Musicals or Films about Music? THE GREAT CARUSO, SERENADE and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN

12 Feb

Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.

In each film, the star sings arias from operas to people in everyday settings. Opera is not something restricted to highbrows here, but is loved and appreciated by all classes of people. In IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN, the lead characters, played by Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, have a date at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn and when a piece of music from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” comes on the radio in the restaurant’s backyard patio, Sinatra and Grayson sing along with it, a duet called “La ci darem la mano,” much to the enjoyment of the restaurant manager and the other patrons.

In an early scene in THE GREAT CARUSO, Caruso is a mill worker delivering flour to a pizzeria in Naples when he runs into an old friend of his at the restaurant piano and he asks him to play a number and Caruso sings an opera song (which I can’t identify) to the restaurant diners. Later on in the film, having made his successful New York debut, he comes outside and faces a crowd of adoring New Yorkers who were unable to get into the sold-out concert so he sings to them on the street outside the stage door.

In SERENADE, Lanza’s character, Damon Vincenti, is a vineyard worker in California who leaves for an audition in San Francisco, but first stops to sing an aria (which I can’t identify) to the other workers. Later, after a period of dissipation after having been jilted by his socialite patron (Joan Fontaine) and subsequent rejuvenation in Mexico with the help of a bullfighter’s daughter, he leaves the villagers of San Miguel Allende who have nursed him back to health and shares the title song with them, nothing from an opera but written for the film with an operatic feel by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn.

While in the Mexican village, Vincenti visits a cathedral with the bullfighter’s daughter, Juana Montes (Sarita Montiel), whom he will later marry, and after despairing of ever being able to sing again, he kneels at an altar with only a handful of other worshippers nearby and begins singing “Ave Maria,” finally realizing he’s gotten back his voice, signaling to the viewer his reawakening after a dark period of emotional crisis. Imagine how you would feel if you’d stopped into a cathedral for private prayer and meditation or to experience God in some direct way and you’re suddenly blessed with the spectacle of Mario Lanza singing Schubert. What a gift that would be.

The protagonists in these films love music and are devoted to it and are most alive when performing it. They all come from humble roots as well. The great strength of THE GREAT CARUSO is that while it offers a simplified and glossed-over biography of Caruso, birth to death, it puts its greatest emphasis on the music Caruso performed, giving the audience excerpts from over two dozen operas. It’s virtually a crash course in opera, which makes me wonder why no one ever showed this film to us in school. SERENADE offers eight excerpts, as well as other classical songs and a couple of newly written popular songs as well.

In IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN, Kathryn Grayson plays a music teacher at New Utrecht High School and nurtures some genuine talents among her students. One is a piano prodigy seeking to get a scholarship to an exclusive music school but thwarted by an age requirement that he’s a couple of months shy of achieving. Without the scholarship, he will have to give up the idea of continuing his musical education after high school and have to help his single immigrant mother keep up a struggling shop. Sinatra is a recently returned war vet living in the school’s basement with the janitor, played by Jimmy Durante, and he and Grayson come up with the idea of staging a concert by the student and inviting the board members of the foundation offering the scholarship.

Sinatra works as a “song plugger” at a shop in Brooklyn that sells sheet music so he has ample opportunity to perform songs there. He and Durante do a rousing duet of “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart” to the delight of the neighborhood bobby soxers. Later, Sinatra sings a slower song, “It’s the Same Old Dream,” only to be upstaged by a group of young customers (actually a male-female quintet called the Starlighters), who launch into a swing version of it.

One night while checking on the school gym, Sinatra and Durante come across a student seeking space for a private workout and the three of them launch into an impromptu number called “I Believe,” in which the student dazzles us with singing, tap dancing and gymnastics as he uses the gym’s exercise tools to swing, leap, slide and somersault. It’s an amazing performance and I was disappointed to learn upon consulting IMDB that this was the only film credit for the young performer, Bobby Long. No one seems to know what happened to him.

All of this came the same month I saw LA LA LAND, a new Hollywood musical that got 14 Oscar nominations and seems poised to win Best Picture. The two stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, sing and dance a lot in the film and are about as good as any two actors not known for their musical abilities who get several weeks of rehearsal time before shooting their numbers. The idea is that these are ordinary people, an aspiring jazz musician and an aspiring actress, who get to sing and dance to act out their courtship. It was apparently a selling point that neither of the stars was particularly talented musically or terpsichoreally.

