On Thursday 26 June 1941, war-weary UK cinema-goers had their first chance to seek a few innocent thrills with RKO’s latest release: Dangerous Moonlight (known as Suicide Squadron in the USA).
Starring Anton Walbrook, Sally Gray, Cecil Parker and John Laurie (later to find fame as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army), this uplifting story of an injured Polish airman-pianist-composer who falls in love during convalescence proved a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although a popular success, the critics were less charitable, especially regarding Walbrook, who had insisted on performing his own keyboard ‘stunts’. The film is transformed, however, when at around 55 minutes, a stirring piece of freshly composed music that has so far only been hinted at receives a truncated concert performance that cast an instant spell on cinema audiences. Its name? The Warsaw Concerto.
The film has been building gradually towards this dramatic point as Stefan ‘Steve’ Radetzky (Walbrook) struggles to complete the concerto he had begun back in Poland, as well as recover from his combat injuries. Musical snippets have also provided a backdrop to a blossoming love-affair between Radetzky and American reporter Carole Peters, and it is this inspired piece of emotional timing that intensifies the music’s swirling melodic indelibility.
The one-movement concerto’s nine-minute timespan proved ideal for splitting between two sides of a 78rpm record and sold in its millions – RKO, which had originally intended to use Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in the soundtrack, suddenly had an unexpected hit on its hands.
When its Rachmaninov plans had come to nought, the studio commissioned London-born Richard Addinsell to produce a convincing pastiche of the Russian’s yearning melodic style. Addinsell had established his early reputation as a composer for theatrical productions during the 1920s and ’30s and now, branching out into film, he had over a dozen scores behind him – most notably Goodbye Mr. Chips and Gaslight – when the call came to work on Dangerous Moonlight.
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The choice proved an inspired one as Addinsell was himself a gifted pianist and, like Rachmaninov, had enormous hands that stretched to a 12th. This helped facilitate his creative thinking and within no time he hit upon two main themes that unmistakably suggest the Russian’s distinctive idiom without creating an undue sense of déjà-vu. These also proved striking enough to stand alongside several established classics that appear in the film, including a Chopin polonaise, Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3 and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto.
To formulate his ideas into a coherent whole and give them an authentic Rachmaninovian feel, Addinsell turned to his regular orchestrator, Roy Douglas, who had recently begun working with William Walton and would later assist the ageing Ralph Vaughan Williams. Douglas noted down Addinsell’s ideas and instructions and duly returned with a fully fleshed-out score that formed the basis of the film soundtrack.
Providing the icing on the cake, RKO secured the services of dazzling Hungarian virtuoso and renowned Liszt exponent Louis Kentner, one of Béla Bartók’s favourite pianists, who had moved to England in 1935. His exquisite, velvet-toned pianism graces the entire soundtrack and creates the perfect soundworld for Addinsell’s inspired musings. Believing that it might endanger his concert career, Kentner initially kept his association with the film a closely guarded secret, but following its enormous success happily acknowledged his involvement.
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