Friday, January 25, 2008


Another movie for the new year which I had avoided as a glossy and dumbed-down biopic. I knew almost nothing about the Polish composer Fredric Chopin before I saw this colorful, melodrama, and I suspect I still don't really know much about him. Here, the handsome and robust Cornel Wilde plays Chopin, a piano prodigy from a young age, taught by Prof. Elsner (Paul Muni), presented here as a somewhat pompous but likeable older man. Elsner spends much of the first half of the film at war with Chopin's family, who are against Elsner taking their son from Warsaw to Paris to find success as a pianist and composer. Chopin is sickly for most of his life (with TB, apparently, though Wilde is never less than robust-looking throughout) and is also a strong patriot who occasionally risks his career in order to protest the "Czarist butchers" who have been sent from Russia to rule Poland. His debut performance in Paris is cut short when he learns that two of his freedom-fighter friends have been executed by the Russians, but famous composer Franz Liszt (Stephen Bekassy), who knows how talented Chopin is, comes to his rescue in the film's best scene: at a salon concert, Liszt sits down at the piano to play, requesting all the lights be dimmed. Halfway through the rapturously received performance, the candelabra on the piano are lit to reveal that it has been Chopin playing all along. While becoming the toast of Paris, Chopin falls for novelist Georges Sand (Merle Oberon), an unconventional female novelist who dresses in men's clothing and dares to live by her own standards. She begins to rigidly control his life, keeping him playing in salons instead of the concert halls that Elsner thinks he should be in, and stopping upsetting news about the Polish political scene from reaching him. Elsner finds himself frozen out of Chopin's life, but with Liszt's help, he renews contact with him and gets him to go on a major concert tour to help raise money for Polish resistance. The tour is a success, but it saps Chopin's strength, leading to his early death. I am not typically a fan of either Wilde or Oberon, but both are fine here, giving full-bodied performances perfectly in tune with the artificial, melodramatic atmosphere of the film. Muni, of whom I am also not an admirer, is not very good here, careening between over-the-top and tired. Nina Foch and George Coulouris are good in supporting roles. The movie, in rich Technicolor and with elaborate sets and costuming, always looks great, even if there are long sections that drag something fierce. The piano music is played by Jose Iturbi and Wilde does a nice job with "hand-dubbing" the piano playing. [TCM]

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