Monday, December 12, 2011


D: Bernard Knowles (The Castaways Picture DVD/Hong Kong)
Recently, I've been binging out on a marathon Paganini kick, collecting and listening to multiple renditions by a variety of artists of his most famous works (the 24 Caprices, concertos, etc.) and I wanted to check out how movies depicted music's first true 'rock star.'  Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was an ego-maniacal virtuoso with all the risky excesses that today's rock stars unabashedly wallow in and take for granted.  His legend was dark and it was rumored that he sold his soul to satan to achieve his virtuoso skills, among other decidely vile attributes.
"I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet." - Nicolo Paganini

  This lavish 1946 British production stars Stewart Granger (KING SOLOMON'S MINES) as the ferocious fiddler in a quaint period piece costume drama/romance.  What helps the film rise above the mundane is Granger's energetic performance and the actual off-screen violin playing of contemporary maestro Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999).
Paganini decides to leave his rural village to seek fortune and fame after helping a prisoner escape jail by playing loudly to obscure the sawing sounds of cellblock bars!  He regrets abandoning his loving mama but doesn't regret fleeing his cantankerous old dad.  Soon, he enters a contest to win a prized Stradivarius fiddle and easily absconds with it.  Soon his reputation skyrockets and social elites book him for posh high society gigs.  When Nicolo falls in love with Jeanne, a rich young socialite (Phyllis Calvert- OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR), things get complicated as her father has previously promised her to an officer in Napoleon's invading army (Dennis Price- HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, Jess Franco's FRANKENSTEIN, PRISONER OF DRACULA).  Hereon in, it's a doomed love triangle that allows Paganini to vent his intense, conflicting emotions through his music.

What lifts this film from the usual Hollywood bio-pic is it's surprising (for 1946) depiction of Paganini's dark side.  Granger doesn't flinch from letting the character be unlikable at times- womanizing and pompous.  He nonchalantly proclaims that he is the world's greatest violinist (and I'm sure he was) and even pawns his Stradivarius for gambling chips!  Overall, entertaining and not as dry as the stereotypical British melodrama of the era, director Knowles and a solid supporting cast, including Felix Aylmer (Hammer's THE MUMMY), perform a commendable job.  Knowles also graced us FROZEN ALIVE (1964) and lots of British TV episodes.
DVD quality on this Hong Kong import is pretty dodgy.  It looks like a substandard transfer from a slightly worn TV print.  I suspect the U.K. disc available in the Stewart Granger box set is superior.  More cinematic Paganini came our way decades later with Klaus Kinski's more extreme and almost pornographic depiction of the Genoa-born musician in PAGANINI (1989) and Luigi Cozzi's sinister PAGANINI HORROR (1989).
Kinski's mammary suckling interpretation of Paganini recently hit DVD courtesy of the Mya Communications label.

SIDE NOTE: Paganini's decadent rock star life-style and massive technical chops have become the stuff of myth and continues to have a strong influence on classical and rock music today!  Any serious classical violinist is expected to tackle and master at least some of Paganini's most complex compositions and metal virtuoso guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen continue to stoically shred in his memory.

No comments:

Post a Comment