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ClassicsOnline Home » STEINER: Son of Kong (The) / The Most Dangerous Game
By Brian Wilson Download Roundup
By John J. Puccio
By Adrian Edwards
Max Steiner (1888–1971)
The Son of Kong (1933)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Score reconstructions by John Morgan
Ray Harryhausen, Maker of Monsters, on Max Steiner, Maker of Music …
What an exciting surprise it was when I first heard these new re-recordings of Max Steiner's The Most Dangerous Game and The Son of Kong. For many years, I have wished for these scores in modern sound minus all the villainous snarling and prehistoric roaring and sundry sound effects. How marvelous it is to at last have it with a full symphonic orchestra under the very talented conductor and film composer Bill Stromberg. I really never thought I'd hear these scores on their own.
Some years had passed since its initial release when I first came across that wonderful, compact film The Most Dangerous Game. At the time, I had no idea what the title even meant. I must have entered the theater after the credits, and yet I instinctively knew, upon hearing the music, I was in the presence of Max Steiner. One would never believe such a film score was written way back in 1932. That haunting waltz and what it becomes embeds itself long in one's memory.
I was especially surprised at how wonderful The Son of Kong sounded. Although I've always felt The Son of Kong, as a film, lacked some of the inspiration that characterizes King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game, there is nothing at all lacking about the music. I am delighted to be re-introduced to this revelatory Steiner score. The tune Runaway Blues is especially delightful as it weaves its way through the rest of this exciting, atmospheric score about life back on Skull Island.
I am most grateful that veteran film composer John Morgan has resurrected these scores, so important in both music history and film history, for new generations to hear, admire and appreciate. True, the subject matter may not be everyone's cup of tea – giant apes and rampaging dinosaurs and remote jungle islands and merciless hunters are probably an acquired taste – but it is hard to imagine these, even today, without the power of Max Steiner's music to back them up.
Ray Harryhausen has created visual effects for such enduring classics as Mighty Joe Young, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, to name but a few. Harryhausen received a special Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1992 for his contribution to the world of cinema.
Lost Worlds and Forgotten Music:
Max Steiner's Legendary RKO Scores
As much as Babe Ruth, Frank Buck or Will Rogers, composer Max Steiner – or rather his music – fired the imagination of an entire generation of Americans, and during some of the country's most trying times. When King Kong descended upon movie-goers in spring 1933, Americans found a fantastic, faraway refuge, if but for a few hours, from the winding soup lines of the big cities and raging dust storms in the parched, rural Midwest. They found refuge, too, from the hard fact that one-fourth of the nation's workforce was out of work (including 400,000 lost souls right on the streets of Los Angeles) while many others struggled just to hang on. In the vast, darkened palaces that were the movie theaters of the era, viewers could sympathize with the pretty, trembling, blonde damsel in distress portrayed by Fay Wray, marvel at the amazing stop-motion prehistoric creations of special-effects pioneer Willis O'Brien and revel in the strange chords and thundering climaxes of Max Steiner's trend-setting, fully symphonic film score, which made entirely believable the mystery of uncharted Skull Island, the anxiety of intrepid adventurers quite out of their depth and, finally, the fury of a giant, jungle-stomping, dinosaur-busting, native-eating, train-derailing, skyscraper-scaling ape, albeit one with an oversized heart to match. If King Kong was truly the "Eighth Wonder of the World," to quote fictional, marketing-savvy adventurer Carl Denham (as well as RKO's real-life promoters), then Max Steiner's massive, dynamic score certainly qualifies as a "Ninth" in the realm of film music, starkly forward-minded in its highlighting of far-fetched happenings in unlikely places, yet respectfully observant of operatic traditions extending all the way back to Richard Wagner and, in some respects, even further. Steiner, blessed with a larger-than-usual studio orchestra to work with, later singled out King Kong as a picture that would challenge any composer to furnish his very best. "It was made for music," he said. "It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything, from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies."
