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In October 1931, David O. Selznick joined RKO as Vice President in Charge of Production in an effort to help the ailing studio in a time of poor fiscal management and declining nationwide attendance. Symphony of Six Million, then called Night Bell after the Fannie Hurst story on which it's based, was one of the screenplays on RKO's immediate slate.
A drama laced with ethnic humor, the story concerned a young Jewish doctor (Ricardo Cortez) who rises from the slums of New York to become a West End Avenue - and then Park Avenue - surgeon, losing touch with his roots in the process. After a botched operation on his father (Gregory Ratoff), Cortez vows never again to touch another surgical instrument - until, that is, his crippled girlfriend (Irene Dunne) decides to have an operation to fix her spinal condition.
With anti-Semitism embedded and generally accepted in many aspects of American society, the Jewish Selznick may have felt "a conscious resolve to depict Jews as more than stereotyped comics, to present Jewish traditions and attitudes sympathetically, something that had been done only infrequently in Hollywood." (Ronald Haver, David O. Selznick's Hollywood) Selznick ordered the insertion of scenes of the doctor's childhood, and of warm, realistic moments of Jewish immigrant life, many of which were actually already present in the Fannie Hurst story itself but which had not previously found their way into the script. Selznick charged young RKO producer Pandro Berman with making these changes, and furthermore changed the film's title to one he deemed "more dramatic and dignified." (Haver)
On a more technical level, Selznick told his music department head, Max Steiner, to underscore almost the entire picture with symphonic music. This was an unusual concept at the time; talking pictures before 1932 typically had very little scoring.
Symphony of Six Million was a box-office success. According to author Ron Haver, Pandro Berman later called it his "first good movie" and Selznick, too, was always particularly proud of it. It would remain one of Selznick's most personal films.
Critics liked the picture, with The New York Times praising the surgery scenes and also the very elements that Selznick and Berman had added: "This is one of the outstanding hospital episodes that has been pictured," wrote Times critic Mordaunt Hall. "It elicits steady attention during its every second... There are a number of excellent scenes of the thronged east-side thoroughfare and here and there some light touches of this Jewish family life... Ratoff is splendid as the father."
For Russian-born Gregory Ratoff, Symphony of Six Million was his debut Hollywood acting job. While he usually played heavily accented, language-mangling characters, Ratoff himself was actually articulate and intelligent. He had studied law, and then acting and directing, in Russia, leaving during the Bolshevik revolution for Paris. Eventually he made his way to the U.S. where he starred in many Yiddish theater productions. Not long after he began his screen acting career, Ratoff turned to directing movies, including Intermezzo (1939) and The Men in Her Life (1941).
Symphony of Six Million was Irene Dunne's seventh feature. Though she had scored an Oscar® nomination for her second film, Cimarron (1931), she was still considered simply a rising and versatile star. That would change with her next picture, Back Street (1932), in which her breathtaking performance (in yet another Fannie Hurst story) made her a full-fledged star, period.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman, David O. Selznick
Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: J. Walter Ruben, Bernard Schubert, James Seymour, Fannie Hurst (story)
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Ricardo Cortez (Dr. Felix Klauber), Irene Dunne (Jessica), Anna Appel (Hannah Klauber), Gregory Ratoff (Meyer Klauber), Noel Madison (Magnus Klauber), Lita Chevret (Birdie Klauber).
by Jeremy Arnold