Elizabeth Taylor in Rhapsody (1954): MGM’s Nod To The Classics

Rhapsody John Erikson and Elizabeth Taylor

 Hollywood might have made more classical musicals were it not for the fact that people can’t sing and dance in them. There’s little opportunity for movement beyond hands gliding along keyboards or pushing bows over fiddle strings. Those who study or perform great music tend to dismiss what few movies explored the topic. My Music Appreciation teacher at college said A Song To Remember was rubbish. Thirty years past seeing it, she laughed over Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin coughing up blood on piano ivories, even as that 1945 Columbia release inspired a public to cough up unprecedented cash for records and sheet music by the long-dead composer. I’ve been a hound for Chopin since first playing him with 8mm silents.

People who dedicate their lives to the study of classical music always seemed to me an enviable lot. Given the option, I’d enjoy my next incarnation as a four-year old keyboard prodigy. Can anyone be so focused as a serious musician? Much is appealing about a life spent in single-minded pursuit of one thing (OK, so I guess I’ve achieved that watching old movies).

MGM’s Rhapsody addresses the grand obsession even as it otherwise hews to formula romance lines demanded by Elizabeth Taylor’s then-following. Nobody much remembers this 1954 star vehicle, but it’s one I admire for affording a glimpse into music mavens and the cloistered worlds they live in. Metro walked a tight rope as not to alienate general audiences who might think Rhapsody was for longhairs only. Tips for exhibitors cautioned: While the so-called serious music values of “Rhapsody” are not emphasized, it is also important to indicate that the picture has beautiful musical content. The safest route for movie usage of classical music was always a romantic one, thus the preponderance of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and others off a general listener’s short list. Pop tunes were often adapted from composers whose music struck bobby-soxer chords. And what was movie scoring then but slight updating on ideas the masters utilized years before?

Rhapsody Newspaper Ad 1954

Rhapsody Newspaper Ad 1954

Imagine An American In Paris with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto # 2 for Piano and Orchestra in C Minor for the extended finish instead of Gershwin. Rhapsody constructs its drama around a third-act performance of that by John Ericson’s character. We don’t know if he will finish thanks to emotional trauma inflicted by willful Liz. Those 10 minutes the concert lasts are pitched to viewers enraptured by the music as well as ones more invested in the love match. We can dismiss Rhapsody as empty gloss after a Metro fashion, but here they tried at least to put classical works before a mass public, and make better-known the names of performers unfamiliar outside music realms.

Claudio Arrau was the pianist who stood in for John Ericson. He and violinist Michael Rabin (age 17 at the time) got considerable publicity during 1954 national tours thanks to having supplied tracks for the film, even if Arrau sniffed later of his Rhapsody appearance that one endures such moments to survive (he also stated, perhaps correctly, that Rachmaninoff is for the movies).

MGM tied in with the National Federation of Music Clubs of Providence, Rhode Island (it’s still there) to get word of Rhapsody out to chapters. The organization was particularly impressed by Metro’s sympathetic treatment of “musical artists” (… it treats these artists not as freaks but as human beings). Had the image of classical adherents come to this? If so, then Rhapsody would do a lot to alleviate it.

Conservatory students the film portrays are, to a man (and woman), both attractive and neatly turned in dress and deportment. Vittorio Gassman is a dashing rake perhaps far removed from real-life violinists, while John Ericson aspires to concert piano after having been a WWII commando (!). Whatever serious musicians thought of Rhapsody’s fantasy excesses, they must surely have been pleased for its having rehabilitated oddball impressions of their membership.

Paramount initially developed Rhapsody. It was ready to shoot when they sold the package to Metro. The sale represents the first application of the former studio’s recently announced policy against filming any story that it cannot cast properly or make at a cost deemed to be reasonable on the basis of anticipated box-office receipts, said The New York Times. Certainly Paramount was tightening expenditure in late 1952 when their sale took place. A look at that company’s output finds little done on a large scale outside of DeMille projects.

MGM economized, too. Whatever European flavor Rhapsody needed (it took place there) would be supplied by second unit footage director Charles Vidor shot in Switzerland with co-star Vittorio Gassman. Remaining principals never left Culver City.

Rhapsody Elizabeth Taylor and Vittorio Gassman

Rhapsody was finished at a negative cost of $1.9 million, more than Paramount would spend on its releases that year minus a very few. Elizabeth Taylor’s films had been mostly profitable, these being smaller pictures starring her or big ones where she supported veteran names. Metro demurred as to hard selling Taylor as a sex symbol, at least for the present. They still had Ava Gardner and Lana Turner for that. Taylor’s beauty was of a sort left to critics to discover for themselves, with most willing to overlook her thespic shortcomings.

Bosley Crowther was elevated upon wings of praise in his New York Times review of Rhapsody. Calling it a high-minded film … all wrapped up in music on the starry-eyed classical plane (was he catering to lowbrow readers here?), Crowther really wound up on his infatuee’s behalf. Her wind-blown black hair frames her features like an ebony aureole, and her large eyes and red lips glisten warmly in the close-ups on the softly lighted screen. This was twilight upon an era when critics could still unburden themselves of longings a screen goddess inspired. Variety would be less fawning, however (… it is the type of tear-and-torment drama that has little appeal for the younger set or the male ticket buyer).

Selling problems the trade paper predicted saw confirmation in domestic rentals of $1.2 million, far less than was needed to cover MGM’s investment. Thanks to its Euro-setting and celebration of its music, however, Rhapsody took a lively $2.4 million in foreign rentals and managed an overall profit of $124,000. The film continued getting theatrical dates up to its syndicated television release in October, 1968. For instance, during a period between 9/1/1962 and 8/31/1967, there were 68 bookings with an average rental rate of $42 flat for a total of $2,826. Not difficult to understand why companies like MGM saw greater revenue potential in TV for their vault titles. Warner Archive has released a DVD of Rhapsody that is happily presented in the original 1.85 widescreen.

Sit back, relax and enjoy Elizabeth Taylor in the theatrical trailer for Rhapsody from 1954:

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John McElwee has written over seven hundred posts on his fascinating website Greenbriar Picture Shows, all focused on Golden Era movie favorites, how they were sold and exhibited, plus many rare images you won’t see elsewhere. It’s all yours to enjoy — but be warned: browsing his extensive archives is addictive!