Recently I have been receiving emails from diverse parts of the globe, inquiring about the recordings my father made for the cartoons. So far as I know, he made only two, "Rhapsody Rabbit" for Warner Brothers, and "Johann Mouse" for MGM. The film credits for "Rhapsody Rabbit" (Bugs Bunny in tails performing Lizst's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody over, under and around an interloping mouse) did not include my father. This was at his own request, because at that early stage of his American career, he did not wish to become known as "the guy who played the piano for Bugs Bunny."
Nevertheless, my father's collaboration is documented, I believe, in Joe Adamson's fine book, "50 Years and only One Gray Hare," (New York, Henry Holt, 1990), and is confirmed by my father's daybook, which lists, for Thursday, January 31, 1946, at 8:00 AM: "Warner Bros. - 2nd Rhapsody for cartoon." The playing is also clearly recognizable to me as my father's, notwithstanding the many comedic interruptions and distortions of tempo.
The Academy Award-winning cartoon "Johann Mouse" was made in 1952 and correctly credits my father as the pianist and composer of the musical arrangements.
There was also a third cartoon which has sometimes been attributed to my father and has been the subject of several inquiries. This is an MGM cartoon called "Cat Concerto," featuring Tom & Jerry in roles virtually identical to those of Bugs and the unnamed mouse in "Rhapsody Rabbit." In "Cat Concerto," Tom appears as a concert pianist performing the same Second Hungarian Rhapsody heard in "Rhapsody Rabbit!"
According to information available on the internet, both "Cat Concerto" and "Rhapsody Rabbit" came out in the same year, 1946, and their screening at the Academy was marred by scandal and reciprocal accusations of plagiarism. The award for Best Short Subject went to "Cat Concerto," although many felt that "Rhapsody Rabbit" was the better cartoon. Like my father in "Rhapsody Rabbit," the pianist in "Cat Concerto" performed incognito, and, so far as I know, his true identity remains either unknown or undisclosed to this day.
I believe that I am able to solve the mystery.
First of all, in comparing the two versions of the Rhapsody, an experienced musical ear will immediately recognize that they are not at all alike. The most obvious differences are at the beginning and end. Bugs's Rhapsody begins with a galvanizing burst of dramatic energy, whereas Tom's opening chords are sombre and slow - very slow - an eccentric tempo my father would never have chosen. The fiendish octave passage at the end of Tom's recital is played in single octaves and with phenomenal speed and accuracy. In "Rhapsody Rabbit," my father executes the same passage in thundering double octaves - less difficult, but much more effective. In addition, there are many signature nuances throughout my father's performance that are missing from the "Cat Concerto" version. Furthermore, while my father had a fabulous technique, simple octaves were not his special "forte," and he would never have recorded the ending of the 2nd Rhapsody in simple octaves.
Don't misunderstand me. Both pianists are terrific, and share certain stylistic traits in common; but, clearly, they are not one and the same. When I first heard "Cat Concerto," I thought of Shura Cherkassky, a great pianist with a phenomenal technique, whose playing was comparable in some respects to my father, though - when it comes to the classical/romantic repertory - somewhat less refined in musicianship and musical taste. Wondering if I could compare "Cat Concerto" with an actual Cherkassky recording of the 2nd Rhapsody, I phoned a dear friend of mine in British Columbia who happens to be a devoted collector of Cherkassky recordings. I am speaking of the poet Alexander Forbes (whose delightful Rumours of Bees I was privileged to publish on my Red Heifer Press - see www.redheiferpress.com). My friendship with Alex Forbes is a family heirloom: his father, Charles Forbes, a pupil of Egon Petri, was a gifted pianist and a great admirer and close friend of both my father and Cherkassky. Forbes-the-son played Cherkassky's beautiful 1985 recording of the 2nd Rhapsody for me over the phone. Notwithstanding the 39 years intervening between the earlier and later recordings, the resemblance to the "Cat Concerto" was quite compelling - from the eccentrically slow introductory chords to the concluding single octaves. At 76, Cherkassky didn't play octaves as fast or as brilliantly as he played them in 1946, but they were still fluent and easy. Alex Forbes then listened to a downloaded version of "Cat Concerto," and concurs with me that the pianist is "without a doubt" Shura Cherkassky.
The hypothesis of Cherkassky as the mystery pianist of "Cat Concerto" fits more than musically. There is a more serious aspect to the puzzle: indeed, it appears that neither MGM nor Warner was ever able to completely purge itself of the taint of plagiarism - although Warner Brothers (once again, according to information available on the internet), put on the defensive, allegedly floated the story that their film processing lab sent the prints of "Rhapsody Rabbit" to MGM by mistake. For its part, MGM was reported to have insisted that it had been working independently on the same idea all along.
