Retro Cinema: "The Great Mr. Handel" (1942)

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Norman Walker’s 1942 “The Great Mr. Handel” is fairly curious, since it is a wartime British production with a German hero. In this case, George Frideric Handel, who emigrated to London in order to establish a career as a composer. Even more curious is the prime plot device of the film: how a member of the royal family went out of its way to destroy Handel.

As presented here, Frederick, the Prince of Wales (the son of George II and father of George III – he never reigned as king) conspired to drive Handel to financial ruin. Acknowledging Handel’s displeasure over his boorish running commentary during a performance of the composer’s works, the prince makes it clear that he will avoid any setting where Handel’s music is being played. The lack of royal patronage, coupled with intentional disruptions of Handel’s theatrical stagings by paid hooligans, sinks the composer deep into debt, which causes his health to decline dramatically.

What could possibly redeem the physically and financially wrecked Handel? Why, nothing less than the great redeemer Himself – the composition of the oratorio “Messiah,” which not only stirs Handel back into full-throttle creative genius, but also brings out King George II to the London premiere – along with a visibly disgruntled Prince of Wales, who is forced to behave during the extraordinary concert that ends with the king leading the standing ovation.

Whatever historic value may be in this story is diluted by some of the most ridiculous acting captured on camera. Wilfrid Lawson’s Handel bears a vaguely dyspeptic expression whether facing joy, pain, inspiration or confusion. His dull central performance is surrounded by a host of one-note caricatures: Elizabeth Allan as the beautiful actress/singer who finds no problems with the old German grump, Hay Petrie as the diminutive comic relief Scottish valet who happily works without getting paid, Max Kirby as the excessively foppish prince, and a host of unidentified extras who bow and curtsy while chiming “Ow, ‘ere’s Mr. 'andel” whenever the composer walks by.

As for the creation of “Messiah,” the film imagines Handel sitting at his desk while a silhouette pantomime of the Sermon on the Mount is performed in his window. The actual performance of the piece is truncated, with only a glimpse of Allan singing in close-up and Lawson playing what appears to be the harpsichord – clearly, the low budget film could not afford a symphony or a full chorus.

Mr. Handel was certainly great, but this biopic is certainly not.

“The Great Mr. Handel”
1942, Not rated, 89 minutes
Directed by Norman Walker, starring Wilfrid Lawson

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