Grace Moore, Georges Thill, André Pernet; Abel Gance, dir. This is an abridged version of Louise with spoken dialog in place of some musical selections. The highlights are all there, however. The cuts were made by Charpentier, who also coached Moore in the role. (1938). French, no subtitles. 86m. B&W.
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Robert Levine, reviewing Louise in Classics Today
This 86-minute, black-and-white, 1938 film of Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise is of interest for several reasons. Film buffs will revel in Abel Gance’s direction. Best known during the silent era (his Napoléon is an acknowledged masterpiece), Gance’s way with shadow and light, his control of crowd scenes, the flow of his narrative, and the way in which he melds silent-movie (or “operatic”) gestures with more modern and realistic movement are fascinating to watch. In addition, although there is only about 50 minutes of Charpentier’s music here (there’s much spoken dialogue–all of it, by the way, in un-subtitled French), the composer himself authorized the cuts, and so the story remains intact and the “sense” of Charpentier’s opera remains. But mostly, it is the distinguished performances that carry the day.
The lovely Grace Moore is, well, lovely. In addition to being pretty and graceful, she uses her voice well and inhabits the character. Better yet is Georges Thill, arguably the finest French tenor of the last century. His voice is both heroic and lyrical, his French (of course) impeccable, his ardor genuine. He’s a bit stiff as an actor, but he hasn’t much to do other than sing and be one-dimensionally passionate. And best of all is the much less familiar André Pernet, a bass who sings Louise’s father (the mother is reduced to a speaking role). His grand basse cantante is both smooth and powerful, and while the head-on close-ups of him are effective in depicting his rage, there’s something decidedly operatically overdone about it all.
There’s a good sized chorus and some smaller roles that are well taken–so good, in fact, that it’s a pity there’s not more music. Of course this is for specialists and those interested in either the singers or this type of stylized cinema, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
John Ardoin, reviewing in The Dallas Morning News
“Grace Moore began on Broadway and then became an all-American prima donna at home on both the Hollywood sound stage and the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1938 she was invited to France to film one of her operatic specialties, Charpentier’s poignant Louise. She was teamed with France’s greatest tenor, Georges Thill, who also had a long career in films as well as opera. The composer was on hand to advise director Abel Gance. The cinematography is lovely and the singing rapturous.”
Tully Potter, reviewing in International Opera Collector
“BCS have acquired a splendid print of Abel Gance’s 1938 film of Louise but devotees should be warned that not much of Charpentier’s music survives. It is such a beautiful film that my usual scruples are suppressed; and you get valuable vocal footage of Grace Moore, Georges Thill and André Pernet–the latter two representing types of French singer (dramatic tenor and basse cantante) that are virtually extinct today.”
John Steane, reviewing in Opera Now
“Louise (1938) is announced as Charpentier’s opera but is more a matter of highlights; musically, much is omitted, and, dramatically, the action is held together by spoken dialogue, the camera ranging well beyond the confines of a stage set. Graham Green, reviewing for The Spectator in June 1939, recommended it as ‘one of the funniest films to be seen in London…Oh, the tiptoeings of Miss Moore, the sedate coquetry, the little trills and carollings, and the great stony teeth’. ‘Miss Moore,’ of course, is Grace, and she plays opposite Georges Thill, both of them singing well. But the performance that stays in the memory and which (whatever Graham Green may have thought) is not funny at all, is that of André Pernet as the Father. Here is what one might hope for in filmed opera: an artist who looks and acts the part and whose singing can serve as a standard-bearer for generations to come.”
Grace Moore and the Film of Louise
In 1929, before her debut at the Opéra-Comique as Louise, Grace Moore met composer Gustave Charpentier. She was 31, he was 70. They became friends. According to Rowena Rutherford Farrar’s biography Grace Moore and Her Many Worlds (Cornwall Press, 1981), “She went often to his shabby studio to study the role with him.” He explained that he was Julien and that he and Louise “had had much happiness, sorrow and visions together. That he had been very fortunate indeed to be able to give back in music some of the priceless beauty and happiness Louise had given him.”
According to Farrar, Moore had had an affair with Georges Thill, in France, in the late 20s and described him as “an extraordinary man, who knew a great deal about music, women and the world.” But she added, “He dressed in the fashion of a small-town dude.” He followed her from city to city to help her “unwind after performances, with wine, food, music, dancing, good conversation, laughter, love.”
