Genevieve, Sweet Genevieve

GENEVIEVE is not a who, it’s a what. A twin-cylinder, 10/12 horsepower Darracq motocar built in Paris in 1904. Found sticking out of a hedge in East London in 1945, the car was rescued from further rust and obscurity by a local bailiff, rebuilt to its original glory, and soon became the star of one of the most popular British comedies of all time.

The 1954 film concerns Genevieve’s yearly run from London to Brighton and the crazy vintage car enthusiasts whose lives revolve around the run. The picture stars Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson as Wendy and Alan McKim, Genevieve’s owners. On equal, yet caustic, footing are Kenneth More as Ambrose Claverhouse, Alan’s fellow car enthusiast and Wendy’s one-time beau, and the delightful Kay Kendall as Rosalind Peters, Ambrose’s companion for this year’s run. The film follows the sextet’s (if you count the cars) pit stops and pitfalls as egos and jealousies boil over into a ridiculous bet over whose car can make it across Westminster Bridge first. From start to finish the film is a delight with its offbeat storyline and winning cast.

The score was composed by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. Though portions of the score are more fully orchestrated, most of the film is simply scored for harmonica and piano. A score for harmonica, you say? Yes, and it works beautifully.

The four main themes begin with Genevieve’s waltz over the opening titles. This is the predominant theme throughout the film and Adler would later release a recording of it on Columbia Records.

[audio:genevieve.mp3]

Ambrose is given am appropriately cocky melody for harmonica and strings for his pompous character. The tender ballad for Alan and Wendy was later recorded by Percy Faith and his orchestra. The other main theme is the upbeat tune for the London-Brighton run which fittingly picks up speed as the trip back to Westminster Bridge turns into a race. One of the most delightful musical moments occurs during the final leg of the race as snippets of the themes for Genevieve and Ambrose volley back and forth, depending on who is in the lead.

This YouTube clip, featuring Philip Achille on harmonica at the 2007 BBC Proms, gives us a generous suite of Adler’s delightful score, though much more fully orchestrated than it is on the actual soundtrack.

The Score was surprisingly, yet deservedly, nominated for an Oscar. Yet the nomination went to the film’s music director, Muir Mathieson, not Adler, whose name had been taken off American prints of the picture due to his inclusion on the Blacklist. It wasn’t until June 1986 before the Academy’s Board of Governors had Academy records updated to give Adler his proper credit, which Mathieson had never claimed. Mathieson’s name was removed from the nomination and Adler’s inserted. Over thirty years later, Adler finally received his nomination certificate.

As nice as the American screen credit and the Oscar recognition would have been, Adler didn’t make out too badly. Since GENEVIEVE was filmed on a very tight budget, Adler waived what would have been his nominal composer’s fee and demanded 2.5% of the producer’s share instead. As Adler said, “It doesn’t sound like much, and it wasn’t. But as the film took off I became richer than the actors… I happily put my children through college on the proceeds.” Don Brockway’s site gives a fascinating and exhaustively detailed look at every element of the film, including the score.

I absolutely adore this film and Adler’s music. Catch it next time it’s on Turner Classic Movies and tell me you’re not as charmed as I am. I keep hoping that the score will be released someday. But at this point I’d be happy with a U.S. DVD release of the film. Sweet Genevieve, indeed.

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