A few years ago, trade stories intimated that the Australian director Bruce Beresford, best known for “Breaker Morant” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” was considering a biographical movie about the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Perhaps this project has been abandoned, as thousands are.
Rachmaninoff classics — particularly the Second Piano Concerto and the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” — still infiltrate movie soundtracks so frequently that it would be gratifying if someone actually got around to a reputable biographical tribute that teemed with virtuoso piano and orchestral passages. There was a curious surge of Rachmaninoff in the 1945-46 period; the most famous example remains the exquisite Noel Coward-David Lean tearjerker of middle-class romantic renunciation, “Brief Encounter,” in which the concerto served as the theme music.
The most popular British movie of 1946, “The Seventh Veil,” cast Ann Todd as a piano prodigy whose repertoire includes the same composition, incorporated in a fragmentary way during a concert scene. It was played by Miss Todd’s musical ghost, Eileen Joyce, who also performed it for the score of “Brief Encounter.”
Both films were also successful when imported to the U.S. in 1946. At the end of the year, Frank Borzage chimed in for Hollywood with a cockeyed romance about twisted passion and piano virtuosity, “I’ve Always Loved You.” It rivaled “The Seventh Veil” for emotional bewilderment while offering more generous excerpts from the Second Piano Concerto, doubled by Artur Rubinstein behind the sometimes nimble and sometimes frozen fingering of starlet Catherine McLeod, a flickering facsimile of Jennifer Jones and Gene Tierney during the late 1940s.
“The Seventh Veil” and “I’ve Always Loved You” are such complementary period pieces and head-scratchers that it seems a pity neither is available on DVD in the U.S. “Veil” seems to have won an Academy Award for screenwriting by adhering to the Freudianism that was a prevailing cinematic faith of the time. The heroine, Miss Todd’s Francesca Cunningham, is introduced as a rescued suicide, the patient of Herbert Lom as a psychiatrist named Larsen, who assures us that hypnosis and truth serum can cure all mental disturbances, even those as veiled as Salome at the start of her striptease.
Placing the patient under flashback narcosis, Dr. Larsen unveils Francesca as a teenage orphan who became the ward of her wealthy, brooding, allegedly misogynistic second cousin Nicholas, portrayed as such a secretive web of yearning, suffering and possessive jealousy by James Mason that he seems a needier — and more challenging — subject for treatment than Francesca.
Having subsidized and managed the girl’s emergence as a classical pianist for a decade, Nicholas takes it hard when Francesca falls for a portrait painter. (Earlier, there had been an infatuation with a jazz musician.) Prone to rare but shocking outbursts, Nicholas takes a cane to Francesca’s hands while they are on a keyboard. Since the filmmakers are playing favorites all along, they minimize the potential damage of this assault and engineer a reconciliation that confirms ward and guardian as a lovelorn match made in mixed-up psychoanalytic heaven.
With no professional analyst in “I’ve Always Loved You,” the characters have to make do with amateur theorists, a husband in the case of Miss McLeod’s Myra Hassman and a grandmother in the case of Philip Dorn’s Leopold Goronoff. Musical legacies and rivalries predominate in Borden Chase’s screenplay, where Mr. Dorn is an egotistic but also charismatic conductor-pianist attracted to keyboard prodigy McLeod, the daughter of his esteemed mentor, played by lovable Felix Bressart. Unwisely, his benign influence is short-circuited by premature death.
Goronoff employs ingenuous Myra as a protegee for a couple of years, then wounds her deeply by getting competitive to a grievous fault while conducting her debut performance of the Second Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. This estrangement is viewed as an inevitability by Babushka, his granny and manager, played by the inimitable Maria Ouspenskaya.
Myra retreats to the family farm in Pennsylvania, where early retirement and marriage await with a yeoman beau, George, as bland as they come in Bill Carter. The continuity jumps a generation. George may have won Myra but he seems to want a demonstration that she doesn’t pine for the limelight and the fabled Goronoff. This reassurance is predicated, incredibly, on the prospect of a concert where their daughter, Georgette, played by Vanessa Brown, will do a Carnegie Hall reprise with Goronoff conducting, again on the fateful Second Piano Concerto. Ticket holders are in for several surprises, including the curious departure of the unannounced soloist before the completion of her performance.
Part of the entertainment value of these movies in retrospect is that they’re so committed to resolving unhappiness through romantic paternalism that they’re almost certain to antagonize doctrinaire feminists, who suspect that men are always plotting social counterrevolution and disarming forms of emotional dominance. In fact, the films are now so sublimely outmoded that their romanticism is totally dependent on the elevated nature of the musical selections, Rachmaninoff in particular.
TITLE: “The Seventh Veil”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1946, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; intimations of sadomasochism)
CREDITS: Directed by Compton Bennett. Written by Muriel Box and Sydney Box. Cinematography by Reginald Wyer. Art direction by James Carter. Music by Benjamin Frankel. Pianist: Eileen Joyce.
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
VHS EDITION: VidAmerica, Inc.
WEB SITE: www.amazon.com (original distributor defunct)
TITLE: “I’ve Always Loved You”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1946)
CREDITS: Produced and directed by Frank Borzage. Screenplay by Borden Chase, based on his own short story. Cinematography by Tony Gaudio. Musical supervision by Walter Scharf. Pianist: Artur Rubinstein.
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
VHS EDITION: Republic Pictures Home Video
WEB SITE: www.amazon.com