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Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography

Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography

by John C. Tibbetts

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Amadeus . . . Yankee Doodle Dandy . . . Swanee River . . . Rhapsody in Blue. Even before movies had sound, filmmakers dramatized the lives of composers. Movie biographies—or biopics—have depicted composers as diverse as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George M. Cohan, Stephen Foster, and George Gershwin. In this


Amadeus . . . Yankee Doodle Dandy . . . Swanee River . . . Rhapsody in Blue. Even before movies had sound, filmmakers dramatized the lives of composers. Movie biographies—or biopics—have depicted composers as diverse as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George M. Cohan, Stephen Foster, and George Gershwin. In this enticing book, the first devoted entirely to such films, John C. Tibbetts surveys different styles and periods from the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s to the international cinema of today, exploring the role that film biographies play in our understanding of history and culture.
Tibbetts delves into such questions as: How historically accurate are composer biopics? How and why have inaccuracies and distortions been perpetrated? What strategies have been used to represent visually the creative process? The book examines the films in several contexts and considers their role in commodifying and popularizing music. Extensive archival research, dozens of illustrations, and numerous interviews make this an appealing book for film and music enthusiasts at all levels.

Editorial Reviews

Alan Walker

"John Tibbetts has written a riveting book about ’bio-pics’ without rival in the field. It should be on the bookshelves of all those movie buffs who are at the same time interested in the lives of classical musicians. Tibbetts takes us behind the silver screen and offers a critical view of how the film biographies of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and others were made. An indispensable reference tool."—Alan Walker, author of the three-volume, prize-winning biography of Liszt

David Culbert

"A splendid, accessible discussion of musical creativity and popular myth-making.”—David Culbert, Editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

Jacques Barzun

“I look forward to Composers In The Movies. The subject deserves the sort of treatment that has been devised here. Long overdue, it is a welcome and worthwhile endeavor.”—Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn to Decadence

Michael Saffle

“Every film buff will want to consult this book, as will musicologists and students in film and communication studies.”—Michael Saffle, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Wheeler Winston Dixon

“This is a remarkable book in every respect, a book that fills a genuine need in film and musical scholarship.”—Wheeler Winston Dixon, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and editor, Quarterly Review of Film and Video

From the Publisher

“Every film buff will want to consult this book, as will musicologists and students in film and communication studies.”—Michael Saffle, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Gary Edgerton

“Comprehensive in scope, refreshingly insightful, yet highly readable. . . . John Tibbetts brings his considerable knowledge and analytic talents to bear on a subject that has obviously been one of his lifelong passions.”—Gary Edgerton, Old Dominion University and Coeditor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television

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Yale University Press
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Composers in the Movies


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10674-9

Chapter One

The Classical Style Composers in the Studio Era

In our time the public takes the initiative and asks for all the family secrets, all the details of one's private life. Do you have the semblance of a reputation? Then people want to know the color of your bedroom slippers, the cut of your dressing gown, the kind of tobacco you prefer, and what you call your favorite greyhound. The newspapers, eager to profit from this pitiable curiosity, heap anecdote upon anecdote, falsehood upon falsehood, and cater to the idle amusement of the salons [which welcome] the vilest gossip, the silliest slander, with unprecedented alacrity. -Franz Liszt, 1837

Studio Systems

The canon of classical composers already discussed in the Introduction -Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Richard Wagner, and others-first reached American and British screens at the precise time that the studio system in Hollywood and England was at its peak, and when the popularityof movies was at its height. Many film historians refer to this time, roughly 1930-1960, as the "classical period" of the studio system. By no means coincidentally, it also was the "golden age" of the composer biopic, both classical and popular (the popular songwriter biopics are discussed in Chapter Two).

