On Gone with the Wind, Selznick, and the Art of "Mickey Mousing": An Interview with Max Steiner

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS A COLLEGE SENIOR at UCLA back in 1967,1 needed one more humanities course to graduate. I enrolled in a class offered by the music department entitled "Background Music for Motion Pictures," in which we studied musical film scores and discussed such issues as the use of leitmotifs and underscoring for dramatic action. We were required to write a research paper on some aspect of background music, so I chose my favorite film of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939), which I had seen seven times (the film was slated to be re-released in 70mm later that year). I did not want to haunt the library stacks to find the answers to my questions about the score, so I decided to go right to the source-composer Max Steiner.

Born in Vienna in 1888, Max Steiner was a musical prodigy who studied under composer Gustav Mahler. He was composing music at age fourteen and by sixteen was conducting in England at His Majesty's Theatre. In 1914, Steiner emigrated to New York, where he conducted Broadway musicals and operettas before heading out to Hollywood. Over the next thirty-five years, Steiner composed musical scores for over two hundred films, including King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and A Summer Place (1959). He received eighteen Academy Award nominations and won three for The Informer (1933), Now Voyager (1942), and Since You Went Away (1944).

As Steiner explains in this interview, he believes a film score must serve the film's dramatic content, a technique that became known among his critics as "Mickey Mousing" (in reference to the kind of music heard in animated cartoons).

I used the Los Angeles phone book to track down the seventy-nine-year-old Steinerand arranged an interview with him. With my microphone and reel-to-reel tape recorder in hand, I went to his home, where I was shown by his houseman to his music room, which contained a grand piano, his numerous awards, and shelves of books, musical scores, and photographs.

MAX STEINER: What are you going to do with this interview?

MYRL SCHREIBMAN: I'm writing a five-page paper on the score of Gone with the Wind. I was listening to it again this morning and

STEINER: You have more guts than I have.

MS: Why?

STEINER: I can't stand it.

MS: The film or the score?

STEINER: The film. I don't like to look at the film. It's boring. It's twenty-eight years old. I don't like to listen to my old pictures. You know it's opening here in October in 70mm screen. The large screen. I don't know what the sound will be like.

MS: Did they rerecord your score?

STEINER: Well, sure, they did the whole picture. They say it is very good. I didn't see it. They are not quite ready yet.

MS: I remember seeing the film in 1961, when I was entering high school. I sat in the last row of the theater. At that age I didn't pay attention to the musical score orthe script or anything else as much as the acting and the story. Now, since I have been in this course, I have been examining scores in more detail. And doing research on your career I have come across quite a few interesting things. I read some place that it took you three months to write the score. Do you remember how long it took you?

STEINER: Three months. Maybe four. I don't remember because I did another picture, Intermezzo, and the Symphony Madera I wrote for Four Daughters at the same time.

MS: When you wrote the score for Gone with the Wind, did you write it for the actors, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, or did you write the themes for the characters of Rhett and Scarlett?

STEINER: The characters, naturally.

MS: Not necessarily for the actors playing the parts?

STEINER: You are influenced by what the person looks like. What Gable, Leigh, or Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie, looked likesure, it influenced me. Some of the new composers-I don't know what they are writing for. …