Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1945. Columbia Pictures. Story by Ernst Marischka, Screenplay by Sidney Buchman. Cinematography by Allen M. Davey, Tony Gaudio. Produced by Sidney Buchman, Louis F. Edelman. Music by Morris Stoloff. Production Design by Lionel Banks, Van Nest Polglase. Costume Design by Walter Plunkett. Film Editing by Charles Nelson.
Cornel Wilde receives third billing for playing the lead in this biography of Frederic Chopin, but his elegant performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, deservedly made him a star and is still the best thing about this mostly fictional film. Bringing the details of the great composer and pianist’s life in line with war propaganda films and most of the musician biopics of the day, it begins with Chopin as child prodigy being supervised by his devoted music teacher Joseph Elsner (Paul Muni) who longs to take the young Polish child to Paris where his potential can be fully exploited. Little Frederic’s parents object and it isn’t until more than a decade later that the trip is finally arranged, after the now grown musician risks danger by joining the Polish uprising against Russian oppression.
Chopin’s career has a rough start in the City of Lights, his talents while appreciated can’t prevent his first concert from being a disaster, but he gains the admiration of celebrated author Georges Sand (Merle Oberon) and makes a lasting friendship with Franz Lizst (Stephen Bekassy) and both these factors serve him well. In the film’s best and most dazzling sequence, Liszt tells excited guests at an elegant soiree being held at the manor of a duchess that he will perform a new piece for them but needs darkness to do so properly; snuffing out all the candles to let Chopin perform in his stead, the audience has the truth revealed to them when Sand enters the room followed closely behind by director Charles Vidor’s elegant camera as her candelabrum sheds light first on the crowd and then on the artist who will immediately become the toast of Paris.
He also falls madly in love with Sand, but her desire that he devote himself to composing in the luxury of a remote Majorca villa is at odds with Elsner’s desire that Chopin pursue all manner of professional engagements in the city, while continuing to churn out etudes and preludes ad nauseum. Chopin devotes himself to seclusion and to his relationship, sending his compositions from his seaside retreat and ignoring Elsner for years while continuing to deteriorate in health. Unable to convince him to ease up on his obsession with Sand, Elsner eventually presses Chopin to think about the political ideals of his youth that he has since abandoned, reminding him that Poland still needs him to help its cause for freedom.
As ridiculous as this film’s flights of fancy are (Elsner didn’t really accompany Chopin to Paris, and Sand was more devoted to Polish independence than he was), it is executed with an elegant, dynamic power thanks to Wilde’s graceful performance, a gorgeous contrast to Muni’s hamming it up every chance he gets. Never overplaying a single moment, Wilde’s is a series of quiet, shy smiles combined with impressive command of the keyboard (unlike anyone else who sits to a piano in this film, he looks like he’s really playing). Muni, on the other hand, painfully overdoes his accent and mannerisms as if desperate to win the audience’s love (and maybe another Oscar), and Oberon, while striking and fiercely glamorous, doesn’t have the depth to pull off the vulnerability beneath the character’s hard exterior. The script does Sand as much a disservice as it venerates Chopin, presenting her as a maniacal and controlling maneater (there’s a lot of reference to her “strong will” in only the most negative terms), but it doesn’t help that Oberon plays the character as an ironclad bitch and then, when she’s given her redemptive moment revealing that her care for Chopin is rooted in her experience as a woman in a man’s world, the actress shows that she doesn’t have the layers to pull it off.
Billed as a romance, it focuses more on the tension between professor and student, but even at its most ridiculous it cuts deep and isn’t as middlebrow as most films of its kind made in this era were.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Cornel Wilde); Best Original Story; Best Cinematography-Colour; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Recording; Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture