Thursday, December 15, 2016


When I wrote about the MGM biopic about Robert Schumann, Song of Love (1947) in my book, Composers in the Movies (2005), I noted that the film’s attempts to deal with the composer’s aberrant behavior and psychological disturbances came hard on the heels of other Hollywood films in the 1940s noir period, notably Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Robert Siodmak’s Dark Mirror.

What I didn’t know at the time was that another film at that precise moment, Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed, also depicted the psychological trauma and collapse of its protagonist, Joan Crawford. More to the point, it saturated its scenes of mania, persecution, aural and mental disintegration with the music of Robert Schumann—in particular, excerpts from Schumann’s Carnaval. Is it mere coincidence that Carnaval, like Possessed, was likewise a portrait of doubles, possessive love, and manic states of mind? Possession’s release in July 1947 preceded by a bare few months the release of Song of Love in October 1947. And is it mere coincidence that two European-trained composers, Franz Waxman in the first film and Bronislau Kaper in the second, found in Schumann the source of musically dramatic trauma? What is immediately apparent is that Possessed prepares us for a stiff dosage of the “Chopin” music from Carnaval, from the opening credits, to a scene with Van Heflin at the keyboard when he first meets Crawford, to a concert scene, and to numerous dramatic and hallucinatory episodes in the deranged mind of the homicidally jealous Crawford. Most spectacularly, at the climactic moment that Crawford guns down Hefflin, the theme erupts in an hysterically dissonant shriek.

That particular theme, the “Chopin” music from Carnaval, is so brief and gentle, that it hardly seems fertile material for a movie about a dangerously unstable woman. But maybe it’s Bronislau Kap er’s genius to recognize in it the potential for high melodrama. Ah, beneath such placid exteriors can lurk madness and murder! Which is exactly the point.

So, there we have it—two movies about madness, two movies with music by Schumann, two movies released within two months of each other... Just a mere footnote in movie/ music history?

Perhaps my taking the time to write about this at all is a kind of “possession” of my own. Has my lifelong preoccupation with Schumann and his music resulted in finding Schumann under every rock and crevice in the Hollywood Hills?

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