From Odeon to Green Mansions: Villa-Lobos at the Movies


Villa-Lobos had a close relationship to the cinema in his long career as a composer. The pianist Arthur Rubinstein talks in his amusing memoirs about being taken to hear, in Rio de Janeiro after the First World War, a band of musicians providing accompaniment in the usual "silents" style. The music band at the Odeon cinema was led by Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934,) the great Brazilian composer of the generation before Villa-Lobos'. The cellist in the orchestra was Villa-Lobos himself. Here is how Rubinstein tells the story:
"This semi-improvised film scoring was an apprenticeship for Villa-Lobos not only in the field of film music, but in providing easily accessible, popular music that spoke directly to feelings and emotions. At the cinema that evening, Villa-Lobos made an important friend, musical collaborator and champion, as well.

"We entered a dark cinema, empty at that hour of the day. On the screen was an American melodrama. Every scene had its appropriate music. There was an intermission; the lights went on and the five or six musicians waved to their friends and seemed to recognize me. After a short while they began to play again, but this time it was music, real music! It was made up of Brazilian rhythms which I easily identified but they were treated in a completely original way. It sounded confused, formless, but very attractive. My companions whispered, "He calls it 'The Amazon'." I could make little of it but after the music stopped I asked them to introduce me to this Heitor Villa-Lobos. He was a short man of dark complexion, clean-shaven, with dark, disorderly hair and large sad eyes..."  - Anton Rubenstein, My Many Years, NY, Knopf, 1980, p. 90-1.

Villa-Lobos was in a different league, socially and as an artist, when he had his next opportunity to write for the film. This was the Descombrimento do Brasil of 1938, music to a patriotic film commissioned by the Vargas regime, directed by Humberto Mauro. As heard in a version made up of four suites, conducted by the composer and recorded in the late 1950's, the music is very evocative of its epic theme: the history of Brazil. It is as jingoistic as Elgar, but often quite stirring.
Porto Seguro Getulio Vargas,
dictator of Brazil,
Portrait of Vargas

The stone commemorating the "discovery" of Brazil
by Portuguese explorers in 1500, at Porto Seguro,
in Bahia State

Green Mansions was an MGM film produced in 1959. Based on the novel by W.H.Hudson, the film was directed by Mel Ferrer, and starred Ferrer's wife Audrey Hepburn, along with Anthony Perkins, Lee J. Cobb and Henry Silva. The musical score was an adaptation of themes by Villa Lobos, undertaken by music director Bronislau Kaper.
VL & Tony PerkinsTony Perkins with Villa-Lobos
in Hollywood, 1959
[Museu Villa-Lobos]
The film is something close to a disaster, in spite of Audrey Hepburn as Hudson's mysterious bird-girl (dream casting) and the perfect choice of Villa-Lobos as composer. Maybe that's why it seems so bad: two such perfect components in what is otherwise ordinary MGM-in-decline movie-making. It was all, perhaps, just bad luck: how else to explain the performances of the oft-times brilliant Tony Perkins and the usually solid Lee J. Cobb (that beard!)

With the score, though, there was more than bad luck at work. The "adaptation" of Villa-Lobos' themes by Kaper was a kind of desecration which pained Villa-Lobos, who left Hollywood saddened and embittered as so many other great artists have done over the years. He salvaged from it a symphonic poem titled (for copyright reasons) "Forest of the Amazon," which has recently been recorded by Alfred Heller and the Moscow Radio and Symphony Orchestra. A recent review by William Zagorski of this recording in the March/April 1996 issue of Fanfare sheds some light on Villa Lobos' unfortunate experience in Hollywood.

Forest of the Amazon CD cover

Alfred Heller's CD of
Forest of the Amazon

In his autobiography, entitled Double Life, Miklos Rozsa tells the same story:
"I met him when he arrived in Hollywood, asked him whether he had yet seen the film, and how much time the were allowing him to write the music. He was going to see the picture tomorrow, he said, and the music was already completed. They had sent him a script, he told me, translated into Portuguese, and he had followed that, just as if he had been writing a ballet or opera. I was dumbfounded; apparently nobody had bothered to explain the basic techniques to him. 'But Maestro,' I said, 'what will happen if your music doesn't match the picture exactly?" Villa-Lobos was obviously talking to a complete idiot. 'In that case, of course, they will adjust the picture,' he replied. Well, they didn't. They paid him his fee and sent him back to Brazil. Bronislau Kaper, an experienced MGM staff composer, fitted his music to the picture as best he could." [source]

In an article entitled Morning Becomes Goldsmith on the excellent Film Score Monthly website, Jeff Bond quotes from a radio interview given by film composer Jerry Goldsmith to NPR's Chris Deritis:
"Asked about the technique of providing music to a film based on the script, Goldsmith recalled the time Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos was asked to score the film Green Mansions. Villa-Lobos was provided with the script, and later arrived in Hollywood to work on the picture with a completed score in hand. 'Of course, it didn't fit!' Goldsmith recalled. 'I remember the score was lying around at MGM for years and Andre Previn and I kept trying to think of a way that we could rip it off! I mean, he was a great composer, and it was a huge score.'" - Miklos Rozsa, Double life: the autobiography of Miklos Rozsa, London: Midas Books, 1982, p. 121. I found this quote in Royal S. Brown's marvellous book Overtones and undertones: reading film music, University of California Press, 1994, p. 47. Royal Brown's film music criticism can be enjoyed monthly in Fanfare magazine; he also provides the best film criticism since Pauline Kael retired from The New Yorker.

Besides the "Forest of the Amazon", Villa-Lobos also extracted from the Green Mansions score four beautiful songs - maybe his most beautiful. Listen to Roberta Alexander sing them on her recent CD, and you'll see what might have been in this film.

Check out the Internet Movie Database for more information on these films, or almost any other movie you can name.

The W. H. Hudson novel on which the movie is based is in the public domain. Its full text is available on the web thanks to Project Gutenburg. This is a lovely work that deserved more from Hollywood. The best plan: read the book and listen to Villa-Lobos' music.