Would Someone Please Make a Great Beethoven Biopic?

beethoven

Trust me, Immortal Beloved (1999) was not that movie.

For some reason, Hollywood directors and producers seem to lack any sense of realism or even coherence when it comes to stories about classical composers.  For example, the subjects of many Hollywood classical composer biopics die at the piano (according to the screenplays, not according to credible biographers):

Magic Fire (1956), biopic about opera composer Richard Wagner.    At the end of this movie, religious groups around Europe are concerned about how Wagner is going to handle sacred matters in his opera Parsifal.  They send composer Franz Liszt (at this point an abbe of the Catholic Church) to have a word with him.  While Wagner is speaking to Liszt about the religious significance of Parsifal, he dies at the piano.

Song of Love (1947), biopic about composer Robert Schumann.  Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, mentor young composer Johannes Brahms.  Meanwhile, Schumann starts hearing phantom music in his head, goes insane, and is placed in an asylum.  Clara visits him one day; Robert plays his composition Traumerei for her–and dies at the piano.

A Song to Remember (1945), biopic about composer Frederic Chopin.  Historically, Chopin died from consumption (tuberculosis).  In this movie, at least we don’t have to see Chopin die at the piano.  We just see him coughing up blood at the piano.

The Americans teamed up with the Brits to make up for that last example.  Impromptu (1991) is a delightful romp wherein young Turks of the early 19th century (Chopin, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix) meet up at a rich bitch’s country estate and create total havoc.  It doesn’t pretend, though, to be an actual biopic.  (By the way, you can get it at amazon.com.)

My point here is that I cannot think of anyone who has created a serious, quality bio about one specific classical composer.  Amadeus (1984), is often cited as a biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  However, it’s actually a drama concerning the nature of genius.  The main character in the movie (and the play from which it was adapted) is Antonio Salieri, not Mozart.  Mozart is a supporting character in the drama.

I started out by disqualifying Immortal Beloved as a great bio about Beethoven.  Here’s my position on that topic:  The producers of this film threw a lot of money at the project.  They got a young and upcoming British director (Bernard Rose) who had already made some quality movies.  They cast the brilliant Gary Oldman as Beethoven, and he plays the part well.  They used great, current recordings of Beethoven performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.  So far, so good.

My problem is with the plot and its denouement.  The story centers on a mysterious love letter which in real life was actually found among Beethoven’s effects after he died.  Just as in Citizen Kane, a character goes around interviewing potential candidates in order to discover who the mysterious object of the letter is.  In real life, no historian has conclusively proven the identity of the “Immortal Beloved” referenced in the letter.   The solution proposed in this film is patently absurd and completely uncharacteristic of the serious relationships that Beethoven had with his women.  I generally don’t mind it when screenwriters play with facts in a biopic to enhance the drama.  But the way it’s done it here makes for a huge letdown, especially if you’re already familiar with Beethoven’s life and music.

So, I’m still waiting for that great movie about a great composer.  Maybe I’ve missed it.  Any comments?

Please, no references to Ken Russell films.  They’re just whackadoodle.

 

Bugs and Beethoven: How I Learned the Classics by Watching Cartoons

I recently read an excellent article on the WordPress blog ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com.  It is titled “How To Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers):  The Story I Imagined.”  The blogmaster, a classical pianist who is also a literary aficionado, suggests appreciating classical music by listening to compositions and thinking of story lines to go along with the music.  This sounds like an imaginative and fun way to learn the classics.

I myself was a music student, and I learned the classics by playing the piano, attending concerts and recitals, and listening to recordings.  But I first started appreciating classical music in childhood by watching animated shorts featuring a smart-alec rabbit named Bugs Bunny.

During the 1960’s, our entire family used to spend Saturday mornings in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, watching the Bugs Bunny show (1960-1975).  We all laughed at the antics of Bugs and his friends:  Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, etc.  Watching this show was a family activity that brought us together and gave us all much pleasure.  It also gave us a great education in classical music.

In these times of digitized sound sampling, I don’t think we always appreciate how challenging it was for past film composers to write, score, and conduct entire orchestral suites so that they were synchronized with filmed scenes right down to the millisecond.  This process was especially challenging for those who wrote and conducted music for animated shorts, where action, mood, tone, and scenery changed practically every second.

