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Missing the Boat for Skull Island

by Jason Comerford

I liked Ron Pulliam's subject for his feedback email to the FSM mailbag that I decided to use it for the title of this column. Thanks, Ron!

The feedback for my recent opinion piece on King Kong and Forever Amber mostly centered on one complaint: that I disregarded the historical significance of Max Steiner's score and reacted to it from a desensitized, contemporary viewpoint. Which is, to a certain extent, true. Being of a later generation of film music aficionados, it's likely that my own feelings regarding Max Steiner's music are due to a generational gap. But you know what they say: variety is the spice of life.

From: MarcGothic <MarcGothic@aol.com>

    The new score for Kong is breathtaking, I know everyone has an opinion, but Mr. Comerford has no no sense of wonder at all. Kong is one of the greatest scores ever written. Steiner is not a favorite of mine, but his score paved the way for what film writing is today. The only piece of music that seems dated is the love theme. But Kong is a very modernistic score if there is such a thing. It isn't like most 30s or 40s scores. It certainly fits in with todays non-memorable bombastic scores. Except with one difference... Kong is memorable and is also a classic score in its own right. Case closed Jason!

Hey, I've got a sense of wonder! E.T. still gets me every time. On a less facetious note, maybe it's because I've seen King Kong so many damned times that I'm tired of it, plain and simple. I do agree with Jeff Bond that the new Stromberg / Morgan reconstruction has opened up a lot of fascinating elements to the music, but these elements, in my opinion, may supplement and enrich the larger canvas of the music. But they don't automatically make it better than a lot of other scores, be they by Steiner or any other composer in a similar genre.

Before I move on to the next comment, I'd like to point out MarcGothic's later sentence: "It certainly fits in with today's non-memorable bombastic scores." Uh--isn't that just a trifle disparaging, when you're trying to defend the music? I think I've said enough.

From: "Peter J. Apruzzese" <starvid3@concentric.net>

    If you would see the 1933 King Kong on a theatre screen, I think you'd possibly change your mind. The power of the images of the film, working along with the music and sound effects, is something that is unfortunately lost on any video presentation. Remember, Kong was a high-budget film and played on 3 of the largest screens anywhere in 1933 (The Roxy, Radio City, and the Chinese Theatre). It's *suppossed* to be big!

    I ran the film (in gorgeous 35mm) in 1993 in a large venue, and it is still one of the 10 best movies of all time. It puts most anything Hollywood's made in the last 30 years--genre-wise--to shame (Jurassic Park came close to the sense of awe that Kong brings). The new recording on Marco Polo is the next best thing to seeing the film on a big screen again--it actually recreated (for me) the excitement of seeing the movie theatrically.

Actually, I have seen Kong on the screen--several times. Film history professors love to show this to film students over and over again (that, and Citizen Kane). I'm all for reliving a great experience, but Kong has never been a favorite of mine, and seeing it a print of it doesn't improve it in my mind. I know, I know, I know--historically it made all the difference, and all that, but that doesn't mean I have to like it!

From: "Pulliam, Ron, GSA-RPM" <RPULLIAM@gsa.mail.co.alameda.ca.us>

    I usually enjoy Jason Comerford's opinion pieces, but today's saddens me.

    In my opinion, what he failed to say, appreciate or get is that "King Kong" was the first of its kind in a couple of respects, including being the first influential film score. There was nothing before it of any influenceand much that developed from then owes everything to Steiner's invention of the symphonic score for motion pictures. Contemporary "stylings" (as Comerford puts it) are hardly worthy comparisons to anything Steiner wrote.

    A second aspect is that "King Kong" as a film -- a dramatic story on celluloid -- was the first truly fantastic, frightening special-effects-laden film. It's still remarkable today. Yes, we laugh, but not in ridicule. It reflected the values and lingo of its time. It is funny today, but imagine how ridiculous today's parlance will seem in 60 years.

    "King Kong" -- in its Fred Steiner-conducted and William Stromberg-conducted incarnations -- should be experienced for the remarkable achievements they are. Both CDs are premier examples of what re-recordings should be. Either of the recordings is more worth having than 90 percent of the film music dredged up for last year's films.

Mr. Pulliam makes a great point here about the film reflecting the lingo and parlance of the time period in which it was created, and while I pretty much can agree with that, I think it's a double-edged sword as well.

This is the comment that pretty much everyone that responded brought up: that the historical significance of King Kong automatically seems to make it "great." I disagree, strongly in fact. I don't deny its influence or historical significance, and I think it's certainly worth having and experiencing because of its influence. But it's like arguing about Christopher Columbus: you could say that he was a visionary who was the father of Western civilization, and you could also say that he was the cause of the annihilation of a large chunk of the Native American population. My point, awkward though it is, is that these kinds of comments don't make historical occurrences instantly "great" or "right." I found Steiner's score to King Kong periodically interesting but on the whole largely unmemorable, regardless of the superb efforts of John Morgan and Bill Stromberg (the latter of whom has been extremely courteous to me in his emails), and that's just my two cents.

Moving on, to the hate mail:

From: "Miguel Angel Perez Perez" <mapperez@ua.es>

    It is this kind of subjective amateur opinions that disgrace film music criticism. The reviewer's feelings towards the Kong music, with those subconscious associations to black and white images and mono sound and all that crap, have nothing to do with the substance of the music itself. So he should keep it all for his diary and spare us the agony. And, by the way, didn't he know the Fred Steiner recording of Kong and Raskin's suite of "Forever Amber" for the Gerhardt series?

Semantics 101: I think the nature of criticism is that it's subjective, right? It doesn't mean that you have to agree with it. I don't know what in my column made Mr. Perez so angry at me, but it's not something that I intend to lose any sleep over; I should hope that I'm not disgracing film music criticism.

On the last question: No, I'd not ever heard the aforementioned recordings of King Kong and Forever Amber before hearing them in their current incarnations. Though I'm not quite sure what that has to do with anything.

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