When King Kong was felled at the end, another daring foray into Hollywood film-making came to a triumphant close – and while the film's huge success at the box office immediately brought demands by studio executives for a sequel, The Son of Kong would experience the fate so many sequels do after magic has struck. Although again helmed by producer Merian C. Cooper and director Ernest B. Schoedsack, The Son of Kong was given a mere six months for production – an outlandish expectation for a film involving the painstakingly slow, meticulous process of stop-motion animation. In addition, the budget was roughly one-third that for King Kong and Steiner found himself back to the usual puny orchestral set-up, which really qualified more as a chamber ensemble, even though the adventurers were once again returning to Skull Island and meeting up with other oversized prehistoric beasts, including Kong's snowball-hued offspring. That Steiner rose to the challenge is further evidence of the resilience, energy and industriousness he displayed during his RKO years. His scores from this pivotal, pioneering period, ranging from the lively Most Dangerous Game to the luminous She, showcase imagination and inventiveness, easily eclipsing many of his better-known scores in later decades.
With a cut-to-the-bone budget, frantic shooting schedule and less-than-inspiring story that drags till showman Carl Denham (ebullient Robert Armstrong) again arrives on Skull Island, The Son of Kong probably should have been far less successful than it was. In truth, O'Brien's meticulous stop-motion animation in the sequel in many ways outshines that in King Kong. And while Steiner had just over two weeks to write nearly 45 minutes worth of new music (with the film itself being released 20 December 1933 – just three weeks after the hurried soundtrack was recorded), the composer nevertheless furnished an imaginative, thoroughly winning score that today remains one of his most attractive of all. Much of this comes from his crafting of an infectious blues tune – his own so-called 'Runaway Blues' – and setting it loose throughout the score, thus endowing both the music and the film with an easy, all-American charm. The tune even resounds, albeit ominously, after the airing of Little Kong's own leaping motif, which introduces the score's Main Title. These two motifs are followed by a more familiar one – that for the unfriendly island aborigines from the original King Kong score – just to remind and reassure us that we will soon be re-entering the realm of King Kong. After Runaway Blues finally erupts in more engaging form about a minute into the Main Title, it cleverly gives way to King Kong's heavy, descending, three-note motif from the earlier film as the sequel's action opens upon a poster of the giant ape – all that remains of Carl Denham's dashed dreams for King Kong and himself. Ironically, the four-note, so-called "courage motif," again from King Kong, and more often used to gauge the anxiety levels of the astonished adventurers while dealing with Kong and his overgrown neighbors, also surfaces as King Kong's motif first airs in the sequel. What's more, in the cue's final seconds, the courage motif sets off on its own, sounding in a humorously mocking way on one woodwind after another, signifying that showman Carl Denham's stealth and daring are now employed in avoiding process-servers around New York City in the wake of King Kong's brief but destructive reign.
It is little wonder Runaway Blues is so fitting as a motif, particularly since both Denham and later Hilda, a young American woman he befriends in the Orient, are fleeing one thing or another. Space here doesn't permit a complete analysis of the entire score (though one is provided on an earlier deluxe edition of this album, Marco Polo 8.225166). However, the blues tune dominates The Son of Kong, including in the cue Runaway Blues, where the melody returns in a more intimate setting, suggesting an unfulfilled longing for home as it airs passionately on a cello, then bass clarinet and finally the rest of the orchestra. It also figures in the subsequent cue Fire! When the tension explodes in this cue, accompanying a scene in which a two-bit circus succumbs to arson, Steiner unleashes a hot-footed piccolo (undoubtedly manned by a player with large lungs!) to scamper above it all in short, staccato bursts, suggesting frenzied flames dancing to and fro. The composer's imaginative picture-painting also finds high clarinets flitting about briefly, representing the trained monkeys and seals that quick-thinking Hilda turns loose before the ramshackle tent becomes a blazing inferno.
