52 Code Films – Week #14: “A Song to Remember” from 1945

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Today is April 7, the first Sunday in April. As such, it is time for another article in our weekly series 52 Code Films. This series is all about discovering new movies from the Breen Era of Hollywood (1934-1954). Every week this year, I will watch a film from the Code Era which I have never seen before. The point of the series is for me to commit to seeing classic films which are new to me instead of just watching my favorite movies over and over again. I have really enjoyed watching some wonderful new films and discovering some new favorites so far this year.

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Today’s topic is A Song to Remember from 1945. This movie is a fictionalized biography of Fredric Chopin. We bought this movie on DVD at Barnes and Noble a couple of months ago. My father had seen the film by himself a couple of years earlier, so he suggested that we buy it. We watched it on Tuesday afternoon. Since we are musicians, we were eager to see the classic biographical film about the great classical composer.

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A prodigious young pianist in Poland composes music which is revolutionary but beautiful, yet he is troubled about his beloved country’s persecution from Russia. His caring music teacher, who wants the boy to go to Paris and receive the acclaim he deserves, tells him that he can help the cause of his country’s freedom by becoming a famous pianist. However, the genius’s family doesn’t have enough money for the brilliant eleven-year-old to go to Paris with his maestro. Years later, the prodigy is a young man who is hired to play the piano for a local nobleman during a dinner party. When the musician makes a bold nationalistic statement to a visiting Russian dignitary, he has to escape the country, deciding to go to Paris with his teacher as the latter had always hoped. In Paris, the young composer earns himself a concert hosted by the foremost music publisher when the greatest composer in Paris plays and loves one of his compositions. However, on the night of his concert, the young man receives the horrifying news that two of his friends back home were killed for aiding his escape. In the middle of the performance, he leaves the stage, too emotional to continue. The next day, every critic attacks his conduct except the eccentric female author who has adopted a man’s name and wardrobe and who liked the young composer when she met him previously. That same day, she arranges for his invitation to a reception of the foremost artists in France. When she allows him to switch places with the acclaimed composer who befriended him, unbeknownst to the prejudiced listeners, they realize how brilliant the newcomer is. The young composer is on his way, aided by the strongminded and manipulative authoress. He is extremely grateful to her for her assistance, so he quickly agrees to accompany her and the famous composer to her country estate for the weekend. The professor is disturbed that his protégé doesn’t discuss the trip with him. At the end of the weekend, the authoress talks the composer into accompanying her to Majorca so that he can focus on his composing, following her example of selfish artistry. Under her influence, he stays on the remote island for a long time, his consumptive health weakening because of the damp weather and his spirit being crushed by the strong woman. Meanwhile, he is forgetting his devoted professor and friend and, most importantly, is deserting his cause of trying to liberate Poland with his music. Can this woman make him forget his best friend, his family, his sweetheart back in Poland, and his country?

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The composer is Fredric Chopin, played by Cornel Wilde. His teacher is Professor Joseph Elsner, played by Paul Muni. The strongminded authoress is George Sand, played by Merle Oberon. The other prominent composer is Franz Liszt, played by Stephen Bekassy. Frederic’s sweetheart back in Poland is Constantia, played by Nina Foch. The musical publisher in Paris is Louis Pleyel, played by George Coulouris.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by Charles Vidor. It was produced by Sidney Buchman and Louis F. Feldman. The production company was Columbia Pictures. The screenplay was written by Sidney Buchman and Ernst Marischka. This movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Cornel Wilde, Best Writing of an Original Story for Ernst Marischka, Best Color Cinematography for Tony Gaudio and Allen M. Davey, Best Sound Recording for John P. Livadary, Best Film Editing for Charles Nelson, and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Miklos Rozsa and Morris Stoloff.

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Code Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. It is a wonderful cautionary moral tale. What I particularly appreciated was the delicate handling of the illicit relationship between Fredric Chopin and George Sand. The French writer was well-depicted as a cold, ruthless woman whose inner strength and unconventional beliefs are reflected by her emancipated lifestyle. However, she is still able to use her great female power to its full effect by being a beautiful woman who can seduce and control a man. In this story, Fredric Chopin loses his path, his strength, his cause, and ultimately his own will because he falls prey to a temptress. This depiction of George Sand is one of the best examples of a vamp which I have seen in a film, since she literally sucks the life out of the young man. This character can be compared to Lily Powers in Baby Face, the movie I breened this week. Both movies featured women who control and use men for their own purposes. How different these movies are! While the pre-Code film is explicit about its vamp’s amorous immorality, this Code film is so delicate that it allows viewers to choose what they want to believe about the situation. Although Fredric and George are living together, the extent of their actual relationship is never stated. They only kiss once, and their physical contact is minimal. This is a magnificent example of proper, delicate handling of an immoral romantic relationship. As I stated earlier, this is a cautionary moral tale, since it shows the horrible consequences which this affair has for Fredric Chopin. His life begins falling apart when he succumbs to the wicked woman’s selfish designs on him. This film sends the extremely important message that it is essential to be true to your country and your beliefs above all else. In addition, it is free from superfluous objectionable qualities.

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My Opinion

This is a truly excellent film. I thought that the acting was phenomenal. The actors did brilliant jobs of creating their characters. I don’t think that I have seen Cornel Wilde or Paul Muni before this, but I was impressed by both of them in this movie. Especially impacting was Merle Oberon’s performance as the dastardly George Sands, which thoroughly convinced me that the otherwise sweet and lovely actress was a villainess. The music is gorgeous. Cornel Wilde does a good job of faking the piano-playing, which was expertly played by an uncredited Jose Iturbi. I loved the history in this movie. The costumes, scenery, and feeling are so rich and accurate. The music is lovely, and the story is so dramatic and emotional. It was disturbing to see this genius collapsing because of bad decisions, but it was a thoroughly entertaining and masterful film. This is a marvelous example of the Code at its finest, helping filmmakers to create the most moving and meaningful films they possibly could.

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I highly recommend this film to my readers. All classic film fans should love the acting and style of this gorgeous Technicolor masterpiece. Classical music-lovers will really enjoy hearing the iconic Chopin songs which are still so beloved. It is fascinating to see them depicted as if they were just being written. The story is captivating with never a moment of dullness. The haunting tale and the captivating theme song, Chopin’s  Polonaise, lingered with me long after the end credits rolled. This movie is an example of one of my favorite aspects of the Breen Era, the merger of film and classical music. Whether or not all the historical details are accurate, the story is one which will endear Chopin’s music to anyone. Although the events happened a hundred and fifty years ago, the moral endures as truly and movingly today as the strains of Chopin’s etudes.

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This week, I only watched this one new Code film.

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