Often cited as the "first" modern film score, Max Steiner's long and highly-acclaimed career will always have "King Kong" as a highlight, and even after more than 80 years, it still holds up. To put things in perspective, this was written at a time when Bartok, Webern, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev were still bringing out new compositions into the classical world. The repercussions of this score are still felt as much today as the works from those composers from the classical world.
The contribution of Bernard Kaun should also be mentioned here, since he was the one who fully orchestrated Steiner's music (sometimes from as little as 3 staves) to fit within a production's budget, which in this case ended up being 46 players, often playing multiple instruments.
Sadly, there is no complete isolated score of "King Kong" (though a good portion was released on a Rhino CD a while ago). However, John Morgan and William T. Stromberg have reconstructed and conducted a new recording with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra which really sounds fantastic. My timings for the score below are specifically for this recording, though Fred Steiner also did a wonderful re-recording as well.
Besides the jungle dances, atmospheric textures, action cues and "show business" marches, there are 4 major motifs/themes used in "Kong":
Kong motif: a foreboding 3-note descending figure
Natives theme: a 2 phrase theme, opening with an 8-note "Indian-like" descending line
Sailors motif: somewhat light, zig-zag motif
Love theme (Stolen Love, or Ann's theme): based on a lush descending figure. The first half is similar to Kong's motif, and the second half is similar to the Sailor motif, which fits the "love triangle" element between Ann, Kong and Jack.
Each of these themes are used fairly often, and some are fragmented/sequenced to create sub-themes and variations. In the rundown below I decided just to mention a few occurrences of these main themes, since they occur so frequently.
- 0:00: Main title sequence: "Radio Pictures Presents" (opens with descending 3-note Kong motif).
- 0:06: "King Kong", credits (fanfare, brief introduction to Stolen Love theme).
- 0:17: Sacrificial dance based on Natives theme (opens with motif on 8 descending notes).
- 1:22: "Arabian proverb", written by the director (sad variations of Kong motif).
- 1:48: Scene opens at the harbor.
||A Boat In The
- 0:00: Denham's ship slowly makes
its way through dense fog (modulating Kong motif on oboe over soft harp).
"How will we know it's the right island?"
"The mountain, that looks like a skull."
- 0:00: Denham and the Captain see Skull Mountain, and wonder about the tribal drums (rhythmic percussion and low brass).
- 0:48: A landing party is prepared (wind ornaments based on 4-note Sailor
- 2:05: The landing boats approach the island shore.
- 2:40: The boats hit the shore.
- 3:00: The sailors move inland.
- 0:00: The party follows the sounds of a native dance.
"They're up to some of their heathen tricks."
- 0:53: They see the native dancers dressed in gorilla furs. Eventually the native leader sees Denham and stops the ceremony.
The Black Men (Punia! Casco!!)
- 0:00: The native leader
approaches Denham's party.
- 0:39: The Captain tries to broker communication with the natives (music
follows dialogue between native leader and Denham, using the Native theme
(0:40) and the Sailor motif (0:56)).
"He says the girl there is the bride
- 1:55: The native leader notices Ann and bargains for her. Denham's party makes a diplomatic, but
"Blondes are scarce around here."
- 0:00: (deleted scene, Charlie's pet monkey runs around loose) Relaxed
winds and strings, Sailor motif on oboe, scherzo on various instruments,
ending in low textures.
||Sea At Night
- 0:00: Ann and Jack talk about their feelings for one another at night near the ship's railing.
- 0:55: "Say, I guess I love you." They kiss (Sailor motif, Stolen Love theme developed).
- 2:18: A native boats pulls up
and the invaders capture Ann. The
watchman is completely unaware of the infiltration (Sailor motif at 3:04).
- 0:00: In the firelight in front of the giant gate, the natives dance around a struggling Ann.
- 1:23: The giant gate doors part open, and Ann is led to the sacrificial pillars beyond and up the stairs.
- 2:11: Ann's wrists are bound to the pillars. The giant doors are closed and re-secured with a massive lock.
- 3:05: The natives climb ladders to stand on top of the gate and await Kong.
- 0:00: Giant gongs are struck by the natives. Growling sounds can be heard.
- 0:29: A giant figure approaches and Ann begins screaming (low Kong motif).
- 0:49: Now face to face with Kong, Ann screams even more (strident Love theme motifs, repeated and rising). Kong frees Ann from her bonds and picks her
- 1:51: Jack and his men arrive and run towards the gate. Jack sees
Kong walk away with Ann, and the sailors work to reopen the gate.
- 2:46: The sailors rush through the gate in pursuit of Kong. The native leader looks on with dismay.
- 3:22: The sailors track Kong through the jungle (Jungle March theme begins).
- 4:03: The sailors discover a giant footprint.
"I'd hate to have that thing wrapped around ME."
- 4:22: They see a stegosaurus.
- 4:47: The steg charges, but Denham stuns it with a bomb. It gets up a couple times but is eventually brought down with gunfire. The men
continue on into the jungle.
I could only bring back one of these alive..."
- 0:00: The sailors continue on and encounter a swamp. They build a raft.
- 0:58: The raft journey begins.
- 1:28: A long necked brontosaurus rises out of the water and then back down. It soon resurfaces and attacks the raft.
