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KING KONG – Max Steiner

October 12, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director and screenwriter Merian Cooper awoke one night from a nightmare of a giant gorilla terrorizing New York City. The nightmare served as the catalyst for conceiving a film, which would pit the giant gorilla against a Komodo dragon and other beasts. He pitched his idea to R.K.O. executive David Selznick who saw opportunity to lift the struggling studio out of debt and tasked Cooper with both producing and directing the film. To save money he would use stop-motion animation, as well as the huge jungle stage that had been built for The Most Dangerous Ground (1932) rather than shooting on location. A screenplay was crafted by Cooper, James Creelman and Ruth Rose, which secured Selznick’s blessing. The cast would include Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, Bruce Cabot as John Driscoll, Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn, and Noble Johnson as the native chief. The story offers a classic “Beauty and the Beast” tale, which takes place in 1932 and is set in New York City. Famed filmmaker Carl Denham has conceived his most audacious film yet, which will be shot on an isle of legend – the uncharted Skull Island where resides an enormous best of unfathomable power. He finds Ann Darrow, a young actress down on her luck and offers her a role of a lifetime, starring in his new film to be shot on an exotic South Seas island. She jumps at the opportunity and they set sail on the Venture for Skull Island.

Upon arriving, they encounter a native village that resides beneath a massive stone wall. The Chief desires the golden-haired Ann and offers six women in trade, but us rebuffed. Later that night the natives sneak aboard the ship and kidnap Ann, who they intend to sacrifice to the Great Kong. Kong becomes enraptured with Ann, who he takes and protects. What follows is a fight for survival as the rescue party encounters many ferocious beasts as well as Kong with only Driscoll, Denham and Ann surviving. Denham manages to capture Kong and takes him back to New York in chains intending to profit from his display as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. All goes awry when flash photography enrages Kong who breaks free, grabs Ann and scales the Empire State building. In a battle for the ages, Kong fights for his life against the relentless strafing runs by circling airplanes, but the bullets take their toll, mortally wounding him and he falls to his death.

The film was a massive commercial success, which saved R.K.O. Studios from bankruptcy earning $5.3 million or eight times its production costs of $672,000. Critical reviews were favorable although it did not secure any nominations from the Academy of Motion Pictures. The film’s legacy is notable, securing a ranking of #43 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Film list. It also spawned a franchise of seven films, which has spanned nine decades; Son of Kong (1933), King Kong vs Godzilla (1962), King Kong Escapes (1967), King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives (1986), King Kong (2005) and Kong: Skull Island (2017).

Cooper was told by R.K.O. executives to use stock library tracks for his score as his budget had been exhausted. Yet for Cooper the film was a passion project and he refused to short change his vision. As such he hired Max Steiner, the head of the studio’s music department to write an original score for which Cooper would pay $50,000 out of own pocket. If Steiner slightly cracked open the door for film scores with “Symphony of Six Million” (1932), his stunning effort with “King Kong” (1933) ripped the door completely off its hinges! This film was a seminal event in the history of Hollywood filmmaking where Steiner boldly crossed the Rubicon and in so doing forever changed the course of the film industry. His score, one of the finest ever written, infused the film with a call to adventure, a sense of mystery, romance and ultimately savage primal terror. All this served to reinforce the film’s amazing imagery and story telling by catalyzing a stronger and more lasting emotional reaction by the audience. There was no longer a case for denying the value of a film score. A cash poor public, now reeling from the economic collapse of the Great Depression, repeatedly came to the theater in droves thus filling to overflowing the studio’s coffers. As such, Steiner can be viewed as a transformative agent since henceforth musical scores would be woven into the basic tapestry of each film; there was no turning back. Music would now both inform us of critical film elements, but also act synergistically in partnership to support the film’s narrative.

