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Play It Again, Schumann November 20, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies, Music.
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Another set of those little coincidences that I can never ignore led me to an interesting but overall mediocre-to-fair movie run on TCM the other night. During Saturday’s yardsales, I came across a book of movie lists that I passed on, mostly since it contained the sorts of information one can easily find online these days and my bookshelves are already overflowing and ready to bury me alive. But while randomly checking out various lists of films by theme, I came across a movie in the “classical music” category that I had never heard of, called Song Of Love from 1947, with Katherine Hepburn as Clara Schumann, Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann & Robert Walker as Brahms.

I was intrigued by the cast and wondered about searching for the movie at Eddie Brandt’s, went home and with Schumann on my mind, popped in a recording of his 4th symphony that I like while I had breakfast, and then basically forgot about it.

And then the other night I see in the TV listings, while looking for something else, that it was playing on TCM at 7pm.

Clearly, this was a SIGN from GOD that I was to watch this movie!

While pleasant, I found the movie disappointing. Schumann’s bipolar manic-depression leading into insanity is handled with nothing but some ear-ringing and bad headaches until he keels over and croaks in the asylum, and I think the now-most-likely-treatable madness that afflicted and eventually destroyed Schumann would be handled far more realistically in a film made today. Add this to the way in which wife Clara’s talents and earning potential (and the marital conflicts therein) would be handled in a modern movie as opposed to 1947 and you have even more interesting material, and THEN throw Brahms into this odd romantic triangle and it gets even more intriguing. This movie portrays Brahms as a lovesick Mr. Saccharine, though since it’s Robert Walker, you keep waiting for him to ask Clara if she wants him to kill her husband in exchange for her murdering his father instead of telling her he loves her with a Victorian “…and that’s why I simply MUST go!” routine. The reality of Brahms has a lot more for a modern day movie to work with – never mind his often sharp humor, how about the way he hung around Clara Schumann for another forty-odd years after Robert’s death and how they mutually destroyed letters from each other? How about how messed up Brahms was about sex in general from spending his childhood playing piano in brothels? Now THAT’S the Robert Walker we’d know and love! Alas, he’s not in this movie.

Hepburn is also miscast as Clara – while you always believe Hepburn as a capable and intelligent woman, I never get a real sense of her fierce devotion to Crazy Hubby which would transcend any desire to marry Brahms after he dies. This requires almost a motherly “He needs me, even in death!” angle to that devotion, which is attempted by the depiction of the Schumann brood of eight children but doesn’t quite come off.

So, all in all, a mixed bag with some hokey dialogue here and there, but I’m still glad I satisfied my curiosity. Whereas a great movie like Amadeus deals better with its main subject, Mozart’s story is one dealing with a musical genius determined to show you how clever he is with every note. Schumann is one of those guys who had to keep writing music in a vain attempt to forestall the moment when his insanity consumed him, and you can hear that desperation, joy, loss & frustration in every note. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, I guess.

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