How can a film starring Dana Andrews, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore and Hoagy Carmichael be considered forgotten and hidden away?
Add in director John Cromwell and appearances by esteemed pianist Artur Rubinstein and conductor Eugene Ormandy and I ask the same question.
But it appears the 1948 romantic drama “Night Song” is not familiar to many classic movie fans. That’s understandable because it’s not usually shown on television or in repertory, although I was introduced to it on Turner Classic Movies.
On its original release, “Night Song” was panned by critics and lost $1 million, a huge sum in the late ‘40s. That’s most likely because of some eye-rolling moments in the plot. In brief: A rich young woman falls for a poor and bitter blind pianist, feigns her own blindness to get close to him, then sets up a composition contest with her own money to give him a chance for sight-restoring surgery.
Yes, it does sound contrived. But I have a soft spot for this melodrama and I love to recommend it which I’m doing as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Hidden Classics” blogathon.
You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at some of the plot points, but the elegance of this classic Hollywood film, the tender love story at its heart and the wonderful piano concerto that is its own character make me fall for “Night Song” every time.
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First the plot in more detail, then I’ll share more of why this is a favorite.
Oberon plays Cathy Mallory, a socialite out with her stuffy rich friends after a night at the San Francisco Symphony. They go slumming in their furs and diamonds to a quaint jazz club called Chez Mamie where Chick and His Swing Six are playing. Cathy is clearly bored until she hears the soft strains of piano and approaches the broad-shouldered, dark-haired pianist.
“Light me a torch, will you chum?” he says to Cathy, not quite the greeting she was expecting.
He’s Dan Evans (Andrews), a man with a chip on his shoulders the size of a piano after being blinded in an accident by a drunk driver. He wants nothing to do with Cathy or anyone else. “I’m exhibit A here: I’m a blind piano player,” Dan says, with the bitterness he has used to build a protective wall around himself. The only person he lets in is Chick (Carmichael), his best friend, roommate, caregiver and boss in the band.
He’s a proud man but Cathy is stubborn. She returns to the elegant home she shares with her aunt, Miss Willey (Barrymore, who is my favorite part of this film). A voracious reader of detective novels, she doesn’t miss anything. Listening to Cathy play an unfamiliar tune on her concert grand piano with a far-off look on her face, Aunt Willey knows what’s going on.
“You went somewhere after the symphony and someone played this nice music for you. Describe him.” (The relationship between these two feels very real, giving the film a rare sense of authenticity.)
Clearly smitten, Cathy returns to the club where Chick tells her Dan has quit – again. “He’s Mr. Blind Man and nobody with eyes can tell him anything,” he tells her.
“How about someone without eyes?,” she replies, clearly with an idea in mind and it’s a bit far-fetched.
She’ll pretend she is a blind woman named Mary Willey and goes so far as to rent a small, “rundown” apartment near the ocean where she’ll live with her caretaker and aunt (that’s true, at least). She softens her voice a bit and shrugs off her formal upper-class mannerisms when she “accidentally” runs into Dan and Chick on the beach.
But Dan is tough. As Chick says, “when he went blind, he went sour.” It takes a few meetings, some piano playing and the help of Chick and Aunt Willey to pull it off, but Mary starts to break through Dan’s wall. The more his heart opens, the more it releases his creativity. That lovely piano concerto starts to take form.
But that’s not enough for Mary when she learns there’s a chance Dan could regain his sight with surgery. It will take money he doesn’t have and that’s where she can help. She concocts a well-meaning ruse to sponsor a contest and puts up her own $5,000 as the grand prize. So much has to go right for Dan to win, but Cathy and Aunt Willey have the musical knowledge to understand that what Dan has written is great and deserves to win such a prize. Even Chick sees her deep understanding of classical music when he tells Dan after that first night in the club that “She went for the music, so she has brains as well as diamonds.”
You can see where this is going, but it takes a detour when she runs into Dan again – this time as herself, the socialite Cathy Mallory. Dan doesn’t “recognize” Cathy is Mary for a few reasons. Like Clark Kent putting on his glasses so he’s not recognizable as Superman, Cathy raises the pitch in her voice and fools Dan though occasionally he does the old “I feel like I know you.”
That sets up the love triangle of Dan, blind Mary Willey in San Francisco, and the sophisticated Cathy Mallory in New York City. To say more about how they got to this point or where it goes would spoil the movie.
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I can remember the first time I saw “Night Song” and falling for it within seconds by the same music that wooed Cathy to Dan. Piano Concerto in C Minor by Leith Stevens was playing over the film’s opening credits and it’s magnificent – one of the best pieces of music written for a film. It’s featured in a nearly 9-minute sequence that I find spellbinding.
I originally watched “Night Song” for Dana Andrews, then for the love story. But it was Barrymore and Carmichael who hooked me. Though they were playing second fiddle to the lovebirds, they subtly stole the show.
Despite some of the illogical plot points, the dialogue flows so naturally and understated from Barrymore and Carmichael that the roles seem to have been written for them. They are well-defined to the point you don’t even need to see them to know they are in the room. In one scene, the camera is fixed on a radio with a dainty coffee cup on a saucer in front, and light smoke billowing across the screen. You know Aunt Willey is just off camera and she is.
The relationships between the characters are well done, too, whether it’s Dan and Chick, Mary and Aunt Willey or Chick and Aunt Willey. Chick is a steadfast friend who won’t let Dan wallow in self-pity and truly believes in him. “I think you’re a genius, he tells Dan. “So you’re blind, but Shubert’s dead.”
“Night Song” is elevated by little character moments. My favorite is Aunt Willey sitting in a comfy chair all happy to be reading a detective novel while smoking and drinking coffee. When she drops her book, she starts to bend over, then turns to the stack of paperbacks beside her and takes the one off the top.
“Night Song” has my favorite qualities of classic Hollywood movies like romance, star power, lovely music and a coziness you can sink in to. Besides any movie that stars just one of the four main actors – Andrews, Oberon, Barrymore, Carmichael – is worth a watch. A movie with all four? That’s a can’t-miss and a reason to give this hidden gem a chance.
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The Classic Movie Blog Association’s four-day “Hidden Classics” blogathon features stories on many other films that aren’t as well known as they could – and should – be. Here’s the link to read more stories on these hidden film gems.