Alexander Hollenius, the vain, selfish, childish, sardonic and very witty composer genius in “Deception” (1946) is probably my favorite Claude Rains characterization ever. That’s saying, a lot, I know, with a character roster that includes such favorites as The Invisible Man, Prince John, Senator Joseph Paine, Mr. Jordan, Capt. Louis Renault and Job Skeffington to choose from.
But Rains owns “Deception” from his first entrance, framed in a doorway wearing a cape and looking like the King of the Universe. Which he is, and stays that way for the next two hours. Every scene he is in is pure joy, and even when not on screen, his character dominates the film.
Pretty much a three-character drama, “Deception” showcases Rains as composer Alexander Hollenius, who is working on his newest composition, a cello concerto. Former mistress Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) surprises him when she reunites and quickly marries Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), a brilliant cellist whose promising career and love affair with Christine had been cut short by the war.
She asks Hollenius to have Karel premiere his new work, while begging Hollenius not to reveal their past relationship. He agrees to have Karel play his new concerto but is not above playing mind games with both Christine and Karel during the rehearsal process, intent on destroying Karel’s confidence in himself and his former mistresses’ relationship with her new husband.
“Deception” was based on a two-character play titled “Monsieur Lamberthier” written by Louis Verneuil. The Hollenius character (I believe the play had different names) is not a character in the play, just discussed by the other two characters. The “Deception” screenplay was co-written by Joseph Than and acclaimed novelist John Collier.
The play was made into a movie (currently lost, alas) titled “Jealousy” in 1929 with Fredric March and Jeanne Eagels.
Bette Davis was a huge fan of Jeanne Eagels and was thrilled when Warner Bros. offered her the role. She initially bristled at turning the story into a three-character drama but relented when her “gorgeous” Claude Rains was cast.
The Great Claude Rains
Who could blame her? Archer Winsten in his review in the New York Post wrote, “Claude Rains, it must be admitted, goes to town with his characterization of the high-living composer and genius. If you wish to call his flamboyant measures hammy, you must add that they have quality, flavor and the so-called inner flame.”
One person’s ham is another person’s filet mignon. For me, Rains perfectly captures the egocentric energy of a musical maestro, one whose life is dominated by music and only music. When messy situations like relationships develops, he plays his audience of two like he’s conducting an orchestra, coaxing them to do exactly what he wants and them grudgingly going along with it.
My favorite Claude Rains scene ever is a marvelous dinner sequence running over five minutes. Hollenius knows that Karel’s nerves are paper-thin on the evening of the first rehearsal, but that doesn’t stop him from inviting Christine and Karel to dinner at his favorite restaurant where he painstakingly delivers a demonstration on ordering the proper meal. (I love the sniffing of the squabs). Christine and Karel become increasingly aggravated but Hollenius blithely carries on, totally oblivious to Karel’s growing impatience. At least we think he’s oblivious but for a quick cut to a very satisfied expression on his face when Karel and Christine start bickering at the table.
Supposedly Rains was so well prepared for his big scene that he delivered his performance in only one take, and when it was over the entire crew burst into applause, Davis gave him a hug and Henreid and director Irving Rapper gave him long and hearty congratulatory hand shakes.
Irving Rapper was a former dialogue director for Warner Bros. before graduating to the director’s chair. He, along with Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains had scored a huge hit with “Now, Voyager” (1942) so having Rapper as director seemed the right thing to do. But the choice was even more obvious. For a film so reliant on dialogue, both overt and leading, Rapper was an ideal choice. It’s one of his best films.
“Deception” was one of the last films under Rains’ long-term contract with Warner Bros., but it was one of his most satisfying assignments from the studio. John T. Soister, in his book “Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference” (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), writes: “The pictures has weathered the years well, primarily because it is so much larger than life that it defies being pigeon-holed into any one time frame.”
The Korngold Factor
For film music fans, the film is must viewing. It was the last original film score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and because the film is set in the world of classical music, Korngold was an active participant in the film’s production. But when production wrapped, and his Warner Bros. contract was up, he elected to focus on his concert music, despite entreaties over the years to return to the film studios. He only did it once, to adapt Wagner’s music for the Wagner bio pic “Magic Fire” (1954), produced at, of all places, Republic Studios.
Errol Flynn obviously knew the great impact Korngold had on his classic swashbucklers and tried to coax Korngold out of retirement to score his aborted William Tell movie in the 1950s, but Korngold turned him down. He would devote the rest of his life to his concert music, before his untimely death in 1957.
Brendan G. Carroll, in his invaluable Korngold biography titled “The Last Prodigy” (Amadeus Press, 1997), says Korngold’s finger prints are all over the film, and not just limited to the film’s score: “Deception, however, was a film apart. It has been described as one of the few films about classical music that makes sense. When the characters talk about music, they speak knowledgeably. The dialogue is clearly influenced by Korngold in several key scenes. Near the opening, a student asks Henreid which composers he most admires. Henreid replies: ‘Richard Strauss when I think of the past, Stravinsky when I think of the present – and of course, Hollenius, who combines the rhythm of today with the melody of yesterday.’ (For Hollenius – read Korngold perhaps?) When Davis expresses surprise that Rains has turned off the radio (Beethoven is being performed), he looks at her, with his famous querulous eyebrow, and says: ‘Compose a piece yourself, my dear, and then try listening to Beethoven.’ Contrast this with some of the lines in Humoresque: ‘Martinis are an acquired taste – like Ravel’ or worse still, ‘Bad manners – the infallible sign of genius.’ Deception was at least musically credible.”
In addition to overseeing the musically literate dialogue, Korngold coached Rains in conducting and dubbed Rains when he played the piano. Korngold also taught Davis how to play the opening page of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata. (Davis was dubbed by a young Shura Cherkassky). Korngold also supervised the scenes showing the orchestra rehearsals.