A forty-six-member orchestra – large for the times – would be used, with many musicians playing multiple instruments. Stylistically Steiner would employ classical leitmotifs as the architecture of his score, which would be anchored by four primary themes. In a masterstroke he captured the film’s emotional core with his thundering three note theme for Kong, which emotes ominously from out the lowest depths of the orchestra with awesome primal power. The theme offers a descent, yet is versatile and at times will ascend, often synchronized with his on-screen footfalls. The theme permeates the score and its articulation varies from the monstrous and primal, to tender when he bewitched by Ann’s presence. The second primary theme is Ann’s Theme, which provides the score’s only feminine construct, and perfectly juxtaposes Kong’s Theme. It serves as her identity but also a Love Theme, which speaks of her two lovers, John and Kong. Steiner offers a classic long lined melody by strings romantico and woodwinds gentile, which graces us with its fragile beauty. The third primary theme is the Native Theme, which serves as the identity of the island’s tribal natives. It offers kinetic rhythms born of nativist drums, chattering xylophone, woodwinds, and propelled by strings furioso, which fully capture their primitive aboriginal auras. Lastly, we have the Crew Theme, which serves as their identity. It offers a simple fast paced four-note woodwind line, which is light-hearted and playful.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Steiner grabs the audience and reels them in. After the display of the Radio Pictures Studio Logo, Kong’s Theme resounds powerfully and supports the roll of the opening credits. A fleeting quote of the Love Theme ushers in the driving rhythms of the Native Theme, which gains force by an accelerando, cresting at 1:16 with powerful horns bellicoso resounding as “King Kong – The Eighth Wonder of the World” displays. At 1:22 we segue into a plaintive rendering of Kong’s Theme as an Arab Proverb displays;

“And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.”

A diminuendo of uncertainty closes the cue as we move in and see the docks of New York harbor. There is no score for over twenty minutes, during which time Denham has recruited Ann for his film and fled New York harbor before the authorities impound his gas grenades. A nascent attraction develops between John and Ann over the many days of sailing. In “A Boat in the Fog” the ship has turned southwest into uncharted seas. A fog bank envelops the ship and Steiner sows unease with an eerie mysterioso born of woodwinds and harp.

“The Island – The Railing” reveals the Venture exiting the fog bank to behold the ghastly Skull edifice of the island. Ominous horns portend danger as a steady distant drum cadence fills the air. At 0:48 the Crew Theme sounds on woodwinds as Denham, Ann, John and an armed party of 12 men prepare to depart for the island. Tension is sustained by grim horns and drum cadence, with the Crew Theme returning at 2:05 as they reach the beach and disembark. Dark and menacing strings carry their progress as they approach the village and look upon the massive stone wall towering over them. In “Jungle Dance” we see the tribe assembled for a ceremonial dance of native men dressed as apes who are preparing a virgin girl for sacrifice. Steiner supports the scene with an extended rendering of the exotic Native Theme, which builds with energy upon its repeated dance-like phrases into a swelling crescendo. The music never crests, but instead ends abruptly as the Chief notices the landing party. “Meeting With the Black Men” offers a tension cue as the chief and his guard come to parlay with Denham. A dark descending horn line carries his progress down the stairs. As the two parties parlay a menacing Native Theme and the Crew Theme interplay. We build quickly to horn declarations as the natives observe the golden woman. As the Captain and the Chief converse Steiner sows unease as the Chief barters six women for Ann. Denham declines diplomatically and they return to their boat in a slow, non-threatening manner. For “The Little Monkey Escapes” it is a shame this delightful piece was dialed out of the film. Charlie’s monkey breaks his leash and runs amok with the crew in pursuit. Steiner composed a playful and comedic scherzo with interplay of the Crew Theme on solo oboe.

“Sea at Night” offers a romantic score highlight with John and Ann spending a quiet moment together on deck. After much hesitation all pretenses are dropped and John professes his love for Ann and they kiss passionately. Steiner supports the intimacy with an exquisite full rendering of the Love Theme. When John is ordered to the bridge, she remains on deck savoring the moment. At 2:18 we segue atop dark tremolo strings and swelling horns sinestri into “Forgotten Island” where a native raiding party sneaks aboard and kidnaps Ann. A brief quote of the Crew Theme reveals the watchman caught unaware. Charlie raises the alarm when he finds a native bracelet on deck. A search for Ann reveals that she has been kidnapped and a rescue party is formed. An ominous pounding cadence of nativist drums supports the scene and their departure. “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance” offers another score highlight and one of the finest cues in the maestro’s canon. Steiner whips his orchestra into frenzy, unleashing the furor of the Native Theme with pounding drums barbaro and swirling strings furioso. We witness a ceremonial dance unfolding in savage splendor as they prepare to sacrifice Ann as the bride of Kong. At 1:44 a stepped ascent supports Ann being led upstairs to be bound to the pillars of a sacrificial altar. We close on a crescendo of fury as the natives assemble on the wall and prepare to call Kong.

