13 July 2006 | theowinthrop
The First Celebrity Super Couple?
There is a trick about movies concerning great or even good composers. Few of them have lives that (outside of musicologists or curious people) are worth talking about. Also, as their music is the reason for their greatness, the music is going to dominate the film - any activity on screen is going to be less interesting (unless the composer's life is interesting) than what they created for their audiences and posterity.
Which composers have popped up on screen? Beethoven in several films (best, possibly, by Gary Oldman in 1994's IMMORTAL BELOVED). Chopin in the film about to be discussed here. His pal, Franz Liszt (Dirk Bogarde) in SONG WITHOUT END. Johann Brahms and Robert Schuman (Robert Walker Sr. and Paul Henried) in SONG OF LOVE. Wagner in the television series of that name (by Richard Burton), and Verdi in the television series of that name (by Ronald Pickup). Douglas Montgomery (MELODY LANE) and Don Ameche (SWANEE RIVER) both essayed Stephen Foster. Clifton Webb was John Philip Sousa in STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER. Walter Connelly was the title composer in THE GREAT VICTOR HERBERT. Jimmy Cagney (and Joel Grey) were George M. Cohan (in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and GEORGE M.). Robert Alda was George Gershwin in RHAPSODY IN BLUE. Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in WORDS AND MUSIC. Robert Morley and Maurice Evans were the title characters in THE STORY OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN. Richard Chamberlain was Pyotr Ilytsch Tschaikowski in THE MUSIC LOVERS. Fernand Gravet was Johann Strauss Jr. in THE GREAT WALTZ.
But few of them were really exciting people. Webb's performance as Sousa was good, but the biographical material of the story was passably interesting (but no more - the music carried the film). Chamberlain's film was more interesting because of Tschaikowski's homosexuality. Cagney's breeziness and the theater background of the story of Cohan made that film a permanently popular one. Foster's tragic failure to succeed as our first professional composer (and his alcoholism) did give some grip to his biography, but sappy construction and writing hurt the Ameche film (especially that profoundly stupid conclusion).
Chopin was "blessed" in several ways biographically. He was a patriot, and part of the film is devoted to his support for the Poles fighting for their freedom from Russia. He did have a long time affair with George Sands, France's leading female novelist in the 19th Century. And he struggled with increasing ill health due to his tuberculosis. He only lived forty years, and oddly enough his birth and death dates almost correspond to his American contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, who was also plagued by ill health through much of his life.
Cornell Wilde had been playing supporting parts up to this film, such as the cowardly inside-man in the heist in HIGH SIERRA. It was here that he finally came into his own as an actor, even getting nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Merle Oberon had an unusual role. Normally she was a supportive lover (her Cathy is ultimately deeply in love with Heathcliff, but proud and snobbish when she meets Edgar Linton in WUTHERING HEIGHTS - that was an exception for her). Here she is committed to her own literary success, and she does little to understand the musical success at the core of the man who adores her. There is a hint of nymphomania in her - a seeming hard incapacity to love that drives men wild (not only Chopin, but his predecessor in her bed Alfred de Musset the poet (George Macready)). In the end she is the villain in the film, breaking the spirit of her Polish lover, and dooming him to early death.
How true is this? Not totally. While two creative spirits like Chopin and Sand could clash they both were deeply attached to each other. In a television series on the career of Sand, starring Rosemary Harris, it turned out that a message from Chopin on his death bed was withheld from Sand by her jealous daughter - a fact she did not learn until many decades later.
Paul Muni gave a weak, over the top performance as Chopin's mentor Joseph Elsner in the film. He had done older men for years, and Elsner was a slightly comical one (look at his scene with Howard Freeman as a music publisher). But it is overdone, and one of the weaknesses of the movie. Still it is not too serious a weakness. On the whole it is a good film, for the two leads and some of the supporting cast. But it is not true history.