(What I’m dying to know but can’t find anywhere is if the orchestra seen on screen in the rehearsal and concert scenes was the actual Warner Bros. orchestra? I’m assuming yes, but don’t know for sure.)
Henreid’s cello playing was dubbed by Eleanor Slatkin, mother of noted conductor Leonard Slatkin, and husband of Felix, who was concert master across town at Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox’s orchestra.
(Eleanor can be easily glimpsed in the Hollywood spoof “It’s A Great Feeling” (1949), which is set on the Warner Bros. lot. A scene filmed of Doris Day singing at the Warner Bros. recording studios is followed by a dismissal of the orchestra by music director Ray Heindorf. The lady seen toting her cello is Eleanor Slatkin).
Bette Davis was in awe of Korngold, according to Carroll: “Although I knew Max (Steiner) more, Erich was a genius, and everyone at Warners was aware of it. The music department at Warners was the absolute best in those day and the work he did on Deception was actually better than the film itself, in my opinion….For his contribution, and my gorgeous Claude Rains as the composer, the film was worthwhile.”
In real life the gentle Korngold was the complete opposite of the imperious Hollenius. Reading about him, one gets the impression he enjoyed being around people and was thrilled when his music connected to an audience. If a cab driver or a laborer at Warners told him how much he liked his music, Korngold would be delighted and likely invite the person for coffee and Viennese pastries. Childlike in some ways, he was a devoted family man and loyal to his friends. If Warners had decided to make a movie about his life, I could see someone like Herman Bing or S.Z. Sakall (a close friend of the Korngolds) playing him.
My favorite Korngold anecdote involves him during the production of “The Green Pastures” (1936) which he composed (uncredited) some music for. The film showcases the Old Testament through an African-American perspective, with a cast headed by Rex Ingram as “De Lawd.”
Korngold loved working on the project, marveling at the musical excellence of the Hall Johnson Choir. One day at the Warners commissary Korngold wanted to know where the film’s company was, as he wanted to eat with them. Someone told Korngold that the blacks had a separate eating area, and were not allowed inside the commissary. Korngold thought for a moment, picked up his tray and said, “I’m going to go eat with De Lawd.”
The Movies and Their Concertos
In the 1940s, audiences saw biographies (or, let’s be generous, highly romanticized dramas) of Franz Schubert, George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Nicolo Paganini and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
I’m fascinated by these 1940s films that are focused on composers and/or feature original concertos written for their films as part of the storyline. I’m surmising here, but I wonder if World War II had anything to do with it, and the hope for a better, more cultured and civilized world once the war and its effects had dissipated.
Producers discovered there was gold in them thar concerto hills, and 1940s dramas are rife with newly commissioned concertos. Composer Richard Addensell had scored a massive hit with his “Warsaw Concerto”, written for the film “Dangerous Moonlight” (1941). The short one movement piano concerto, which played an important role in the film, fit on both sides of a 78 rpm, a recording which sold in the millions.
Other studios naturally wanted in. English composer Hubert Bath penned a very popular concerto, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for “Love Story” (1944), where fatally ill concert pianist (Margaret Lockwood) falls in love with a former RAF pilot going blind (Stewart Granger).
Back in the states, Bernard Herrmann composed his devilish “Concerto Macabre” for “Hangover Square” (1945) performed at the end as mentally ill pianist Laird Cregar goes insane as his plays his concerto in a frenzied state. It’s a bravura sequence beautifully filmed by director John Brahm.
Composer Leo Shuken wrote a trumpet concerto for Melvyn Douglas to perform in “Our Wife.”
The underrated Leith Stevens composed a very satisfying piano concerto for the soap opera (in the best sense) “Night Song” (1947).
Claude Rains proved no stranger to on-screen concertos in his “Phantom of the Opera” (1943) where his piano concerto (music by Edward Ward) is auditioned with great satisfaction to no less than Franz Liszt (Fritz Leiber).
There was also a mini cottage industry at the time where film composers took their dramatic scores and adapted them into the concerto format. Franz Waxman adapted his music from the Jack Benny comedy “The Horn Blows at Midnight” (1945) into a concert piece titled “Athaneal the Trumpeter Overture for Trumpet and Orchestra”. Waxman also adapted his underscore for Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case” (1947) into a “Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra”.
RKO staff composer Roy Webb adapted his delicate music for “The Enchanted Cottage” (1945) into a piano concerto, which was performed at the Hollywood Bowl. The most famous was likely Miklos Rozsa’s “Spellbound Concerto” adapted from his Academy-Award winning score for Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945).
The “Deception” Cello Concerto
But the Korngold Cello Concerto is one of the most impressive of these concertos written expressly for their film. Only running about six minutes on-screen (and staged by choreographer LeRoy Prinz with little of the verve of a John Brahm, though not bad by any means), it was later expanded to 11 minutes by Korngold as a one-movement concert work, the Cello Concerto in C Major, Opus 27.
Biographer Carroll again: “Most concertos run about 30 minutes and have three movements. I believe that Korngold could not extend the work further because he had already condensed enough material for three movements into one, and found it impossible to improve on his original. Even at 11 minutes, it is a very satisfying piece. Clearly, he decided to leave well enough alone.”
Henreid was always amused that for years afterwards, professional musicians would come up to him at parties and complement him on his superb fingering and playing in “Deception.”
Finally, “Deception” gave the world one of the great quotable reviews, courtesy Cecelia Ager in PM Magazine: “It’s like grand opera – only the people are thinner… I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
For the great Korngold concerto, rich dialogue, over the top characters and one of Claude Rains’ greatest performances, “Deception” is well worth viewing.