“Entrance of Kong” reveals the Chief summoning Kong with massive gong strikes. Kong’s Theme supports his massive footfalls and approaching menace. At 0:49 he breaks through the trees to reveal his monstrous primal power. Within the surging orchestral menace, we see in Kong’s eyes a softening as though he is bewitched by Ann’s golden hair appearance. Steiner speaks to this with a beleaguered rendering of the Love Theme on a series of ascending statements, which close as he gently unbinds her and takes her in his grasp. At 1:51 we segue into “The Sailors” atop strings agitato with Steiner again unleashing an orchestral torrent as the rescue party races to the gate and unbolts it. Half the men stay to hold the gate while John leads the rest to recover Ann. Kong’s Theme carries their pursuit and we transition at 3:22 to the plodding Traveling Motif, which supports the rescue party’s pursuit through the jungle. At 4:03 a dark chord followed by dire horns declarations support the discovery of a massive footprint. The Traveling Motif returns as the march continues until 4:22 when we segue into “Stegosaurus” atop dire horns as they spot the dinosaur. Steiner build tension until 4:47 when trumpets sound as the Stegosaurus charges. A martial rendering of the Crew Theme supports their actions to stun the beast with a gas grenade, and then bring it down in a hail of bullets. We close at 6:02 carried by the Traveling Motif as the men continue their pursuit.

“The Bronte” offers an outstanding and ferocious action cue. The Traveling Motif is sustained with interplay of the Crew Theme as they reach a swamp, which requires they build a raft to proceed. They set sail carried by their theme until ominous horns sound at 1:28 followed by an orchestral ascent as a massive Brontosaurus rises out of the depths and then disappears into the waters carried by a descent motif. At 1:58 it attacks and the crew battles for their lives supported by a martial rendering of their theme. It is for naught as they are capsized. Steiner creates a cacophony of horror as the men swim for their lives, while some are devoured. At 3:06 an accelerando of terror commences as the Brontosaurus chases the men through the jungle. As they flee for their lives the Crew Theme struggles against the relentless orchestral pursuit fury of the Brontosaurus. At 4:11 an ascent motif carries a man up a tree, but the attempt is futile as he is devoured. The crew continues to flee, swept forward by an orchestral torrent and manage to elude the beast. At 4:47 Kong is sighted. He walks on a log atop a ravine, places Ann in a tree, and then moves back to confront the rescue party. The men are carried to a log that traverses a ravine by the orchestral torrent and their beleaguered theme. We close atop a powerful statement of Kong’s Theme as he confronts the men. In “Log Sequence” the men are unarmed and trapped on the massive log. John vines done to a ledge below while the men struggle to hang on as Kong shakes them off one by one to their death below. Swirling strings and horns of doom join in unholy communion with Kong’s Theme, which resounds with primal fury. We close with a dissonant crash as Kong tosses the final man and log to death below.

“Cryptic Shadows” reveals John fighting off with a knife Kong’s attempt to grab him from the ledge below. Repeating phrases of Kong’s Theme support his failed efforts to grab John. A serpentine ascent motif supports a lizard climbing up a vine to threaten John. He cuts the vine sending the lizard plummeting, and resumes his cat and mouse game with Kong. At 1:05 Ann’s Theme enters followed by a blaring horn alarm as a Tyrannosaurus Rex sees her and moves in for the kill. Her screams bring back Kong to defend her carried by his theme. The battle scene was not scored. In “Stolen Love – The Cave” Kong prevails and takes Ann away. We open with grim horns and a plaintive oboe as Denham locates John. He cannot reach him as they are on opposite sides of the ravine, so Denham agrees to go back to obtain help while John continues to try to rescue Ann. The Love Theme enters at 0:24 again informing us of Kong’s interest in Ann. Steiner sows unease as John uses stealth carried by a fast-paced Traveling Motif to move closer undetected, as repeating phrases of Kong’s Theme portends danger. At 3:01 plaintive horns and strings support Denham’s reunion with the crew. As he tells what has happened a fleeting statement of Ann’s Theme is heard. A subdued statement of the Native Theme follows after the Captain informs Denham that their gunshots sent them fleeing to their huts. Denham orders a new rescue effort and at 3:52 we shift back grimly to Jack who has followed Kong into a cave.

