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1939’s Hidden Gem

by larrydachslager on February 23rd, 2015


We all have certain thematic or stylistic elements that will draw us toward certain films. If someone admits to thinking of a favorite movie as a “guilty pleasure,” it is usually because it inhabits one or more of these very personal cinematic elements. I have many of them. I’m a sucker for movies that celebrate music, contain beautiful black and white photography, deal with matters of education, and are loaded with character actors. The presence of a cute dog also helps, as long as it doesn’t die. A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across such a movie and recorded it. It is not a great film, but it is very much a “Larry” movie and after watching it in its entirety, I’ve watched bits and pieces of it every day since.

1939 is widely thought of as American movies’ banner year – the year when Hollywood reached its artistic peak, producing more film “classics” within that twelve-month period than ever before or since. 1939 boasts, among many others, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, Gone With The Wind, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Destry Rides Again, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Of course, not every film made that year was a masterpiece. But 1939 was such a magnificent year for Hollywood that even the bad movies were good! Such a movie is 1939’s They Shall Have Music. It’s hackneyed, uneven, predictable, and often downright silly. The stiffness of some of the acting is matched only by the creakiness in the script. There are enormous plot holes. And I love every frame.

They Shall Have Music was made as a vehicle to spotlight violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz who appears as himself and plays five extended solos. The story concerns a runaway teenager (Gene Reynolds) who accidentally wanders into a Heifetz concert and is inspired to take up the violin. The boy finds shelter in a classical music school operated by an eccentric teacher and conductor played, in a masterstroke of offbeat casting, by Walter Brennan!


The music school is on the verge of being shut down for non-payment of rent, and only Jascha Heifetz can save the struggling institution.

As mentioned before, the movie is far from perfect. Granted, Jascha Heifetz wasn’t an actor, but even playing himself, he comes across as insincere (except when he’s playing the violin, of course). Joel McCrea is woefully miscast in a clumsy love interest role. A sub-plot involving a blackmailing bully (Tommy Kelly) is established and then disappears.

So what’s so great about this film? Plenty!

There’s Walter Brennan conducting an orchestra made up of plucky children who love classical music and have an intense collective celebrity crush on Jascha Heifetz.

There’s Gene Reynolds’s enthralled reaction to hearing Heifetz play.


There’s an army of stage mothers who fiercely protect the music school from the burly villains who want to close it down.

There’s Gregg Toland’s luminous photography, especially during the riveting Heifetz performance pieces.


There’s Archie Mayo’s snappy direction that never lags.

And as if that isn’t enough… there’s a really adorable dog named “Sucker!”


They Shall Have Music may not be in the same league with many of 1939’s illustrious roster of classics, but it certainly knows its target audience – me.

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