Watch and Listen: The Cat and the Fiddle (1934)

I'm a fan of "putting on a show" musicals. Sure, the early ones are riddled with cliches and deus ex machina abounds, but they're charming. The production numbers are beautifully choreographed with talented performers and the songs are catchy. Jerome Kern feels like an odd fit for this style to me. His music is difficult to sing and closer to operetta in style than his contemporary Tin Pan Alley composers. Even in a work as influential to the form as Show Boat, Kern's compositions are complex and (at least in early recordings and films) sung with a light operatic quality.

One of Kern's works has eluded me for years. I've had the sheet music for The Cat and the Fiddle for fifteen years now but only just saw the film adaptation this weekend. There's a big difference between guessing at the style of music with a barebones sheet music compendium and hearing and seeing an actual production of the work. I could tell there was something special about the music, but the matter of context and specific nuances of style were beyond what was printed on the page.

The 1934 adaptation of the Kern/Harbach musical tells the story of a German music composition student falling in love with an American soprano who can be the key to his professional career. The story is a sanitized (and unintentionally liberating) pastiche of elements from the original Broadway show. A major plot point--the villain refusing to believe the American soprano is a virgin unless she can prove it--is tossed out at the expense of suggesting the composer and soprano are sleeping together.

If you're watching The Cat and the Fiddle for the story, you're watching it for the wrong reasons. The star of the film is the music, beautifully performed by Jeanette MacDonald and Ramon Novarro. Novarro runs MacDonald all around town, having her sing the original score as he picks up investors and prepares for a rapidly approaching opening night. In this scene, MacDonald's character is upset because she believes Novarro's character was only using her to put on the show and didn't love her.

The reason I mentioned the "putting on a show" musicals is because of the use of music in this film. I'm struggling to think of another film in this category that would show its leading lady sight-reading the melody on a neutral syllable (la) before singing it for the first time. Most films act like music comprehension is instant and perfect. MacDonald performs the song well, but there are moments of hesitation and seemingly unintentional back-phrasing (the singer falling behind the accompaniment and coming back in on time later) that makes her character feel real.

If you can watch The Cat and the Fiddle, you should. The music is so strong it almost makes you forget how bad the actual story is.