Other highlights in the score show up once our intrepid adventurers land on Skull Island. They include the cue Quicksand – Little Kong, which has us on largely new musical turf with a scurrying figure in the strings conveying the rush by guilt-ridden Denham and animal-loving Hilda to aid Little Kong, mired in quicksand. Runaway Blues sounds as they undertake their good-hearted mission, the last chords resplendent in deep, rich orchestral garb with a very deliberate and proud harp glissando. A few moments later, we are greeted with an obviously comic treatment of Little Kong's motif on a muted trumpet, suggesting this well-intentioned chip off the old block will prove far less trouble than his father. Although this motif can sound properly brawny with the right orchestration and dynamics, the affectionate ape's motif is often carried by a solo instrument and sometimes in humorous guises. When the somewhat naïve ape's motif is given over to the aforementioned solo trumpet, Steiner's sketches indicate the solo is to be played "screwy," and on the original soundtrack it definitely is. And Steiner never lets us completely forget Little Kong's famous parent. When Denham talks to a ship captain about Little Kong (about two minutes into the cue Quicksand – Little Kong), Steiner mournfully reminds us of Papa Kong (and, incidentally, Mahler) with repeated mention of King Kong's three-note motif, including on a most woeful-sounding trombone.
Although Steiner's The Son of Kong score lacks anything as intoxicatingly primitive as the earlier score's sacrificial dance, it does provide its share of vibrant action music. That includes a loud and defiant cue originally titled The Stegosaurus which composer John Morgan, while reconstructing this violent scene from the remaining original sketches, quietly retitled The Styracosaur after noticing ever-busy Max Steiner had gotten his dinosaurs mixed up. (Incidentally, this sequence – scored for a scene in which a trio of adventurers is pursued and cornered in a rocky crevice by a mammoth horned dinosaur – is original and does not echo the like-titled but entirely different cue Stegosaurus in the King Kong score.) The following cue, The Black Bear, is also particularly exciting, as well as being extraordinarily difficult to perform. Based primarily on Runaway Blues and Little Kong's motif (the latter first heard in this dramatic cue on two clarinets in unison), this rousing, Wagnerian piece pauses only when Little Kong takes a fall or commits a blunder, compelling the composer to bring dramatic action in the music to a halt to take notice of this dose of physical comedy with the aid of a soprano sax playing Little Kong's motif, again in a "screwy" manner. "This fight is intended to be somewhat humorous!" Steiner mockingly scribbled on sketches to his long-suffering, resourceful orchestrator, 34-year-old Bernhard Kaun (who, ironically, had once arranged Wagner's music for the New York release of Fritz Lang's famous film Siegfried, complete with dragon). "Orchestrate it the best you can! My work is silly enough!" Certainly, Kaun and Steiner succeeded in their task, whatever reservations they may have had, and when Little Kong at last drives the black bear off into the forest, they concoct a fierce whining and whimpering in the violins, high clarinets and piccolo to convey the utter humiliation Little Kong heaps upon the beaten beast. (Steiner specifically mentions the bear "yipping" in his sketches.) And yet, such nonsense remains resolutely musical and utterly engaging.
Despite the prehistoric trappings, this score often reflects tenderness and compassion, such as when Denham and Hilda attempt to bandage the injured finger of their new simian friend. Ironically, Little Kong's largely insignificant wound causes him initially to object to medical attention in the most infantile of ways, his howling captured among screaming brass and winds almost a minute and a half into Finger Fixings. Much of this cue is devoted to Little Kong's motif (after an introduction that includes the playing of the courage motif on the harp). Often Little Kong's motif airs on a highly expressive solo violin line. At one point King Kong's legacy is again evoked. The following cue Campfire at Night finds Runaway Blues and a lovely theme first heard in An Offer of Help settling down with Little Kong's own motif for an idyllic nocturne serenading Denham, Hilda and Little Kong into peaceful dreams. The ominous, ascending motif from the King Kong score's own cue The Island (complete with the courage motif on a wayward flute, nervously supported by clarinet and oboe) reminds us that dangers still lurk on Skull Island.
