July 7, 2015
“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)
In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects. I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.
Republic Pictures was born as a conglomeration of six smaller Poverty Row studios, making money off of adventure serials and quickie B-pictures that cost little and turned modest profits. But as they grew they experimented with A-features, bringing in top talents for a couple of “Premiere” pictures a year, which were budgeted around $1 million. A few years later John Ford (The Quiet Man) and Orson Welles (Macbeth) would sign with studio head Herbert J. Yates. According to Herve Dumont’s biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Borzage’s five-year contract called for him to make one Premiere picture a year, “conceived in complete artistic freedom”, with a maximum budget of $1.5 million. He would be given his own production unit, with his choice of actors and technicians (he hired Tony Gaudio as DP, whom he last worked with on 1924′s Secrets), while his brother Lew Borzage was named associate producer. The most amazing part of the deal is that Borzage had an opt-out at the end of each year, so Yates had plenty of incentive to keep him happy. The first project Frank Borzage was attached to was the John Wayne Western Dakota, intended to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor. That project was eventually downsized to B&W and was directed by their “Deluxe”($300,000 budgets) filmmaker Joseph Kane.
Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a biography of Frederic Chopin, was a recent hit for Columbia, so Yates and Borzage settled on a story set in the classical milieu. They also trucked $40,000 to Arthur Rubinstein to curate and play every piano performance heard in the film (he is credited as “The World’s Greatest Pianist”). They chose to adapt a short story by Borden Chase, entitled “Concerto”, first published in 1937 for American magazine. A former Brooklyn cab driver, Chase had written some WWII screenplays (The Fighting Seabees) and would go on to write classic Westerns like Red River (’48), so he was an unlikely chronicler of high culture. But it was personal for Chase, as he based the story on his wife, pianist Leah Keith, who had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of eight. Borzage hired him to adapt his story into a screenplay – his advice was to “make me cry.” Concerto was the working title of the film late into the production, but in October 1945 Borzage and Yates decided to change it because, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of exhibitors polled “were afraid the public wouldn’t know what ‘concerto’ means.”
The story concerns Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod, plucked from MGM bit players), a beautiful young piano prodigy who is discovered by the revered maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, a pre-WWII star in Germany), who whisks her away from her rural American home to the capitals of Europe with his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and assistant Nikolas (a fastidiously hilarious Fritz Feld). Eventually the sexist Goronoff becomes threatened by Hassman’s talent, and humiliates her at her Carnegie Hall debut. She is thrown out of Goronoff’s circle, and she returns home to marry her childhood sweetheart George (William Carter), a sympathetic slab of All-American blonde beef who recognizes that Goronoff – and her professional dreams – will always have a place in her heart. Their daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) shows some talent at the keys, and so Myra is thrust back into the classical world, ready for one last duet with Goronoff and a resolution to her divided self.
The majority of action in the film are men and women standing in rooms and auditoriums either standing next to or caressing a piano. When they are not playing the piano they are eyeing it ravenously. It is the only means of communication – in the film it replaces speech as well as sex. Goronoff is entranced by Myra at an audition after she rejects his suggestion to play Rachmaninoff, and performs Beethoven’s “Appassionata” instead. She wears a light blue frock over a white blouse, her attire blending into the similarly colored wall. Their attraction is never stated, but envisioned as a combative creative union on stage, when at Carnegie Hall Goronoff drowns Myra out with his orchestra. He demands submissiveness, and Myra’s brilliant performance challenges his authority. As critic David Phelps noted to me, there is something of Dracula in Philip Dorn’s florid, hypnotic performance (and in the way Nikolas repeatedly refers to him as “Master” in a Renfield-ian manner). In this initial battle Myra is wearing blossoming pink chiffon against a wall of dark green. She literally stands out, and for one night becomes a star. But she still yearns for approval, the sequence a series of desperate close-ups of Myra staring at Goronoff, desperate to know what set off this rage. After her split from Goronoff, his mother says of Myra, “her voice is the piano.” Borzage then cuts back and forth between Goronoff performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto on stage with Myra playing the same composition at home, their two renditions blending into one temporary bliss. That is, until George grabs Myra’s hands, and the link is broken. Goronoff is a shadow who only has power through his art, while George is artless but physically present – in the non-professional William Carter’s performance, he’s almost nailed to the ground.
In the final performance, Myra once again joins Goronoff in the Concerto. Her hair is piled high, setting off her cheekbones, above a pink form-fitting gown. No more girlish chiffon. When Goronoff stares her away, she focuses on her hands or the crowd, communing with the music herself, secure in her own talents for the first time. Goronoff is humbled, and defers to her through his posture and orchestration. The concluding scenes, in which Myra actualizes her pianistic talents and declares her true love are intensely moving. She who could only speak through music, finally finds the words.