Reconciling a Golden Age
by Jason Comerford
The following is an Opinion piece which does not necessarily reflect
the opinion of Film Score Monthly or its editors. Thank you for
not slaying us personally if you love King Kong.
When you're confronted with something from an elder era, your first
instinct might be to respect it, regardless of its quality or value. We
all have that instinct inbued in us; it's a reaction, an ingrained, direct
response to the normalcy of the everyday. But when you scratch the surface,
when you really start to look at it, sometimes you are disappointed, let
down; you are so used to being shown "classical" works of art,
literature, what have you, that when you examine them more closely and
find their flaws, you feel let down and almost cheated. You almost feel
like you shouldn't have been given the chance to examine it in the first
place, and rather let the idea of a perfect past carry through rather than
be confronted with the cold hard facts. On the other hand, sometimes such
an examination may yield far better results than you initially thought
possible, and you feel almost blessed that you've been privy to a rarefied
Such is how I felt about two recent film music releases, the rerecording
of Max Steiner's King Kong by William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony
Orchestra, and also the latest Varese Sarabande Fox Classics restoration
of David Raksin's Forever Amber. King Kong struck me as a deconstruction
of a myth, almost, while Forever Amber came across more successfully.
Updating a score from a forgotten era, a time before computer graphics,
MTV editing, and progressively louder sound mixes, has its advantages and
disadvantages. My quarrels with King Kong certainly don't rest in
the work of conductor Stromberg and reconstructionist John Morgan; their
work on Steiner's score is nothing short of brilliant, with careful, lavish
attention spent on Steiner's meticulous orchestrations and melodies. Rather,
my problems with the score lie more in the music itself, and less in its
presentation. King Kong is one of the earliest scores Steiner wrote
for RKO, and it proved to be the beginning of a long and prolific career.
Arguably, King Kong is also the score that gives Steiner a bad name
amongst the more modernistic musicians of the later decades; its lush string
passages, pounding jungle music, and overall sense of bombastic adventure.
The new recording of King Kong brings the music away from the film's
lousy prehistoric mono sound mix and gives it a more dynamic and far-ranging
reading, and that might just be the problem.
Scores from the thirties and forties and fifties and such, to me, seem
to have a timeless feel, and bringing an element away from them and modernizing
them can at times be like, for instance, colorizing an old black-and-white
movie. The film was shot in black-and-white, projected in black-and-white,
and initially viewed in black-and-white; what makes anyone think that it
will be a "better" movie if it is colorized? My point (and I
do have one) is that the validity of rerecordings is something that will
always be called into question. King Kong, for me, has always been
a fusion of that very same "old fashioned" craftsmanship; dated
special effects, even more dated dialogue ("Say, I guess I love you!"
ten minutes into the film), and a one-channel soundtrack that's about as
far from dynamic as it gets. Still, it works, and it works because of its
flaws. It's a relic from a begotten era, and pure magic at that.
The music is very much the same way. It's a pounding panache of Romantic
melodies and savage tropical ambience; it's "Bacchanale" times
ten, plus a bit of, say, Chopin-styled lyricism thrown in for good measure.
You could argue the musical validity of early film music for decades, calling
it a mere imitation of classical music, or call it a form all to itself,
inspired by but not steepled in the processes of classical composition.
Steiner's approach to King Kong was purely "Beauty and the
Beast", and he goes after this idea seemingly without thinking about
variation or introspect.
Granted, my perspective is from one accustomed to contemporary film
music stylings and from an interest in understated thematic and orchestrational
variation. But King Kong, the score? Frankly, it bored me, when
it wasn't blasting my ears out with strident brass passages for Kong and
gagging me with stridently swoony love themes. I've not a problem with
bombast, but King Kong is such an all-out assault on the senses
that it's very hard not to keep skipping from track to track in a vain
attempt to find something new and different. Of course, this was more than
likely precisely the point all along; King Kong is not a psychoanalysis
of a monster; it's a full-speed-ahead adventure that isn't interested in
anything except providing a grand helping of entertainment, and then some.
There's a lot to the score that I enjoy, mind you: Kong's theme, the
descending three-note brass-based motif, is one of the all-time great monster
themes (it gets a gorgeously elegiac reading in the "Main Title"
and "Finale" cues); "Jungle Dance" is a wonderfully
helter-skelter piece of Saint-Saens-inspired madness; and even the love
theme ("Stolen Love") gets points for wistful nostalgia in the
face of such rampantly overwrought surroundings. But, to me, King Kong's
parts are better than its whole, and the myth is somewhat sullied because
You'd think, then, that I'd have also disliked David Raksin's Forever
Amber, yet another breathtaking Nick Redman-produced restoration job.
No one was more surprised than I when I found myself loving it. Forever
Amber is an unashamedly lush romantic-adventure score, but, unlike
King Kong, its stylings are far less obviously contrived. Raksin's love
theme is given several different variations throughout the new Varese CD's
five ten- to twenty-minute suites, something that Steiner's Kong music
couldn't seem to do. And his action/chase scherzos are some of the best
I've heard from a period romantic adventure; damned if they aren't exciting
without being condescendingly mickey-mousey.
What I find most interesting and entertaining about Forever Amber
is the way that it consistently modulates and develops as it goes along,
without sacrificing its form or content. The suites on the Varese disc
are extremely well-chosen and organized (64-odd minutes from a 110-minute
score, according to Jon Burlingame's liner notes), and allow the listener
to hear its progressions in a more natural sense. Amber's theme, the crux
to the score, goes through so many consistently intriguing variations throughout
the score that when it finally returns to its original orchestration in
the score's climactic passages, it's enough to give you chills.
Less interesting in the score are its frequent "Royal Court"
cues, which are tiresome and overlong, but serve well enough to remind
you exactly what kind of genre the music resides in. The canon-style composing
is often too prevalent in the music, almost enough to overshadow its more
effective thematics and instrumentations. Not quite, however; the "music
of the court", as it's called, is, under Raksin's skilled hand, saved
from monotony through his talent for progessing modification.
All in all, Forever Amber's presentation on disc preserves its
status as a reminder of a forgotten time, far more effectively than the
new King Kong recording. Rerecordings can work, mind you (the McNeely-Herrmann
series, for instance, or any of the Goldsmith-North series as well), but
in the rare instance of King Kong, it might be better to let well
enough alone. William Stromberg and John Morgan's work on the restoration
and rerecording of King Kong is certainly something to be savored
and enjoyed, but too often the final product magnifies its flaws. The case
is different with Forever Amber, which comes across as a much more
coherent and intruiging effort. Still... it's up to you to decide what's
Bring on the debate! firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Comerford can be reached at email@example.com