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Classics at the Movies: Comedy 2

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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: John Landis

Cast: Dan Aykroyd (Louis Winthorpe III), Eddie Murphy (Billy Ray Valentine), Ralph Bellamy (Randolph Duke), Don Ameche (Mortimer Duke), Denholm Elliott (Coleman), Jamie Lee Curtis (Ophelia)

Mozart’s exhilarating Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is exactly the right opener for this comedy about rags to riches and vice versa. The two wealthy brothers Mortimer and Randolph Duke lay a wager on the effects of heritage versus environment. In order to carry out their experiment, they promote street hustler Billy Ray Valentine and at the same time strip their protegé Louis Winthorpe III of all he has got and leave him to fend for himself. Billy Ray is a great success as a businessman, but after a while he gets wise to the bet and teams up with Louis and his former valet Coleman to defeat the brothers.


Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Andrew), Mia Farrow (Ariel), José Ferrer (Leopold), Julie Hagerty (Dulcie), Tony Roberts (Maxwell), Mary Steenburgen (Adrian)

It is a well-known fact that Woody Allen is a great admirer of Ingmar Bergman (though not everybody may know that the reverse is also true), and in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy he takes his cue from Smiles of a Summer Night. Andrew and Adrian, a married couple, have invited two male friends and their girls to their home in the country. Trouble starts for Andrew when one of the women turns out to be a childhood sweetheart of his.

For this movie Woody Allen chose music by Mendelssohn. The excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (among them the Scherzo) are used mainly to evoke the idyllic character of the countryside, and the second movement from his Second Piano Concerto is an ideal accompaniment to Andrew’s and Ariel’s nocturnal stroll through the woods, recalling the places where they used to play as children.


Director: Garry Marshall

Cast: Richard Gere (Edward Lewis), Julia Roberts (Vivian Ward), Ralph Bellamy (James Morse), Jason Alexander (Philip Stuckey), Laura San Giacomo (Kit de Luca), Alex Hyde-White (David Morse)

A modern version of the Cinderella story with Edward Lewis, a very rich, very serious businessman, and Vivian Ward, a rather high-class prostitute, in the main parts. He gets to know her by chance, but decides to hire her as his companion during his week’s stay in Los Angeles. After a crash course in table manners and dressed in very stylish clothes, she manages to behave almost perfectly and even learns to enjoy opera, one of Edward’s few emotional outlets. The duet between Violetta and Alfredo from the second act of La Traviata recurs at the end, when she has decided to start a new life, and he has found out that he can’t live without her. So it all ends happily, the way a fairy-tale should.


Director: Joel Cohen

The Cast: Jeff Bridges (The Dude), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Steve Buscemi (Donny), David Huddleston (The Big Lebowski), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Peter Stormare (Dieter Hauff), Sam Elliott (The Stranger)

Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, an archetypal Los Angeles slacker, is mistaken for a millionaire, Jeffrey Lebowski. This leads to him having his house broken into and being threatened by two mobsters who want repayment of a loan he knows nothing about. He enlists the help of his bowling buddies Donny and Walter to get restitution for a ruined rug, but in the process gets entangled in a complicated plot which includes the millionaire’s daughter being kidnapped.

The film includes music from Mozart’s Requiem (Naxos 8.550235) and Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky (Naxos 8.550051) but the loveliest music on the soundtrack comes from a man who knew a thing or two about film music himself. It is Marie’s glorious first act aria from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). Korngold penned several famous Hollywood scores, including those for The Adventures of Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse, both of which earned him Academy Awards (‘Oscars’), also Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Kings Row and Of Human Bondage.


Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko), Diane Keaton (Sonja), Olga Georges-Picot (Countess Alexandrovna), Harold Gould (Anton), Alfred Lutter III (Young Boris), Zvee Scooler (Father)

Somebody characterized Love and Death as Tolstoy’s War and Peace rewritten by the Marx Brothers, with a few bits and pieces from Dr. Zhivago thrown in. Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko is an aristocrat but still a nerd and unsuccessful in pretty well everything, from military training to plotting the murder of Napoleon. He loves his fair and determined cousin Sonja but is deceived both by love and by death. At the end, though, he dances away quite merrily with the Grim Reaper, free at last from his fear of death.

Music by Prokofiev, especially the Troika from Lieutenant Kijé, adds to the Russian atmosphere.

Disc: 1
Overture to William Tell
1 Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492
2 Adagio molto
3 Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream
4 Dammi tu forza
5 Gluck, das mir verblieb from Kie tote Stadt, Op. 1
6 Anvil Chorus
7 Miserere d' un alma vicina
8 Troika
9 Che gelida manina
10 O soave fanciulla from La Boheme
11 Adagio from Concierto de Aranjeuz
12 Overture To William Tell
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