Friday, November 7, 2014


Some movies tug at your heartstrings. Symphony of Living yanks at them like the Minnesota Vikings and the San Diego Chargers playing tug-of-war. Why make a movie that simply touches you when it can bash you over the head with every conceivable melodramatic plot device? If nothing else, Symphony of Living just might be, if not the birth of a bushel of cinematic cliches, at least the distillation of them.

This is how every middle class
family in New York dresses at home.
Violinist Adolph Greig lives with his two layabout adult children, Pamela and Richard, who do nothing but complain that he's not bringing home enough money. Pretty soon, he's not bringing home any, having permanently damaged his hand when accidentally pushed into a window (it happens all the time to old violinists). Richard sees this as the perfect opportunity to shove off, while Pamela has already eloped with her rich, older boyfriend, leaving their father alone with his severed tendons and a bottle of Schnapps.

Time goes by. So disgusted is Pamela by the memory of her father's career, she refuses to allow her music-loving son Carl to continue with his violin lessons, driving her husband to pay her $75,000 to get lost in exchange for custody of the kid. (This being the middle of the Depression, most people would've said, "Where do I sign?") Meanwhile, Adolph becomes a music teacher, and... oh, hell, I don't have to tell you what happens next and next and next, do I? I mean, I figured it out by the end of the second reel.

Pamela's son wants to know why she
insists on dressing like Nefertiti.

Just to make sure we know whose side we're supposed to be on, the characters have been written with all the nuance of a short-circuited pile-driver. Adolph isn't just a nice man -- he makes St. Augustine look like Ted Kaczynski. Pamela and Richard aren't just ungrateful -- they're a full-fledged bitch and larcenist-in-waiting respectively. And did I say they were adult children? Make that middle-aged. Evelyn Brent, who plays Pamela, was 36 at the time of making Symphony of Living. Sheesh, lady, you don't like living with your old man, move out! Richard, meanwhile, hangs around the house all day in three-piece suits. Well, if you're going to do nothing, you might as well look good not doing it.

You want nasty? It isn't enough that Pamela asks her father to turn off his classical records; she has to sneer, "Muzzle that dirge, will ya?" When Richard, now a full-fledged crook, shows up at his father's music studio after 13 years, his first words are, "Nice little layout you got here" like an underworld enforcer. (He describes himself as "kind of a promoter," code for "crook.") One line of dialogue may be the first example of a particular kind of wisecrack that became de rigueur among jokesters several decades later. Noting the contempt he and Pamela have for Adolph, Richard scoffs, "Nice pleasant little family this is -- NOT!" Had he been born in another time, he'd have been a writer for Friends.

Those kids are actually 40 years old.
Like a lot of low-budget indies of the '30s, Symphony of Living plays fast and loose with its time frame. While the cars, fashion and even radio are vintage 1935, ten minutes into the movie we learn that it's supposed to be 1922. Although it seems like only a few months pass before Adolph becomes a music teacher, it's actually been eight years... until somebody says ten years... before reverting to eight again. Then I think a few more years pass after that, but it's difficult to say, especially when the main characters look the same throughout. Forget about teaching music, Adolph should bottle what ever it is that keeps these people from aging.

So invincible, it went out of
business a year later
What cut-rate high class
looks like.

Symphony of Living is a poverty-row double-header, being an Invincible Picture released by the Chesterfield Motion Picture Corporation (no relation to the cigarette). The New York-based studios give Symphony of Living a low-rent, if ultimately artificial, feel. Adolph and his kids live at 170 W. 210 St., which, while referred to as "uptown," you'll never find on any map of Manhattan. His studio's address is 232 Christopher St. -- which would put it in the middle of the Hudson River. He performs at the Cosmopolitan Concert Hall, located in real life on the Invincible Pictures' soundstage. Pamela's 10 year-old son, however, has a genuine New York accent, despite being raised by parents with impeccable diction. Watch Sweet Smell of Success if you want authenticity.

The big draw here, if you can call it that, is Al Shean as Adolph Greig. Unknown today by anybody except kooks like me, Shean was, from 1912 to 1925, one-half of Gallagher & Shean, one of the most popular stage acts of their time. His portrayal of Greig, a
Al Shean refuses to allow his grandson steal
the spotlight like his damn nephews.
washed-up musician who guides his
grandson to greatness, might have hit home just a little too hard. In real life, Shean was the uncle of a bunch of poor, rowdy siblings who entered show business when they saw how much dough he was raking in. Many years later, those same kids were conquering Broadway as the Four Marx Brothers -- just as Uncle Al's career was going into eclipse. (Look closely at Shean in Symphony of Living and you can see a resemblance to Harpo.) 

Four posters and ten lobby cards were created for
the movie -- probably three and nine more
than were used.
Perhaps thinking he was still doing 1920s comedy shtick, Shean insists on speaking with an exaggerated accent (German? Viennese? Ottoman?) that positively screams old-hat vaudeville. This would be fine if Symphony of Living wasn't so intent on being a melodramatic tearjerker that melodramatically jerks your tears. In other words, a tearjerking melodrama.

I couldn't find any reviews of Symphony of Living from its original release, which isn't surprising. Mawkish pieces of entertainment like this were made for the masses who wanted a good, cheap cry, not the elites over at the Times. Maybe that was good enough for Al Shean, now that his salad days had wilted. But he must have wondered, after toiling away at the bargain-basement Invincible Pictures, how his nephews wound up making the classy A Night at the Opera at M-G-M the same year. Symphony of Just Existing would be closer to the mark.


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