Max Steiner’s Early Western Film Scores
Keywords:Max Steiner, Dodge City, thematic development, self-borrowing
Michael Curtiz’s 1939 Dodge City ushered in a new era for the Western genre. Successfully modeled on the popular swashbuckler, this film was at the forefront of a renaissance in the production of feature-length Westerns that would continue almost unabated until the 1970s. Dodge City was closely modeled on previous Warner Bros. swashbucklers, retaining the same director (Curtiz) and several actors. Yet the decision to have Max Steiner create the musical accompaniment, instead of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, offered a fresh approach. Steiner’s prior experience with Westerns made him appropriately suited for this project as reflected in his composition and treatment of themes, as well as in his carefully crafted action music. Steiner’s music reflects the epic qualities of Dodge City, including the scenic surroundings, the tense action scenes, and the developing romance, yet with the added characteristics evocative of trains, wagons, and horses. Utilizing his original sketches for Dodge City, this essay examines how Steiner created a Western sound that was inspired by previous romantic swashbucklers, but altered to accommodate the frontier setting. To understand how Steiner tempered the dramatic intensity of the costume drama to complement the Western aesthetic, I focus specifically on the culminating action scene, examining how Steiner developed thematic material to underscore action scenes and reused key passages to create contexts for
understanding the characters.
Kalinak, Kathryn. 2007. How the West was sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Slotkin, Richard. 2009. Western movies: Myth, ideology, and genre, “Dodge City.” Lecture. Audio podcast, January 8. https://www.owltail.com/podcast/94744-western-movies-myth-ideology-and-genre/episodes
Smith, Stephen C. 2020. Music by Max Steiner: The epic life of Hollywood’s most influential composer. New York: Oxford University Press.
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