The American film industry was dominated by the vertically integrated "Big Five" studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, and Twentieth Century-Fox), by the "Little Three" studios (United Artists, Universal, and Columbia), and by smaller, independent studios (such as Republic and Disney). Under the supervision of the moguls-Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner, Walt Disney, and others-and through their respective distribution networks and theater chains, a "consistent system of production and consumption, a set of formalized creative practices and constraints, and thus a body of work with a uniform style, a standard way of telling stories, from camera work and cutting to plot structure and thematics" was established. This oligopoly would not break down until the mid-1960s, when the Supreme Court-mandated divestiture of studio-owned theaters effectively ended it.

At the same time British producers and supervisors like Michael Balcon and J. Arthur Rank began in the mid-1930s to bring Hollywood-style centralized control and factory production principles to their own industry of hitherto scattered production entities. The Rank Organization came to embrace the Ealing, Gainsborough, Gaumont-British, and London-Denham studios; several exhibition chains, such as the Odeon theaters; and the distribution outlets of General Film Distributors. Despite repeated protestations from Balcon that they were making intrinsically "British" pictures-promoting a national cinema, as it were-Balcon, Rank, and others were in reality shaping their pictures to be as commercially attractive as possible to the American market.

Thus, the American and British biopics in general-although a minor genre numbering substantially fewer titles than melodramas, westerns, and horror films-were shaped by and subjected to similar pressures and standards. Because most of them were joint productions, cofinanced and released through the distribution outlets of both countries, these biopics revealed a kinship in theme and structure that answered to the same personal and political agendas of producers and writers, the exigencies of the star system, the restrictions of the censorship codes, and the economic necessity of appealing to the widest possible audience base. In sum, asserts film historian George F. Custen in his pioneering study of biopics, they "reduce their lives to a mass-tailored contour for fame in which greatness is generic and difference has controllable boundaries."

From 1930 to 1960 Hollywood led the way in sheer numbers of biopics with, according to Custen, an estimated 300 features, 227 of which came from the 8 major film studios and 14 from independent production entities, like Republic and Monogram. One-quarter of these pictures focused on artists and entertainers (many of the composer biopics discussed in this book were created during the last two decades of this period). Twentieth Century-Fox produced the most with 14, followed by MGM with 13.

The British film industry, by contrast, whose markets were one-quarter the size of the American markets and whose theaters were dominated by American films, produced far fewer biopics. Current research has yet to tabulate their precise number, but they included a variety of prestigious patriotic and artistic efforts, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Waltzes from Vienna (Johann Strauss, Jr., 1933); Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), and That Hamilton Woman (Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton, 1943); Rank's The Great Mr. Handel (1942) and Bad Lord Byron (1951); the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt's Young Mr. Pitt (1942) and The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953); and Ronald Neame's The Magic Box (William Friese-Greene, 1951).

Representative American and British composer biopics released during the classical period are arranged for discussion in this chapter in roughly chronological order: Waltzes from Vienna (1933, Gaumont-British), Blossom Time (1936, British-International), The Great Waltz (1938, MGM), The Melody Master (1941, United Artists), The Great Mr. Handel (1942, Rank-GWH), A Song to Remember (1945, Columbia), The Magic Bow (1946, Rank/ Universal-International), Song of Love (1947, MGM), Song of Scheherazade (1947, Universal-International), The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953, British Lion-London Films), Magic Fire (1954, Republic), Song without End (1960, Columbia), and two Disney biopics, The Peter Tchaikovsky Story (1959) and The Magnificent Rebel (1962). Each film is briefly synopsized, its dramatic discourse compared with the factual biographical record, and its contemporary contexts and critical reaction measured. The end of this chapter is reserved for an investigation of the censorial restraints imposed on each film.

