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Rhapsody(1954)

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teaser Rhapsody (1954)

"Emotions crash in a crescendo of drama!"
Tag line for Rhapsody

MGM capitalized on Elizabeth Taylor's beauty and natural acting talent in the 1954 romance Rhapsody about a headstrong heiress involved with the European classical music scene. The film reflects her curious typecasting at the time -- at 22 the former child star was already playing femmes fatales with the potential to destroy men's lives -- but also gave her the opportunity to do some of the best acting of her early adult career. In particular she pulled off a demanding final sequence, played without words during a performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.

The film was adapted from the 1908 novel by Henry Handel Richardson, the pen name of Australian feminist Ethel Florence Richardson. Based on her own experiences studying classical piano in Leipzig, the novel focused on a troubled male pianist who marries and loses a beautiful female student, events that culminate in his suicide. Independent producer Hal Wallis had bought the story in 1948, then sold it to Paramount. Husband and wife writers Ruth and Augustus Goetz, best known for turning Henry James' Washington Square into the stage and screen versions of The Heiress (1949), wrote an adaptation for director Charles Vidor, who had proven his skill with films about classical music on A Song to Remember (1945). The novel, adaptation and Vidor were then sold to MGM, which was looking for a vehicle for Taylor. Another husband and wife team, Fay and Michael Kanin, then took over, shifting the focus to Taylor's character, now a poor little rich girl looking for love with all the wrong men.

Critics and biographers have complained that most of Taylor's projects between her breakthrough adult roles in Father of the Bride (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) and her more mature work in classics like Giant (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), were shallow affairs calculated to cash in on her star power. Some have suggested that she only accepted Rhapsody because she needed the money. With husband Michael Wilding frequently on suspension at MGM in rebellion against the weak roles offered him and her recent unpaid pregnancy leave, the couple was in financial straits. She made Rhapsody shortly after an exhausting shoot on location in Ceylon, when she was called in at the last minute to replace an ailing Vivien Leigh in Elephant Walk (1954). She also was recovering from an ulcerated eye that developed after an accident shooting publicity stills for the picture.

At the very least, she could console herself with the full MGM glamour treatment, including color photography by Robert Planck and some of Helen Rose's most flattering costumes. And even though the film's European settings were studio creations (with some location shots involving less-than-convincing doubles for the stars), at least it meant she could lunch with Wilding on the days they were both working..

Best of all were a pair of leading men who provided a perfect match for her beauty. Italian star Vittorio Gassman, a dedicated stage actor best known in the states for his masculine presence in international box-office hits like Bitter Rice (1949) and his marriage to Shelley Winters, finished up his MGM contract as the concert violinist who chooses music over Taylor until he sees her work her magic on a young pianist. In the latter role, John Ericson made his debut as an MGM contract player after acclaimed work on stage and the leading role in Fred Zinnemann's realistic war-bride drama Teresa (1951). Although his MGM stay would be brief, he turned in memorable work in such films as The Student Prince (1954) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) before becoming a popular television guest star in the '60s.

MGM pulled out all the stops to make the classical performances convincing. One-time child prodigy Michael Rabin supplied Gassman's violin playing, while Claudio Arrau dubbed for Ericson on the piano. As the conductor working with both of Taylor's amours, MGM cast Richard Hageman, another one-time child prodigy who had led the Metropolitan Opera before relocating to Hollywood to score films.

Despite a good deal of critical carping, Rhapsody performed as expected, turning a profit on Taylor's star appeal. In later years, the film has even earned a devoted fan following among those capable of looking past the soap suds to see the power in Taylor's performance.

Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: Michael Kanin, Fay Kanin, Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz
Based on a novel Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Louise Durant), Vittorio Gassman (Paul Bronte), John Ericson (James Guest), Louis Calhern (Nicholas Durant), Michael Chekhov (Prof. Schuman), Barbara Bates (Effie Cahill), Celia Lovsky (Frau Sigerlist), Stuart Whitman (Dove), Madge Blake (Mrs. Cahill).
C-116m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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