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A Song to Remember

Anyone looking for a serious cinematic study of the life of the great Polish composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1845) should probably steer clear of A Song to Remember (1945). In the tradition of Hollywood biographies of the famous, this ranks somewhere between the blatantly fictitious Night and Day (1946), which purported to be about American songwriter Cole Porter (Cary Grant) and Ken Russell's flamboyantly excessive The Music Lovers (1970) about Russian composer Tchaikovsky. In A Song to Remember, Chopin is portrayed as a fiery, idealistic revolutionary who, after a confrontation with one of the Czarist Russians controlling his homeland, flees to Paris with his music teacher. There he gains fame for his music and falls in with the cold, selfish French author George Sand, who battles with the teacher, Prof. Elsner, for Chopin's soul. Although in poor health, Chopin finally goes on an exhausting tour to raise money for fellow revolutionaries back home and dies as a result.

Reviewers at the time commented that, even by Hollywood standards, the film was riddled with historical inaccuracies too numerous to pick apart here. However, it was expected that with Paul Muni cast in the role of Elsner, his importance to Chopin would be elevated (in truth, the respected teacher and composer of "Stabat Mater" never went to Paris with Chopin). A respected actor for several decades on both stage and screen, Muni received top billing for a role that was highly inflated, first by the film's producers and then by Muni himself; he hammed it up so ferociously in the part that reviewers noted he appeared to be in an entirely different picture from the rest of the cast. (Reportedly he developed his character and performance in advance of filming and refused to allow either the director or the performances of the other actors to affect it.) But Muni could be forgiven for being a little grand. His style had been well rewarded many times in his career with glowing reviews and the accolades of his peers in the Academy. Up to this point, he had been Oscar® nominated five times and took home the Best Actor award once, for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). He was one of only a handful of actors (along with Orson Welles, James Dean and a few others) to be nominated for his film debut (The Valiant, 1929), and he was nominated once more for his final screen appearance in The Last Angry Man (1959).

The handsome, robust Cornel Wilde was an odd choice to play the frail, sickly Chopin, but his work here was impressive enough to earn him an Academy Award as Best Actor. A supporting player for about a decade prior to this, his performance here made him a star. But the young actor received no support or respect from Muni, apparently disgruntled that his friend Glenn Ford could not play the role because he volunteered for the Marine Corps instead.

In spite of the story's inaccuracies and Muni's wildly theatrical performance, the picture was a hit and racked up five other Academy Award nominations: Cinematography, Editing, Music Scoring, Sound Recording, and Original Story. Critics and audiences alike thrilled to Chopin's music, played by noted pianist Jose Iturbi (who was unbilled because he was under contract to another studio) and well adapted by film composer Miklos Rozsa. The picture exposed large numbers of Americans to Chopin's work for the first time, and his "Polonaise" (unfinished at the time of his death) became a hit recording, first in instrumental form by Iturbi and later set to lyrics, recorded by Perry Como as "Till the End of Time." The song was so popular, it was used as the title of a 1946 film about returning World War II soldiers starring Robert Mitchum and Guy Madison.

Chopin has been portrayed on screen numerous times, mostly in films made outside the U.S., and with varying degrees of faithfulness to the real facts. One of the most notable depictions was in James Lapine's Impromptu (1991), a film about George Sand (Judy Davis), with Hugh Grant giving a more convincing performance as the frail Polish composer. Academy Award-winner George Chakiris (West Side Story, 1961) played Chopin in a 1974 BBC mini-series about Sand, Notorious Woman, which featured Rosemary Harris in the title role. The French author has also been portrayed in Diane Kurys' Les Enfants du Siecle (1999) by Oscar®-winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient.

A Song to Remember features a number of other real-life characters who would likely not recognize themselves on screen, including Franz Liszt, Balzac, and Paganini. Liszt's life has also been the basis for several films, among them Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975), in which Roger Daltrey played the composer as a 19th century rock star. Director Charles Vidor hoped to follow the success of A Song to Remember with the similarly titled Liszt biopic Song Without End (1960) with Dirk Bogarde as the composer. Vidor did not live to see the completion of that production (finished by an uncredited George Cukor), and the movie, although a Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, did not click with audiences. Morris Stoloff, who was Oscar®-nominated (along with Miklos Rozsa) for adapting Chopin's music for A Song to Remember, won an Academy Award (along with Harry Sukman) for doing the same fine work with Liszt's music on the latter picture.

Director: Charles Vidor
Producer: Sidney Buchman, Louis F. Edelman
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, based on a story by Ernst Marischka
Cinematography: Allen M. Davey, Tony Gaudio
Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa, Morris Stoloff, Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman (song "Till the End of Time")
Cast: Cornel Wilde (Frederic Chopin), Paul Muni (Prof. Elsner), Merle Oberon (George Sand), Stephen Bekassy (Franz Liszt), Nina Foch (Constantia).

by Rob Nixon



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