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King of Kings


“Having just done a picture in which Jesus played a supporting role, I was dumbfounded to learn that the new film was King of Kings, in which he was the star.”

So said composer Miklós Rózsa in his autobiography about the MGM assignment that followed his Oscar-winning work on the 1959 film Ben-Hur. His first challenge was to come up with fresh music for Salome’s notorious Dance of the Seven Veils, which had been done effectively by Richard Strauss back in 1905 for his opera Salome.

When he arrived in Madrid to begin composing, Rózsa tried to talk about the dance with the screenwriter, who ducked his questions and left town in a hurry. Rózsa found out that the choreographer was the director’s wife, a veteran of many musicals who had never actually done any choreography, but was deemed ready to give it a try.

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For his Salome the producer had chosen a plump Chicago schoolgirl about sixteen years old. She had never acted nor danced.

“I was almost in tears,” Rózsa recalled. But he went ahead and put something together, a piece six or seven minutes long that he practiced on a piano in the basement of the Madrid Hilton–to bursts of applause from kitchen staff that came to listen.

The film was an episodic mishmash of badly acted, badly directed biblical scenes glued together with a narration written by science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Instead of dancing, Salome scuttled from pillar to pillar wiggling seductively.

After a catastrophic preview, Rózsa and editor Margaret Booth whittled her scene down to two minutes, removing most of the dance Rózsa had written.

No lover of avant garde music, Rózsa took secret satisfaction from using his one and only twelve-tone piece to represent the Devil during the Temptation of Christ.

Despite the disaster of King of Kings, the producer asked him at once to write music for El Cid, which would win Miklós Rózsa his next Oscar.