“The Snake” reveals Kong placing Ann safely on a ledge supported by the Love Theme. At 0:33 a serpentine motif carries the approach of a large snake, which unleashes an orchestral maelstrom as the two beasts battle with Kong’s Theme ascendant. Low register pulses carry Kong’s footfalls as he carries Ann to an exterior ledge, which offers a commanding view of the island. He roars and beats his chest to declare his dominance supported by thundering horns and his theme. The music softens on strings gentile and joins with sensual adornment as Kong begins to undress Ann, who has fainted. At 4:17 comic woodwinds support his playful tickling, which wakes Ann up. The Love Theme unfolds as it is now very apparent that Kong is enraptured by Ann. Alarm sounds at 4:38 with a rising menace as Jack causes a rock to fall, which sends Kong to investigate carried by his theme. At 5:12 we segue atop blaring flutter horns into “The Bird” as a Pterodactyl lands and tries to grab Ann, whose screams bring Kong back to her. Once again Steiner supports a fierce battle with a torrent of orchestral mayhem. A descent motif enters on strings as Jack rescues Ann and they descend using a vine. Kong discovers this at 5:40 and begins pulling them up supported by an ascent motif, yet Ann loses her grip and falls followed by Jack. At 6:26 we segue into “The Swimmers” as Jack and Ann plunge into the waters below supported by a descent motif. Their escape enrages Kong and his anger resounds with a crescendo of fury using repeating statements of his theme. We close on a diminuendo as Jack and Ann safely reach the shore.

In “The Return” Jack and Ann count their blessings and run for the gate carried by a faced paced rendering of the Traveling Motif, which crests joyfully on her theme as the reach the safety of the gates. The Crew Theme welcomes the two back, but the joy is short lived as we segue into a ferocious score highlight with “Hey Look Out! It’s Kong, Kong’s Coming!” as the enraged Kong is fast approaching. The crew and natives work jointly to seal the gate before Kong arrives supported by a frantic Native Theme. At 0:47 Kong arrives and attempts to smash open the gate supported by his thundering theme. The Love Theme joins the orchestral rage, informing us of Kong’s motivations. At 1:32 he pummels the gate and crashes through it causing everyone to flee in panic. Horns of doom joined with Kong’s Theme resound as the gate is breached. Steiner whips his orchestra into frenzy as Kong sets out on a rampage killing many as he destroys the village. At 3:57 Denham makes a last stand at the shoreline where he uses his stun grenades to tranquilize Kong. An orchestral crash followed by a tortured diminuendo supports Kong collapse into a stupor. Kong has been chained and taken back to New York where Denham intends a theater spectacle to exploit him for money. In “King Kong March” regal fanfare supports the lighted theater display “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder Of The World”. As throngs of people flow into the theater Steiner supports the festivities, crowd anticipation and Denham’s story-telling with Kong’s Theme rendered as a marcia bravado. As Denham takes to the stage he is greeted with applause and we conclude with a horn fare flourish.

“Fanfares 1, 2, 3” reveals Denham’s spectacle where he introduces Kong to the audience. As the curtains rise a grand fanfare rendering of Kong’s Theme born my horns maestoso support the unveiling. As Ann is introduced regal fanfare brings her on the stage. We conclude with a third fanfare by horns eroico as Jack is introduced and arrives on stage, In “Kong Escapes” the press corps’ photo flashes enrage Kong. A crescendo builds on his theme and crests when he breaks his chains. Pandemonium erupts as he crashes out of the theater and goes on a rampage. Steiner supports the rampage with ferocious horns, cymbal crashes, which swell into a ferocious orchestral fury as he begins killing people. At 1:23 the Love Theme enters as Kong seizes a woman from her apartment, who he mistook for Ann. Jack takes Ann to her apartment where she can be kept safe. Their Love Theme supports his efforts, yet Kong is not to be denied. At 2:20 his theme sounds as he smashes the window, knocks Jack out and seizes Ann. His theme resounds with repeating phrases as he revels in regaining her and ascends to the roof. We close with desperation as Jack and Denham seek a means to rescue her. “Elevated Train Sequence” reveals Kong back on the ground and angered by a passing elevated train. He climbs up to see another train approaching fast from a distance and destroys a section of the track. Chirping woodwinds usher in a swelling crescendo of doom as the train moves ever closer. At 1:19 Kong’s Theme resounds and joins with dissonant burst as the train crashes to a stop and he begins pummeling it in a rage, with orchestral strikes supporting each blow. We close darkly on his theme as he moves off from the carnage.