In addition, Gosling’s character is a jazz pianist who grates at having to play what the customers want in the musical gigs we see him getting and is eager to play the more dissonant “pure” jazz he’s trying to perfect. He gets fired from one club gig for breaking away from the program not long before closing time to perform one of his own numbers. I didn’t blame the club owner for firing an employee who doesn’t do what he’s paid to do. Nor did I blame the clubgoers for walking out when he started playing his “pure” jazz. It simply wasn’t that interesting, to me at least. Nor were the songs that Gosling and Stone performed together. The musical numbers seemed like an affectation, something a screenwriter came up with to add some novelty to a standard making-it-in-L.A. story. None of this would have bothered me as much if this had been, say, a TV show that was trying to experiment with the form, or perhaps an indie arthouse film on a much smaller scale which seeks to get into these characters’ heads and reveal an intense personal connection with their art, but on the big multiplex screen I would like a little more musical talent on the part of the leads and some music and songs that were actually pleasing. As an audience member, I’d like to be part of the equation and I didn’t feel that with this film. Like the couple in LA LA LAND, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang and danced for themselves as part of their courtship ritual, but their numbers were designed as spectacles for the audience.

Of course, many people have defended the film’s approach and showered praise on it, so it’s quite possible I completely missed the point of it all. Here are some comments in a thread on the film from one forum in response to a critical post about the film:

“The entire point of the movie is that they’re not amazing talents. She can act and he’s a musician but it’s a long shot that they’re going to make it.”

“This is correct. If you watch interviews with Chazelle, this is what he was going for. They aren’t supposed to be Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.”

“It was a similar argument for Renee Zellweger in Chicago, competent but not fantastic, as that’s the character itself (a fantastic one wouldn’t need murder to push them to the top).”

“I thought they were great. I don’t think anyone needs to master singing or dancing to be good at either. They were good for what Chazelle wanted in terms of character. I would have hated it any other way if it didn’t play to what their characters were.”

Maybe I’m just too spoiled from all those MGM musicals where “ordinary people” were played by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and the music they performed was something everyone wanted to hear. In IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN, Sinatra and Grayson’s characters aspire to musical careers of their own and nurture ambitions of getting out of Brooklyn, but it’s not the focus of the plot. The job at hand requires helping someone else achieve their musical dream. In fact, the characters’ romantic inclinations, as complicated as they start to get when Sinatra’s English friend from the war, Peter Lawford, arrives from overseas and a romantic triangle forms, generally take a back seat to all the musical action and when Sinatra finally realizes that Grayson doesn’t love him back, he’s quite gracious about it. It’s not all about him. Granted, once Sinatra became a big dramatic star a few years later, that all changed, but in the film’s 1947 Brooklyn, we see him under the influence of his better angels.

I had never seen a complete Mario Lanza film before January 31, when TCM ran a full day of Lanza films to celebrate what would have been the singer’s 96th birthday. Even if you’re not a fan of melodramas or Hollywood biopics, you can still enjoy Lanza’s magnificent singing and the inclusion of so much wonderful music from some of the world’s greatest operas. I was so busy writing down my reactions to the two films I saw that I didn’t get to catch the other Lanza films playing that day. I did catch a few scenes of SEVEN HILLS OF ROME (1957), which struck me as more of a piece of romantic comedy fluff, like an Elvis Presley musical from the 1960s, but with Lanza instead of Presley and extensive location shooting in Rome, something Presley would never have done. Not a bad thing, in my book, and I hope to catch it in its entirety the next time it’s on. His co-star in it is Peggie Castle, pictured below, a particular favorite of mine.

One final note about IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN: When Sinatra first returns to the U.S. after war service in England, he goes right to the Brooklyn Bridge and sings a song called, “The Brooklyn Bridge,” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. Except that it’s the real Brooklyn Bridge and not a studio mockup or rear screen projection. And Sinatra is there on the actual Brooklyn Bridge singing. This may have been the first MGM musical to feature a song performed on location far from Hollywood. I was absolutely stunned because I’d always thought that ON THE TOWN, made two years later, did it first. The opening number from that film, “New York, New York,” was shot on location in New York—in Technicolor–with its three principals, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin and, again, Sinatra, including a trip to the Brooklyn Bridge, and that sequence would be praised by critics for the next seven decades. Yet I never read a word about the scene from IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN.

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