With the film's short running time nearly out, the time for nonsense on Kong's island is nearly at an end. Johnny Get Your Gun finds Steiner engaging in an inside joke as he makes an allusion to George M. Cohan's famous tune Over There while Little Kong makes mischief with Denham's weapon. (Steiner was firmly established as a Broadway maestro when the legendary, song-writing showman wrote Over There honoring the first Americans dispatched abroad and into World War I.) The heartbreaking Finale finds Papa Kong's formidable motif sounding in the strings and brass as saxophones and woodwinds swirl about maddeningly in the tempest and earthquake that, in one of Hollywood's most unlikely happenings ever, suddenly overtake Skull Island. In the ensuing fury, Little Kong's motif howls loudly and beseechingly in the brass, defying the heavens and pleading with them at the same time. All of this overwhelms an equally desperate version of 'Runaway Blues' as the amiable ape perishes along with his island, even as he saves Carl Denham before vanishing beneath the waves. In the film, the calamity that grips the island and swallows up Little Kong, the dinosaurs and the natives is accompanied by music tracked in from King Kong, notably The Bronte. But Steiner's new material – highlighted in this massive reconstruction – shows that the composer's powers for chronicling the horrifying and the catastrophic in music stand unrivaled. In what little time remains in the film, Steiner revives the mood of romance and hope for those lucky enough to survive, though not before paying homage to the title character's noble sacrifice. In the end, an upbeat rendition of Runaway Blues for full orchestra concludes this unlikely fantasy adventure story on a high note.
If George Gershwin crony and famed American wit Oscar Levant was correct in his estimation – that Steiner's rambunctious music for King Kong was, for its time, "one of the most enthusiastically written scores ever composed in Hollywood" – he might well have found even more to praise in Steiner's music for The Son of Kong, which not only boasts further orchestral savagery but revels in the home-grown blues Levant himself so eloquently championed as a pianist. Although the score for The Son of Kong has been largely forgotten today (or undermined by ignorant critics who harped that the picture was tracked almost entirely from music in King Kong), its example at the time reaffirmed the path blazed by King Kong. Steiner's alternately rambunctious and atmospheric music for King Kong and The Son of Kong touched many a movie-goer, both in 1933 and later, among them Ray Harryhausen. The special-effects master long lamented he never landed Steiner as a composer on one of his own celebrated animation epics. "Oh, but I wish we had," the 80-year-old filmmaker ruminated decades later. "When we made The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) as an independent film and it was sold to Warner Brothers, I was hoping Max Steiner would take on the score, but I don't think he was even approached. He was a first-class composer – and I think they saw The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as a second-class picture!" While Harryhausen admits finding the comic antics of The Son of Kong a step down from the stature of King Kong, studio harpist Louise Steiner Elian, who played under Steiner in both of these scores and also married the composer, insists Steiner found good-natured amusement in the light-hearted sequel. "He really thought it was a cute idea, and certainly the effects behind this cute albino ape were wonderful," the once-busy musician recalled at age 94. In any case, the charming score for The Son of Kong, when set apart from the film, arguably makes for a far more cohesive and pleasurable listening experience than even that for King Kong, for all its titanic, ground-shaking verve. The music for King Kong demands our respect, and without question; the music for The Son of Kong wins our affection, and effortlessly.
Steiner wasn't originally slated to compose the score for The Most Dangerous Game. He had assigned the task to W. Franke Harling, a minor composer whose opera A Light From St. Agnes nevertheless became the first American opera produced in France in 1929 and who just two years later scored Schoedsack's much-praised though somewhat controversial jungle epic Rango, about an orangutan that lays down its life to save a human companion. Harling composed a complete score for The Most Dangerous Game, but when Cooper – then still new to the studio – heard the music, he decided it was far too light, suggesting Broadway more than the remote jungle isle of Count Zaroff, whose pastime consists of hunting shipwrecked "guests" for sport. Although Steiner was buried in other projects, Cooper pleaded with him to completely redo the score, partially because the producer had been so impressed with Steiner's earlier RKO score for director King Vidor's Bird of Paradise. Cooper's arguments concerning the Harling score are remarkable for the time and display a rare insight into the potential of film music. In fact, only weeks later, when Steiner had settled down to scoring King Kong, Cooper reportedly reminded Steiner not to lean too heavily on his own Broadway experience (though, indeed, with their thumping saxophones and tubby tuba section, the scores for both King Kong and The Son of Kong do sound at points as if some massive Broadway orchestra were attempting its very own The Rite of Spring, thus lending these scores a certain unique sound in terms of orchestration and texture). In the end, overworked, 44-year-old Max Steiner put aside Harling's music, endured more sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days, and completed scoring The Most Dangerous Game just two weeks before the film's 9 September 1932 release date.
