Before the days of DVRs, Wifi, Fire sticks, Hulu and Netflix, and so on…movie choices on television were based on the decisions of big networks or a local broadcasting affiliates. If you said “Binge watching” in the 60s, most people would have thought you meant that you somehow medically cared for an alcoholic. In other words, watching your favorite movie or show was not as easy as a pushing a few keys on your remote control.
Back in the late 60s, to find my favorite movie, I scanned the TV guide or the Marquee supplement of the Sunday newspaper. Every week, I would skim the television listings looking for one long word: Scheherazade. If I found it, I usually circled it and noted the time and channel. If that movie came on at 1:00 am, the last show of night, I would wake up out of a dead sleep in order to sneak into the living room to watch it. I turned the volume dial down so low that I had to almost put my ear on the TV speaker to hear it. If my mother heard me out of bed, there would be hell to pay. This is as close to binge watching as you could get in the 1960s.
Was that movie worth all that work plotting and sneaking around? Yes, Song of Scheherazade (1947) was absolutely worth it. It was my first exposure to classical music and the world of ballet. It will always have a special place in my heart because it was one of my personal gateways to wonderful, exotic worlds. This film is based on an experience of one of the greatest Russian composers of all time Nickolai Rimsky-Korvakov. He wrote a symphony based on one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Scheherazade. Twenty four-year old Nikolai (Nicki) travelled around the world on a Russian clipper ship for three years (1863-1866). When he was not working and off duty for the Imperial Russian Navy, he would compose music. His compositions were influenced by the diverse music and customs of the foreign countries he visited on this long voyage. This is only thing that is true in the Hollywood movie, Song of Scheherazade, concerning any aspect of Korvakov’s life in the navy.
The story of Scheherazade is worth mentioning, especially if you are not familiar with her tale. She was one of the many brides of a Sultan. Because, one of his wives, who he dearly loved, betrayed him and ran away with another, he decided to protect himself from heartbreak and disloyalty. Each night, he would consummate his marriage with one of his wives; and then, he would have her executed the following morning.
When it was Scheherazade’s turn to consummate their marriage, she devised a plan to not only save herself but all the other wives too. She held the Sultan spellbound with these fantastic stories about a thief named Aladdin, a heroic sailor named Sinbad and many others who had their own adventures and loves. She would draw these stories out so when the morning came, her story was not finished. The Sultan was so captivated by the story, he had to know how it would end. So each morning, he would tell the executioner to come back tomorrow morning. This continued for 1001 nights. Until, the Sultan realized how much he loved Scheherazade and stopped all executions of his wives.
The Song of Scheherazade (1947): Summary
It was during a heat wave (116 degrees with no wind or breeze) in 1865, that a Russian clipper ship asked for a tow into the Spanish port of Morocco; as a result, the sailors were given two-day shore leave. Before they could be “cut loose” on the town, they had to undergo an inspection and lecture by their stern, cigar smoking and shirtless Captain Vladimir Grigorovich (Brian Donlevy). We learn one of the sailors is a spoiled Prince (Phillip Reed). He loves to carry an illegal bull whip on his person. Another sailor is “Nicki” Korvakov ( Jean Pierre Aumont). He is an aristocrat who is in the constant mode of composing operas. French actor, Aumont is perfect as the wide-eyed, innocent Russian musical genius. His accent is definitely French but not too thick. You soon forget it is supposed to be a Russian accent. The English he speaks just gives his words an exotic European sound.
When the sailors are released to start their shore leave, Nicki locates his friend: the ship’s doctor, Dovctor Klim (Charles Kullmann: an Metropolitan opera singer). Together they search the town looking for a piano for Nicki to play. They wanted to hear how his newest composition sounded on an instrument. Looking through the windows of upscale homes, they find a Piano.
I guess the plan is since Nicki is an aristocrat and a musician, the homeowner would allow these two sailors in their home to pound away on their expensive piano. Once they spy a piano through a window, they excitedly bang on the door. As they push pass the servants, they assure them that they come to only check out the piano, nearly knocking them down. They relax as soon as Nicki begins to play. It is a beautiful melody that is heard by the mistress of the house, Madame de Talavera (Eve Arden). The Madame is a noble Spanish colonists living in Morocco. She comes into to parlor from the outside to find two strange Russian sailors: one is playing the piano and the another one is studying the music sheets. She instantly enjoys the music. However, she wants to know who these young men are and interrupts the music. When Nicki introduces himself, she says, “What a long name. Important people have long names.” Arden supplies much of the comic relief in this film. She is very funny as the confused, gambling, exaggerating, widowed mother with one daughter. Arden is charming, and, her comedic timing is perfect.