In “Aeroplanes” we have a score highlight with exceptional thematic interplay. Military planes are dispatched to take out Kong as he begins a long ascent to the top of the Empire State building supported by an ascent variant of his theme. At 1:02 the music crests as he reaches the top, lays Ann down and prepares for battle with the approaching planes. In a masterstroke Steiner joins Kong’s Theme with a heroic rendering of the Love Theme as he fights for Ann. After he sets Ann down the pilots opt to attack. We close with a descent motif as the planes descend quickly on an attack run. “Finale” offers a poignant score highlight. It reveals the strafing runs of the plane finding their mark. Kong is wounded and picks up Ann for one last glance and moment together. At 0:41 a plaintive rendering of his theme joins with the Love Theme as his eyes say his last goodbye and sets Ann down. At 1:06 Kong is mortally wounded and in his death throes. Tragic statements of his theme carry his final gasps of life as he plummets to his death. An ascent motif carries Jack to Ann and as they embrace the Love Theme blossoms. Down below Denham relates that it was not the airplanes that killed Kong, rather it was “Beauty that killed the beast”. We close the film with a last tragic rendering of Kong’s Theme, which culminates in a grand flourish.

I wish to commend John Morgan and William Stromberg for this long-desired release of Max Steiner’s masterpiece “King Kong”. I believe Morgan has meticulously reconstructed, re-orchestrated and restored Steiner’s handiwork to its original magnificence, and the conducting under Stromberg’s peerless baton is brilliant. The audio quality is excellent and provides a superb listening experience. Folks, this is the score that started it all and earned Steiner his epithet as the “Father of film score music.” It is an epic work whose opening massive and descending three notes powerfully inform you that a great adventure lay in store. Steiner understood that the story revolved around an emotional connection formed between the beauty and the beast. As such, given Kong’s inability to express himself in language, it was necessary to anthropomorphize him by transcending the limitations of his instinctual animal nature musically. As such we hear in his Steiner’s music an expression of Kong’s fascination and affection for Ann. His ability to use the full might of the orchestra to emote the primal power of Kong was also masterful. The action writing by Steiner in scene after scene showed the power of music to enhance film imagery. Yet there is more, his writing for the natives, which is showcased in “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance” and “Jungle Dance” are kinetic tour de forces that offer testimony to Steiner’s mastery of his craft. I believe this score to be one of the finest in Steiner’s canon, a seminal masterwork, which launched the Golden Age, and highly recommend you purchase this exceptionally crafted album for your collection

To provide a taste of Steiner’s magnificent effort, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTdOjpGhvPs

Buy the King Kong soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:08)
  • A Boat in the Fog (1:36)
  • The Island – The Railing (3:32)
  • Jungle Dance (2:34)
  • Meeting With the Black Men (3:26)
  • The Little Monkey Escapes (1:14)
  • Sea at Night – Forgotten Island Steiner,… (3:38)
  • Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance (3:48)
  • Entrance of Kong/The Sailors (7:04)
  • The Bronte (5:43)
  • Log Sequence (1:20)
  • Cryptic Shadows (1:46)
  • Stolen Love – The Cave (4:39)
  • The Snake – The Bird – The Swimmers (7:38)
  • The Return (1:28)
  • “Hey Look Out! It’s Kong, Kong’s Coming! ” (4:50)
  • King Kong March (3:12)
  • Fanfares 1, 2, 3 (0:49)
  • Kong Escapes (4:26)
  • Elevated Train Sequence (2:04)
  • Aeroplanes (2:07)
  • Finale – It Was Beauty Killed the Beast (3:03)

Running Time: 72 minutes 05 seconds

Marco Polo 8-233763 (1933/1997)

Music composed by Max Steiner. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by The Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Bernhaud Kaun. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by William Stromberg and John Morgan.

  1. October 28, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    Saved as a favorite, brilliant web site!

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