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Franz Liszt got the Hollywood treatment in the lavish film biography Song Without End (1960), with English heartthrob Dirk Bogarde making his U.S. film debut as the Hungarian composer. In true Hollywood fashion, the screenplay changed history, omitting a few children here and there and neglecting to mention that though the composer's relationship with a Russian princess had ended because she couldn't get a divorce from her husband, they could have gotten back together after her husband died. Considering the film's tortuous road to production, however, it's a wonder that any of Liszt's life made it to the screen.
The idea for a film biography of Liszt can be traced to the success of Columbia Pictures' biography of his rival, Frederic Chopin, A Song to Remember (1945). Musician Theodore Kolline submitted three screenplays to the studio in 1946, but the project didn't really begin in earnest until 1952, when studio head Harry Cohn announced plans for the film. For the next seven years, it went through various writers and producers before finally going into production under William Goetz' independent production company, which released films through Columbia. He chose Charles Vidor, a Columbia veteran most noted for Gilda (1946), to direct Song Without End on locations around Europe. When the Soviet Union refused permission to shoot in Liszt's native Hungary, they settled on the palaces of Vienna instead.
For leading man, Goetz chose Dirk Bogarde, England's leading matinee idol. Since he was actively seeking more challenging roles (his home studio, Rank, had recently refused to let him take the lead in the 1958 film version of Look Back in Anger), Bogarde jumped at the role and his first opportunity to work on a U.S. film. He studied for weeks with pianist Victor Aller, who became a close friend, so that Vidor could film his hands at the piano. For leading lady, the company chose former model Capucine to make her film debut; she had been making a name for herself as agent/producer Charles Feldman's mistress and the hostess of his Hollywood parties. After announcing young piano sensation Van Cliburn would record the piano solos, the studio ended up using Jorge Bolet, while the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in its first film soundtrack appearance, would record Liszt's orchestral music.
The film production did not get off to a good start. Bogarde and Capucine hated the script and found Vidor unreasonable and often foul-tempered. He repeatedly screamed at her to relax and, according to Bogarde, at one point "shook Capucine like a dead cat." The co-stars frequently escaped the horrors of filming for picnics in the Austrian countryside, prompting rumors linking the gay actor with his bisexual leading lady. Then the director died of a heart attack (some said it occurred while he was having an affair with an extra). Far from mournful, Bogarde wrote his family that he was relieved and even optimistic when he met Vidor's replacement, George Cukor.
At the time, Cukor was in the middle of a career slump. He had been finishing work on Heller in Pink Tights (1960) when Goetz asked him to take over Song Without End. Both he and Bogarde were friends of British actress Kay Kendall, which helped them bond quickly. Cukor's usual attention to his leading ladies also gave him a strong rapport with Capucine. Moreover, he impressed the stars when he arrived on the set with a well-thumbed copy of Sacheverall Sitwell's Life of Liszt, published in 1934. He immediately replaced cinematographer James Wong Howe with Charles Lang, had Jean Louis' out-of-period costumes replaced with more accurate fashions and decided to have Anna Lee re-dub Patricia Morison's lines as George Sand, deeming Morison's voice too feminine for the role. His biggest challenge, though was rewriting the script. When he asked his friend Walter Bernstein to sign on for re-writes, the writer looked over the original and said, "My best advice to you is to get rid of Dirk Bogarde and get [comic] Sid Caesar. Then, just film the script." After extensive wooing by Feldman, he finally agreed to do re-writes. By that point, however, the film was so far behind schedule that all he and Cukor could do was doctor each scene as it came time to film it, leaving most of the script's structure intact.
Although Vidor had only shot about 15 percent of Song Without End, Cukor felt the entire project was not his conception nor anything he would have done on his own so he refused a directing credit. Instead, the film bore a special title card reading "Grateful recognition of his generous contribution to this film is herewith extended to Mr. George Cukor." That proved to be a wise choice when the film opened to mixed reviews. Although most critics praised the location shooting and the score (which would go on to win an Oscar®), there was little praise for the screenplay.
The composer's life would be given more faithful depictions in the 1970 Hungarian-Russian co-production The Loves of Liszt and the 1982 Hungarian mini-series Liszt Ferenc. By contrast, Ken Russell's epically self-indulgent Lisztomania (1975), starring Roger Daltrey as a pop idol version of the composer, would make Song Without End look like a documentary.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Charles Vidor, George Cukor (uncredited)
Screenplay: Oscar Millard, Walter Bernstein (uncredited)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe, Charles Lang (uncredited)
Music: Morris Stoloff, Harry Sukman
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Franz Liszt), Capucine (Princess Carolyne), Genevieve Page (Countess Marie), Patricia Morison (George Sand), Martita Hunt (Grand Duchess), Lou Jacobi (Potin), Marcel Dalio (Chelard), Katherine Squire (Anna Liszt)
by Frank Miller