Personally, I don't believe either version. If it were true that Technicolor sent the prints to the wrong studio, the last thing MGM would have done would have been to try to produce such an obvious copy from scratch. Conversely, the happenstance of two major competing studios in the same city each independently working on exactly the same idea with no leaks involved simply challenges belief. Clearly, there was a leak - just enough of a leak to get extraneous persons interested in the idea, but not enough of a leak to frighten them off. Here is what I think really happened:
Cherkassky, as I mentioned, was very friendly with my parents during the early '40s. According to my parents, he was a charming and amusing man, and, they were often together for meals, parties and outings. There was a friendly rivalry between the two pianists, each vying to outdo the other at the piano. The young Cherkassky had one unfortunate flaw, however, which eventually ended the relationship: he was an inveterate prankster, and it was a defect that affected more than his sense of humor. There are various stories about Cherkassky's antics, but I have three on excellent authority.
Alex Forbes tells me that Cherkassky used to pass by his (Alex's) father's business from time to time and borrow 50 cents or so for "gas money." This continued for a considerable period. To pay back the mounting tab, Cherkassky finally invited Forbes to a sumptuous luncheon at the Brown Derby (a famous Hollywood restaurant, no longer extant). "Order whatever you like. My treat." A treat it was, and it included a very fine bottle of wine; but when the the waiter brought the bill, Cherkassky charged it all to the account of Josef Hoffman - the famous pianist - Cherkassky's teacher and a celebrated patron of the Brown Derby!
On another occasion, tells Alex Forbes, his parents were at a party with Cherkassky at my parents' home. There were several guests, and, the evening being warm, jackets and neckties were deposited in the bedroom. Late that night, as the Forbeses were walking back to their car with Cherkassky, the latter drew a bunch of neckties from his coat pocket and showed them to Charles. "Where did you get those?" asked Forbes, in surprise. "From the Gimpels' bedroom," came the nonchalant reply.
According to my mother, what ended their friendship with Cherkassky was the following. There had been a series of prank phonecalls of unknown origin to my parents' home, and my mother and father were quite concerned. One evening during a party, my mother happened to observe Cherkassky in the hallway dialing random numbers on the telephone. The next time she got a prank call, she said into the receiver, "Shura, I know it's you. Stop it, or I'll tell the police." The calls stopped.
In light of the foregoing, I think it is safe to conjecture that somehow word got back to Cherkassky that my father was recording the Liszt Rhapsody for Warner Brothers. Possibly, my father or some other colleague mentioned it to him in confidence, or, just as possibly, Warner had initially approached Cherkassky to do the job and the deal had not gone through. One way or another, I suspect that Cherkassky, cackling with glee, visited his contacts at MGM (all the great Los Angeles musicians recorded for the studios) and casually let fall, "Hey, you know what? I had this great idea for a Tom & Jerry cartoon . . . !"
I can almost hear the reaction. "Wonderful! Let's do it! And why don't you record the piano part?"
If my conjecture is correct, then it is true, after all, that MGM had no inkling that Warner Brothers had been working on this very same idea, or indeed that Warner was the source of Cherkassky's suggestion. Had they known, they would never have expended the resources to produce a film that was bound to draw them into a very ugly controversy. For its part, Warner might have had its suspicions, but, as always with leaks, there was very little they could do about it.
Ultimately, of course, the joke was on Cherkassky. He must have been bursting to tell everybody that he was the mystery pianist of the Academy-Award-winning "Cat Concerto!" Ironically, he couldn't allow himself to do that, for if the truth got out, it could have seriously damaged his reputation and career. How that must have hurt! Even more ironic is the fact that sixty years after the event, Cherkassky's performance is still being attributed to my father!
In closing, it is worth noting that my parents attended a recital of Cherkassky's in Los Angeles some time, I believe, during the early '80s. They went backstage to congratulate the artist after what they said was a marvellous performance. From what I heard, it was a genuinely joyous reunion, and a rather emotional one, after so many years.
Postscript: A Curious Twist
January 22, 2011
I was recently informed by an unimpeachable source that the MGM Archives contains documentation that the pianist who recorded Liszt's Rhapsody No. 2 for MGM's "Cat Concerto" was John Crown, a virtuoso pianist from South Africa, I believe, who for many years headed USC's piano department.
Why, then, have I not scrapped my theory and replaced the above essay with a brief note as per the foregoing paragraph?
Because nearly everything I wrote about Cherkassky could apply to John Crown as well. All three were social friends, all three were rivals, and all three were brilliant technicians. On the other hand, I never heard John Crown described as a prankster, and it is hard to imagine him sneaking over to MGM out of sheer competitive malice. The exploit was obviously meant as a joke, and it has Cherkassky's fingerprints all over it. Whether Crown was in on it is simply too deep to speculate.
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