Friday Film (2) you’ve read — and can still remember! — last Friday’s ‘film & music’ posting, which touched upon the use (and non-use!) of music in some early Universal Studios horror films, you’ll know that I promised to say something this week about the RKO film King Kong (1933). Specifically, I want to demonstrate a few things about ‘use of music’ in a film that appears to have done a great deal to turn the ‘sound film’ into something wherein a more or less continuous musical accompaniment was not only considered acceptable, but even normal.

I should say right away that in connecting King Kong with this development, I’m not pretending to have made ‘a discovery’: this diagnosis is among the commonplaces of film history (and, as such, ought perhaps to be questioned more often than it is…). All I’m doing here is exhibiting a few clips that will convey a couple of little points that — in my humble submission! — aren’t always noted spontaneously by people when they watch the film: if you’ve overlooked them before, at least you won’t overlook them now…

First of all, let me make what I think is a worthwhile point about the film’s opening twenty-odd minutes. You see, it seems to me that if some 1930s version of you or I had wandered into a cinema all those years ago, we would very likely have come to the conclusion, after the first ten minutes, that the film’s overall use of music was going to be firmly in the ‘minimal’, ‘theme music and credits music only’ bracket (like the examples we know in the form of Dracula [1931] and Frankenstein [1932]). I’ll explain why I say that in a few minutes. First, to get everyone on the same ‘horror-mayhem’ wavelength as quickly as possible, here’s the opening minute and a half of the film as seen and heard…

… And, since that clip is missing the musical ‘sequel’ that leads over into the first scene, here is the entire stretch, from start to finish, in a modern performance of a reconstructed score. I should perhaps mention that those opening credits include the name of the film’s composer, Max Steiner (1888-1971), but not the name of the guy who did all the orchestration — and therefore wrote out a great many more notes! This was Bernhard Kaun (1899-1980), the man who composed the (title-)music for our 1932 Frankenstein — and wasn’t credited for that, either.

Now, the reason I feel able to tell you what we’d all have thought, back in 1933, is that once this opening music has faded out over the start of the first scene, the film makes as if to proceed without any need for further music. Take for example, the point where our character Carl Denham persuades the penniless Ann Darrow to be the actress on his film-making adventure. In the succeeding half-minute or so, we see the scene wrapped up without any music; a new time and location established without any music; and the next scene begun (and Jack Driscoll introduced) without any music: ‘modern’ film language is so committed to using bits of music at such points that I myself can hardly watch this juncture without adding music in my head. Here’s the entire passage:

And the fact is that the film behaves as one that eschews ‘background’ music for more than 20 minutes: the ship sets off; it journeys across the ocean; people on board meet and interract in various ways; Ann Darrow screams for the first of many, many, many times — and only at what turns out to be the end of the outward voyage do we next encounter any music. And, once it starts, it doesn’t stop for quite a while

(Before you ask: no, I don’t know why everybody who speaks in this film sounds a little drunk. I suppose the most likely possibility is that everyone on-set was constantly a little drunk…)

Having shown you that long clip, I really can’t stop myself saying a few things about it. First of all, while it may be perfectly reasonable to feel that music enters at that point to highlight our arrival at a new and strange place which, in positively every respect, is at maximal remove from the ‘everyday world’ of Depression-era New York — and that those long-held harmonies make a good musical analogue for a situation where dense fog shrouds a slow-moving ship — it also seems to me that the music started there because it had to: the quality of scriptwriting at this point is, if I may say so, so desperately poor (“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten. You told me.  Skull Mountain.”) that the film would have died on its backside here, had something not been done to redeem the non-spectacle of people standing still and mouthing rubbishy lines into mist while nothing happens…

Secondly, note that in spite of all the various kinds of distance by which the B-flat-major ending of the post-credits wind-down is separated from this point of geographical and dramatic ‘arrival’, Steiner and Kaun maintain a rather remarkable degree of ‘unity’ between the two junctures. Let me clarify that remark with a clip that places the two musical ‘edges’ together in a way that the film doesn’t: motivically (descending three-note phrase) and texturally (rippling harp sounds), the new musical ‘entrance’ has prominent details of the previous ‘exit’ very much in mind…

Thirdly, note that the orchestra had no hesitation at all in powering in over the top of the natives’ singing and drumming: the music ‘intrinsic to the action’ (diegetic is the trendy film-studies word) is pretty well drowned out by what the added, extrinsic (non-diegetic) score pours over it in an attempt to provide musical ‘intensification’ — even at the cost of all pretence at sonic ‘realism’.

