Frankie (Gene Reynolds), a scruffy tyke from the streets of New York, steals tickets to a concert by celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz (playing himself), which rekindles his love of music. He subsequently runs away from home and happens across a music school for children (played by members of the Peter Meremblum California Youth Symphony Orchestra). Taken in by kindly Professor Lawson (Walter Brennan), who is impressed by Frankie’s musical ear, he resumes violin study while sleeping in the school basement. Despite the best efforts of Peter (Joel McCrea) and Ann (Andrea Leeds) to raise money, the school is about to be foreclosed upon by Flower (Porter Hall) and associates. The schoolchildren, led by Frankie, try to raise money themselves, and run across Heifetz in the process.
Once in awhile a movie fan is caught unawares and beguiled by a film they knew nothing about. So it happened to this writer ten years ago, when They Shall Have Music magically appeared on daytime TV and lingered long in the memory ever since. A pet project for legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn, it was clearly conceived as a classy combination of classical music, social message, and heart-warming melodrama. Yet, on closer inspection, isn’t too dissimilar from a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland picture (“Hey kids, let’s put on the show right here!”). Viewed a certain way it is earnest and sentimental, but it isn’t Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). Key elements lift this way above average. Firstly, Mayo brings authentic grit to the street scenes (cinematography by Greg Toland of Citizen Kane fame) and to Frankie’s miserable home life of abuse and neglect, which makes the music school appear even more like an idyllic haven. Frankie is no angel. We see him bully, cheat and steal his Heifetz tickets, but music offers redemption. Watch Reynolds’ face when he hears Heifetz play. His amazing, naturalistic performance conveys an epiphany, a moment of quiet joy realising there is beauty to be found in a seemingly heartless world. Reynolds’ conviction is what really sells us on Frankie’s journey. He went on to become a successful producer and director of TV shows like M*A*S*H and Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman.
Equally essential are performances from the gifted musicians of the California Youth Symphony Orchestra. They include little, piano-playing prodigy Diana Lynn (a.k.a. Dolly/Dolores Loehr) who died tragically young, and mellifluous soprano Gale Sherwood. Jascha Heifetz serves less as an actor than an iconic presence, his spellbinding musicianship the blazing sun around which these bright, young stars revolve. The Lithuanian-born virtuoso was one of the greatest classical musicians of all time, hugely respected and successful. His schedule was so busy his scenes had to be completed before the rest of the movie, and were directed by the great William Wyler (Roman Holiday (1953), The Big Country (1958)). The innocence and sincerity of his musical performances alongside the children lend weight to a message that might otherwise seem trite: music is food for the soul.