Friday, May 28, 2010

Break of Hearts (RKO, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1935 movie Break of Hearts, an RKO soap opera vehicle for Katharine Hepburn set in the world of classical music. Constance Dane (Hepburn) is an aspiring pianist and composer whose music teacher, awkwardly named Professor Thalma (Jean Hersholt), introduces her to world-renowned conductor Franz Roberti (Charles Boyer), who’s just wrapping up his current season with the “Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra” prior to a European tour. (The orchestra plays on a stage — actually shot, according to, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in midtown L.A. — that will be familiar to hardened RKO movie-watchers as the stage from which Kong breaks loose in King Kong.) Roberti is an arrogant man both as a musician as a person; he has a whole series of girlfriends and brushes aside Our Heroine when Professor Thalma begs him to look at her latest composition.

The screenwriters, Lester Cohen (story) and Victor Heerman, his wife Sarah Y. Mason (who had previously adapted Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women for one of Hepburn’s finest early films and biggest hits) and Anthony Veiller (script), seemed to have based Roberti on real-life conducting superstars Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini; they gave him Stokowski’s penchant for rearranging the music of other composers (when he visits Thalma he wants advice on his rearrangement of Tristan und Isolde, and Thalma tells him what a lot of people told Stokowski: “Who are you to rewrite Wagner?”) and Toscanini’s notorious practice of hurling vicious insults at the musicians of his orchestra during rehearsals. On his way downstairs from Thalma’s apartment Roberti hears Constance playing her piece, enters her room and says the piece is good — “very modern,” he adds, which seems odd given that what we’re actually hearing is a nocturne by an uncredited Max Steiner (uncredited as composer, anyway; he did get credit as conductor) that sounds like warmed-over Chopin and hardly “modern” at all in the age of Stravinsky and Schönberg. He asks if she knows any music other than her own, and she responds by playing “Träumerei” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen — which, by an interesting coincidence, Hepburn also played in her other role as a classical musician, Song of Love, 12 years later (a biopic in which she played Clara Schumann).

Eventually the two fall in love and marry, and they enjoy a thrilling honeymoon that takes them on a grand tour of every famous European city and country RKO had stock footage of for a montage sequence — only when they get back and his tenure with the “Cosmopolitan Symphony” resumes, they drift apart. He ends up seeing one of his exes, Rita Wilson (Inez Courtney), and she starts dating Johnny Lawrence (John Beal), a wise-cracking down-to-earth guy whose idea of great music is Paul Whiteman. Constance finds out about Roberti’s affair with Rita and goes to Reno to divorce him; he sinks into an alcoholic haze after the strain of it all leads him to collapse during a concert (in which he was playing Stokowski’s orchestral transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ); and ultimately she learns about this, finds him in a dive bar, and having decided she’s no more than a mediocre musician anyway, gives up her own life to care for him and nurse him back to health — none of which is actually shown in the movie: the film cuts from her pledging loyalty to him in that bar to him back on the stage of the Wilshire Ebell conducting the Cosmopolitan Symphony in the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (not the finale to Brahms’ First Symphony, which is what lists as the music in the final scene).

Break of Hearts had a troubled production history; the director was Philip Moeller, a prominent stage director who had come to RKO the year before to shoot an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This was his second (and, it turned out, last) film, and he decided to reunite Hepburn with the star of her first film, John Barrymore — who would have been superb casting if he had been able to pull it off, though the scenes in which he (temporarily) loses his career to alcoholism would probably have been too much of a life-imitates-art scene for him to be comfortable in the role. (Maybe not; after all, in Dinner at Eight two years earlier he’d brilliantly played a wasted alcoholic stage star — and he’d convincingly play an alcoholic again four years later in The Great Man Votes, also at RKO.) Then RKO studio head Pandro S. Berman decided that coping with Barrymore’s drinking and memory losses would mean too long a production schedule to make the film profitable, so he hired actor Francis Lederer instead.

Sources differ on how long Lederer was involved — Charles Higham’s Hepburn biography said he spent three weeks on the film but both the American Film Institute Catalog and say he only shot one scene before he pulled a diva stunt and protested that he’d been shot from the “wrong” side. Berman heard that from RKO production manager Edward Killy and forthwith fired Lederer, replacing him with Charles Boyer — who’s O.K. in the romantic scenes but just not edgy enough as either the temperamental artist or the dissipated sot whom Constance rescues. Hepburn and Boyer became friends and remained in touch until his death, and often talked about making another, hopefully better, movie together — but they never did. Interestingly, Break of Hearts is at its best when the characters are shown actually making music; the film reaches an interesting level of intensity at those nightmarish rehearsals and the diffidence with which Constance offers her own music to the Great Artist is absolutely convincing. (So is Hepburn’s on-screen piano playing; a recent biography said that she had never played until she learned how to finger a piano for Song of Love, but it’s clear from this film that she knew enough about how to play the piano to synchronize on-screen with the pre-recorded music and director Moeller didn’t have to resort to one of those shots in which the bulk of the piano conceals the actress’s hands from the audience.)

Offstage, though, Break of Hearts is just another RKO soap opera that ill-uses the fiery Hepburn — who’d done a similar story far better two years earlier in Christopher Strong, under a much better director (Dorothy Arzner) and a much edgier actor (Colin Clive, who is probably who they should have got once they decided against John Barrymore), just as Boyer would play a similar story much better in the 1939 film Love Affair (which borrows from Break of Hearts the gimmick of having a radio announcer give exposition about Boyer’s character). Saddled with an incomprehensible title that offered no clue as to what the film was about (the working title was The Music Man, which today instantly brings up Meredith Willson’s sprightly musical about a con artist touring the country and allegedly setting up boys’ bands, but would at least have given 1935 audiences a clue as to this film’s story), Break of Hearts was one of Hepburn’s many 1930’s box-office duds; fortunately for her career, she would follow it up immediately with one of her biggest hits, Alice Adams, released three months later.