Fourthly, and if I may clog the proceedings for a moment with my own evaluations, I have to say that, here as elsewhere, there’s jolly little that Max Steiner does that actually delights or excites me musically. In this respect he’s less of a Korngold (whose film music always holds — and rewards — my attention throughout) than he is a Waxman (whose stuff is no doubt ‘effective’ and ‘competent’, but never really matters to me). In fact, if you will allow me to be totally frank, I think that what Steiner wrote for this film would be the most abject rubbish imaginable were it not for the circumstance that ‘imagination’ could never be connected with it in any way. For one thing, there is the fact that there is almost no musical contrast within the 70 minutes of music Steiner produced: not only is that descending three-note shape (‘Kong!’) heard literally everywhere, but even the feeble attempts at creating other themes, other leitmotivs, produce descending stepwise shapes that are practically indistinguishable from it. And, if you want another example of an unforgivably sub-musical sin of which Steiner is guilty time after time, I can refer you to what is a simply outrageous amount of ‘mickey-mousing’: over and over again, the music offers musical gestures that mimetically copy or exaggerate elements of the visual action. See if you can tell what I mean…

If you think that treatment of the native chief’s walk introduces a dramatically undermining ‘cartoon’ feeling to the scene, you’re not alone; likewise if it seems to you that quite a strong current of casual racism must lie behind this and every other aspect of the scene’s ‘anthropological’ characterisations. Mind you, it’s not as if the basic conception of the film itself is a million miles away from the store of deranged race-hate that has been only too happy to speak its name throughout all of US history. And 1933, we remember, was less than one lifetime after the ostensible cessation of slavery; 18 years after the cinematic carnival of racist fantasy that was The Birth of a Nation (complete with ‘feelgood’ lynching), and more than 30 years before the end of segregation and ‘Jim Crow’…

“Where are de white women at…?”

All the same, I do feel for Steiner and Kaun, at least to an extent: it must have seemed a pretty thankless task to spend eight sleep-deprived weeks producing sequence-ridden outpourings of ‘horrifying’ harmonic dissonance, most of it at a batteringly high dynamic level, as a mere accompaniment to screams, roars, shrieks, howls, grunts, gunshots, and the implicitly gruesome deaths of terrified but wholly anonymous characters…

Since it is often reported that the use of ‘so much music’ in [the latter two-thirds of] the film was caused by the need to find a way of ‘covering the inadequacy of the stop-motion animations’ and ‘bringing the various creatures more fully to life’, it is worth pointing out that two of the movie’s most powerful animated sequences are actually presented without music. The first I’ll leave unidentified — so that everyone who doesn’t know what it is can discover it for themselves next time they see the entire film. The second, though, I want to include here — even though it constitutes a ‘spoiler’ for anyone who doesn’t know how the film and its titular character reach their respective ends. (Yes, I know I inveigh all the time against commentaries that ‘give the game away’ — but this film is a world classic of stressedly popular culture, and it’s been around since 1933, so what’s your excuse…? In any case, you can always skip this particular clip, if you’ve not yet seen the entire film…)

In preparation for this final clip, five points. First, Steiner’s musical thought here is, at times, as utterly moronic as anything in this (or indeed any other) score: Kong climbs slowly upwards using four limbs — so the music does too… Secondly, note the fluent use of pictorial space: as Kong climbs, the planes first appear level with him — but by the time they reach the centre of the screen, he has risen above them and they pass through the ‘screen space’ he has vacated. (Then we cut to another view — which allows us to see Kong and the planes tightly in the same shot — as, intensifyingly, they pass right behind him. Nice!) Thirdly, even more mickey-mousing; enough said. Fourthly, note where — and why — the music stops. Fifthly, note where — and why — the music starts again…

I hope that, by now, my mixed feelings about this film have been made plain. Overall, it is a remarkable — and, by its end, remarkably moving — achievement. But to get to that appreciation, one has to fight one’s resistance to a clunky script, hammy acting, far too much screaming, a simply breathtaking amount of White American racism, and a score that does not merely dive to the bottom of the musical barrel, but scrapes its way through and keeps on digging…

But don’t take my word for it. Watch the whole thing for yourself: here is the full-length King Kong (released 7 April 1933)

— And, when you’ve watched that, watch Son of Kong (released 22 December 1933): a film which hardly anyone seems to have seen, and which — while by no means a ‘blockbuster’ like its predecessor — actually contains a measure of directly expressed sorrow and remorse that, so far as I know, makes it unique in film-sequel history. It also has a score by Max Steiner — in which a good deal of now-familiar material appears. Remarkably — in view of the haste with which this spin-off was produced — the script and acting are vastly better


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2 thoughts on “Friday Film (2)

  1. According to Steiner – admittedly a not unbiased source – the studio “attributed at least 25 per cent of [King Kong’s] success to the music”. And Oscar Levant – remember him? – is reported as saying he always felt that Kong should have been advertised as a concert of Steiner’s music with accompanying pictures on the screen. This, despite all those music-less minutes prior to the fog. What I’ve tried to find – and failed – is evidence that the lack of music early on might have been due to the film’s production problems, specifically the budgetary ones (the score, not to mention an orchestra considerably larger than the industry norm, was funded by its principal director, since production was already way over-budget).


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