Farrar mentions that for the film of Louise Charpentier made the cuts in the music himself and that Moore took a refresher course in French diction and went on a diet. The shooting began in September 1938 at the Paramount Studios at Joinville, outside Paris. According to Farrar, “Despite the American ambassador’s suggestion that all Americans return home immediately [because war seemed imminent], Grace assured her worried colleagues that if they were willing, she would stick it out in Paris until the picture was completed, come what may.” Farrar continues, “The recording was done at the Salle Pleyel, the French equivalent of Carnegie Hall, under the supervision of the French representative of Victor Records. The crew ran into many technical difficulties which caused delays and anxious experimentation. When the artists first heard the playbacks they sounded so clear and natural that everyone was elated. Grace considered her Louise the most exciting achievement of her career. The last day of shooting was devoted to the big scene in Act III, when Louise, surrounded by 3,000 extras representing every type of Parisian, is crowned the muse or queen of Montmartre. Champagne for everyone was provided by the American prima donna and the French producers. Since both producers and many others involved in the making of the picture were Jews, [they bid] a fond farewell to each other and to the end of an era.”
Farrar tells us about Moore’s Met debut in Louise, on January 28, 1939, “When [Grace] found that every criticism was favorable her eyes filled with tears. She celebrated the keeping of another dream by adding a codicil to her will requesting that excerpts from the music of the third act of Louise, her favorite opera, be played at her funeral.”
Biographies by Joe Pearce, President of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society
Grace Moore (1898-1947), because of factors outside her operatic career, was arguably the most famous soprano in the world from 1930 through 1938: she starred in eight films and was a major concert, recording and radio attraction. (She had started in operettas and Broadway musicals.) Her career at the Met spanned 16 seasons between 1928 and her death but encompassed a total of only 108 performances in ten roles. She was so identified with half of these–Fiora, Mimì, Louise, Manon and Tosca–that memories persist to this day. She made many very popular recordings for Brunswick and Victor and appeared at the Opéra-Comique, Covent Garden and in Chicago and San Francisco. While on a concert tour of Scandinavia she died in a plane crash.
Certainly, after Mary Garden and possibly Ninon Vallin, she was the most famous of all interpreters of Louise, so much so that in 1938 she returned to France (where she had studied for opera at the urging of Mary Garden) to appear in this film.
Georges Thill (1897-1984), a pupil of Fernando De Lucia, debuted at the Paris Opéra, in 1924, appearing there and at the Opéra-Comique for decades (singing Canio at the latter as late as 1953). The most famous French tenor of his time, possibly of the century, he also was highly successful at La Scala, the Rome Opera, the Verona Arena, the Vienna State Opera, the Teatro Colón and Covent Garden and sang in almost every country in Europe (journeying as far as Odessa) and South America. Curiously he was unsuccessful at the Metropolitan, where he sang 14 performances of seven roles over two seasons (1931-1932), including Radamès, Don José, Faust, Gérald, Roméo, Sadko and Cavaradossi. The answer may be that he didn’t have Gigli, Martinelli, Lauri Volpi and Tokatyan to contend with at home. Possessor of a large spinto voice, he was a prolific recorder from the late 1920s through the mid-40s.
André Pernet (1894-1966) made his debut in Nice, in 1921, and appeared at the Paris Opéra beginning in 1928, also singing in Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Monte Carlo. He particularly was noted for the title parts in Mefistofele, Boris Godunov, Don Giovanni and Don Quichotte. Among operas in which he created roles are Merchant de Venise (Hahn), Oedipe (Enesco), Maximilien (Milhaud) and Vercingétorix (Canteloube). He sings on the recording of Louise with Vallin and Thill.
Abel Gance (1889-1981) directed films for over 50 years (1911-1963), all of his finest work being in the silent era, before he reached 40. Despite J’Accuse and La Roue, both major films of their time, he is remembered today almost solely for his 1927 Napoléon, one of the epic films of all time and surely the only movie ever to premiere at the Paris Opéra! During the sound era Gance stuck to solidly constructed commercial ventures, one of which was this Louise. (Interestingly, he had used the Russian operatic tenor Alexander Koubitzky as Danton, in Napoléon.) An experimenter in technical innovations, he used stereophonic sound as early as 1934, when it was added for a bowdlerized reissue of the silent Napoléon, a film to which he would return again and again over his long life in an effort to have it issued as he originally had filmed it rather than in the mutilated versions shown worldwide after its premiere. In this he finally was successful, living to see his masterpiece reissued in its original form.
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