2 January 2018 | joe-pearce-1
How to Destroy a Potentially Very Importnt Biography
To understand all the things that are wrong with this film (and why they are so) requires locating the film soundtrack on LP (only issued more than a quarter-century after the film itself) and reading the stupendously informative cover notes by the son of the film's music director Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Others have commented on the disjointedness and episodic nature of what they have seen, but may not realize that the film was made at a huge cost by Republic, which had assets frozen in Europe that could only be spent there, and so decided to make an all-out spectacular movie that no one in their right mind could ever have expected from the studio so associated with Serials, Westerns and John Wayne. They hired one of the best directors in the business, Wiliam Dieterle, then the (arguably) leading film composer of his time, Korngold, to make a cohesive whole of the musical excerpts seen and heard and the Wagnerian leitmotifs used for the film score itself, and finally some quite first rate actors for the leading roles. The problem is, the finished film ran almost double the length of the issued one, and what we can no longer see are all the scenes that almost certainly caused the film to seem so disjointed and episodic. At its original length, a film on an opera composer could not find first-run bookings, then distributors fought each cut version for further emasculation, the result being that well over an hour was cut from a film that eventually ran about 92 minutes. There are only about six or seven minutes of Wagner's music heard in the entire film, and even those have been bowdlerized into something somewhat unrecognizable even to Wagnerites (I should know, having been one for about 65 years now). I saw this movie originally around 1957 or 1958 as the bottom half of a double-bill at a 42nd Street grindhouse (this when 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues was not a place for the faint-of-heart, and certainly not for films about opera), and at the time I had never even heard of the film, so I imagine it had no opening of note in New York City (maybe no "opening" at all). I thought it dull then, and anyone who wasn't enamored of Wagner must have found it downright stultifying. Upon learning the reasons for my dissatisfaction a quarter-century later with those LP notes, I wanted to see it again, and now finally have. What remains is semi-terrific for the most part, but what is not there will destroy any enjoyment of the film for those not "in the know". We find Wagner claiming that his opera "Rienzi" will make his name. It did, but not in this film, where it is never mentioned again and in which the next scene takes place with Wagner in debtor's prison! We find no indication of his first wife's growing instability (close to madness). When he falls in love and runs off with Cosima, the wife of one of his most fervent supporters, the conductor Hans von Bulow (she is also the daughter of his lifelong friend and supporter Franz Liszt), we see them living together, then much later on married, but no mention is made of their four children, three of whom were born before the Bulows divorced, nor that Bulow remained a steadfast advocate of Wagner for the remainder of his life. Mad King Ludwig doesn't seem very mad at all, and less interesting for not being so. We find Wagner getting an idea for an opera and seemingly accomplishing its writing in a few weeks, while we know that MEISTERSINGER, TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, and THE RING OF THE NIBELUNGS gestated for years, even decades, the last-named consuming some 20 years of the composer's life. The performances are excellent. It's hard to imagine a more visually and dramatically perfect Wagner than Alan Badel (except that he was of fairly normal height, and Wagner was 5' 1"), far better than in his introductory John the Baptist in "Salome" three years earlier. Carlos Thompson is marvelous as the older Liszt (he should have had a better career than he did). Yvonne De Carlo is pretty good as the composer's first wife, catching rather well her essential commonness of character compared with the rather overwhelmingly characterful Richard Wagner (who was arguably the greatest artistic genius, musical or otherwise, of the entire 19th century), and Rita Gam has the best moments of her entire film career as the rather dauntingly intelligent Cosima, a worthy companion for her lover/husband. That she is about 250 times better looking than the original Cosima need not concern us here. Anyway, knowing the film's troubled post-production background has made me much more appreciative of what is left to see (all of which is visually gorgeous and expensive looking). The tragedy of the film is that you can plug in the holes to a large extent, admire all aspects of the production, and then realize what a terrific film was probably left on the cutting room floor.