For all the pressure Steiner labored under, his score for The Most Dangerous Game ranks as one of the true milestones of film music in the 1930s. It is also one of the reasons this cinematic version of the 1924 Richard Connell short story remains the finest of a long line of remakes. The story – today the only work remembered from a former newspaperman who also wrote novels and movie scripts – was fleshed out for the film, complete with a romantic interest, though both the film and the score give little evidence of any actual romance. What's more, Steiner shows great resourcefulness in his tense reworking of the principal motif – a somewhat melancholy waltz favored by the mad Russian count (and actually by Steiner) and representing the most dangerous game. The count (Leslie Banks) even plays the waltz on the piano at one point early in the film, though the Main Title gives us a better idea of the sinister forces behind the count, the transfigured waltz exploding in the orchestra after the persistent sounding of the hunter's two-note motif, itself cleverly derived from the melody and used here to begin the score. The score's only idyllic moments follow after this, suggesting an unwary group of seagoing adventurers steaming too close to the count's island, only to crash upon the rocks because of deliberately misplaced buoys. Thundering timpani and blaring ostinatos tossed madly between the brass and woodwinds effectively convey shark attacks on survivors in The Wreck, obviously reminding Steiner of a similar episode in Bird of Paradise and prompting him to scribble sarcastically to orchestrator Bernhard Kaun: "We've got a shark in every picture, by Jesus!"
Again, space here precludes a detailed analysis of the score, but highlights revolve around the hunter's theme, shown in both civilized garb in the cue Russian Waltz (when one of Zaroff's guests asks the piano-playing count for "just a good tune … not highbrow") and in evil guise in the cue labeled Incidental Music. This latter cue finds the tune giving way to the count's own dark influences – Steiner's way of conveying the horrible truth, even before the orchestra explodes in a somewhat over-the-top moment as the camera zooms in to show Zaroff looking particularly demented. Agitato finds the castle deserted at night (with a lone flute briefly sounding the waltz at the outset), only for adventurer Bob Rainsford and another shipwrecked guest, pretty Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray), quickly giving way to panic, mirrored in a frantic motif for strings that captures the nervous quality Eve displays in the face of danger. The cue ends with another airing of the count's murky motif, this time on a clarinet and bass clarinet in spooky-sounding octaves, before the orchestra unleashes another howl of awful dissonance.
Eve's motif panics again in The Iron Door as she and Rainsford are turned out of the dank castle and invited to try eluding till dawn the count's deadly skills as a hunter, conjured up here by various renditions of the hunter's waltz. A leaping figure in the strings, punctuated by horn calls, nicely captures Rainsford's resolve to rise to Count Zaroff's challenge, hunter to hunter. Finally, we are treated to an especially creepy airing of the count's motif that sinks to the deepest depths of the orchestra. Serving as an effective prelude to the particularly anxious music ahead, Night begins with a rising bass clarinet line carrying Rainsford's motif, answered by other winds and then strings (as well as a flute and harp that hint at the courage motif of the still-to-come King Kong score). Mounting chords beginning in the orchestra's lower regions accompany Zaroff as he closes in on the pair in The Count Approaches. This sparks Eve's jittery motif as the evening's quarry once again realize just how heavily the odds are stacked against them. The count's motif materializes nearby and the two-note hunter's call sounds eerily in the distance. The resumption of the waltz in the brass and the ticking of a harp prompt a particularly insistent announcement of Rainsford's motif to finish out this cue, though motifs continue to interact in Misterioso Dramatico, which includes a dissonant tumbling of brass to convey a rock plunging into a ravine, plus a particularly menacing sounding of the waltz to conclude the cue as Zaroff announces to his weary prey he is setting the dogs loose on them as they try to flee into the swamp.
