Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Toscanini, Iturbi and Me

As part of the birthday salute to Margaret O'Brien tomorrow, January 15, TCM is airing Music for Millions at 2:00 PM.

O'Brien plays "Mike", a young girl who arrives in the big city alone, having been sent on the train by her aunt up in Connecticut and expecting to be met by her sister Barbara (June Allyson). However, Barbara must not have gotten the telegram, because there's nobody at the train station to meet Mike. Eventually somebody takes pity on Mike and takes her to the symphony hall, since Barbara plays the double bass in the orchestra. What with the war going on, the men have all been drafted to fight, leading poor put-upon Spanish conductor José Iturbi (playing himself) to lead an all-lady orchestra and wonder whether he's going to lose anybody else. Mike screws up the rehearsal by going on stage, which unsurprisingly gets Iturbi angry, but dammit, Mike is just so charming that nobody who doesn't have a heart of stone like I do can't help but fall for her charms.

Mike goes to live with Barbara, who rooms with several other members of the orchestra at a rooming house, where a seven-year-old like Mike isn't wanted, at least not by the landlord. (The question of what she's going to do during the day is pretty much left unanswered.) Barbara is happy to see her sister, since it brings some joy to an otherwise hectic life. In addition to all the stress of being in the orchestra, Barbara is also pregnant, by her husband Joe who knocked her up just before going off to fight in the war -- the Code wouldn't have let her get knocked up out of wedlock, especially not in what was supposed to be a movie for the whole family.

And then Joe goes missing in action. Granted, that's not necessarily family-friendly, but then Music for Millions was released in late 1944, at a time when families all over America would have had to deal with such things in their own lives and would be sympathetic to somebody on screen who had this happen to her. All of Barbara's friends try to keep the news from her, but she already suspects something, not having heard from him for a couple of months.

There's a lot of schmaltz in all of the above. Added to the movie to reduce the schmaltz quotient is Jimmy Durante, who plays Andy, the orchestra's manager. He provides the welcome comic relief, doing things like singing the song "Toscanini, Iturbi, and Me", in which he parodies Iturbi, only for the conductor himself to enter the room without Durante's knowledge. The schmaltz, however, eventually overpowers even Durante, as the movie chugs on to its improbably happy ending.

Music for Millions is a movie that's not badly made; it's just not exactly my sort of movie. People who like Margaret O'Brien, however, will probably enjoy it. It's gotten a release to DVD from the Warner Archive, too, so you can watch it any time you want.

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