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The Songs of 'They Shall Have Music' Save the Sappy Melodrama

Sure, this is a melodramatic, but don't be ashamed of that swelling in your heart... the music really is that beautiful.

They Shall Have Music

Director: Archie Mayo
Cast: Gene Reynolds, Jascha Heifetz, Joel McCrea
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1939
US DVD release date: 2014-08-26

How do you film someone playing the violin? How about overhead, looking down on the fingering like Busby Berkeley presenting geometric legwork? You can find that and other graceful ideas in Archie Mayo's direction of the scenes where legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz performs in They Shall Have Music, now available on demand from Warner Archive. In his first performance, the camera seems to be mounted on a crane that glides gracefully around Heifetz in a single shot, then rises majestically upward, as though on the notes themselves. No wonder the grubby little delinquent kid from the Brooklyn slums, who found his way into the audience while fleeing the cops, is spellbound.

The kid is Frankie (Gene Reynolds), and it turns out his late father used to play the fiddle and taught him to recognize musical notes. This impresses the teacher (Walter Brennan) at a music school for poor kids, into which Frankie has wandered by accident while chasing his scene-stealing dog Sucker (played by "Zero"), for Frankie is blown by the winds of fate throughout this plot. Too bad the school is on the verge of being shut down and having everything repossessed for lack of funds, unless—wait a minute—what if the great Mr. Heifetz could play at their concert? It's so crazy, it just might work. Joel McCrea and Andrea Leeds are on hand to provide romantic interest without getting in the way, and Marjorie Main plays Frankie's put-upon mom.

This Samuel Goldwyn production is one of the studio era's attempts to celebrate classical music and its supposed appeal to the masses (when other movies weren't making fun of boring "longhair music"). Everything about it is absurdly far-fetched except for two crucial elements: the power of music, and the threat of poverty. Because one is a spiritual quality and the other a matter of harsh materialism, their clash is credible even if the details aren't. The music is so lovely (and so clearly recorded) in this proudly sentimental melodrama that most viewers will be willing to swallow anything, from the overacting of the Dead End Kid wanna-be's to the miraculous interventions that mark every plot point.

The screenplay by Irmgard Von Cube and John Howard Lawson has a sense of humor, especially in a scene of civil disobedience by local mothers who unite to protect the concert from legal forces. The humor tames the subversive message of confronting police power, and one wonders if this idea came from Lawson, later of the Hollywood Ten. Another telling detail is that star power vanquishes those persons insensitive to the music's intrinsic qualities. No matter how tough and weary everybody acts, love and generosity flow as counterpoints in the movie's struggling world; don't be ashamed of that swelling in your heart.


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