BOOTLEG FILES 202: “Song of Norway” (1970 musical starring Florence Henderson).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this title.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Briefly available on VHS in the 1990s.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: When you see the film, you’ll understand.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is possible (God help us).
Dear film lover, did you ever pause to ask yourself this perplexing question: How come we’ve never seen movies starring Florence Henderson? Her dynamic personality and versatile talent made her a small screen staple for decades – but why can’t we look up to her in the darkness of a theater and become enveloped in a big screen edition?
Well, the answer to that Zen-worthy riddle can be summarized in three words: “Song of Norway.”
Of course, that may raise another question: What the hell is “Song of Norway”? Well, here is the story of why Florence Henderson is selling denture cream on TV and not elbowing Meryl Streep out of the way for meaty movie roles.
In the mid-1960s, Hollywood was caught off-guard by the monster commercial success of “The Sound of Music.” In the midst of an era permeated by counterculture rebellion, that charming old-fashioned musical shocked everyone by toppling “Gone with the Wind” as the all-time box office champion of the world. Hoping to duplicate the money generated by “The Sound of Music,” the studios decided that big-budget musicals were the route to travel.
However, lightning didn’t strike twice. While a few musicals enjoyed commercial success, most notably “Oliver!” and “Funny Girl,” the majority of the films were box office flops. Some of these films were actually entertaining – “Camelot,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Paint Your Wagon” come to mind – but they ran so far over budget that they were unable to recoup their costs. But there were also bloated buzzards like “Half a Sixpence,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Sweet Charity,” “Star!” and “Darling Lili” that charmed nobody and gave musicals a bad name.
But then there was “Song of Norway.” Actually, the film was curious for two reasons: it was not produced by a major studio, but by the theatrical production division of ABC Television. And it didn’t offer a toe-tapping Broadway-worthy score, but instead presented a weird English-language bastardization of the classical music of 19th century composer Edvard Grieg.
“Song of Norway” was also the unlikeliest of movie sources: a 1944 stage show originally presented by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association, complete with ballets by George Balanchine. “Song of Norway” kicked around Grieg’s biography until it was unrecognizable and reorchestrated his music with bizarre and clumsy new lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Incredibly, it wound up on Broadway and later earned a trivia niche as the first American musical to open in London after World War II.
Wright and Forrest would repeat their success by hijacking Borodin’s classical music with new show tune lyrics in the production of “Kismet.” “Song of Norway” was quickly forgotten after it closed and would probably had remained obscure had it not been dusted off amidst the 1960s rush to make movie musicals.
In keeping with the notion that “Song of Norway” is the story of the most prominent Norwegian composer of all time, it was decided to cast a local actor in the lead role. Thus, one Toralv Maurstad was recruited to play Grieg, who spends most of the film’s 138 minutes in a Sisyphean effort to invent a national musical sound for his fellow Norwegians. While the 44-year-old actor was clearly too old to play the idealistic young composer, he nonetheless presented a fine singing voice and a decent screen presence. This was mirrored by an American singer, Frank Porretta, who offered a handsome face and fine voice while playing Grieg’s artistic collaborator and best friend, Rikard Nordraak.
Since neither actor had any box office cred, the film’s producers tried to spice the movie with recognizable stars. Robert Morley, Oscar Homolka, Harry Secombe and (astonishingly) Edward G. Robinson were recruited for smaller guest roles. But the crowning coup was the film’s leading lady: Florence Henderson. Newly-minted as the star of TV’s “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson found herself with the once-in-a-lifetime chance to outshine Julie Andrews in all of the glory of Super Panavision 70mm and six-channel stereophonic sound.
So what went wrong? For starters, director Andrew L. Stone clearly tried to emulate Robert Wise’s imaginative Austrian-based location shots in “The Sound of Music” by staging much of “Song of Norway” on location amidst the mountains, lakes and villages of the Scandinavian kingdom. And, in fairness, the film offers stunningly beautiful travelogue-worthy cinematography that shows Norway at its finest.
However, “Song of Norway” was burdened with 25 songs, and inevitably it becomes exhausting when people keep breaking into impassioned warbling and frenetic hoofing every few minutes. No location was safe from the songs: a hayride, a ferry ride, a snowball fight, and a chase down winding village streets inevitably turns into cause for belting out a tune or two. Norway was turned from a glorious land of beauty to an inane song-and-dance stage.
And 25 songs are not the same as 25 good songs. The music in “Song of Norway” is among the worst ever put on a soundtrack. Grieg didn’t write show tunes, nor did he ever imagine people would be singing hackneyed versions of his classical compositions while throwing snowballs at each other. With tunes like “Freddie and His Fiddle,” “The Life of a Wife of a Sailor,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the appropriately titled “Strange Music,” the film assaults the viewer with the oddest mishmash imaginable.
At one point, the film goes off into a fairy tale sequence featuring the cheapest animation imaginable – with Grieg’s triumphant music used to prop up a bunch of cartoon trolls galumphing around a fjord.
Then there is Florence Henderson. Yes, she can sing – and despite the sheer awfulness of the score, she acquits herself nicely with her pleasant soprano voice. However, the challenges of her “Song of Norway” role (she plays Grieg’s supportive but often concerned wife) were far beyond her abilities. Whatever charm and pleasantness she could offer for the sale of cooking oil and denture cream was nowhere to be found here. Watching Edward G. Robinson acting next to Florence Henderson is the most astonishing sight imaginable, since rarely will you find one of cinema’s greatest performers sharing screen time with one of cinema’s worst performers.
“Song of Norway” was cruelly attacked by the critics. Pauline Kael’s New Yorker barbecue was the most articulate: “The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichés you didn’t know you knew – they’re practically from the unconscious of moviegoers”
However, I prefer Vincent Canby’s New York Times smack: “The film, conceived as a kind of living postcard, is so full of waterfalls, blossoms, lambs, glaciers, folk dancers, mountains, children, suns, fjords and churches, that, it raises kitsch to the status of a kind of art, not without its own peculiar integrity and crazy fascination.”
Cinerama Releasing picked up the distribution rights and put the film out on a road show release, but poor reviews and weak word-of-mouth made a mess of that strategy. The film’s commercial failure was swift and its leading actors suffered the most: Toralv Maurstad never made another American movie, Frank Porretta never made another film at all, and Florence Henderson was never trusted to appear in a movie until her cameo role in 1992’s “Shakes the Clown.”
“Song of Norway” turned up on VHS video in the 1990s courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, but there has yet to be a commercial DVD release. Bootlegs of the film are easy to find, but they are full-screen pan-and-scan versions and not letterboxed widescreen editions.
Florence Henderson fans notwithstanding, there has been no great demand to see “Song of Norway” on DVD. And in the event you should ever find yourself in a venue where this old turkey is playing, make every effort possible to sing and dance your way through the nearest exit.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on October 12, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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