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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Metro's Nod To The Classics

Hollywood might have made more classical musicals were it not for the fact that people can’t sing and dance in them. There’s little opportunity for movement beyond hands gliding along keyboards or pushing bows over fiddle strings. Those who study or perform great music tend to dismiss what few movies explored the topic. My Music Appreciation teacher at college said A Song To Remember was rubbish. Thirty years past seeing it, she laughed over Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin coughing up blood on piano ivories, even as that 1945 Columbia release inspired a public to cough up unprecedented cash for records and sheet music by the long-dead composer. I’ve been a hound for Chopin since first playing him with 8mm silents. People who dedicate lives to study of classical music always seemed to me an enviable lot. Given the option, I’d enjoy my next incarnation as a four-year old keyboard prodigy. Can anyone be so focused as a serious musician? Much is appealing about a life spent in single-minded pursuit of one thing (OK, so I guess I've achieved that watching old movies). MGM’s Rhapsody addresses the grand obsession even as it otherwise hews to formula romance lines demanded by Elizabeth Taylor’s then-following. Nobody much remembers this 1954 star vehicle, but it’s one I admire for affording a glimpse into music mavens and cloistered worlds they live in. Metro walked a tight rope as not to alienate general audiences who might think Rhapsody was for longhairs only. Tips for exhibitors cautioned: While the so-called serious music values of "Rhapsody" are not emphasized, it is also important to indicate that the picture has beautiful musical content. The safest route for movie usage of classical music was always a romantic one, thus preponderance of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and others off a general listener’s short list. Pop tunes were often adapted from composers whose music struck bobby-soxer chords. And what was movie scoring then but slight updating on ideas the masters utilized years before?

Imagine An American In Paris with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto # 2 for Piano and Orchestra in C Minor for the extended finish instead of Gershwin. Rhapsody constructs its drama around a third-act performance of that by John Ericson’s character. We don’t know if he will finish thanks to emotional trauma inflicted by willful Liz. Those ten minutes the concert lasts are pitched to viewers enraptured by the music as well as ones more invested in the love match. We can dismiss Rhapsody as empty gloss after a Metro fashion, but here they tried at least to put classical works before a mass public, and make better-known the names of performers unfamiliar outside music realms. Claudio Arrau was the pianist who stood in for John Ericson. He and violinist Michael Rabin (age seventeen at the time) got considerable publicity during 1954 national tours thanks to having supplied tracks for the film, even if Arrau sniffed later of his Rhapsody appearance that one endures such moments to survive (he also stated, perhaps correctly, that Rachmaninoff is for the movies). MGM tied in with The National Federation of Music Clubs of Providence, RI (it’s still there) to get word of Rhapsody out to chapters. The organization was particularly impressed by Metro’s sympathetic treatment of "musical artists." (… it treats these artists not as freaks but as human beings). Had the image of classical adherents come to this? If so, then Rhapsody would do a lot to alleviate it. Conservatory students the film portrays are, to a man (and woman), both attractive and neatly turned in dress and deportment. Vittorio Gassman is a dashing rake perhaps far removed from real-life violinists, while John Ericson aspires to concert piano after having been a WWII commando (!). Whatever serious musicians thought of Rhapsody’s fantasy excesses, they must surely have been pleased for its having rehabilitated oddball impressions of their membership.

Paramount initially developed Rhapsody. It was ready to shoot when they sold the package to Metro. The sale represents the first application of the former studio’s recently announced policy against filming any story that it cannot cast properly or make at a cost deemed to be reasonable on the basis of anticipated boxoffice receipts, said The New York Times. Certainly Paramount was tightening expenditure in late 1952 when their sale took place. A look at that company's output finds little done on a large scale outside of DeMille projects. MGM economized too. Whatever European flavor Rhapsody needed (it took place there) would be supplied by second unit footage director Charles Vidor shot in Switzerland with co-star Vittorio Gassman. Remaining principals never left Culver City. Rhapsody was finished at a negative cost of $1.9 million, more than Paramount would spend on its releases that year minus a very few. Elizabeth Taylor’s films had been mostly profitable, these being smaller pictures starring her or big ones where she supported veteran names. Metro demurred as to hard selling Taylor as a sex symbol, at least for the present. They still had Ava Gardner and Lana Turner for that. Taylor’s beauty was of a sort left to critics to discover for themselves, with most willing to overlook her thespic shortcomings. Bosley Crowther was elevated upon wings of praise in his New York Times review of Rhapsody. Calling it a high-minded film … all wrapped up in music on the starry-eyed classical plane (was he catering to lowbrow readers here?), Crowther really wound up on his infatuee’s behalf. Her wind-blown black hair frames her features like an ebony aureole, and her large eyes and red lips glisten warmly in the close-ups on the softly lighted screen. This was twilight upon an era when critics could still unburden themselves of longings a screen goddess inspired. Variety would be less fawning, however ( it is the type of tear-and-torment drama that has little appeal for the younger set or the male ticket buyer). Selling problems the trade paper predicted saw confirmation in domestic rentals of $1.2 million, far less than was needed to cover MGM’s investment. Thanks to Euro-setting and celebration of its music, however, Rhapsody took a lively $2.4 million in foreign rentals and managed an overall profit of $124,000. The film continued getting theatrical dates up to its syndicated television release in October 1968. For instance, during a period between 9-1-62 and 8-31-67, there were 68 bookings with an average rental rate of $42 flat for a total of $2,826. Not difficult to understand why companies like MGM saw greater revenue potential in TV for their vault titles. Warner’s Archive has lately released a DVD of Rhapsody that is happily presented in the original 1.85 widescreen.


Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Isn't "Rhapsody" the movie where someone mentions Debussy's Piano Concerto? Only problem is Debussy never wrote one.

For film music fans, there's the pleasure of seeing Richard Hageman in a fairly substantial role as a conductor, Bruno Furst. Hageman wrote the scores for quite a few John Ford movies.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

The logo picture is already gone, but I've always been curious about Screen Director's Playhouse. There were 35 of them and I've seen Rookie of the Year (directed by John Ford) and The Silent Partner. Are any of the other 33 circulating? Has anybody ever covered the series in detail?

3:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mark, we actually had an independent UHF station down here that played "Screen Director's Playhouse" during the late seventies, so, yes, I think they exist, but where they are today, I would not know ...

3:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post as always. But I just LOVE the banner with Burt and Ava! WOW! Hot Stuff!!

8:15 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

For classical music, I prefer by far DONDE MUEREN LAS PALABRAS, directed by Hugo Fregonese in 1946, about an inspiring piano artist played by an authentic performer,

MGM bought the rights to this film, which includes Beethoven music and a lengthy ballet filmed before THE RED SHOES, but they have never bother to release it and they won't do it on DVD-R either.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

"I’ve been a hound for Chopin since first playing him with 8mm silents."

A show of hands, please, if you're among those whose earliest attempts at scoring 8mm silents involved Van Cliburn's "My Favorite Chopin" album (probably belonging to your parents).

1:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, that was the very album I used most often! Thanks for reminding me of it.

1:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mailed some interesting observations about classical music in movies and playing same to 8mm films:

I recall something called "Magic Fire," a Wagner biography filmed in Europe but reeking of Hollywood cliches (including a sanitized Mad King Ludwig -- just a nice fellow with poor budgeting skills). It's been a while, but it seemed like every few minutes there'd be some variation of these two exchanges:

"That was brilliant, young man!"
"Yeah, sure, don't bother me."
(Bystander) "Do you realize who that was? That was the famous composer Chopin!"

"So, how are you passing the time these days?"
"I had a little idea called 'The Ring Cycle.'"

The ending had Wagner and his wife reconciling with father-in-law Chopin (who was ticked because Wagner broke up his daughter's first marriage) just before Wagner died at the keyboard. That seems to be a handy gimmick in biopics (and memoirs by people who knew dead celebrities) -- Characters who evidently parted on bad terms in real life (Gilbert and Sullivan, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Anna and the King of Siam) are shown as being on the verge of a joyous reunion/reconciliation/romance that didn't make the recorded histories because, dang, somebody died five minutes too early.

Disney did Disneyfied lives of Beethoven and Johann Strauss, shown on TV here and edited into features for Europe. Both had their own versions of those exchanges. The former focused on Ludwig regaining the will to compose after losing his hearing (a church, a child and nature footage were involved); the latter ended with Strauss bravely risking his life by unleashing the dangerously political . . . "Fledermaus"??

There was also that short bio of Tchaikovsky, part of the stereophonic broadcast you did such a nice piece about (and which had an afterlife as a school film). It seems his entire life was dedicated to getting "Sleeping Beauty" out of his subconscious and onto paper, so that someday somebody could animate it. One scene seemed to equate creativity with seasickness. I enjoyed mentally rewriting the narration ("He could feel the inspiration rising to the surface . . . ").

Footnote: I never had the ambition to seriously match up music to my 8mms; if anything I'd stack up LPs on the record changer and hope for the best. One night I actually got the family to sit through "Lilac Time", a library copy on a dozen or so 200-ft reels (Dad was an aviation buff and recognized the title). Among the stacked records was a collection of college fight songs, which sort of worked for the aerial battles but not so much for Colleen Moore's love scenes.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I used to line up the Mothers of Invention for my super 8mm castle horror films...Later when I was getting grander stuff from Blackhawk,Debussy and Satie were my music of choice...
the 1934 horror classic The Black Cat is one of my fave films for spotting Classical themes and a good place to hear music by Liszt and Chopin that was written for piano,in orchestra form..

11:06 PM  

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