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Carnegie Hall: The Movie

In August 1946, Carnegie Hall was transformed into a Hollywood movie set when production began on the United Artists film Carnegie Hall. The first feature film to be made entirely in New York City in nearly 10 years, Carnegie Hall was also the first movie ever recorded in 12-track stereophonic sound.

Although saddled with a creaky plot, the film features an impressive array of classical music talent, as well as historic performances by Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Lily Pons, and Risë Stevens, among others.

New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer kicked things off on August 5, 1946, and director Edgar G. Ulmer concluded filming on October 17. Shot at Carnegie Hall and Fox Movietone News studios at 54th Street and 10th Avenue, the film cost $1.7 million to produce—nearly $200,000 over budget, including $25,000 spent striking and replacing sets and production equipment in order to accommodate previously scheduled Hall performances, which began on September 20.

The story of the film focuses on Nora Ryan (played by Marsha Hunt), an Irish cleaning woman at Carnegie Hall. Nora arrived in America from Ireland as a little girl in May 1891—during Carnegie Hall’s Opening Week Music Festival—and joined her mother, also a cleaning woman at the newly built hall. The film follows Nora throughout the ensuing half-century, as her life becomes intertwined with events and personalities at Carnegie Hall.

Aside from for its musical performances, Carnegie Hall is usually dismissed as a trite flop. But once you dig a bit deeper into the film’s background, for all its flaws you find not only a remarkable time capsule—at the time, few people thought to put classical music performances on film—but also a trove of fascinating connections and backstories. These start at the very top of the credits with producers William LeBaron and Boris Morros. LeBaron’s show-business career stretched back to 1911, when he was the writer-lyricist of A la Broadway, a burlesque musical revue that featured 18-year-old Mae West as an Irish maid in her first legitimate Broadway role. Carnegie Hall, with an Irish cleaning woman as its central character, made for a fitting bookend as LeBaron’s final producer credit.

But things get truly interesting with Boris Morros. Born in St. Petersburg in 1891, Morros immigrated to the US in 1922 and soon became music director at Paramount Pictures. Using his family in Russia as bait, the KGB recruited him as a spy in the mid-1930s. When he was confronted by the FBI in 1947—shortly after the release of Carnegie Hall—Morros admitted his involvement with the KGB and agreed to act as a double agent. He wrote of his exploits in a 1959 book, My Ten Years As a Counterspy, which became the basis for the 1960 spy thriller Man On a String, starring Ernest Borgnine.

At least Morros’s espionage tale had a happy ending—and a basis in fact. Marsha Hunt’s championing of liberal causes—along with her refusal to apologize for it—resulted in her being blacklisted by Hollywood in the early 1950s, effectively ending her film career (even though she was never called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, where a refusal to “name names” became the usual path to Hollywood exile).

Other unconventional elements of the film include “dramatic” performances by Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner, and Walter Damrosch, who were asked to deliver several lines in an attempt to connect the fictional and musical sides of the story. Still, a scene between the 84-year-old Damrosch and an aging Nora, in which they talk about how they were both present at Carnegie Hall’s Opening Festival in 1891, is deeply touching when one remembers that Damrosch really was there!

Ulmer’s stylishly dark touches are all over the film, especially in a sequence that features cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performing Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” accompanied by six harpists. Although Piatigorsky claimed to have hated the scene, it is a striking setting, with sharp, atmospheric shadows. Other such sequences include the dramatic staging of Arthur Rubinstein’s solo performance—complete with overhead shots—and Leopold Stokowski conducting while being filmed at a sharp angle from below, with his wild, halo-like crown of hair framed angelically in the Hall’s ring of ceiling lights.

Pianist Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, and Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” in the film Carnegie Hall, 1947.

Photography courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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