- 3:06: The bronte chases the men through the jungle.
- 4:11: One sailor climbs up a tree, but is eaten.
- 4:36: The other sailors keep running.
- 4:47: Kong walks over a log bridge. The men pursue. Kong puts Ann in a tree and returns to deal with the sailors on the log.
- 0:00: Kong shakes the sailors
off the log, and they fall to their deaths.
- 0:00: After the log has been tossed down the ravine, Jack tangles with Kong's searching hand while hiding on a small ledge below the ravine edge.
- 0:42: A lizard begins climbing up towards Jack from below. He repels it and re-engages with Kong.
- 1:05: Ann, still in a tree, is soon threatened by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Kong returns to defend her.
- 0:00: With Rex dead, Kong picks Ann back up ("Kong on the Prowl" motif).
- 0:24: Stolen Love motif
- 0:35: Jack climbs up and tells Denham he will continue to follow Kong.
- 1:33: Denham rushes back to the gate, as Jack pursues Kong, carefully making his way past the dead Rex.
- 3:01: Back at the gate, Denham tells the Captain about Kong. The Captain explains how they scared away
- 3:52: Jack pursues Kong into a
- 0:00: Inside the cave, Kong puts Anne on a ledge (Stolen Love motif), but a giant snake soon starts crawling up and attacks Kong. Kong kills it.
- 2:00: Kong takes Ann up to a cave opening overlooking a high cliff, with Jack following.
- 2:40: Kong beats his chest and howls at the jungle. Ann faints. Kong tenderly begins undressing her.
- 4:17: Ann wakes up and Kong tries to tickle her (Stolen Love motif).
- 4:38: Jack alerts Kong when he knocks down a rock. Kong returns to the cave to investigate.
- 5:12: A pterodactyl arrives and
tries to carry Ann away. Kong comes to
the rescue once again and fights it.
Meanwhile, Jack tries to sneak Ann away over the cliff on a rope vine.
- 6:26: Kong notices Jack and Ann
climbing down and soon begins to pull the rope up.
Ann falls into the water below and Jack follows. They swim off and Kong becomes angry. Jack and Ann reach land and run off.
- 0:00: At the gate, Denham and his men wait for dawn. Meanwhile Jack and Ann run through the jungle towards them (fast Jungle March theme at 0:25).
- 0:54: They eventually reach the gate (Stolen Love motif) and the captain tries to comfort Ann.
Out! It's Kong, Kong's Coming!"
- 0:00: Kong approaches the gate. The natives help the sailors seal the gate (Natives theme).
- 0:47: Kong arrives and smashes against the gate.
- 1:32: Kong breaks the gate open, everyone runs away.
- 2:44: Kong starts killing natives and smashing huts.
- 3:57: At the shoreline, Denham throws a sleep grenade at Kong, which finally subdues him.
"He's always been King of his world, but we'll
teach him fear."
March (Arranged By – Lennie Moore)
- 0:00: Fanfare, then march source music based on "Kong on the Prowl" motif: Denham presents a show with "King Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World".
"I hear it's a kind of a gorilla"
"Gee, ain't we got enough of them in New York?"
"Now, now, Ann, it's alright - we've knocked some of the fight out of him since you last saw him."
||Fanfares 1, 2,
- 0:00: Denham reveals Kong to the audience.
- 0:20: Denham introduces Ann to the crowd.
- 0:34: Jack comes to the stage.
- 0:00: Photographer flashes anger Kong and he breaks free from his bonds. Kong breaks out of the theater and begins killing people.
- 1:07: Police cars come out.
- 1:23: Kong sees a girl inside an apartment (Stolen Love) and pulls her outside, eventually dropping her.
- 1:54: Jack brings Ann into a room: "You're safe now, dear." (Stolen Love) - but Kong sees them and grabs Ann. He takes her to the roof, but then decides to go elsewhere.
- 0:00: NYC street scene (deleted sequence).
- 0:15: Outside the subway.
- 0:32: Kong appears.
- 0:49: A subway train approaches. Kong derails it and then knocks it around a bit, before taking to another building.
- 0:00: Planes take off from an airfield as Kong climbs up the Empire State Building.
- 1:02: Kong reaches the top and puts Ann down. The planes start making attack runs.
("It Was Beauty Killed The Beast")
- 0:00: Kong is hurt by the planes. He picks Ann up again briefly for a last look.
- 0:41: Kong is hit by more plane fire. He eventually falls.
- 1:36: Jack embraces Ann at the top of the ESB. Down on the street, Denham sees Kong's body.
"Well, Denham, the airplanes got him."
"Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast."
- 2:24: End titles (sad Kong motif, Stolen Love motif)
The recording I based my timings on (by John Morgan and William T. Stromberg) is available on iTunes (as well as Spotify). Their team puts out really consistently great score re-recordings, up there with the famous Charles Gerhardt releases. Frankly, anything with their names on the spine is great, with fantastic liner notes.
King Kong Wiki
Max Steiner Wiki
Tribute Film Classics (Morgan/Stromberg label)
King Kong (Fred Steiner rerecording, YouTube)
The Film Music of Max Steiner with Emphasis on King Kong (1933) and Gone With the Wind (1939) (Michael Pratt)
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