And so begins one of the most exciting symphonic sequences ever written, either for concert hall or movie screen. With a sudden splash of the harp, an appropriately Russian-sounding passage erupts and the score's thrilling chase music begins, trumpeting similarly high-charged music to come in Kong Kong but here sustaining the frenzied pace for much longer. All motifs and themes that have gone before are swept up in this headlong orchestral onslaught, the hunter's horn calls dominating it all and the resolute motif for Count Zaroff indicating his increasing advantage as he pursues Rainsford and Eve through the fog-shrouded swamp and across a deep chasm in The Chase and The Chase Continues. On the original soundtrack, one can sense the nearly complete exhaustion of the players, particularly a drained trumpet player as Rainsford and Eve cross a log over the chasm. (When Louise Steiner Elian was reminded of Steiner's sometimes massive scoring and the trying workouts he often gave studio musicians, the retired harpist declared: "I'd much rather be playing than counting 198 measures of rest!" The composer's resourcefulness is evident even in this reconstruction of the score for full-sized orchestra. Just over four minutes into The Chase, the composer – unable to add any more instruments to the intense rage he is whipping up in his own minuscule studio orchestra – puts the chase music into minor-seconds, creating a particularly disturbing bitonality that chillingly conveys outright frenzy among the dogs as they bay at their human prey from the base of a tree while fighting one another. The broad musical gestures in The Waterfall seem to promise some relief, but the tension in the orchestra only gathers again before Rainsford and one of the dogs plunge into a waterfall. About a minute and a half into this cue, the horns seem to revel in the almost orgasmic thrill Count Zaroff experiences at the game's outcome, his motif becoming more settled as Eve's own is given another chance to succumb to dread. The cue finally concludes with the horn calls signaling hunt's end, though subsequent cues indicate that, unbeknownst to the overly confident count, the game is not over.
Even when divorced from the breathlessly enthralling film for which it was written, Steiner's score for The Most Dangerous Game retains every bit of its visceral, gripping power, suggesting the grand evolution of those soaring, horn-filled, symphonic depictions of hunts so fancied by composers of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, both it and Steiner's score for The Son of Kong are able to vie on their musical merits alone, particularly in their complete forms, thanks to the composer's readily communicative narrative quality, his fanciful way of redressing and altering his engaging motifs and themes and, finally, his sheer eagerness to please. As for Steiner's supposedly shameless habit of "mickey-mousing" – yes, there is ample evidence of that, though those critics who endlessly harp about this forget that film composers ranging from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Bernard Herrmann to John Williams have also engaged in the practice, and that many film composers who have strayed into this habit have failed to acquit themselves with the utter musicality and sharp wit that Steiner displays. For instance, there's a sense of wonderfully disruptive alarm that, in The Most Dangerous Game, actually heightens the musical suspense when, 37 seconds into The Chase Continues, Steiner acknowledges a hunting dog's sudden misstep. Steiner's wide-ranging playfulness is evident throughout The Son of Kong, including such graphic mickey-mousing as the grandly descending passage, almost a minute into the cue The Old Temple, to enhance Little Kong's helpful tearing down of a temple wall to reveal hidden treasure. But there is also drollery in his aforementioned, upbeat take on the opening lyric of George M. Cohan's tune Over There that opens Steiner's cue Johnny Get Your Gun, which airs when Little Kong innocently examines Denham's shotgun. And when the orchestra is sounding its colorfully comic trills in the Finale of The Son of Kong, Steiner calls for the rubbing of sandpaper by a percussionist, obviously to illustrate Little Kong scratching his head in utter bafflement (though, with everything else going on in the orchestra in the re-recording at hand, you either hear it or don't hear it just as well as you do – or don't – on the original 1933 soundtrack). "The boys loved Max," Louise Steiner Elian said of fellow RKO studio musicians when toiling under their hard-working music head. "Max had a great sense of humor and he'd inject a bit of that humor into whatever we were doing, which was certainly nice when we were working frantically against the clock, and that was most of the time." Perusing Steiner's sketches reaffirms not only his keen musical insights but his famous sense of humor. At one point in the sketches for The Most Dangerous Game, Steiner scribbled one of his occasional, wry asides to his orchestrators, remarking wickedly on the clingy heroine portrayed by Fay Wray and the frantic manner in which she clutches a candlestick in manly Joel McCrea's presence. "Max's humor is always evident," noted John Morgan, who has probably done more than anyone to ignite serious interest in Steiner's music and knew the composer from his own youth. "Here he'd been working on this score all night long, around the clock, and yet he'd still find time to stop and put these bons mots and jokes in!"
