The composer biopic is an increasingly infrequent subset of a genre that wins many Oscars and garners little critical respect. Increasingly infrequent as the audience for classical music dwindles of course: the rock/pop biopic is alive and well, from the highs of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There to the lows of Ray and Walk the Line. The last composer biopic I recall gaining a lot of attention was the thoroughly mediocre Gary Oldman-as-Beethoven film, Immortal Beloved. The undisputed king of the genre remains Amadeus, a remarkable film considering the fact that it is both a biopic and a Best Picture winner and really, really good, all at the same time (and also the subject of a blogathon, starting today).
Back in the day, though, mass audiences actually listened to classical music, and Hollywood dutifully provided fanciful life stories for famous composers in films that function as solid greatest hits collections as well as Best Actor Oscar bait. The two films I watched this week, Charles Vidor’s Chopin film A Song to Remember and Julien Duvivier’s The Great Waltz, about Johann Strauss II are even better than that, though their relation to actual history is dubious, as is to be expected in this genre.
A Song to Remember anticipates Amadeus‘s trick of telling the story of the genius at its center through a secondary character, in this case, Chopin’s teacher Professor Elsner, played by Paul Muni (Scarface himself). The film begins with Chopin (Cornell Wilde, Oscar nominee, with the excellent José Iturbi, the quest object of Anchors Aweigh, playing the piano parts) as a young man in Poland playing the piano and committed to radical anti-Russian politics (as it was more often than not in its history, Poland was then being ruled by a foreign power). At a big recital at a rich nobleman’s house (Chopin performs right after Paganini, giving us an early example of that wonderful biopic tradition: playing the spot-the-famous-person game), Chopin angrily denounces the new Russian governor-general.
Fleeing the Tsarist thugs, Chopin and Elsner take off for Paris where, Chopin quickly makes friends with Franz Liszt and George Sand. Liszt is a fellow pianist-composer, and the first person other than Elsner to recognize Chopin’s genius. His first concert in Paris goes poorly as Chopin learns just before going on that some of his revolutionary comrades have been tortured to death for helping him escape. He breaks down in the midst of the recital, angrily pounding a fragment of his “Heroic” Polonaise before storming off-stage. Fortunately, Liszt and Sand arrange a second chance for him to impress the Paris intelligentsia, inspiring a lovely sequence where they tell the audience Liszt will perform, but only with all the lights doused. We see the snooty audience carried away by the beautiful playing, only to have Liszt walk in with a candelabra and reveal that the lowly Chopin was the performer all along.
So far, this is all conventional rise-of-the-artist territory, but the film takes a turn in the second half. Chopin and Sand run away together, first to her country castle, then to Majorca. Sand convinces him that he’s better off with her, composing music and not interacting with other human beings, especially not the poor freedom-seeking Polish people. As played by Merle Oberon, she’s a vampiric figure, sucking the life out of Chopin while at the same time espousing a Randian contempt for the masses and belief in the superiority of the artist. We see Chopin’s degeneration, first spiritual, then physical, over time from the perspective of Elsner, his abandoned mentor, reduced to living and teaching piano in a cheap hovel and hoping Chopin return to sanity, his friend and teacher and his political commitments. But though these characters, Sand and Elsner, are opposing forces fighting for Chopin’s soul, both are complicated figures. Elsner is blinded by pride and self-righteousness from taking any practical action to confront Chopin and Sand, in a characterization striking in its sympathy for the villain, is shown to have very real reasons behind her hard philosophy, reasons rooted in the patriarchal system that forced her to adopt a man’s name to make any headway in the literary world. Her struggle has twisted her into a strident individualist, but we see the causality correctly: she’s the villain not because she’s independent (as is the way many liberated women are portrayed as evil throughout film history, up to and including our own time), but because the struggle to make herself independent has twisted her into a villain. The fault lies not with independence, but with the system that limited her in the first place. We are therefore able to embrace her feminism while denouncing the objectivist ideology she cloaks it in. She’s lost her compassion, but not her humanity. Such nuanced figures aren’t often to be found in contemporary Hollywood films, where we’re more likely to get a simple caricature like the nagging wet-blanket girlfriend/housewife holding the hero back from doing the thing that makes him interesting (see for example, every sports movie ever).
