Growing Up With Chopin: A Song To Remember (1945)

When I was a kid in the Bronx I was in love with The Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV (Channel 9). The same movies played for one week and again on Saturday and Sunday and I watched every single movie they showed all 9 times. It’s where I saw King Kong, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with Charles Laughton), The Crawling Eye, Rodan, The Giant Behemoth, Godzilla and other monster classics for the first time. It’s where I fell in love with Ronald Colman in “A Tale of Two Cities” and “If I Were King” and with other stars and with other movies with casts of thousands.

It’s also where I first saw “A Song To Remember.” The movie, a very Hollywood-ized version of the life of Frederic Chopin, starred Cornell Wilde, Merle Oberon, and Paul Muni. I was glued to the B&W TV set for every second of every showing. I hated George Sand for being so mean to Chopin. I loved that Chopin threw out lines something like, “I will not play before Czarist pigs!” I cried when he went on tour to raise cash for his Polish revolutionary friends, a tour that would most certainly kill him. And I sneaked peeks between my hands when he coughed drops of blood on to the piano keys during a performance of his Polonaise.

[from The NY Times Movie Archive: “The film’s money scene–the one that everyone talked about, keeping the picture “alive” long after its original release–occurs towards the end, when the tubercular Chopin begins hemorrhaging as he performs his {Polonaise} for the first time.”]

Hmmm. I don’t think it was Chopin’s first public performance of the Polonaise in that film but … memory is an odd thing. I remember him playing it earlier on for a salon full of people who were indignant about the ‘crudeness’ and ‘barbarism’ of the piece. Anyway… of course all of this likely never happened but it made a deep and lasting impression on me. I vowed that I too would grow up to be a revolutionary and die a painful, yet romantic, death for some great cause.

It was this movie that made me fall in love with classical piano music, particularly that of Chopin. I had no idea at the time who was doing the actual playing and only found out much later that it was Jose Iturbi:

“One of [Jose Iturbi’s] best-known movies was one in which he did not star or even appear. A Song to Remember—a 1944 heavily fictionalized biography of Chopin—was a much bigger hit than the acting or story rated. People saw this lukewarm movie because the music was superb. The music, of course, was provided by Iturbi, unseen. But word leaked out; Iturbi’s recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat quickly became a top seller and remained one for four years.”

Fortunately for me, my father and mother had at least one good idea as parents. While growing up we had “Music Weekends.” One Sunday we’d listen to my mother’s choices and the following Sunday we’d listen to our father’s choices. My mother enjoyed classical music and theatre and movie musical soundtracks. My father was a big band and jazz man. It was my mother who purchased the RCA album “60 Years of Music That America Loves Best (1959)” and that album gave me the first full length version of Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat. From the original 60 Years album, this is Iturbi playing the Polonaise:

Looking over the track list for “60 Years” brings back wonderful memories. Where else, as a 7 year old, would I have heard all of these musicians in one place? Enrico Caruso; Paul Whiteman; Vladimir Horowitz; Gene Austin; Sergei Rachmaninoff; Jeanette MacDonald; Nelson Eddy; Marian Anderson; Ignace Jan Paderewski; Artie Shaw; Jascha Heifetz; Arthur Fiedler; Fritz Kreisler; Glenn Miller; Leopold Stokowski; Benny Goodman; Duke Ellington; Freddy Martin; Tommy Dorsey; Frank Sinatra; Jose Iturbi; Perry Como; Jan Peerce; Artur Rubinstein; Eddy Arnold; Mario Lanza; Arturo Toscanini; Perez Prado; Hugo Winterhalter; and Harry Belafonte.

I didn’t care for all but I listened to all at least once and I listened to many over and over again. And I am forever grateful to my parents for those “Music Sundays” because they opened me up to all types of music, not just whatever was playing on the AM radio.

As for “A Song To Remember,” I’m trying to decide whether or not to watch it again. It was on TV years ago and I was thrilled to be able to see the movie I’d loved so much as a kid… until the movie started… and I found to my horror that it was not filmed in black and white as I’d seen it. It was a Technicolor nightmare! I had to turn it off as quickly as possible. If I do decide to watch it in the next month or two it will be after converting it to black and white.

Having disliked George Sand so much for how she treated Chopin in that film, I never noticed the wonderful costumes she was wearing:

[from the NY Times Review, January 26, 1945: “Merle Oberon is breath-takingly beautiful as George Sand, either in men’s attire or exquisite low-cut evening gowns.”

But since I do adore such things now… here are two costume photos of Merle Oberon as George Sand (by glamour photographer Robert Coburn taken while the film still had the working title “The Song That Lived Forever”), courtesy of the wonderful eBay seller Steve of HollywoodPaper:

Merle Oberon as George Sand in A Song To Remember (1945). Ph: Robert Coburn

Merle Oberon as George Sand in A Song To Remember (1945). Ph: Robert Coburn

A fun bit of trivia on IMDb regarding the photo in the second portrait: “Liberace, who was in 1945 performing as “Walter ‘Buster’ Keys,” stated that he got the idea of having an ornate candelabra on his piano from the scene in this film when Merle Oberon carries a candelabra into the darkened salon and places it on the piano to reveal Chopin as the pianist rather than Franz Liszt.”

And another about the music: “To play Chopin’s piano solos,Columbia Pictures first attempted to engage Artur Rubinstein, then Vladimir Horowitz. Rubinstein was offended when he was greeted by Columbia president Harry Cohn with a boisterous “Hiya, Ruby!” Horowitz got along better with Cohn, but did not wish to perform the severely cut versions of the Chopin pieces the film required.”

Which brings me around to what I meant to write about tonight… Vladimir Horowitz and the joy of music. Since I haven’t yet died a horrible though romantic death for some noble cause, I’ve added that to my ever-growing ‘write about this’ list and will get to it later or sooner.

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