“They Shall Have Music” (1939) is an odd but endearing mixture of juvenile delinquency drama and classical music. It’s a Samuel Goldwyn production and watching it, one can see the footprints of two 1937 films, his own production of “Dead End” and Universal’s monster hit “100 Men and a Girl.”
“Dead End” had been a huge hit for Goldwyn, and he was eager to replicate its success. Ever since his big budget musical smorgasbord “The Goldwyn Follies” (1938), Goldwyn had wanted to put the violinist Jascha Heifetz, considered one of the century’s finest musicians, in the movies, but couldn’t find the right project.
I’m just surmising here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Goldwyn examined the grosses of “100 Men and a Girl”, which deals with Deanna Durbin and her ceaseless attempts to have Leopold Stokowski conduct an orchestra of musicians put out of work by the Depression. What could work for Stokowski could easily work for Heifetz.
Put Heifetz in a slum setting with underprivileged youth, include lots of classical music and watch the profits roll in.
Alas, “They Shall Have Music” was roasted by the critics and proved one of Goldwyn’s biggest bombs. It’s schmaltz, to be sure, but the music is wonderful and like so many movies of the era, it moves along and there’s lots of memorable sequences to make this well worth watching.
The film is centered on a music school for slum children, run by Professor Lawson (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Ann (Andrea Leeds, one year before her self-imposed retirement from films). The school is constantly scraping for money, and is continually one step ahead of the creditors, especially Mr. Flowers (Porter Hall, at his most obnoxious).
Frankie (Gene Reynolds) is basically a good kid who discovers the power of music when he finds some discarded tickets to a Heifetz concert. Thinking Heifetz is some sort of magician, instead he’s transfixed by the sight and sound of Heifetz performing the “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by Saint-Saens. For those of us who are film music fans, we get the added pleasure of seeing Alfred Newman play the conductor in this piece, and he looks very natty in his white-trousered conductor threads.
Frankie finds a violin in his basement and takes lesson at the Lawson’s school. But the school is on the brink of foreclosure, and Frankie hatches the idea of having Heifetz perform at the school’s concert. With the determination of Deanna Durbin stalking Stokowski, Frankie, through a series of adventures, attracts the attention of Heifetz to the concert.
Playing a similar idealistic role in “Dead End” Joel McCrea is back as the love interest to Ann. I’m very fond of Joel McCrea, but this may be one of his most colorless roles. He can’t do a thing with it, and it’s not his fault.
Marjorie Main plays Frankie’s mom, and she’s a far different mother than her shattering scene in “Dead End.” Frankie runs away from his abusive father, but his mom is very supportive of her son.
Porter Hall is at his most despicable here, even more so than shooting Gary Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok in the back in “The Plainsman” (1936). In “They Shall Have Music” Hall tries to take back the kid’s instruments, even as they are onstage for the concert! He doesn’t even wait for the concert to be over. The scenes leading up to the concert are very entertaining, as the neighborhood mothers stand firm in front of the school’s entrance, blocking the police and re-possessors from entering the building.
For Heifetz fans, the film is a joy. He gets five solos in the film, and it’s a pleasure to watch a film like this with minimal cutting so we can concentrate on the music. The finale finds him performing the final movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto accompanied by the school orchestra. Said orchestra members are played by The Pete Meremblum California Junior Symphony Orchestra, a group made up of young musicians. I have a dim memory of reading somewhere that, outside of his film duties, Alfred Newman was one of the orchestra’s conductors, but I can’t find the citation in any of my books. .
Heifetz was no stranger to Hollywood. An earlier Hollywood connection was his 1928 marriage to actress Florence Vidor, ex-wife of the director King Vidor. Later, on he would commission glorious violin concertos from Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklos Rozsa.
Alfred Newman was nominated for his music director duties here in the Best Score category. It was one of Newman’s four nominations that year. His other nomination in the Best Score category was for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and in the Best Original Score category he was nominated for “The Rains Came” and “Wuthering Heights.”
I think the Best Score category was for scores that were adaptations of pre-existing music, but that doesn’t explain the nomination for the Hunchback or Korngold’s nomination for “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”, both of which are substantially original scores. To further muddy the waters, Aaron Copland’s score for “Of Mice and Men” was nominated twice, once in both categories. Strange are the ways of the Academy Awards. (Newman lost that year to “Stagecoach” in the Best Score category).
I watched “They Shall Have Music” on a VHS tape, and with the news that the Samuel Goldwyn film catalog will be released on DVD and Blu Ray next year, this film may be one I would gladly update for. It’s corny, to be sure, but its heart is in the right place and the music can’t be beat. Just lower your expectations if you’re a Joel McCrea fan.