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20th Century Guitar
Rara Avis -- 1924 Gibson A-2Z Mandolin

October 1998
by Bianca Soros

Link to 20th Century Guitar Magazine

he Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton, is an epic film classic, intertwining the bittersweet elements of family, romance, honor, and justice to examine the spirit of human experience. Voted the third best film of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI), following Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942), The Godfather was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay.

    One of the film's pivotal scenes is the wedding night of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his wife, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). On the lam from his enemies, Michael experiences a fleeting moment of romantic perfection with Apollonia days before she will be tragically murdered. From scenes 76 and 77 of Mario Puzo and Coppola's screenplay, we learn that Michael is truly in love with his virgin bride.

   As Michael opens the shutters to the darkened boudoir, moonlight fills the room. He turns to see Apollonia standing there in her wedding slip, looking a little frightened but lovely. Michael moves towards Apollonia and for a moment just stands before her, adoring her beautiful face, hair, and body. Slowly and tenderly, he kisses her. Her tiny hands reach up to his face to touch his cheek, and she embraces him, letting her slip fall to the floor. In the following scene, Michael is sitting on the window ledge, gazing into the room. Apollonia is asleep-naked and only partially covered by the bedsheets. Michael admires her as she lies in the early morning light.

    These passionate scenes are accompanied by the dulcet tones of a mandolin-Al Viola playing a stirring rendition of Nino Rota's Godfather theme using his 1924 Gibson A-2Z "snakehead" mandolin. This melody is echoed throughout the film, performed on different instruments to create the appropriate mood to complement the scene.

Al Viola was a top-notch studio musician in Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1970s. Some of the soundtracks he recorded include A Song is Born (1948), West Side Story (1961), and The Wild Bunch (1969). He also performed in popular bands and orchestras such as the Page Cavanaugh Trio and accompanied artists like Frank Sinatra.

    The "snakehead" A-2Z mandolin, co-designed by visionary entrepreneur Lloyd Loar, was introduced to the public in the 1923 Gibson catalog N. According to dealer/collector John Bernunzio of Bernunzio Vintage Instruments in Rochester, New York, the A-2Z "is the best mandolin Gibson made from A to Z." Bernunzio states that the blackface version is extremely rare, and he has only seen one example in 25 years. Viola chose to use the A-2Z mandolin over a Gibson Master Model F-5 for its sweet, melancholy tone, in part attributed to the instrument's round sound hole. Viola used the same instrument to play the theme to Dr. Zhivago (1965), chosen by AFI as the 39th best film of all time. Viola kept this mandolin until he retired in the Nineties, when he sold this historic instrument to collector/dealer Norm Harris of Norm's Rare Guitars in Reseda, California. Apparently, Norm made Viola an offer he couldn't refuse.End