Based on the paradigm of the composer subject established in the Introduction, these works reveal the following commonly held agendas: (1) They conform the "life" so as to make it congruent with the narrative structures and formulas common to romantic melodramas, musicals, westerns, horror films, and so on. (2) They "normalize" and contain the artist's life, depicting him or her, on the one hand, as a somewhat marginalized individual struggling against stifling societal conformism and, on the other, as a citizen striving to compose a "song of the people" that reflects, confirms, and celebrates the community's own commonly held experiences. (3) They tailor the artist's life to the prevailing screen images of the actors that appear in the cast. (4) They cater to the "prestige" ambitions of the studio producers. (5) They "adjust" the life against possible litigiousness from relatives of the subject (an especially important consideration in the Tin Pan Alley biopics discussed in Chapter Two). And (6) they pluck the musical texts out of their historical contexts and, in addition to exploiting their familiarity and performance values, transmute them into collages and pastiches deployed via the programmatic and leitmotif techniques of late-nineteenth-century "Romantic" composers.

This last agenda needs some elaboration. Reconfiguring classical music into a motion picture soundtrack strips away its autonomy, wrenches it from its original historical frame, and subordinates it to an extradiegetic role in the narrative discourse. Assigning specific meanings to the music-a musicodramatic strategy derived from the leitmotif system of opera composer Richard Wagner-imposes programmatic connotations upon the viewer and promotes what cultural historian Theodor Adorno rather grandly terms "conditioned reflexes"-"a system of response-mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society." It is the great irony of the classical composer biopics, writes historian Carol Flinn, that the greatest music ever written should merely be used to repeat or reinforce the action in the image-"it should not 'go beyond' it or draw attention to itself qua music. After all, it was only 'background' music.'" Thus, no matter how distinguished the score, "it is not successful unless it is secondary to the story being told on the screen." This judgment needs some qualification, however; in-as-much as the performative aspects of the music do on occasion become an important part of the biopics.

Deploying these practices in composer biopics and other film projects were a number of European- and Eastern European-trained composers who emigrated to Hollywood and brought with them what historian Tony Thomas has dubbed the traditions of the "Mittel-Europa Strain" of late-nineteenth-century classical music. For example, Dimitri Tiomkin, famous for his western scores (High Noon, 1951, and Red River, 1948), studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music under Alexander Glazunov and Felix Blumenthal; Miklos Rozsa, noted for his many Korda and MGM historical films (The Jungle Book, 1938, and Ben Hur, 1959), studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and under Hermann Grabner at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music; Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Viennese wunderkind who made his Hollywood reputation scoring Errol Flynn vehicles (Robin Hood, 1939, and The Sea Hawk, 1940), was encouraged in his studies by no less than Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Giacomo Puccini; Constantin Bakaleinikoff studied at the Moscow Conservatory before coming to America to work as a music director for MGM, RKO, and Paramount; and Max Steiner, another Viennese prodigy who grew up under the influence of his famous grandfather, Maximilian Steiner (the impresario of the Theatre an der Wien), and who studied with Mahler, became the most prolific composer in Hollywood, creating for RKO, David O. Selznick, and Warner Bros. the scores for such classics as King Kong (1933), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Gone with the Wind (1939). Less well known but also deserving attention is Heinz Roemheld, head of Universal studio's music department, who had studied music in Berlin.

Finally, the composer biopic confronts the unique challenge of visualizing the actual creative process. "Plays about musicians or writers have one insurmountable problem in common," observes commentator Patrick O'Connor. "It is the least dramatic situation imaginable to show the artist at work, sitting at his desk, or at the keyboard. He must pace the floor, throw tantrums, be tormented by doubts, tear his hair. That is how the creative life seems to audiences, or so [authors and filmmakers] suppose." Actor Simon Callow, who portrayed Mozart in the original stage production of Amadeus, agrees: "It's nonsensical, when you think about it. Maybe you can show something that stimulates creativity, but what about the interior process itself? Where does that come from? Very few filmmakers or playwrights seem to be interested in the actual question of creativity. And maybe that's true of 80 percent of the people. That sort of thing is probably done best in a novel. Oddly, it might be easier to visualize creative bankruptcy. We all can share in that feeling!" Like the biographical aspects of the subject, the mystery of musical creativity itself has to be contained within the parameters of a mass audience's experience and understanding. Without such containment, declares UCLA art historian Albert Boime, "We risk the stereotype of the mad artist-creativity as some kind of disease or psychological aberration. This indicates our underlying fear and anxiety about creativity. Hollywood has to use stereotypes as a way of negotiating that fear." For example, as the following discussion illustrates, composer biopics deploy visual strategies that reveal musical inspiration deriving from nature, folk traditions (the "voice of the people"), the emotions (love, hate, sorrow, frustration, triumph, and so on), and the divine (spiritual inspiration).

