Wednesday, April 22, 2009

EVEN WITH FLORENCE HENDERSON RUNNING UP MOUNTAINS AND SINGING TO COWS, SONG OF NORWAY LACKS A CERTAIN 'WESSONALITY'

Andrew and Virginia Stone (Julie, Cry Terror) are no ordinary movie realists. In 1960, when they decided to make a movie about the sinking of an ocean liner, (The Last Voyage), they hired the aged Ile de France, hauled her out into the Pacific Ocean, and then effectively scuttled her, in the interests of their art and their commerce. In an industry where big is par, the Stones think colossal. In 1970, their newest project opened at the Cinerama Theater, on a screen almost as wide as the Scandinavian peninsula. SONG OF NORWAY is a film resurrection of the 1944 Broadway operetta about Edvard Grieg, set to the Grieg music as edited and rearranged by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who also wrote those lyrics that Mr. Grieg somehow happened to overlook.

A saccharine fantasy with 45 musical numbers, 25 songs, international uvulas, and a production line of fjords, Song of Norway is no ordinary movie kitsch, but a display to turn Guy Lombardo livid with envy. The film, conceived as a kind of living postcard, is so full of waterfalls, blossoms, lambs, glaciers, folk dancers, mountains, children, suns, and churches, that, it raises kitsch to the status of art. Writer/director Andrew Stone composes every schlocky musical turn by cutting away to landscapes -- so that it becomes a visual ode to the Norwegian soul as defined by the Norwegian Tourist Office. If he sees a summit, you may rest assured that someone is romping up it, a sun is sinking behind it, or an airplane, carrying a camera, is buzzing it, while the movie's six-track stereo system pounds out still another reprise of the piano concerto. It quickly becomes exhausting as people keep breaking into impassioned warbling and frenetic hoofing every few minutes. No location is safe: a hayride, a ferry ride, a snowball fight, and a chase down winding village streets inevitably turn into cause for belting out a tune.

And the music is among the worst ever put on a soundtrack. Grieg didn't write show tunes, nor did he ever imagine people would be singing hackneyed versions of his classical compositions while throwing snowballs at each other. With tunes like "Freddie and His Fiddle," "The Life of a Wife of a Sailor," "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and the appropriately titled "Strange Music," the film simultaneously brings joy to the eyes as the lyrics lay waste to the ears!

The cast includes Toralv Maurstad, a blond Norwegian actor too elderly to play the young Grieg, Frank Porretta, a young American singer, as his best friend, and Florence Henderson, who is sometimes photographed through what looks like gauze, as his wife. If you ever paused to ask yourself: "How come we've never seen any movies starring Florence Henderson?" Well, the answer to that Zen-worthy riddle can be summarized in just three words: "Song of Norway." Yes, she can sing - but whatever charm and pleasantness she could offer for the sale of cooking oil and denture cream was nowhere to be found here. Robert Morley, Edward G. Robinson and Oscar Homolka also appear - mostly as scenic obstructions.

Song of Norway was cruelly attacked by the critics. Pauline Kael's New Yorker barbecue was the most articulate: "The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clich├ęs you didn't know you knew - they're practically from the unconscious of moviegoers" Life magazine raved: 'Godawful'. The New Yorker wondered whether it had been made by trolls. The Medved Brothers dubbed Florence Henderson, 'the female Peter Frampton for the Geritol generation'. The film's failure was swift but its leading actors suffered the most: Maurstad never made another American movie, Porretta never made another film, and Florence Henderson was never trusted to appear in a movie until her cameo role in 1992's Shakes the Clown. But Song of Norway does have some small rewards -- for critics (who can quote its inane dialogue), and for general audiences (who can feel superior to it). Will there ever be an official dvd release? We can only pray.

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