"Filmed on actual historical locations!"
It's rare to come across a movie that has simply everything wrong with it. Such movies should be treasured.
Magic Fire, directed by William Dieterle, is such a movie. It deserves to be better known, or rather, it doesn't deserve it, but it's surprising it hasn't achieved it, considering the giddying heights of nonsense it scales, not only without a safety net, but weighted down with a clanking armour of saucepans, a gigantic floppy hat, flap shoes and a strap-on pedestal.
The musical biopic -- the life of the great composer -- is a treacherous form, and Ken Russell is perhaps its only master. Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz is an endearingly barmy life of Strauss, afflicted with both gigantism and dementia, qualities Mad Ken took to extremes, blowing up the vices of the costume drama and musical, in both the sense of inflating them and exploding them. Dieterle, working on a micro-budget at Republic, the company that loomed above Poverty Row while clinging to the collective pants leg of the major studios. Nicholas Ray made Johnny Guitar at Republic and, like Dieterle, he shot it in Trucolor. There the resemblance ends.
Dieterle makes a joke of Trucolor right from the star with a painted purple sunset, and proceeds to make a joke of everything else. "He was a big guy, not talented," recalled his German contemporary, Edgar Ulmer, perhaps talking about the former Wilhelm Dieterle, actor, who certainly had a worrying tendency to galumph. Yet in the director's chair, Dieterle could zip along with a gay sparkle when helming a pre-code comedy, or deliver powerhouse blasts of expressionist angst in noir thrillers or dramas. He did have a weakness for the worthy biopic even in the '30s, extruding lumpen bilge like The Story of Louis Pasteur as part of the Warner Brothers' quest for prestige. "Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks through a microscope we lose a million dollars," mourned Jack Warner.
"Up, up, and away!"
Alan Badel is Richard Wagner, and there our troubles begin. Playing the great genius as a fruity nincompoop is a bold decision, if indeed it is a decision and not merely an unavoidable calamity. I love Badel, but he's inescapably funny, which sits oddly with the tone this film seems to be aiming, however cock-eyed, towards. The likeness to Hans Conreid as Dr. Terwilliker in the Dr. Seuss-scripted The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is at times almost complete.
"First you're another sloe-eyed vamp / The you're a mother / Then you're camp." In this movie, Yvonne DeCarlo gets to be all three. The meet cute between Wagner and Minna Planer is actually witty and self-aware, at least by the standards of what comes after. Wagner flatters Yvonne:
"You're much too slim to be an opera singer."
"Thank you. You don't seem to care much for opera."
"Oh, I wouldn't exactly say that."
The rest of the cast is a pan-global pot-pourri of unsuitable talents, variously miscast, wasted, or overstretched: Peter Cushing, Rita Gam and Valentina Cortese make unlikely Germans, especially next to real-life Teutons like Fritz Rasp (the Thin Man of Metropolis!) but that barely even registers as a problem. Dialogue varies from the stagily epigrammatic to the utterly tin-eared, and the "Byron, meet Shelley," trap, which Ken Russell throws himself so joyously into, here lies in wait to break the movie's ankles in every scene.
One obvious mistake in the screenplay is the decision to squeeze Wagner's entire career into the movie, which means thirty-two-year-old Badel, who always looked middle-aged, playing Wagner at twenty-one. Worse, it means preposterous conflation, baffling elisions, structural incoherence, repetitions (rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-etc) and random bursts of voice-over. Poor old E.A. Dupont, at the guttering end of his career, had a hand in the script, but his triumphs of the '20s, Variety and Piccadilly, seem far away, and his co-writer had just finished writing dialogue for George Reeves to declare as Superman.
"...the pressure from the jockeys was so strong that after two more performances I decided to withdraw the opera."
Bits of Wagner's life do seem too ludicrous to treat seriously, particularly his battle with the Jockey Club, and in any case this film is haunted by later works. Mad King Ludwig turns up, bringing a whiff of Visconti, only here he's not mad, just enthusiastic. And via the arguments with Liszt, Dieterle's story intersects with Ken Russell's most astonishing farrago, the demented pop-art monsterpiece Lisztomania. Where Russell cast Roger Daltrey, Dieterle contents himself with a declamatory Argentinian, Carlos Thompson, as Franz Liszt, which is technically at least as clever an idea. In Lisztomania, Franz battles a Frankenstein monster, rides a giant penis into a guillotine, and blasts off into heaven aboard a Technicolor pipe organ. None of that happens in Dieterle's movie, but it somehow manages to be sillier.
So, perhaps not one of the great films. In fact, if you watched it sober and alone, it might conceivably prove fatal. Dieterle, who often seems comatose at the wheel, still had thirteen years of film and television work ahead of him. His next feature: Omar Khayyam with Cornel Wilde and Yma Sumac. I can hardly wait to see that.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.