HISTORY & SURVEY OF FILM MUSIC

King Kong (1933)

Score by Max Steiner (1888-1971)

King Kong opened within the depths of the great depression- yet the film proved to be a major success, as moviegoers were eager to escape the problems of the real world for those of the fantasy world. The movie was a landmark in many respects. First and foremost were the cutting-edge special effects, which featured (among other things) an 18” stop-motion ape as the star character.  The film proved costly- $650,000 in production costs alone. There were many doubts about the viability of such a film, but RKO’s venture was well-rewarded, as it eventually grossed in excess of $2.5 million. 


The music to King Kong was no less groundbreaking. Max Steiner, an Austrian transplant to Hollywood, applied the operatic technique of composing “leitmotivs” for the main characters, creating unity between music and picture. Other features of Steiner’s compositional style include “Mickey Mousing”- or depicting detailed character movements within the music, and his strategic use of silence. 


Another innovation found in King Kong is it’s extensive use of sound effects and their integration with the musical score. Murray Spivak, the film’s sound effects technician, pitched the sound effects to match the key of the music. 

King Kong (1933)  Kong vs. T-Rex

“ King Kong was the film that saved RKO from failure. But when it was finished, the producers were skeptical about what kind of public reception they could expect. They thought that the gorilla looked unreal and that the animation was rather primitive. They told me that they were worried about it, but that they had spent so much money making the film there was nothing left over for the music score- and would I use some available tracks. I explained that we had nothing suitable. But the man who was most responsible for the picture, producer Merian C. Cooper, took me aside and said, ‘Maxie, go ahead and score the picture to the best of your ability and don’t worry about the cost because I will pay for the orchestra or any extra charges.’ His confidence in the film was certainly justified….. It was made for music. It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything, from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies.”


 — Max Steiner            

General Notes

Innovations in Sound Design

Innovations in Film Scoring

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King Kong Leitmotives

Score teeters from fear and danger to the Kong’s love for the girl (Ann Darrow)

Steiner often uses “Mickey Mousing”, or conveying character movements with the orchestra

Effective use of silence

Empire State Building Scene

No music during final battle creates tension

After kong is shot, music enters with a lamenting variation of the Ann Darrow theme played by the strings, followed by the Kong Leitmotif. This is the first time the themes are ‘resolved’ in the movie.

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