In writing music scores, animation composers often freely borrowed from the classics.  They likely did this for convenience, as many of the works from which they borrowed were in the public domain and not protected by copyright laws.  Here are some examples of classical music from Merry Melodies/Looney Tune shorts:

Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) by Felix Mendelssohn.  The very first time I heard this dramatic, brooding piece was not during a concert.  Instead, as a child I saw a Warner Brothers cartoon called Inki and the Minah Bird (1943).  The short features an African pygmy hunter who is repeatedly outsmarted by his prey, a grim-faced mynah bird.  Everytime you see the mynah bird hop into the frame, you hear the main theme from Mendelssohn’s famous overtureThe droll, plodding nature of the mynah bird’s theme contrasts with the manic musical sequences underscoring the hunter’s own plight:  He’s being stalked by a very hungry lion!

The Raindrop Prelude in Db, by Frederic Chopin.  As an amateur pianist, I have over the years enjoyed playing this piece, one of the few Chopin preludes I can competently manage.  The middle section, which is meant to depict a gathering thunderstorm, has a dark feel to it and is used in Warner Brothers shorts when sinister things are developing.  One example is Birth of a Notion (1947), which pits Daffy Duck against a Peter Lorre-like mad scientist.  We hear the prelude as the scientist is reciting the ingredients he will need for his latest experiment:  “Salite manganese, hypophosphate corpuscle, the wishbone of a duck….H’mm, I’ll have to get a duck somewhere.”  Uh oh.  Look out, Daffy!

The Erlking, by Franz Schubert.  The opening section of this dramatic art song is typically used in Warner Brothers cartoons when a character is wandering through a thunderstorm or similar threatening situation.  It is also used as a theme song for villains.  For example, in Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948), which pits the title character against his archenemy Yosemite Sam, we see the bow-legged Yosemite entering the “Gunshot Saloon” (the sign above the door spells out the caption, “Come in and get a slug”).  The ominous strains of the Schubert piece begin as our gun-totin’ bad guy bursts through the saloon door and announces, “Yeah, [I’m] Yosemite Sam, the roughest, toughest, he-man stuffest he man who’s ever crossed the Rio Grandy–and I ain’t no namby-pamby!”

Les Preludes, by Franz Liszt.  While listening to a recording of Liszt’s magnificent symphonic poem in my college music classes, I was delighted when I realized that I had already heard the piece as a child, in another Looney Tunes production.  14 Carrot Rabbit once again features Yosemite Sam (this time he’s Chilakoot Sam) as a claim jumper, chasing Bugs Bunny through the Klondike.  As the cartoon begins, we hear Les Preludes and see a caption reading:  “The Klondike:  Where Men are Men, and Women are Women:  Darn Good Arrangement!”

The Barber of Seville, opera by Gioachino Rossini.  In addition to classical music samplings, Warner Brothers animators sometimes produced shorts based strictly on works of specific classical composers.  One of the funniest is 1950’s The Rabbit of Seville, in which Bugs Bunny and nemesis Elmer Fudd scamper through an opera house to the overture from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  The centerpiece of this cartoon is a routine where Bugs gives Elmer a haircut and shave synchronized to the overture’s main theme.  Watch it, and then look up a copy of 1940’s The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplin.  You may be surprised to discover that the Bugs Bunny shave-and-a-haircut scene references a similar Chaplin routine set to Brahms.

I hope at this point that you are chuckling over the plot summaries and silly quotations that I have pulled from these cartoons.  Perhaps you have your own fond memories of Bugs and his friends.   My point in writing this article is that to truly enjoy classical music, or any other type of music for that matter, you need to have an emotional connection with it.  I found mine through the humor and good fun of the Warner Brothers Merrie Melody/Looney Tunes cartoons.  I also discovered that hearing the music while laughing at the cartoon silliness made the music less intimidating, and more accessible.  Again, that emotional connection.

So, why don’t you leave some comments about your favorite classic animation and the music that goes with it.  Are you a Looney Toons fan?  A Disney fan?  An anything fan?  Let’s hear about it!

And now……T-t-that’s all folks!

Sources:

Leaman, Aubrey.  “How To Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers):  The Story I imagined.”  https://ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com. WordPress.com.  June 5, 2016. Web. Accessed July 21, 2016

Schlesinger, Leon (Producer) Jones, Chuck (Director).  (1943).  Inki and the Minah Bird.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies)

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  McKimson, Robert (Director).  (1947) Birth of a Notion.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Freleng, Friz (Director).  (1948) Bugs Bunny Rides Again.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Freleng, I. (Director).  (1952).  14 Carrot Rabbit.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Jones, Chuck. (Director).  (1950).  The Rabbit of Seville.  (Animated Short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes).

