Monday, May 28, 2012

The great thing about great music

Critics commonly refer to 1939 as the best year ever for movies: "Gone With the Wind," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Wuthering Heights," etc., etc. They're not usually talking about "They Shall Have Music." But maybe they should be. (And hey, it got an Oscar nomination for best scoring.)


Hollywood could remake any of those classics today -- except this one. Nobody would give a violinist top billing, as Jascha Haifetz gets in "Music." Nobody would open with an unbroken, nine-minute performance of Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" or end with a full rendition of the last movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, as this does. And sadly, I don't think producers today would have the cojones to make a movie in which slum kids saw their lives transformed by classical music.

The plot's kind of hokey: Petty thief Frankie (Gene Reynolds, who went on to produce "M*A*S*H and other TV shows) finds two discarded tickets to one of Heifetz' Carnegie Hall concerts. When he can't scalp them, he ducks inside to escape a cop and is amazed by the violinist, whom he bumps into afterward. When Frankie runs away from his angry stepfather, he ends up at a music school; luckily, the teacher (Walter Brennan) realizes he has perfect pitch and lets him sit in with the violins and sleep in the basement. The music school runs out of dough, Frankie begs his old pal Jascha for help, and the great man comes through.

Heifetz spends 90 per cent of his screen time playing in his coolly elegant way, cracking a smile now and then. The movie's worth seeing for that, though the kids do a good job, and Joel McCrea turns up as a guy in love with the teacher's daughter. ("Union Pacific," released the same year, was about to make him a star.)

But the thing that really touched me was the belief that exposure to Beethoven and Chopin could turn a potential hoodlum into a productive and happy kid. We've seen countless movies about would-be stars using music to get rich; here's one that suggests great music makes us emotionally richer. Frankie's not going on to a solo career; he simply realizes that loving beauty doesn't make you weak or foolish and deepens your understanding of life.

A movie in our postmodern, cynical age would never suggest such a thing without an ironic sneer, but it's as true now as it ever was. Too bad we've forgotten that. 

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

agreed.

robin said...

"...that exposure to Beethoven and Chopin could turn a potential hoodlum into a productive and happy kid. We've seen countless movies about would-be stars using music to get rich; here's one that suggests great music makes us emotionally richer."

I would argue that there's something more insidious going on here. "Classical music" isn't neutral here--it's the vehicle for "civilizing" unruly misfits. "Classical music" (which is really Western art music--neither Beethoven nor Chopin are "classical period" composers) is the medium by which these "hoodlums" (working-class kids) learn bourgeois norms. They learn not only about the European canon and bourgeois values about aesthetic taste, but the protestant work ethic, bourgeois values about labor, thrift, etc. Notably, they achieve this by learning _European_ art music, a musical tradition that is, given the time (1939), NOT JAZZ, i.e., not racially "tainted" by association with the blues, and thus with blackness. So here we have a story where the only road to redemption is via the European bourgeois canon, not working-class American folk music, and heaven forbid the blues.

Anonymous said...

11:28 hates Beethoven and Chopin.

Probably Bach. Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, the entire European tradition as well.

That's a shame.

Americans today, regardless of color, have little use for this music.

So don't worry, it'll vanish soon enough and then you can feel better about yourself.

tarhoosier said...

OMG! "Stagecoach".
John Wayne.
John Ford.
1939
Classic, definitive American Western. Established scenes and situations that became clich├ęs only after the movie when everyone else copied the original. Larry, how could you forget?

Anonymous said...

I hate this writer's picture. It makes me want to punch his face.

John G. Hartness said...

for recent music movies, try "It Might Get Loud" and the screen-to-stage phenomenon "Once," featuring some of the most beautiful music I've heard in a long time. There's still room in indie flicks for the kind of things you mention, just not in the big studio pics.