[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
“My stepmother and I used to go to these … spiritualistic meetings, and get messages from …”—a little hand gesture—”yonder. They went into trances and said that Liszt was standing in back of me.” The 73-year-old reminisces about her childhood in California: receiving piano lessons so that she’d stop biting her nails; finding gratification playing at her stepmother’s séances “because ladies would come up afterwards and hold me in their arms.'” Antonia Brico’s articulate recollections always link music to love, and this documentary, inspired by her former student Judy Collins and put together by Jill Godmilow, communicates from start to finish Antonia’s enormous capacity for both music and love. Her life as a conductor really began in 1930. A Movietone newsreel presents her as she performed Dvorak’s D minor symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. A montage of newspaper headlines then illustrates the immense critical success the “American girl” enjoyed—although we learn that security in success would never grace her career. Back in the United States, despite resistance on the part of the male-dominated musical establishment, Antonia recounts how she managed to conduct two concerts in New York. More rave reviews. But the third never occurred because the male soloist poutishly declared that he would never sing under a female’s direction. Only slightly daunted, Brico’s next claim to fame was the founding of the Brico Symphony Orchestra, the all-women enterprise that made headlines for a couple of years and sparked a raging, publicity-studded controversy between Brico and Jose Iturbi on the relative competence of men and women musicians. A silly but endearing animated entr’acte invades the screen: “The Great Kettledrum Contest of 1937,” a grueling cartoon duel between a barrel-chested maestro and a demure young maestra. Guess who outplays whom.