Issue Date: March 24, 2006
Deanna Durbin, where are you now?
TV's treatment of musical entertainment isn't what it used to be
By RAYMOND SCHROTH
The other night I enjoyed one of those rare experiences of a long lifetime -- an evening of thoroughly enjoyable television. And it educated me at the same time.
The channel was tuned to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which is focusing these weeks on pictures in any way brushed by an Oscar. The next feature was One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), starring Deanna Durbin and Adolphe Menjou, which won the Academy Award in 1938 for Best Score. In case you dont remember the plot: Mr. Menjou, a trombone player and Deannas father, is one of 100 musicians out of work in the Depression. For Deannas Patsy Cardwell, who is about 16, the answer is to form their own symphony orchestra, get Leopold Stokowski (playing himself) to direct it and rich people to sponsor it. To get the great Stokowskis attention, she sneaks into the concert hall where he is rehearsing Mozart and stands up in the balcony and sings Mozarts Alleluia to impress him. He is impressed, but he is going to Europe and cant help her.
To force him to change his mind, she sneaks into his Manhattan home, where the entranceway is designed to resemble the grand staircases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she slips her 100-man unemployed orchestra in with her. (New York orchestra conductors in 1937 did not share our obsession with security.) The men begin to play Liszts Hungarian Rhapsody while Deanna fetches Stokowski from his study. Stokowski is so overwhelmed by these poor beggars that he begins to wave his arms wildly, directing them into the magnificent crescendo. He cancels Europe. A big fat capitalist (Eugene Pallette) begrudgingly comes up with the money and the last we see them they are playing in Carnegie Hall and Deanna is called up to the stage to sing from La Traviata.
The movie is a time capsule from a period in American history when classical music was a natural part of popular entertainment. Popular films were made about the lives of Chopin and Brahms and classical themes were turned into Hit Parade songs. Tonight We Love is based on Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky; Stranger in Paradise is from Kismet, a Broadway show and movie with a score adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin.
Ed Sullivans Sunday night TV variety show introduced Elvis above the waist and the Beatles, but also opera singers and Broadway shows. Jimmy Durantes favorite foil was the towering Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. Shed do The Ride of the Valkyries, then hed lure her into Bill Bailey, Wont You Please Come Home. On Jack Benny a frequent guest was violinist Isaac Stern. Jack would play something like Fritz Kreislers Caprice Viennois badly enough to get laughs from an audience who knew how it was supposed to sound; then Mr. Stern would get serious.
In Hollywood, through the 30s and 50s, MGM gave us a string of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald operettas, followed by ensemble musicals with Jane Powell, José Iturbi, Mario Lanza and others. In the 1940s, high schools performed The Desert Song and The Vagabond King.
When operettas were no longer popular -- popular means targeted to age groups with spending money -- they disappeared from the dial. It seems to me, however, that theres a public responsibility for the entertainment industry to educate its audience. For a while, TV moguls such as NBCs David Sarnoff and CBSs Bill Paley agreed. Mr. Sarnoff signed Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC orchestra, and CBS TV, from 1958-73, ran Leonard Bernsteins Young Peoples Concerts with the New York Philharmonic (available on DVD) to get young people to understand and love music. Music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Nov. 18, 2004, New York Times that Bernstein knew that hearing music on television would never match hearing it live. But he was convinced that with the right teacher, television could be the greatest tool for musical education. He would educate by entertaining.
What went wrong? The 60s generation turned in on itself. The invisible thread that linked the tradition, in which each musical form grew out of its predecessor -- from opera, into operetta, into the Broadway show, into popular songs -- broke. Jesse Green points out in The Song Is Ended in the June 2, 1996, New York Times Magazine that Broadway and film hits like Some Enchanted Evening and Over the Rainbow were once considered classic standards and everyone sang them on the street. Today in my Jersey City neighborhood, boys swagger along the sidewalk squealing to the iPods in their ears.
Other changes, Mr. Green notes: The popularity of the guitar made everyone an entertainer, writing songs about him- or herself. Since they couldnt sing, they needed amplification, which interferes with the relationship between the singer and the audience.
Will PBS ride to the rescue? PBS is hiding in the dugout. Though PBS was founded as a medium of public education, its government funding has been cut so that where it once put on an opera, it now plays recorded nostalgia pop concerts during fundraising time -- The Cream Reunion Special, Doo Wop Cavalcade and the Four Aces, all of whose musicians still have full heads of hair after all these years.
One Hundred Men and a Girl makes some compromises to popular taste by referring to Mozarts Alleluia when its proper title is Exsultate Jubilate. However, in 90 minutes the public enjoys selections from Wagners Lohengrin, Tchaikovskys fifth symphony, Hungarian Rhapsody and La Traviata. We are familiar with the camera angles that focus on a row of violinists or cellists in their formal evening clothes, their serious faces transported by the beauty of the notes they produce. This film deliberately focuses first on the pros and finally on the poor men, their ragged coats, their scruffy beards. Music has made them equal. If only we could say the same today.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is email@example.com. He thanks Mark Graceffo and Alice Clark for research assistance.
National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006
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