Classics at the Movies: Comedy 1

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The Classics at the Movies

Ever since the advent of talkies there has been a continuing debate on the nature and function of film music. For many it should be heard but not noticed. It should induce certain emotions but not obtrude on the consciousness of the audience. Yet it should be able to invest a scene with a variety of feelings, terror, grandeur, misery or gaiety. To understand what good film music can do for a film there is a simple test. If scenes from a film are shown with and without music, it will immediately be clear that good music can affect the feelings of an audience, without their being conscious of it.

If the function of film music has been the subject of debate, there can, nevertheless, be no doubt that the nature of this music has changed very considerably over the years. Before the advent of talkies all cinemas had their own house pianists to provide music at every performance, illustrating the action on the screen. In the heyday of Hollywood film music was big business, with major studios turning out hundreds of films a year and having under full-time contract large orchestras. There were also many composers, orchestrators and song-writers attached to each studio. These were the golden thirties, forties and, to an extent, the fifties, with names like Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman, all with a European background, writing big scores for a string of Errol Flynn pictures and for films like The Mark of Zorro and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Steiner, Korngold and Newman were followed by a succession of American composers like Henry Mancini, the composer of the Pink Panther music, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Gradually, however, the really ambitious scores vanished or were reserved for multi-million-dollar projects. More and more films had to make do with loosely strung together pop tunes, or, in an increasing number of cases, more or less well chosen themes from classical music. In some cases the use of a piece of music in a film had a very considerable effect, as, for example, the use of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, now popularly known as the Elvira Madigan Concerto.

In the Naxos Classics at the Movies series we have gathered together many classical themes used in popular films. All of these well deserve a hearing in their own right, but they may also remind the listener of a favourite film or two.


Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Hugh Grant (Charles), Andie MacDowell (Carrie), Simon Callow (Gareth), John Hannah (Matthew), Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona), James Fleet (Tom), Charlotte Coleman (Scarlett), Corin Redgrave (Hamish)

Four Weddings and a Funeral is the story of eight friends and in particular of Charles, a charming and witty 32-year-old bachelor, who shares an apartment with his redheaded, eccentric pal Scarlett. During the years there has been no lack of female companions for Charles but none of his affairs have ended up at the altar. His main occupation on Saturdays is going to other people’s weddings, in the company of Scarlett and a few other faithfuls.

For every wedding he attends, his willingness to one day being the centre of things seems to diminish, until one Saturday when, during a wedding ceremony, of course, he spots a beautiful and extremely attractive American girl.

At one of the weddings we are treated to the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Handel’s oratorio Solomon, at others there is the familiar Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Marilyn Monroe (The Girl), Tom Ewell (Richard Sherman), Evelyn Keyes (Helen Sherman), Sonny Tufts (Tom McKenzie), Robert Strauss (Krahulik), Oscar Homolka (Dr. Brubaker)

Richard Sherman who has been married for seven years has just seen his wife and son off at the railway station. They are off to the country, but he has to stay behind in Manhattan and slave away at the book publishing firm where he works. Returning home he finds that a young girl has moved into the upstairs apartment for the summer.

The film circles round Sherman’s fantasies about the girl, all accompanied by Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, the perfect music for seduction: "Good old Rachmaninov! The Second Piano Concerto: it never fails!", as Mr. Sherman so succinctly puts it.


Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Mickey), Michael Caine (Elliot), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Carrie Fisher (April), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Lloyd Nolan (Hannah’s Father), Maureen O’Sullivan (Hannah’s Mother), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Max von Sydow (Frederick)

Yet another Woody Allen film about neurotic New Yorkers, their marriages and their love affairs. They include a hypochondriac, a sculptor and a pop manager. Hannah, the successful sister, is the stable centre of it all. Uncharacteristically warm for its director, it even has a "happy ending".

The slow movement from Bach’s F minor Piano Concerto is the main music of the film. But when Holly goes to the Metropolitan Opera House to see Puccini’s Manon Lescaut we hear the aria Sola, perduta, abbandonata, which is exactly what she feels like herself: lonely, lost and abandoned.


Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Isaac Davis), Diane Keaton (Mary Wilke), Michael Murphy (Yale), Meriel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep (Jill), Anne Byrne (Emily), Karen Ludwig (Connie), Michael O’Donoghue (Dennis)

Isaac Davis is a successful script writer but his private life is a mess. His wife Jill has left him for another woman, taking with her their young son and she is now writing the story of their married life, not very flattering to Isaac. He has an on-off relationship with Tracy, a serious and uncomplicated teenager, but the difference in age adds to his already guilt-ridden existence. He also feels attracted to the lover of his best friend Yale, Mary Wilke. In the end, of course, he is left alone.

There can be no better picture of Manhattan and Gershwin’s music, both Rhapsody in Blue and many of his songs, provide a perfect background.


Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Hugh Laurie (Roger), Kenneth Branagh (Andrew), Stephen Fry (Peter), Alphonsia Emmanuel (Sarah), Emma Thompson (Maggie), Imelda Staunton (Mary), Richard Briers (Peter’s Father)

Peter’s Friends starts with six university graduates dancing the Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld, singing a text about London Underground stations. They are entertaining at a dinner party of elderly guests who are clearly not amused. Then ten years pass and they get an invitation to celebrate New Year at Peter’s mansion. His father has died and he has inherited the house and not very much else. They all come with their various problems. Peter moves about through all this, the perfect host, polite and somehow distant. Not until the very end does he reveal the real reason for his invitation.

If you wonder what music is being heard on the radio in the scene where Peter has a talk with his father’s house-keeper in the kitchen, it is Un bel dì vedremo, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

10 1979

Director: Blake Edwards

Cast: Dudley Moore (George Webber), Julie Andrews (Samantha Taylor), Bo Derek (Jenny), Robert Webber (Hugh), Dee Wallace Stone (Mary L
Disc: 1
1 (Four Weddings And A Funeral)
2 Wedding March (arr. for organ)
3 Moderato (The Seven Year Itch)
4 Largo (Hannah And Her Sisters)
5 Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Hannah And Her Sisters
6 Rhapsody In Blue (Manhattan)
7 Can-Can (Peter's Friends)
8 Un bel di vedremo (Peter's Friends)
9 Blolero (10)
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