The Legend of 1900 (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

aka: La Leggenda del pianista sull'oceano

The "1900" of the title isn't a year, but a man, abandoned as a newborn on an ocean liner, raised by the crew, and named after the year he was born. He grows up to be a great pianist.

The other main character in the film is 1900's friend, a trumpet player who enters the picture in the mid twenties, and narrates the film in flashback through a framing device set around 1950. In the opening portion of the film, the trumpeter enters a hock shop, pawns his trumpet, and asks to play it one more time. When he does, the ancient shopkeeper pulls out his own broken but re-assembled phonograph record of the exact same song, except played on a piano. Since it was a song composed on the fly, heard by only a half dozen people, and never played again, that seems impossible.

How could it be? Who is playing the piano on the record? Those are the topics that comprise the yarn spun by the trumpeter for the shopkeeper.

1900 himself lived a most unusual life. He never left the ship. One might ask, "why not" until the details become apparent. 1900 has no identity, no country, no place of birth, no legal name. Those factors do not form the core of the story, however, because this is not a movie about bureaucracy. It is about the infinite scope of the modern world. For 1900, his entire universe consists of a few narrow corridors, a few hundred yards of existence. He can play his piano, sit at the bar, gaze at the sea, not much more. His choices are limited by the walls and rules of the ship. Once off the boat, his choices expand to infinite size, and that terrifies him.

It is no coincidence that the ocean-going vessel is the metaphor chosen for the story. They carried immigrants to America, and most of those immigrants faced the same choice as 1900. They could face their simple lives on their farms in Poland or Italy, where every day was like every other, or they could face the immensity of the vast unknown - beginning with an ocean voyage to America, not knowing what would happen to them when they arrived, an infinity of prospects good and bad. If you are an American, the odds are that your grandfather or great grandfather faced this same choice. My grandfathers' farm lives expanded no farther than the dimensions of 1900's ship. They gave up their predictable lives, devoid of highs or lows, in order to face unlimited possibilities for relocation, jobs, success, failure, happiness, and despair. It was about the turn of the century that most of these immigrants came to America, and on their strong shoulders America grew from its 19th century avatar to its 20th, from a grade-b version of England with a mediocre economy struggling to reach the level of the top European powers, all the way to the economic and military superpower of the post war era. That happened because our great grandfathers stepped off the boat and took a chance.

It is also no coincidence that his name is 1900 - the magical dividing line between the century of limits and the century of the unlimited. Standing on that gangplank, deciding whether to leave the 19th century and join the 20th, he is our grandparents, and his story is theirs.


none in the 123 minute version. I haven't seen the longer cut, which is supposed to have bare breasts in it somewhere.

Some people criticized the film for historical inaccuracies ranging from anachronistic technology to incorrect portrayals of real historical figures. Others criticized it for hammy acting, syrupy dialogue, and scenes that could not have happened in a world governed by natural law. There is some truth in all of that, but not much substance. The story is a big old fairy tale, and the characters are as much symbolic as real. I liked some of the games it played with reality. In my opinion, the best two scenes in the film are two piano concerts which are not connected to reality.

  • In the first, 1900 plays the piano on the ship in a violent storm, after removing the brakes that secure it to the ground. Rather than lurching around destructively, the piano dances around the grand ballroom in its own angelic waltz, circling elegantly for some time before careening down a corridor and into .... well, you need to see that for yourself. The scene reminded me a bit of Terry Gilliam's famous waltz in Grand Central Station.
  • In the other, 1900 plays against the legendary Jelly Roll Morton in a jazz-off, and wins by playing so fast that he increases the heat of the piano enough to light a cigarette off it.

The film has plenty of real flaws. Some examples:

  • The trumpet player did some pretty bad acting in a couple of scenes where he did a Chris Farley impersonation. In fact, he did a great Farley, but it seemed grotesquely out of place in this otherwise elegant film.
  • We didn't really get to know the characters at all, not even 1900.
  • Some of the miniatures are cheesy and obvious. That was all minor in the big picture, however, because of the kind of picture it was. As I said, it's a fairy tale. You have to believe that a piano can catch fire from the heat of fiery playing. If you don't believe, head back to Kansas with Toto.
  • It reached unsuccessfully for profundity in a final scene which was boring and unnecessary.

Viewing it from a wider perspective, the only important thing that I objected to was the pacing. It was originally 160 minutes, trimmed to 123 for the North American release, and it still felt too long to me. Having said that however, let me hasten to add that I greatly regret that the DVD has the truncated version, and I will buy the 160 minute version if it ever comes out on DVD. (Especially since the longer version is said to have some nudity). I just don't see the point in placing the shorter version on the DVD, given the medium's capabilities, and the absence of other meaningful features on this disk.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1

  • looks great

I watched it with Elya. She said, "this film looks and sounds beautiful, but what is the point?" I guess the point is that beauty is truth, or at least it can be your truth in certain circumstances, if you allow it to be. I didn't always like the film. It has moments of sappy, mawkish emotionalism, and moments that just don't work. But when I liked it, I was just crazy about it, sitting transfixed with a warm heart and a big smile on my face. And that feeling is worth repeated viewings. I've already forced everyone around me to watch the piano dance around the ballroom in the storm. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 76/100, 3.5/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.3/10, Apollo users 82/100
  • with their dollars: it never reached more than 9 screens in the USA. Grosses were negligible (about a quarter of a million dollars).
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. An often dazzling musical fairy tale, and a gentle allegory about the 20th century.

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