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Carnegie Hall (1947) is an epic-length cinematic love letter to classical music from one of America's most important, if elusive and enigmatic, directors. Fans and scholars who celebrate Edgar G. Ulmer as a heroic outsider artist tend to focus their attention on his most impoverished productions-they fit better into the preferred storyline that he was a brilliant filmmaker whose talents were best expressed far from the cookie-cutter mentality of mainstream studio-driven Hollywood. There is another reading of his life, better suited to the facts but far less romantic: he was a sometimes difficult person who suffered the consequences of some poor career decisions and some plain ol' bad luck. Carnegie Hall, certainly one of the most singular and distinctive films of the 1940s, is yet sadly overlooked. Critics and historians who wish to use Ulmer's biography as a way to ennoble his smaller films have no use for it, while the ranks of those who would use his bigger films as a way of better understanding his biography are fairly thin in number.
The project started with Boris Morros and William LeBaron, whose partnership stretched back decades. Both men were trained musicians turned film entrepreneurs whose collaborations included such films as Ernst Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), the Bulldog Drummond series, and a variety of Bob Hope comedies. Not long after Carnegie Hall celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as a world landmark for classical music, LeBaron and Morros started planning a cinematic tribute. It was to be an ambitious undertaking, and according to early reports in the Hollywood trade press they expected to put nearly two million dollars into what was to be a Technicolor feature headlined by star Ronald Colman and featuring musical performances by Serge Koussevitzky, Arturo Toscanini, Joe Iturbi, Vladimir Horowitz, John Charles Thomas, Lauritz Melchior, Mischa Elman, Victor Borge, Alec Templeton, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsy, and Benny Goodman. The somewhat more modest film that came out the other end of these grand plans changed the lineup but kept the spirit of the enterprise.
LeBaron and Morros were impressed by Ulmer's work on 1946's The Strange Woman (itself another well-appointed picture often overlooked by Ulmer fans) and knew him to be an avid classical music buff. Edgar Ulmer once described himself as a "frustrated conductor," and was known to direct his actors with a baton, as if they were indeed an orchestra. The baton in question had once belonged to Franz Liszt, passed down through the Erdody family to movie composer Leo Erdody, and from him to Leo's dearest friend Edgar. Ulmer frequently fought with his producers over the inclusion of classical music in his films, and had even helped Leopold Stokowski record the soundtrack for Disney's Fantasia (1940).
Much of Carnegie Hall was shot on location within the hallowed venue, which had never before been shown on film. For the sequences depicting Carnegie Hall's 1891 inauguration, the theater was painstakingly restored to its original opening night splendor. Actress Marsha Hunt said it was "probably the most exciting film experience I've ever had," which may well be true of the underappreciated star whose career plateaued at B-level films before being shut down entirely by the Blacklist. Although Hunt receives top billing, she was chagrined to discover herself frequently sitting in her dressing room, ignored, while Ulmer focused on the real stars of the picture: Jascha Heifetz, Rise Stevens, Lily Pons, Ezio Pinza, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Jan Peerce, Harry James, and others, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, and Artur Rodzinski! It took the filmmakers three years of delicate scheduling to bring these luminaries together on screen.
Ulmer would later complain that he had been unable to convince his producers to bankroll a straight documentary, and that the musical scenes which form the raison d'tre of the film were shoehorned against his will into a narrative structure. "What are you going to do after Rubinstein plays Chopin?" Ulmer grumbled, "You're going to have a scene where actors talk?"
It is now the conventional wisdom on Carnegie Hall that the narrative structure is the film's real, and only, weakness. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times review of the picture that the story was "trite and foolish." Variety used almost the same words to dismiss the "trite story," a sentiment echoed and amplified by everyone else who has passed judgment on the thing. Even Ulmer himself dismissed the story as "silly."
Former silent screen actress Seena Owen wrote the story as a familiar collection of "star is born" tropes, which was then turned into a finished screenplay by writer Karl Kamb. The story begins with bullheaded pianist Tony Salerno (Hans Jaray) battling conductor Walter Damrosch (who plays himself). It seems Tony is something of a prima donna, putting too much of himself into his performance. He catches the fancy of Nora (Hunt), an Irish immigrant working as a cleaner for the Hall. Classical music is in her blood, from the day she arrived in America as a child and witnessed Peter Tchaikovsky performing at the opening night of Carnegie Hall back in 1891. Tony brings fire to her life-danger, unpredictability, and the promise of the unknown-and she in turn grounds him with pragmatism.
It is hard not to see this as a parallel for Ulmer himself-the great Viennese artist, trained by Murnau and Reinhardt, now struggling to maintain his artistic integrity against the "Hollywood hash-machine" (as Ulmer so famously termed it). Edgar had likewise captured the heart of a practical hard-working girl with his European charm and unyielding ways. As Ulmer battled his producers over unwelcome creative compromises, it was a form of wish-fulfillment to indulge their "silly story" by highlighting an artist who refuses to compromise.
The film most often cited as Ulmer's personal statement, the film most closely linked with his name, Detour (1945), features a musician who longs to play Carnegie Hall but is trapped by circumstances into debasing his music in nightclubs, before his life turns even worse. "Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you," Detour's Al Roberts (Tom Neal) moans. Tony Salerno gets to play Carnegie Hall, to live Al Roberts' aborted dream, but not for long. Fate comes for him, too, and sticks out its legendary foot into this film as well-scarcely have the first reels begun than Salerno takes a nasty tumble and exits the film permanently, leaving his grieving widow to raise Tony Jr. alone. Here is where the tired stage-mom clichs kick in, with Marsha Hunt's Nora struggling to secure for her son (William Prince) the artistic prominence denied her late husband.
