This interview was originally broadcast on December 13, 1999.
There are many things that make the 1933 movie King Kong great — the special effects, the image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, Fay Wray's screams — and the score, composed by Max Steiner.
"It's a wonderful score and of course, [Steiner] was a pioneer of doing sound motion-picture scores," says film historian Rudy Behlmer. "If you can imagine that picture ... and if you turn the sound off in the big sequences — in the jungle and on the Empire State Building — you realize how much the sound elements contribute to the success of that film."
Behlmer wrote the liner notes for 1993 re-release of the King Kong movie soundtrack. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that Steiner worked during an era when movie scores were not considered particularly important.
"When he was beginning to score that in late 1932, music as an underscoring was not prevalent," he says. "The emphasis was on dialogue. But Max rose to the occasion. ... And he made that thing work from a dramatic standpoint."
Behlmer also reveals secrets about several other moments in the film, including Fay Wray's gut-wrenching screams: most of them were added in post-production.
"She did all of her wild screams in a sound booth," she says. "So fortunately, she had one major screaming session and they were added post-filming."
On not using a gorilla suit
"[Cooper] felt that this had to be different because there had always been these men running around in gorilla suits in all kinds of movies that were made in the '20s and early '30s. He wanted to do something special. When he saw, over at RKO, the chief technician working on some stop-motion material for a film called Creation, which was never made, he thought 'Wait a minute. Nobody's going to finance me during the Depression to go over to Africa and shoot a gorilla.' When he saw that process at RKO, he thought 'Wait a minute. This is the way to do King Kong.'"
On Kong's changing size
"People were saying 'Wait a minute, we built him on a scale of 18 inches to a foot' meaning that he would be 18-feet high. But [the director kept saying] 'For this scene I want to make him bigger. So it does keep changing, but he felt like when he got to New York, he had to be bigger because of the environment."