Indefensible as either art or history, Charles Vidor’s 1945 Chopin biopic A Song to Remember is the absolute textbook definition of kitsch — and perhaps the ultimate example of why the biopic is the most disdained of all film genres.
As a movie, Song is a bizarre outgrowth of the slightly more cerebral biopics made by William Dieterle in the 1930s generally starring Paul Muni, which were themselves a more pompous extension of the earlier George Arliss historical romps. In fact, Song attempts to tap into the supposed respectability of the Dieterle pictures by dragging in Muni himself — not as Chopin, but as the composer’s wise, irascible, scenery-chewing teacher.
Chopin is played by Cornel Wilde, who found himself suddenly promoted to stardom and a mystifying Oscar nomination by the inexplicable popularity of this silly film. Coming at the end of WWII, screenwriter Sidney Buchman has re-envisioned Chopin as a kind of tubercular Polish political activist — a veritable freedom fighter of the keyboard. It gets better. Chopin is sidetracked by his addictive relationship with George Sand (Merle Oberon), who gets to wear a lot of expensive gowns and interfere with the composer’s musical and patriotic endeavors by spouting lines like, “Discontinue that so-called ‘Polonaise’ jumble.”
The question of whether Chopin will recover himself is answered in a whirlwind “world tour” — complete with outbursts of consumption and some really striking shots of fake blood dripped on the piano keys. It’s all utterly preposterous, but not without its campy charms. It’s also the perfect example of the bad Hollywood biopic on a level with a Classics Illustrated comic book, with everybody talking as if they know full well that one day a movie will be made about them.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of A Song to Remember on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 2 p.m, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]