During the making of this movie, the codes of decency were strictly enforced. It required that all costumes be approved three days before filming. Strangely, they had no problem with any garments; but, they had a lot to say about Arden’s blunging necklines. De Tralavera’s daughter, Cara (Yvonne De Carlo), is not home to be introduced to these gentlemen. Finally, Doctor Klim uses his operatic voice to sing Nicki’s new song. This is the first song of the film. The household enthusiastically applauds when the song ends.It is a success. Madame de Travers invites the young men to come back in hopes she can introduce them to her daughter, Cara. Nicki and his friend are so happy with the song, they rush back to the ship to work the on the opera some more. However, their Captain stops them and orders them off the ship. He wants them to enjoy their two-day leave. Who knows when another would be feasible? He orders them to find a club for some drinks, some music and hopefully some women.
Nicki finds himself in such a club, sitting alone at a table, working hard on his music. None of his fellow crew members are there. Finally, the music changes and a beautiful Moroccan woman begins her dance on a small stage. All activities stops and all eyes, including Nicki’s, is on this enchantress. He is bewitched by the dance and beauty of this woman (Yvonne De Carlo). Nicki does not know this is the daughter of Madame de Tralavera, Cara. Most people remember De Carlo as TV character, Lillie, the wife of Hermann Munster on a hit show called The Munsters. She had a long movie career before television.
As her performance ends, she walks through the crowd for donations. When she reaches Nicki, he sees a group of sailors loudly making their entrance into the club behind her. Nicki tugs on her hand to sit next to him as he begs her to please play along. He didn’t want any of his peers to report to his Captain or tease him in front of their captain about being alone while working on his music in a crowded club. The Prince sees him and is curious about the lovely woman with him. He walks over to investigate.
Nicki says they were just leaving for one of the rooms upstairs (a place to become more intimate with a working girl). Nicki leaves to pay for their accommodations. Cara walks ahead and enters one of the rooms. She is surprised when she sees the Prince waiting for her. He assures her that she would rather his company than Nicki’s. Then, he boldly removes her face scarf. He realizes that she is not oriental. Everything on her face is makeup. She angrily replaces her covering as Nicki enters the room. The two men come to near blows. Finally, Nicki asks Cara to choose. Before she chooses, the Prince concedes to leave; since, he did not want the humiliation of her choosing Nicki over him. As the Prince leaves, Cara tells him she would have chosen Nicki.
Once the Prince left, Nicki tells Cara to eat; and, she could leave whenever she wished to. He immediately starts working on his music. Cara looks confused; but, persuades him to not let her eat alone. He joins her; and, they talk. He jokes with her about how a lovely girl like her could end up in a place like this. He guesses that she was born with a silver spoon and all the wealth of her family was lost. Now, she works here to survive. She agrees that “his story” is true. He is curious how she manages to keep her virtue and keep the company with men she “dates.” She explains that it depends on the type of man she is with. She orders the right liquor and tells him fascinating stories to keep him entertained; until, they grow tired and fall asleep or leave.
Nicki realized that her story reminded him of the story of Scheherazade. He asks her if she remembered the story. As she recounts the tale, Nicki becomes inspired to write the storytelling music. Cara has quickly becomes his personal muse. Nicki is furiously back to work on the music; and, Cara is ignored and forgotten. She quietly leaves with a hopelessly besotted look on her face. The next day, Nicki will learn Cara’s true identity. At this point, I hope you see this whole movie. There is so much to see including De Carlo disguised as a Russian sailor, Donlevy doing the best cigarette trick ever seen on film, and the sad good-bye to Nicki. Don’t fret, this is the golden age of Hollywood. There will be happy faces and warm fuzzy feelings to go around at the end.
Besides, the ballet and the music, there is a lovely romance story and a sub plot of the Prince completely destroying what little wealth the Tralavera family has left. The are various dances besides the ballet at the end. There are waltzes and Russian folk dancing too. The mix of dance and music are a hypnotic enough on their own; but, to add visual adventures of a fun storyline transforms this film into pure aesthetic joy.
This post was written as part of an entry for the En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Love Letters to Old Hollywood.
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