Bill Whitaker, 2000
With the success of our complete recording of Max Steiner's King Kong and numerous requests for more Steiner music from this rich period at RKO, we decided to record both the sequel to Kong – namely, The Son of Kong – and King Kong's predecessor, The Most Dangerous Game. This was no easy task as the music had to be reconstructed and completely orchestrated from Max Steiner's original sketches. Bernhard Kaun had originally orchestrated (and brilliantly) all of The Son of Kong and a substantial part of The Most Dangerous Game, but due to budget restraints (resulting in far fewer players than even Papa Kong had), much of the detail, timbre and soundscape Steiner indicated in his sketches simply could not be realized at that long-ago time.
The Son of Kong was a rushed production from the get-go as RKO wanted to get this film out as soon as possible, owing to the enormous success of King Kong. Steiner composed substantially new music for this film, deftly reworking some of the motifs from King Kong into the fabric where dramatically and thematically appropriate. Because of the above-mentioned budget restrictions, The Son of Kong utilized an orchestra of no more than 28 players (compared to the 46 in King Kong). It is quite remarkable then that the original recording sounds as full and grandioso as it does, despite the woefully undernourished string section – six violins, two violas, two cellos and two string basses, one doubling the tuba!
Orchestrator Kaun used every trick in the book to get more out of the orchestra: The string parts were full of double-stops (a technique where the string player plays more than one note at a time). Although a legitimate device, the awkward finger positions required often resulted in bad intonation and a somewhat weak sound in RKO's minuscule string section. Like King Kong, there was a great amount of doubling in the woodwinds, with some players asked to play several different instruments, including saxophones. In the early days of sound recording, saxophones provided a fuller, rounder sound than some of the traditional woodwind family and were often used to provide clarity in counter-melodies. Since I wanted this score to be presented the way Steiner had envisioned it in an ideal world, I orchestrated the complete score directly from Steiner's original sketches, incorporating the touches and detail he could only imagine but had clearly indicated in his sketches.
Like The Son of Kong, The Most Dangerous Game ended up with a very tight schedule for completion of the music, though for very different reasons. Because of Steiner's workload at RKO, he assigned W. Franke Harling to write the score for The Most Dangerous Game. Harling composed a complete score and recorded it, but when producer Merian C. Cooper heard it with the film, he thought it was too "Broadway-light" for the subject matter and went to Steiner and asked him to compose a replacement score. Cooper was familiar with Steiner's earlier Bird of Paradise (1932) score and knew Steiner could provide the drama and excitement the film needed.
The orchestra for The Most Dangerous Game was only slightly larger than that for The Son of Kong, with a total of eight violins this time! For the reasons given in respect to The Son of Kong, I orchestrated this score directly from Steiner's original sketches, which, like The Son of Kong's, were more ambitious than the budget allowed. Almost one-half of the 63-minute film contains music. Because Steiner was supplying a replacement score, he had only two weeks to compose the music, including the last 11 minutes which consist of fast-paced chase music with thousands of notes! If these weren't enough headaches, Bernhard Kaun couldn't do all the orchestrations in the allotted time and some were farmed out to Emil Gerstenberger, who occasionally orchestrated for Steiner. The composer found Gerstenberger's orchestrations too florid, however, and made numerous changes before the copyists got to them. Because of this hectic schedule, Steiner wasn't as specific in his sketches as he normally would have been, and since I was freshly orchestrating this music, the two comments I dreaded most in Steiner's written instructions to his orchestrators were: "Phone me and I'll explain" and that cryptic abbreviation "Etc."
I find it particularly gratifying to reconstruct music – and for full symphony orchestra – from this early period of sound film. For one thing, the original music tracks for The Son of Kong and The Most Dangerous Game no longer exist; beyond that, owing to limited orchestra size and archaic sound recording of the period, this music has never, until now, been heard with all the thrilling detail and rich dynamics Max Steiner originally envisioned.
John Morgan, December 2000
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