When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

During my misspent youth, I played piano in a bar.   A great friend of mine was also a piano player.   Our styles and tastes were nowhere compatible, but we truly respected each other’s artistic choices and temperament when we’d sit down and play.

Several years after becoming friends, Jane Campion’s film THE PIANO was released.   Next time I saw my piano buddy, I asked him what he thought of the movie — his reaction was identical to mine:   severe disappointment.   Both of us were emotionally disconnected from the film because the physical musical instrument was the tool and weapon in the story instead of the music that came out of it.   There was no bonding between musician and her music, no release, no solace in the act of playing the piano.   The character owned a piano and could play the piano, yet the psychology and the yearning for fulfillment that could generate the motivation to learn and desire to play the piano were absent.

However, Frank Borzage’s 1946 Technicolor drama I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU is the Real Thing.

In the pre-Code days, Borzage’s films were about sex and spirituality:   once you’d had truly honest, galvanizing sex with someone, the two of you would always have a connection.   And experiencing a type of sex where the world dissolves as you embrace bestows empowerment as you access a part of yourself that is as strong as other forces of Nature.   I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU was made at the height of the Hays Code [World War 2 was the most heavily self-censored era of Hollywood production], so sex and spirituality were replaced with heart and music.   Borzage, being the artist that he was, took this surrogate connection and articulated the psychic bonds between those who shared a common artistic absorption.

The plot of I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU is a struggle of art and ego.   A gifted, vain maestro (played by Philip Dorn) hears a young girl’s piano scholarship audition and chooses to mentor her.  (Among the actors portraying musical youths auditioning for the scholarship is a teenage André Previn.)   The girl, Myra Hassman [perhaps a tribute to British concert pianist Myra Hess??], learns too well from her task-master, excelling in her gifts to the point of suffering public humiliation at the hands of her jealous maestro at her concert debut.

All this would be twaddle in other filmmakers’ hands, but with Borzage’s craft it’s a Hollywood confectionery version of Sally Potter’s THE TANGO LESSON.   After a nasty rift between master and protegée, there is an intimate, wordless sequence of crosscuts as Myra and the maestro play a Chopin Ballade simultaneously, while separated by hundreds of miles.   Like great sex, their mutual artistic gifts and a passionate drive for the sublime generated psychic links between those who had the capacity to feel and express deeply.

Myra is played by Catherine McLeod, a Borzage discovery who fortunately had studied piano for years.   In addition to her unique beauties and acting abilities, the film benefits from camera angles where McLeod is accurately playing the piano pieces (the actual playing was dubbed by Artur Rubenstein) and the viewer is rewarded by reading on her face the mechanics of her brain and physiology as she plays works such as Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.  (A welcome antedote to one of my pet peeves in classic Hollywood cinema:  how actors would play a musical instrument as if in a trance, with no evidence of muscle memory or hand coordination going on in the head.)

Catherine McLeod in her pre-Anacin days.

Catherine McLeod in her pre-Anacin days.

Later in her career, Catherine McLeod made an appearance in perhaps the most famous TV ad of the 1960s as the harried housewife who shouted “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!!” in an Anacin commercial.

Early in the film, Maestro compares the appreciation of listening to the third movement of any concerto as being “…like a man who has lived, you see the result of his life.”   Borzage was in his fifties when he made I’LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU, and this was his 102nd movie (he started making films in 1913).   The passions and transcendency of this film could be seen as the glowing result from the artistic risks of Borzage’s life.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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4 Comments to “VHS only: I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU

  1. Guinn Berger says:

    I’ve always loved this movie! Some years ago Catherine McLeod was interviewed for a television program devoted to the film, and she said that Mr. Rubenstein coached her efforts to make her hands look right as she pretended to play. She reported that he advised her to “make it look [more] difficult” than it was, because audiences appreciate that. (Heh!)

    The movie wasn’t especially believable to me, even as a child, even though I loved it, because I thought that if I had the woman character’s talent, I’d just walk away from that abusive, jealous tyrant, and find a better teacher. But brow-beaten people react in odd ways, trying to please their oppressors, and anyway, if she’d stood up to him, there wouldn’t have been a story!

  2. Doug says:

    Guinn, that’s fascinating! Thanks for retelling that story about Rubenstein. Yes, the relationships are bizarre in the movie, but the movie itself is such an incredible ride!!

  3. Ralph Onesti says:

    I have been a piano technician for over 5 decades. I have just about seen it all and yes…the dynamics between “master” and student can be quite odd at best and rather abusive at times…especially from the era of this film.

    In short, Piano teachers can be bastards and the students can have the ability, to hang out for the abuse.

    And sometimes…the piano becomes the “casting couch”

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