MUSIC BY MAX STEINER: THE EPIC LIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST INFLUENTIAL COMPOSER by Steven C. Smith (Oxford University Press)
You don’t need to be musically educated to appreciate or enjoy this thorough, meticulously researched and entertaining biography. Smith, who wrote the definitive book on Bernard Herrmann (A Heart at Fire’s Center) many years ago, offers a sympathetic portrait of a man with enormous talent and all-too-human foibles.
Steiner was the father of film music as we know it. History would have us believe that it was King Kong (1933) that persuaded Hollywood studios and producers of the value of a full orchestral score. Smith correctly identifies Symphony of Six Million and The Most Dangerous Game as just two of the many RKO features (produced by David O. Selznick in 1932) that paved the way for Kong and everything that followed. Although Max Steiner is firmly associated with Warner Bros. for most film buffs—he even composed the studio fanfare—it was another Selznick production, Gone With the Wind, that yielded his most enduring composition, “Tara’s Theme.”
Steiner was the son of a famous showman and entrepreneur who had a profound impact on the cultural life of Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gabor Steiner was also a man who piled up debt with alarming regularity, an unfortunate habit he passed down to his son. Smith captures the many contradictions of Max’s personality—a healthy ego that masked deep insecurity, a work ethic that brought him fame but torpedoed two marriages and laid the groundwork for his son’s tragically troubled existence. His career was punctuated by success and frustration in roughly equal measure.
The golden nuggets spread throughout the book are Steiner’s hilarious, ribald, politically incorrect notations that he penciled on the musical sketches he presented to his orchestrators (primarily Hugo Friedhofer and, in later years, Murray Cutting).
Smith also acknowledges the composer’s habit of embellishing the story of his life in his unpublished autobiography and his penchant for borrowing from himself or assigning tasks to other composers and orchestrators under his name. But Steiner could never be counted out. Even when it seemed his career was over, it rose from the ashes in the 1950s with one final triumph: the extraordinary success of “Theme from ‘A Summer Place,’ ” which brought him financial security in his final years. This bittersweet biography is long overdue, and serves as a fitting tribute to a man whose influence cannot be overstated.
CHASE! A TRIBUTE TO THE KEYSTONE COPS compiled and edited by Lon & Debra Davis; foreword by Sam Gill (BearManor Media)
Mack Sennett’s frantically ineffectual constabulary, hopping up and down and careening around dangerous corners in their Tin Lizzy, are one of the enduring images of early silent-film comedy. Yet no one has ever paid close attention to this emblematic group: when were they invented, who appeared in those films, and how many times were they “reunited” in tributes to silent comedy? You’ll find all the answers and much more in this anthology of articles by the leading experts in the field, including Brent E. Walker, Sam Gill, Marc Wanamaker, Michael J. Hayde, John Bengtson, Randy Skretvedt, and Joe Adamson, to name just a few. Their topics range from biographical sketches of the actors who took part to the mythology that has surrounded these legendary figures in the decades since the second decade of the 20th century, when they made their memorable debut. Generously illustrated with rare photos and advertisements, Chase! Separates fact from fiction and provides a filmography of genuine (and even bogus) Keystone Cop screen appearances. Bravo to Lon and Debra Davis for pulling all of this together in a book that’s fun to browse and ready to be consulted for years to come.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES: A MEMOIR by Janis Paige
If a friend hadn’t recommended this self-published book I might have missed it altogether. I grew up a fan of Janis Paige from her many appearances on television variety shows; it was only later that I came to know her film work, notably opposite Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings. The 97-year-old star has quite a story to tell, and also imparts the wisdom of a woman who has seen manners and mores change (and devolve) over the years. You can choose to take these passages to heart or skip over them as you please.
What matters more is the story of how a single appearance at the famed Hollywood Canteen won her an interview with Louis B. Mayer, and how the same day she was let go from MGM her agent took her to talent executive Solly Biano and walked her onto the set of Hollywood Canteen at Warner Bros.,. where she worked for the next five years. She then paints a vivid picture of what it was like when that blanket of security was suddenly removed and she had to fend for herself by touring what was left of vaudeville in “presentation houses” around the country. Eventually she won a costarring role in the Broadway production of The Pajama Game and a enjoyed a long television career.
Paige describes all of this in the kind of detail that makes you feel as if you’re there with her…whether it’s receiving a sudden invitation to spend Thanksgiving with Frank Sinatra and his family in New York City or chancing to meet Eleanor Roosevelt one day in her apartment building.
I thoroughly enjoyed this journey through an interesting life, experiencing personal and professional highs and lows. I remain a Janis Paige fan and if you have similar feelings I urge you to read this book.
THE ANIMATED PETER LORRE by Matthew Hahn (BearManor Media)
I’ll admit I initially cast a fish-eye on Hahn’s earlier book called The Animated Marx Brothers, but I wound up recommending it. It’s a valid reference work and also fun to browse. Now the author has turned his attention to the unique and unforgettable actor who became a fixture in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s, Peter Lorre. His bulging eyes and distinctive features made him a caricaturist’s delight, while his purring voice inspired a generation of mimics. His visage and/or speaking voice turns up in an astonishing 700 theatrical cartoons, TV shows, commercials, and even video games! You can learn about, or compare notes on, almost all of them in this encyclopedic paperback which celebrates the 1941 Warner Bros. short Hollywood Steps Out as the ultimate “Lorre Tune,” earning five giggles and deeming it “the gold standard of Lorre impersonations and caricatures.” I see no reason to disagree.