Sunday 18 November 2007

A Song to Remember (1945) Charles Vidor

Sometimes it seems like Paul Muni never did anything except play the lead in 19th century biopics. Here though it's 1945, so rather than play Frederic Chopin in the Hollywood version of his life, he plays his teacher, Professor Joseph Elsner instead. Of course he's still the focus of our attentions for much of the film and naturally has the lead credit, even though Cornel Wilde takes the role of Frederic Chopin.

One great example is when Chopin plays at a banquet for a count. Wilde does a great job of pretending to play while sheer opulence rages around him. The Hollywood of the 30s and 40s usually did a great job of feigning opulence and it did a great job here. There's so much depth in this banquet, that goes well beyond the colours and the costumes and the food, and the abrupt ending of it. There's the fact that the table is designed in such a way that nobody can actually see the musicians and the fact that the musician's family and professor are kept in the kitchen. More than anything there's the fact that the entertainment can transition from Paganini to Chopin without the diners really noticing. Stunning. And throughout all of it Muni keeps plenty of attention on himself bumbling around trying to see through the kitchen door.

Anyway Chopin heads to Paris because he can't stay in Poland and soon encounters many names we know. There's a great scene early on where Franz Liszt starts playing some of Chopin's sheet music. On being introduced to the composer he wants to shake his hand but doesn't want to stop playing. As Chopin has joined in they trade parts so that they each have a hand free to shake. There are other set pieces too, my favourite being the one where Liszt gives a performance in the dark at the home of the Duchess of Orleans, only to secretly substitute Chopin. It's a transparent ploy to us but the way in which Merle Oberon, as George Sand, simply exposes the deception is both subtle and marvellous.

The film as a whole is a Hollywood biopic, with all the good annd bad that suggests. I'm no expert on Chopin's life but it doesn't come as a surprise that serious liberties were taken in the name of cinematic art. Either the things we watch happened in a different order or they happened to different people or just didn't happen at all.

Here Chopin grows up in a poor house in the country rather than palaces; isn't hailed as a child prodigy in Poland; only ever has one teacher; doesn't write anything that isn't for piano; doesn't go to Warsaw; doesn't play concerts in Paris; befriends Liszt but not Hiller, Berlioz, Bellini, Schumann or Mendelssohn; doesn't even become engaged; has no real hardship in Majorca; didn't have students; George Sand doesn't have children; etc etc. The final concert tour in which Chopin grows more and more seriously ill while raising money to send back to Poland doesn't seem to have happened.

The more Hollywood biopics I work my way through, the more the question becomes less about accuracy and more about effect and purpose. This one is a superbly crafted film that happens to have very little to do with Frédéric Chopin.

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