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Classical 101

Memorable Music in Old Movies: Monsters, Heroes and Oscars

black-and-white photo of Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in 1933 King Kong film
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Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933)

With the Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, I got to thinking about music in movies. This first of two blog posts offers a few personal—and maybe quirky—reflections on music from the early days of sound movies and a few old classic films that made innovative use of sound, especially symphonic music from three very talented composers.

I grew up loving old monster movies, so my first exposure to symphonic music played by an orchestra came from the soundtracks of films, such as the original 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, the 1933 King Kong and The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935.

In many of Hollywood's early talkies, like Dracula, there is no music at all during the film, except for the opening and closing credits. I was surprised to find out when I was a little older that I was hearing music from Act 2 of Peter Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker:


Using classical music, which was in the public domain, meant movie producers didn't have to pay anything to add music to their movies during this period when sound films were just getting established.

By the time of King Kong in 1933, original film scores added a new dimension to movies. Not only was there music throughout the film, but it was thoroughly integrated with the action of the characters on screen. Max Steiner was one of the first and greatest of the Hollywood composers.

Austrian-born Steiner was a child prodigy who received private tutoring from Gustav Mahler, wrote his first opera when he was 12 and was conducting orchestras by the time he was 15.

After moving to the U.S. in 1914, he established himself in New York. He worked for 15 years on Broadway, on operettas and musicals by Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, among others.

In 1929, California beckoned, and Steiner relocated to the West Coast, where he stayed the rest of his life. He wrote music scores for over 300 films for RKO Pictures and Warner Bros. during his career in Hollywood.

Steiner went on to write music for many more great Hollywood films after King Kong, including Gone with the Wind (1939), and win Oscars for Now Voyager and Casablanca (both in 1942). He was one of the great innovators and wrote exciting music for so many more classics, but the action-adventure film with heroes, dinosaurs and a giant gorilla still stands out among the rest:


The first Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff had no music at all, but the next Frankenstein film, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), got a lavish score from Franz Waxman, who went on to write music for many more classic Hollywood films:


Waxman was born in Germany in 1906, and became an orchestrator of film music while still there, including working on the score for The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich in 1930.

After the Nazis came to power, Waxman moved to the U.S., where he met director James Whale, who had made the first Frankenstein film and was now going to make a sequel. Waxman's score got noticed in Hollywood for its imagination, eerie brilliance and creativity, and Waxman became the head of music at Universal Studios.

Here's just part of the mad-lab scene for the creation of The Bride, with Elsa Lanchester in the title role:


The music matches the mood and action seamlessly in The Bride of Frankenstein, as in the concluding minutes of the film:


It was Waxman's music for Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller Rebecca in 1940 that really established his career as a film composer. He went on to write great scores for classic Hollywood films, and he won Academy Awards for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951), with many more nominations.

In the next blog post on Academy Award-winning composers for old Hollywood movies, it's Erich Wolfgang Korngold and swashbuckling adventure films with Errol Flynn.