Moonlight Sonata (1937)

by | Aug 6, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Moonlight Sonata (1937)

Starring: Ignace Jan Paderewski. Marie Tempest, Eric Portman, Barbara Greene, Lawrence Hanray
Director: Lothar Mendes
Studio: Bel Canto DVD BCS D0024
Video: 4:3, Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 86 minutes
Rating: ****

This 1937 film opens with the camera panning an actual recital, around twenty minutes worth, by Paderewski (1860-1941); at first playing the Chopin Heroic Polonaise. The camera moves from the pianist’s hands to studio stills of the rapt audience, then to an occasional auditor’s putting opera glasses to her face. The camera shoots through the triangle of the upraised piano lid, then back to highly stylized art-deco sets of the gallery. The audience cheers, then Paderewski bows and returns to his chair to perform the Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody, the sound track a bit out of sync. Now the camera gets personal: we see individual actors‚ faces and couples‚ touching hands, a youngster smiling; then the camera pulls back for Paderewski’s trills in the lassu section of the Rhapsody. The white lines above Paderewski’s head and the piano almost suggest celestial radiants.  The little girl breaks loose and runs up to Paderewski while the audience clamors for the eponymous title piece. They remain standing for the opening bars, which then fade out.

Paderewski speaks English deliberately while holding a cigarette, and we can easily make comparisons to Bela Lugosi. It turns out that the child who ran up to the stage provides the basis of the plot, with Paderewski relating in flashback how he facilitated the parents’ marriage despite some familial objections. Paderewski’s plane had made an emergency landing in Sweden; Paderewski is grateful to be alive, while Eric Portman rails at bad luck being stuck “in this foul wilderness.” The baroness (Marie Tempest) lives in a splendid manor, art deco with sweeping, winged staircases. “Sounds like a fairy story,” remarks Portman en route to the manor. Marie Tempest relates how a past Stockholm concert brought her daughter to meet the man she married, who proposed after Paderewski’s performance of the Moonlight Sonata. Mario de la Costa (Portman) is taken with the baroness’ daughter. A social snob, Portman boasts of his mixed, heterogeneous blood-line, and the baroness calls him “a league of nations.” Portman makes a prophetic remark that no matter where he goes, “there is always an engagement or a wedding.” The dinner ends, and we have a demonstration of Portman’s card tricks. Portman makes his move on Ingrid, and their dancing inspires the remark that “they’re a wonderfully matched couple.” Eric (Charles Farrell) kills the radio to remind Ingrid (Barbara Greene) that, like Cinderella, midnight brings her birthday.  The medium shot gives us the romantic triangle.

At the morning’s little musical reception for Paderewski, the girl scheduled to play Paderewski’s famous Menuet panics, so he must, ironically, stand in for her, where he manages to infuse the piece with Romantic bravura as two other girls dance to it. Meanwhile, back in the woods, Portman and Ingrid extend their romantic flirtation, and a thunderstorm erupts. They find a hut, and they share a cigarette. Farrell finds a post advertising Mario the Magician; so it turns out Portman’s character is a married fortune-hunter, unworthy of our naïve Ingrid. Despite Eric’s fist and warning that he ought not to appear at dinner, Mario de la Costa arrives late to dinner, while Ingrid is seated next to Paderewski. The baroness has noticed that the young gentlemen are glaring at each other, so she compels Eric’s confession of his jealousy. Portman implores Ingrid to run away to Paris; a timely intervention by the baroness who proffers a portrait of de la Costa’s family. Priding herself on “efficiency,” she has already arranged for Mario to be escorted out of doors, even out of Sweden. The imaginary romance Mario has conjured up for Ingrid must dissipate. The baroness has even prepared to pay Mario off. And as Paderewski speaks of his playing the Moonlight Sonata for Ingrid, Mario has been sent packing.  Ingrid, the little fool, “has got to grow up like the rest of us,” laments the baroness, having just left the damning photos of Mario and family with Ingrid.  Paderewski’s playing of the Moonlight draws the eternal feminine, downwards this time, to the music room where true love Eric is waiting. Ingrid’s stylized descent, both in silhouette and against the marble staircase, reminds me vaguely of Ulmer’s décor for The Black Cat. The last image is of Paderewski’s rapt figure at the piano.  Sniff, sniff.

— Gary Lemco

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