A Selection of Films

Blossom Time (1936), a British biopic about Franz Schubert (1797-1828), adapts to the screen the paradigm of the publicly constructed artist's life, which has its roots in Schubert's own day. It is the model of the dramatized "life" that has continued to manifest itself, with variations not only in the many theatrical and film biographies about Schubert that have appeared in the past century-more plays, operettas, and films have been produced about Schubert than any other composer, excepting only Franz Liszt and Johann Strauss, Jr.-but also in the biopics of the other classical and popular composers discussed throughout this book.

At first glance Schubert's life scarcely seems suggestive of such far-reaching dramatic implications. Born in Vienna in 1797, he grew up in the humble household of a schoolmaster, sang as a boy in the Imperial Chapel's choristers, and, after a desultory attempt at teaching in his father's school, decided to pursue a composing career. Although he was encouraged by a small circle of artists and writers, many of his major works-including operas, symphonies, religious music, and chamber works-failed to find a wide public and remained unpublished. Indeed, he held only one public concert of his works, on March 26, 1828. Only his prodigious output of songs and dance music was well known in his lifetime. Schubert traveled seldom, never held an official appointment, never married, earned only enough to survive, and died in 1828 at age thirty-one of typhoid and complications of tertiary syphilis.

Ironically, the gaps in our knowledge of Schubert's life and the seemingly modest surface of his activities-not to mention the commercial viability of his glorious melodies-were among the very factors that attracted dramatists. Even before his death, his life and music were already being wrenched from his private space and thrust into the more public arena of collective myth. "The externals of Schubert's life," writes historian Robert Winter, "its brief span, the prodigious output, the lack of public turning points-invited writers to create a make-believe world bathed in nostalgia, a world where genius overcomes poverty and people have no sweat glands. For a century that was constantly reminded of its loss of innocence, Schubert offered a source of refuge and comfort." Contemporary accounts, memoirs, and anecdotes from friends and colleagues labeled him as a kind of cherubic idiot savant-"a guileless child romping among giants," as Schumann famously observed, a modest, relatively untutored schwammerl ("little mushroom") who sat in coffeehouses and effortlessly improvised dance tunes for his amiable circle but who was unlucky in life and love and who died young, impoverished and neglected. "Unfortunately," writes biographer Brian Newbould, "fiction often being hardier than fact, this concoction had an enduring influence on the popular conception of Schubert as a man and composer which has still not been eradicated." This lament will be heard countless times throughout these pages, as will the counterargument-that the various literary, theatrical, and cinematic incarnations of Blossom Time have brought Schubert and his music to the very public he so avidly, but unsuccessfully, courted during his own tragically brief lifetime.

No matter that revisionist historians (Maynard Solomon is one recent outstanding example) point to a very different reality. They reference the gay subculture in which Schubert may have moved, his apparent lack of interest in women,, the moods of alienation and suicide expressed in his letters, the egomaniacal outbursts among his friends, the relative degree of success in publishing much of his music, the innovative/problematic nature of his last experimental compositions, and the controversies over the precise cause of his death. Yet, it is the highly sentimentalized fiction that first attracted popular favor, was consolidated by Schubert's first biographer, Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn, and given its fullest elaboration by George Grove in 1882.


Excerpted from Composers in the Movies by JOHN C. TIBBETTS Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John C. Tibbetts is associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas. He has published widely in both music and film studies and, as a broadcaster, has contributed to NPR, the Voice of America, and the Christian Science Monitor Radio Network.

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