Eventually, Elsner convinces Chopin to recommit himself to his people and he embarks on a big European tour. But his health is failing and, as Sand predicted, the passion with which he throws himself into his performances makes it worse. He’s literally playing himself to death, but heroically so because his music, and the revenue it generates, is being funneled to the revolutionary struggle back home. That the film was made and released in the midst of World War II crystalizes the ideology of struggle and sacrifice at its propagandistic heart. Like most of the best biopics, it’s not a film about its subject, but a film about an idea that it uses the life of the subject to illustrate.
The Great Waltz provides entirely different kinds of pleasures, however. Though a reviewer at imdb has an interesting theory that the film is an allegory for the Nazi annexation of Austria, which was on-going at the time of the film’s release in 1938, I’d have to say that political concerns are far from the main attraction of the film. Plot-wise, it marries a traditional rise-to-greatness narrative with a love triangle plot. Young Strauss, a banker, gets fired for writing waltzes when he should be working. He gets his friend’s together and forms an orchestra, the first performance of which is sparsely attended (only his fiancee and family) until a group of rich swells swirling around opera star Carla Donner (real-life opera star Miliza Korjus, Oscar-nominated) shows up. Suddenly, the Viennese people in the nearby square take notice of Strauss’s music and the hall soon overflows with eager dancers. Overnight, Strauss has become a smashing success, the mid-19th century version of Lennon-McCartney, cranking out wildly popular tune after tune, in turn transforming the waltz from a scandalous, low form of dance to the music of the Austrian soul.
All of this, like in A Song to Remember, is played against the backdrop of revolution. Strauss is a big supporter of the Austrian democracy movement (he wrote the march they march to). During a protest, he and Donner are forced to flee together into the Vienna Woods, where they compose “Tales from the Vienna Woods” in the film’s most famous and brilliant sequence. The two are riding a carriage in the early morning, and we hear through Strauss’s ears as the sounds of the woods (farmers singing at work, birds chirping, the horse’s hooves clomping) are transformed by his genius; how Strauss harmonizes the everyday sound of the world and makes it sing. This sequence at the heart of the film concludes with Strauss and Donner falling in love (his now wife now also forgotten) and dancing a delierious waltz around a pavilion at the center of the woods (Duvivier uses a nice high angle to capture the dizzying romance of a high speed waltz, the most glorious and cinematic of ballroom dances) while at the same time it is announced that the revolution is won and an new Emperor is in power (how an Emperor fulfills a democratic revolution is left unclear, I don’t recall the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a particularly democratic institution).
The last third of the film is not quite as perfect as the middle section, but it does provide an excellent showcase for Luise Rainer, the ostensible star of the film, as Strauss’s wife Poldi. Strauss and Donner have been carrying on their affair more or less in public during preparation for her starring role in his Imperially-commisioned opera, “Die Fledermaus”. Donner’s lover, Lionel Atwill as Count Hohenfried, visits Poldi and inspires her to fight for her husband, she’d been loving him too much to call him out on his infidelity. She runs to the opera and, after seeing him and Donner happily together, wishes them well on their future endeavors. This effectively guilts Strauss into remaining home with his wife, though his love for Donner lives on in the spirit of the Blue Danube. These scenes wouldn’t work nearly as well without Rainer’s performance, tight-lipped and stiff-jawed, she barely moves her mouth as she speaks, breathy and intense as if she really believes every ridiculous thing she is given to say like it was as much an expression of her soul as Chopin’s music was of his.
In the end, The Great Waltz is less serious, less of a “good film” than A Song to Remember, but I suspect it’s the one that will stick longer in my memory. A Song to Remember has the fascinating figure of Oberon’s George Sand tearing apart the neat edges of its formulas, and the powerhouse playing of José Iturbi pounding the Polonaise into your brain, but the Vienna Woods sequences of The Great Waltz reach for something far greater than ideology. They get to the core of the power and beauty of music, and do so in a way that is only possible in film.