Making Space for Music
Steiner’s Scores for Robert Wise’s So Big (1953) and Helen of Troy (1956)
Keywords:Max Steiner, Robert Wise, Hollywood studio, film music
Max Steiner met Robert Wise, future director of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), at RKO in the early 1930s. While Steiner served as composer and music director for films like Of Human Bondage (1934), The Gay Divorcee (1934), The Informer (1935), and Top Hat (1935), Wise helped manage the soundtrack as an assistant sound and music editor. After Steiner left RKO in early 1936, Wise stayed on at the studio to advance through the ranks of film editor and director before reuniting with Steiner at Warner Bros. for the melodrama So Big (1953) and sword-and-sandals epic Helen of Troy (1956).
Drawing on original archival research, this article reconstructs a partnership that briefly flourished at different stages of their careers. At RKO, Wise learned the trade while observing Steiner’s ground-breaking efforts as a composer. By the 1950s Wise was rapidly growing in renown as a director, as signaled by his assignment to the generously budgeted Helen of Troy. In contrast, Steiner faced pay cuts and the termination of his contract at Warner Bros. Steiner’s two productions with Wise boosted Steiner’s lagging career while also illuminating the ways in which shifting aesthetics and production practices in Hollywood had left Steiner at a disadvantage. Whereas So Big represented a throwback to films like Cimarron, which Steiner had scored at RKO in 1931 (both based on Edna Ferber novels), Helen of Troy marked a new emphasis on visual and aural spectacle, with an epic narrative told through CinemaScope, stereophonic sound, and a cast of thousands. Writings on director-composer partnerships tend to emphasize the formation of a distinctive sonic style, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Steiner and Wise, in contrast, were consummate studio employees, eager to serve productions that ranged widely in topic, genre, and budget. Studying their brief partnership in the 1950s reveals how two individuals well versed in the workings of the Hollywood studio system managed to help each other navigate its dismantling in the 1950s.
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