Over Christmas I was sitting in front of the fire while my son fooled with the TV remote, flipping between two football games while checking his texts on the iPhone, and played with his two-year old daughter while offering enthusiastic and unsolicited advice about how cool Amazon Prime is.
People my age ought to be accustomed to this kind of multitasking, but I had a bit of a Holiday Grinch about me and it was all getting on my nerves. So by the time he was switching symbols and columns on the TV screen and was explaining how you could search of all kinds of movies on Amazon Prime if you channel the internet signal through the cable box and BluRay (or something), I decided to put a stop to it and challenged him: “I bet they don’t have Magic Fire, 1955, Yvonne De Carlo.”
Presto. An eagle on a summit, the Republic Pictures logo, and Erich Korngold’s Hollywood adaptation of Act III of Die Walkure! He had done it! I got to see Alan Badel do Richard Wagner!
I have periodically looked around for this with no success at all. Magic Fire was written by Ewald André Dupont and Bertita Harding, based on her 1953 book of the same name, of which I am proud owner of a First Edition. (Could there possibly have been a second, I wonder?) It is directed by William Dieterle (Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton, Salome with Rita Hayworth, Life of Emil Zola with Paul Muni) in a kind of super-saturated, Technicolor-on-steroids process called, without apparent irony, Trucolor.
It is smashing! Alan Badel looks utterly twerpy in a beret and somewhat effeminate when he directs the workers setting up his Munich flat to be careful with the specially-ordered perfumed candelabra – but overall he is just fabulous, meandering quasi-German accent notwithstanding. Erich Korngold made his final contribution to Hollywood with this score; he died 18 months after its release. The writing is cringe worthy but once you’re beyond the barrier of taste it is super fun. (A coughing Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonk, accepting a glass of warm wine: “Is this perhaps a potion?”)
The ever-helpful website IMDB offers yet more insights: Korngold himself appears onscreen in the (luscious) shot of the premiere of the Ring, taken inside the Bayreuth auditorium. Says the website: “The actor originally cast [as Hans Richter] failed to show up. With over 1000 extras in full costume on set, director William Dieterle pleaded with Korngold to take over the non-speaking part, to save the shoot.”
Carlos Thompson is terrific as Franz Liszt, a real backbone of the story taking control of every scene in which he appears. Yvonne De Carlo’s Minna doesn’t leave anything like the impression of her contemporaneous Sephora, wife of Moses, in The Ten Commandments, or her later Lily Munster. Valentina Cortese’s Mathilde takes up a lot of screen time (and a lot of pages in the book) but fails to thrill. By contrast, Rita Gam’s Cosima is top-notch. The penultimate scene, where Richard and Franz play the third act transformation music from Parsifal, four-hands off the score, and Liszt is so moved that he conciliates with his estranged daughter, is “seeing-is-believing” territory – topped, if possible, by Badel’s line reading of “Suffering, compassion, renunciation. They sum up what II have learned of life.” So is Badel’s pecking at the keyboard at the Wesendonks’ cottage and happening upon the Tristan chord, to which he responds with a look that is a mixture of divine intervention and gastric disquietude. All the character work is impeccable.
So having thought myself the luckiest guy, finally to see Magic Fire after all these years, what do you know but it was on YouTube all the time – albeit in a Spanish-subtitled version. The movies is so much fun that, whether you go the Amazon Prime or the YouTube route, you really to owe it to yourself to find 1:34 to sit down and have a look.