death scene might be characterized as “molto schmaltzissimo.” An exciting bit of action could be designated “agitato con fuoco (yourself).”

One last theme of Music by Max Steiner involves his love/hate relationship with über-producer David O. Selznick. At RKO, they fueled each other’s success with Steiner playing the role of musical innovator and Selznick as the supportive boss who provided the resources he needed. When Selznick left RKO to start his own company, he invited Steiner to join him as his new musical director and supervisor. Steiner leapt at the offer, savoring the opportunity to avoid “run of the mill” pictures he thought beneath him. Yet, less than two years later, Steiner tendered his resignation when it became clear that he and Selznick were at loggerheads regarding Max’s approach to scoring. Steiner’s preference for waiting to see a rough cut before writing themes annoyed Selznick because it often added unnecessary time pressure during postproduction. For his part, Selznick was unsparing in his criticism of Steiner’s efforts, sometimes describing individual cues as “dead” or “worthless.” When Selznick threatened to replace the entirety of Steiner’s score for A Star is Born (1937) with music he had written previously for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), Max had had enough. The pair would reunite, most notably on Gone with the Wind and on the homefront classic Since You Went Away (1944). But the scars of those previous battles remained, often threatening to sunder their professional relationship irrevocably.

The final section of Music by Max Steiner covers the final twenty years of the composer’s life, a period that saw some of his biggest successes and greatest heartbreak. After years spent struggling to write a hit song, Steiner broke through with a modest little ditty called “Theme from ‘A Summer Place.’” The timing was propitious. Max had been discharged by Warner Bros. five years earlier and incurred a mountain of debt in the interim. Steiner’s own spendthrift ways were exacerbated by the carte blanche he gave to his troubled teenage son, Ronald. With sales of more than seven million copies, “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” afforded Steiner a level of financial security he never derived from his film scores.

Not long after, though, Max would be devastated by the news that Ronald, his only child, had taken a fatal overdose of pills at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. Max, of course, lavished gifts on young Ronald as compensation for a lack of parental involvement. Spoiled rotten, as the saying goes, Ronald grew up to be an arrogant, undisciplined, and self-destructive teenager. In the aftermath of Ronald’s suicide, Max spent several months in self-imposed isolation. At age 74, Steiner was also legally blind. As Smith puts it, “Cataracts had reduced him to a helpless state. For nearly half a year, he simply sat, trapped in a world of darkness and guilt.” (395)

An offer from director Delmer Daves to score Spencer’s Mountain finally brought Steiner out of his funk. Max’s return to composing posed new challenges. He depended even more heavily on his orchestrator, Murray Cutter, and his wife, Lee, to assist him in getting his musical ideas on paper. Steiner wrote the film’s score largely on the basis of the dialogue track and Cutter’s description of the action. Years earlier, Steiner said of his music for The Informer, “A blind man could have sat in the theater and known when Gypo was onscreen.” ⁵ Steiner’s failing eyesight ironically reversed the situation. Now he was the blind man writing music for a film he literally could not see.

According to Smith, Max extracted a promise from his wife, Lee, to place the following items in his coffin: a pack of pinochle cards, two gin rummy decks, a box of cigars, and two bottles of bourbon. Max wanted to be prepared in case he met his old colleague Victor Young in the great beyond.

Surgery would improve Steiner’s eyesight, and he went on to score some utterly forgettable titles like Youngblood Hawke (1963) and Those Calloways (1965). Yet, by the end of the 1960s, Steiner’s style increasingly sounded quaint and old-fashioned. Less adventurous than the dodecaphonic harmonies appearing in scores like Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes (1967). Less groovy than the jazz, funk, soul, and rock idioms heard in films like The Graduate (1967) and Shaft (1971). After almost four decades in Hollywood, time had passed him by.

Max Steiner died on December 28, 1971, at the age of eighty-three. Even as his health declined, Steiner’s wit and cheerfulness remained steadfast. According to Smith, Max extracted a promise from his wife, Lee, to place the following items in his coffin: a pack of pinochle cards, two gin rummy decks, a box of cigars, and two bottles of bourbon. Max wanted to be prepared in case he met his old colleague Victor Young in the great beyond. It is a warm image and a fitting one: two old lions of Hollywood seated at a card table, their cigar smoke and their greatest musical themes wafting through the air around them.

This small anecdote further illustrates Smith’s triumph throughout Music by Max Steiner. Film fans long have known Steiner’s great music as well as his impact on the history of the Hollywood film score. Through meticulous research and a lively narrative sense, Smith’s biography provides a rich, detailed, and vivid portrait of the man behind it. More importantly, Steiner is a subject whose complexity matches or even surpasses that of the many screen characters his music accompanied. He is, by turns, avuncular, droll, industrious, and prodigiously talented. Yet, he also could be profligate, impulsive, and self-absorbed. Beneath Steiner’s massive output lay a tangle of insecurities that included a deep-seated desire for validation, a hunger for respect, and an occasionally desperate need for cash. Although Music by Max Steiner promises to be a must-read for anyone who wants an insider’s perspective on the music of Hollywood films, it also tells the tale of a semi-charmed life truly well lived.

¹ What makes this total especially impressive is the fact that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences did not have an award for Best Music Score until 1935. Steiner was recognized with seven nominations in only six years of eligibility.


² Kate Daubney, Max Steiner’s Now Voyager: A Film Score Guide, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 1-11; and Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood, (New York: Marion Boyars, 1993), 15-18.


³ To put this number into perspective, that sum would be more than $400 million when adjusted for inflation.


⁴ Steiner’s orchestral sketches were donated to the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University and are available to researchers.


⁵ “Music in the Cinema,” New York Times, September 29, 1935, section 10, p. 4.