Rubinstein's performance of Chopin is indeed extraordinary - and Ulmer films the music with a dynamism that makes every note a heroic triumph. After such a stunning display of pure artistry and technical achievement, Ulmer is perhaps right that a scene of actors talking will seem out of place, but this is because the two serve radically different artistic masters. Music is an exercise in pure aesthetics. It exists for its own sake, it is good because it is beautiful, and it is great music because it is great music. It is what it is. Movies are a slipperier medium, in which form and function do not always align. The surface of the story is undeniably clichd and familiar; but the story is not contained entirely in its superficial surface.
Consider this: there are only two kinds of characters in Carnegie Hall - the musicians themselves, and the working class people who service the theater. At no point do we meet the white collar staff of the theater, the booking agents and managers who put the programs together and pay the musicians for their work, nor do we ever get to see the faces of anyone in the audience. Furthermore, most of the working class people the film encounters are indifferent if not outright contemptuous of Carnegie Hall and what it represents. Nora's fellow washwoman sees the musicians as impediments to her finishing her job, and a delivery boy later scoffs at the idea that "Carnegie Hall" is anything special. That Nora has such esteem for the place is treated by the film as something unusual, and deserving of explanation-she gets to defensively explain how it is that she, a lowly cleaning lady, even knows who Tchaikovsky is. Aside from Nora, the other non-musicians who appear in Carnegie Hall do not think of classical music as having anything to do with them.
Nora embodies the American dream of self-betterment and upward mobility. Not only does she love music passionately, she takes to underwriting scholarships for poor students to train as musicians.
At the heart of the story is the burning question of whether it is indeed true that classical music is for everybody, and if in turn anybody can be a classical musician. This is the ideal that the film clearly wants to espouse, but it does so carefully-as if merely assuming such things are too much to expect. The film does not show the audience in the theater because their uniformly privileged appearances would belie that ideal-the film Carnegie Hall preserves and packages a vital cultural experience not otherwise available to the masses and makes it popularly accessible. The decision to include a linking story was a savvy commercial decision that makes Carnegie Ball a true movie. It was a choice that helped make Carnegie Hall accessible to people who would not frequent the real Carnegie Hall.
Tony Jr.'s aspiration to be a jazz musician must be seen in this class-conscious context. The performers, playing themselves, who headline Carnegie Hall are Europeans, their voices thick with accents, playing European music handed down from the past. Jazz was an indigenous creation of low-class Americans, most of whom would have been forbidden to play Carnegie Hall because of their skin color. There is something almost elegiac in this-the notion that "the world's greatest music" is out of step with a culture that does not appreciate it. Films made by later generations would pit the values of classical music against rock 'n' roll, the music of rebellion and youth, explicitly rejecting stuffy egghead music for rich people. Carnegie Hall does not take that route, and instead argues that in embracing jazz, Carnegie Hall makes a necessary concession to contemporary music that does not sell out its soul. The film insists that jazz music is as serious an art as any, crafted by musicians who deserve to share the stage with their classical brethren.
Tony Sr.'s sin of self-expression in the opening scene of Carnegie Hall prefigures Tony Jr. riffing on Chopin's waltz as a jazz improvisation. Music critics of the time, drawn to the film for its classical performances, saw such moments as vulgar, and openly resented the jazz scenes of the film. The "trite" story was the vehicle by which the jazz scenes were legitimized, and by which the cultural exclusivity of Carnegie Hall was challenged. The cultural avatars maintaining that exclusivity in the real world may well have been discomfited by the rallying cry that Carnegie Hall's music was for everyone, and that through this film it could become everyone's.
There is something incongruous about a movie that so fetishizes the ornate grandeur of pure aesthetics, that hangs on names like Chopin and Tchaikovsky with almost religious fervor, being built atop such a populist and revolutionary structure. Yet this is the trick, the key to loving this lovably inscrutable gem. The two pieces are inseparable.
When released to television, Carnegie Hall was clipped down to a more manageable running time by removing many of its musical performances-which not only deleted the very purpose of the film, but left a story with nothing more to be about. Meanwhile, the producers prepared a 16mm print of just the musical scenes that was donated to the Smithsonian Museum-a fine gesture, but the print in question is no more a meaningful creation than the TV cut. Only together, glorious musical veneration and trite storytelling intact, does Carnegie Hall makes its most complete and passionate case that great music is a birthright of us all.
Producers: William LeBaron, Boris Morros
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Karl Kamb; Seena Owen (story)
Cinematography: William Miller
Art Direction: Max Ree
Film Editing: Fred R. Feitshans, Jr.
Cast: Marsha Hunt (Nora Ryan), William Prince (Tony Salerno, Jr.), Frank McHugh (John Donovan), Martha O'Driscoll (Ruth Haines), Hans Yaray (Tony Salerno, Sr.), Olin Downes (himself), Joseph Buloff (Anton Tribik), Walter Damrosch (himself), Bruno Walter (himself), Lily Pons (herself), Gregor Piatigorsky (himself).
by David Kalat