That’s true. It’s a film jam-packed with the crème de la crème of classical musicians, opera singers, and conductors from the first half of the 20th century.
What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the dramatic portions of the film are pretty dire. But if you can suffer through violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Fritz Reiner reading their lines in monotones as they discuss stage fright with an Irish usher named John Donovan (Frank McHugh), who says he only feels that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach when he’s eaten too much, you’ll be rewarded by hearing Heifetz play the First Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Reiner.
Carnegie Hall was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the poet of Poverty Row, who directed such minor masterpieces as Detour (1945), Bluebeard (1944), and The Black Cat (1934). Ulmer’s love of classical music was apparent in Detour — the main character is a nightclub pianist who, in one memorable scene, plays boogie-woogie variations on a Brahms waltz. Carnegie Hall is a love letter to great music and musicians, as well as to the eponymous edifice itself.
The plot in a nutshell (and there’s barely enough of it to fill two nutshells) involves an Irish girl named Nora Ryan (Marsha Hunt) who sees her first performance in Carnegie Hall as an adorable little rag-headed immigrant in 1891, and works her way up from cleaning woman to program director. She marries a febrile pianist named Tony Salerno (Hans Jaray, listed in the credits as “Hans Yaray”), who falls to his death while drunk when their son, Tony Jr. (William Prince), is still a baby.
Tony Salerno Jr. grows to maturity while being forced to diligently practice piano by his mother. They experience a rift after Tony Jr. falls in love with a nightclub singer named Ruth Haines (Martha O’Driscoll) and runs away to perform with crooner and band leader Vaughan Monroe. (Monroe is best known today for his version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Ironically, Monroe wanted to be an opera singer, but the economic realities of the Depression coupled with a string of early hits led him to perform popular music exclusively.)
Eventually, Tony Jr. gets a record set released on RCA/Victor called “American Rhythms,” and performs his own composition, “57th Street Rhapsody,” onstage at Carnegie Hall as pianist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic, with soloist Harry James on the trumpet. It’s a performance that blends “high” and “low” music, and brings tears to his mother’s eyes. The end.
The drama is hackneyed and poorly written (and it doesn’t help that Jaray is utterly charmless as Tony Sr.), but the bulk of the film’s 2 hour and 15 minute running time is occupied by great performances — the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bruno Walter; soprano Lily Pons singing the “Bell Song” (“L’Air des clochettes”) from Delibes’s opera Lakmé; cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performing Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” from The Carnival of Animals (Le carnaval des animaux); mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens performing the end of the introduction and the start of the principal melody of Delilah’s song that seduces Samson in the second act of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah, followed by a performance of the Seguidilla from Act I of Bizet’s Carmen. And that’s just scratching the surface.
The DVD of Carnegie Hall that’s currently available from Kino Video looks great. The print is crisp, the blacks are deep, and the contrast is good. (And the “piano” scene from Detour is included as an extra.) As a dramatic film, Carnegie Hall doesn’t really succeed, but as a showcase for great musicians and singers, it’s a winner.