Hebrides Overture:  Fingal’s Cave, Op. 26, by Felix Mendelssohn.  Concert overture.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, “Raindrop,” by Frederic Chopin.  Solo piano.

The Erlking, Opus 1 (D.328), by Franz Schubert.  Art song.

Les Preludes, S. 97, by Franz Liszt.  Symphonic poem.

The Barber of Seville, , by Gioachino Rossini.  Opera.

The Great Dictator,  Prod.  Charlie Chaplin.  Dir. Charlie Chaplin.  Perf. Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert.  Charles Chaplin Film Corporation, 1940.  Film

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everybody Does It….But Some Shouldn’t: A Review of “Everybody Does It,” 1949 Film

“I’ve got bad news for you…I’m afraid your wife is getting ready to sing again.”  Doris Borland’s father, to son-in-law Leonard Borland, “Everybody Does It”

Several years ago, I purchased a copy of David Wallenchinsky’s book, The People’s Almanac Presents The 20th Century:  History With the Boring Parts Left Out.  This trivia-based tome is filled with articles about the odd, obscure, and arcane figures of 20th century pop culture.  While flipping through items concerning famous thefts, practical jokers, and the genesis of silly putty, I came upon a story about rich New York socialite and wanna-be opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944.)   Although Madame Jenkins’ musical abilities were at best marginal, she pursued a singing career and occasionally made recordings of classical works which were well beyond her ability.  (You can find her horrific rendition of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria on YouTube.)

I mention all of this because the story of Madame Jenkins’ dubious artistic career is about to be resurrected with the release of Meryl Streep’s new film, Florence Foster Jenkins.  The announcement inspired me to re-watch a classic movie, 1949’s Everybody Does It, which very cleverly pokes fun at figures like Madame Jenkins.

The 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s were a time when opera singing was much more closely linked with pop and film culture than it is now.  Dorothy Kirsten, Lily Pons, Rise Stevens and other classical music stars appeared in films, often singing along with popular singers like Bing Crosby.  Operetta stars like Jeanette MacDonald and Kathryn Grayson initially made their name in Hollywood films before concentrating on off-screen classical music careers later in life.  Actresses like Jane Powell and the child prodigy Deanna Durbin sang both operetta and popular music.  People saw and heard these individuals regularly in movie houses across the country.  Is it any wonder, then, that some girl’s mother might hear Durbin hit her high C’s and dream of a career for her daughter…or even herself?

Everybody Does It stars Celeste Holm and Paul Douglas as aspiring singer Doris Borland and her businessman husband, Leonard.  Doris has a “pleasant little talent” as a singer and is probably good enough to score a recital at the local Womens’ Club.  But Doris wants much more.  She avidly attends the performances of such luminaries as opera star Cecil Carver (played by a very slinky Linda Darnell), and dreams of becoming an opera singer herself.

The twist in this story is that beefy, ham-fisted Leonard, who owns a wrecking company and who couldn’t care less about opera, is discovered to possess a phenomenal bass-baritone voice.  Madame Carver finds out about this and is delighted, because most of her singing partners are quite a bit shorter than her:  “We must have listened to a hundred and fifty baritones everywhere we could find in New York, and not one of them over 5’10”!”  Madame Carver soon puts the squeeze on Leonard, and his artistic career begins.  The question is, how will it end?  With the wonderfully comedic Paul Douglas lumbering his way across both concert and operatic stage, you can bet that it will end hilariously.

Ironically, Ms. Holm is the only person in this film who does her own singing.  Douglas and Darnell are dubbed by off-screen professional opera singers.

Everybody Does It frequently airs on Turner Movie Classics.  You can also obtain a copy of the DVD through amazon.com and Turner Movie Classics.  Catch it if you can…and feel free to sing along!

Sources:

Everybody Does It, Dir. Edmund Goulding.  Perf. Paul Douglas, Celeste Holm, Linda Darnell, Charles Coburn.  20th Century-Fox, 1949.  Film.

LoBianco, Lorraine “Everybody Does It,” TCM.com.  Internet. Accessed 20 Jul. 2016

Wallenchinsky, David.  The People’s Almanac Presents The 20th Century:  History With the Boring Parts Left Out.  Little Brown & Co (P); 1st pubk. Ed edition (September 1996)