Casablanca and Max Steiner: A pioneer in sampling?



Ahead of its screening at the Capstone Theatre, Getintothis’ Adam Scovell examines the influence of Casablanca composer Max Steiner.

Perhaps being one of the most easily recognisable American films ever made and endlessly picked apart for its deceptively simple thematic under layers, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) isn’t really in need of yet more analysis. Its story of love and the triumph of optimism over pessimism is consistently dissected to the point where it’s easy to forget that it’s a populist blockbuster in the typical Hollywood Romantic tradition. Behind all of its soft focus, its nostalgic romance and its relatively leading narrative trajectory, is a set of pretty modernist ideas that often get lost behind the terminology that is used in keeping with the film’s natural lusciousness. This is never more true than in discussion about its musical score by Max Steiner.

Steiner, of course, is pivotal in discussions of film music and therefore has been analysed numerous times by academics. His score for King Kong (1933) is widely considered to be the turning point for western, nondiegetic film scoring; where everyone in the business finally saw the potential of keeping the musical affect of the silent era in an age obsessed with getting dialogue and diegetic sound out to wow the audiences. Many of the Romantic traditions, from the instrumentation, tonalities and arrangements of film scores stem in some way from Steiner’s practice and, alongside the likes of Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold, formed the norms of classically orientated film music that still preside today.

Like film itself, however, film music is a form that takes influence and ideas from everywhere. These forms didn’t just come from Steiner (the links as to where they actually did come from can be found in Carol Flinn’s excellent book, Strains Of Utopia), but seem to be built almost magpie-like from other elements besides the usual Romantic traditions. This is where his score for Casablanca comes into greater focus as the most obvious and famous example of this structure. To drive home the point, when asked to consider the first thing when thinking about the film, the answer will most probably revolve around the scenario of Ingrid Bergman purring “Play it again Sam” as well as associations with the song As Time Goes By.

There’s nothing unusual about this until the sheer weight of Steiner’s creative force is considered; at the time, he was probably Hollywood’s most in demand composer, making music for a film by Jack Warner’s golden boy director and starring Humphrey Bogart. So why exactly does a popular song, knocked out by Herman Hupfeld to fill a gap in the 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome, take precedence? Consider further what Steiner does in the film’s famous opening titles, where the musical dynamics are geared to give Steiner the biggest musical moment when his name appears in the credits, even more so than the film’s director. Steiner clearly knows his own importance yet the chief musical element is a borrowed melody.

Steiner’s musical style in Casablanca is genuinely best described as sampling; taking a previous sound and using it as instrumentation. Of course, Steiner quite obviously doesn’t literally do this due to the era and its technological limitations, but there is something inherent in Steiner’s score that shares much with the ideals of such a practice. The story of Casablanca is primarily about the heartbreak caused by the opening of old wounds between two ex-lovers.

This entire relationship is signposted in the film by the main melodies of As Time Goes By, whether it’s by Dooley Wilson singing it diegetically or by Steiner who incorporates the theme into the orchestrated score through a variety of techniques. The melody isn’t literally being used as an instrument but its use as a thematically loaded leitmotiv lends it the same weight as if Steiner had taken the notes from an original recording, chucked it through Audacity and played it through on the score; it becomes more than a texture but a vital tonal signifier and backdrop. The audience becomes aware that the drama is about to shift towards the narrative of Rick and Ilsa by the simple presence of a six note motif.

As an example, it’s often one of the first pieces to look at when studying film music. Its affect is so pure and also quite obvious that it works as a great introduction to analysing an aspect of cinema that, by its nature, is often cognised as a secondary. Even from its opening musical score, which uses the first melodies of the French national anthem to again symbolise the past of the characters soon to be appearing on screen, Steiner is providing plenty of musical reference to analyse. But rarely does the language of such analysis actually suggest what Steiner was really doing, perhaps because of the previously mentioned technological status implied by the term “sampling”, or maybe even because of the barriers between classical and popular analysis.

Well before film music, composers were borrowing each other’s melodies, though often for very specific reasons; either to pay homage to the original composer or to satire them. In this way, sampling doesn’t seem to fit as well a description as it does when discussing film music as the usage seems personal rather for the aesthetic purposes of the listener. In Steiner’s score for Casablanca, the sense that musical motifs are lifted, recontextualised and drawn afresh over new ground bares far more than a passing resemblance to the varied and now vast culture of sampling; a surprising occurrence to find in a film often held up to be the most classically inclined of 1940s, American drama

Casablanca screens at The Capstone Theatre on February 19.