Saturday, March 16, 2013


There is no earthly superlative to summarize the exceptional power and force of nature that was Mario Lanza’s singing voice. That vocal strength belied his diminutive 5 ft. 7 inch frame and when he sang either operatic arias or pop tunes expressly written for the movies his fans did more than swoon; they stood spellbound in awe and admiration. Much has been written about Lanza – the man and the entertainer – born Alfred ‘Freddie’ Arnold Cocozza; his infrequent womanizing, quite incongruous when discussed alongside his obvious devotion to his family; his bouts of paralytic depression and self-loathing that manifested itself through chronic binge eating and drinking; his occasionally angry determination to triumph – perhaps misconstrued as vanity - that often infuriated costars and directors alike. Yet like all truly unique and divinely inspired talents, Mario Lanza’s was born of a desperate need and a fervent desire to succeed in spite of himself; his own happiness tapped by a crippling fear that he was never as good as he hoped to become.
Muscular and devilishly attractive, Lanza is often referred to as an opera star – a curiosity since he never actually sang an opera in its entirety either on the stage or in films. His idol was the late Enrico Caruso; then widely considered the definitive voice of twentieth century opera. And while Lanza dreamed of a career as illustrious as Caruso’s he arguably achieved a more enduring immortality by succumbing to the allure of the movies. Indeed, more than any other film star – then or now - Mario Lanza popularized grand opera for the masses. In his day the critics infrequently scoffed at his efforts as a bastardization of the highbrow. But Lanza effectively made the long-haired trendy and chic; the trickle-down effect emanating from juke boxes all across America throughout the 1950s.
It helped that Lanza was a very handsome man. Opera stars – particularly the men – were usually heavy-set, gray haired and jowled, like Lauritz Melchior, or stiff platonic creatures that only came to life when they sang (Nelson Eddy comes to mind). But Lanza burst forth onto the screen as a natural, very enigmatic even when he spoke. Moreover, he embodied a vital Mediterranean swarthiness that made him an overnight pinup with the bobbysoxer set. Always on the lookout for the next great talent, L.B. Mayer immediately signed Lanza to a contract after hearing him sing; a seemingly obvious decision in retrospect, but one fraught with the possibilities of great failure at the time. For opera on film had never been a winner despite some formidable talents having tried to resurrect it throughout the 1940s. Also, by 1949 – the year of Lanza’s movie debut – the musical’s popularity had already begun to cool. Though movie musicals would remain a staple of the industry throughout the 1950s and early 60s – particularly at MGM - they were hardly the guaranteed cash cows they had once been.
More than anything else L.B. Mayer relished his abilities as a star maker. Thus, Mario Lanza would become a star if it killed him. The die had been cast. In the years following Lanza’s untimely death at the age of 38 from a pulmonary embolism rumors abounded that the studio’s intense demands on him to maintain a healthy weight were to blame. While it is nevertheless true that MGM enforced a crash diet on their superstar to bring his girth in line with his costumes, it is also a fact that Lanza suffered from chronic and gluttonous binge eating and an unhealthy consumption of alcohol. The star abused his body between movies, the toll of which began to show on him almost from the moment he passed through MGM’s hallowed front gates.
Today, so many years after his passing, Mario Lanza remains one of the most easily identifiable and readily revered operatic talents and the endurance in that legacy could hardly have been sustained without his movie appearances. Many who came to appreciate opera for the first time were introduced to it by Lanza’s unusually rich vocalizations in these MGM movies; and many more by his infrequent appearances on television variety programs. Yet, to discover Lanza as a refined romantic/comedy actor is something of a revelation, for he came to the movies almost by accident and without the benefit of a lengthy gestation to hone his acting craft. Still, under MGM’s crash course and expert tutelage, Mario Lanza emerged as one of the studio’s last formidable creations: a cocky, fresh upstart with a twinkling eye and charismatic screen presence. Two of the movies that illustrate Lanza at his best are now available as a double feature from Warner Home Video: That Midnight Kiss (1949) and its immediate follow-up, The Toast of New Orleans (1950).
In the annals of MGM’s great movie musicals Norman Taurog’s That Midnight Kiss is a blissfully obtuse pastiche from producer Joseph Pasternak, whose amiable blending of classical music and contemporary pop tunes rarely missed its mark. Lanza is cast as Johnny Donnetti, a breezy fellow who tunes pianos and drives a truck for a living. This carefree existence clashes with the more ambitious pursuits of Prudence Budell (MGM’s formidable soprano, Kathryn Grayson). After tuning Prudence’s piano Johnny begins a rocky courtship with the young Philadelphia opera star only to discover that her wealthy dowager Aunt Abigail (Ethel Barrymore) might not approve – that is, until she also hears Johnny sing.
Pasternak, the Hungarian born producer who embellished many a threadbare narrative with an armada of songs, herein cleverly diverts his audience’s attention from the fact that the Bruce Manning/Tamara Hovey screenplay is a pedestrian effort at best. Instead, we are treated to Pasternak’s good luck charm, Jose Itrubi conducting grand arias with the MGM orchestra and a subplot involving Marjorie Reynolds and Keenan Wynn as the most unlikely of love interests somehow brought together by fateful circumstance.  Pasternak’s mix of light opera favorites in That Midnight Kiss includes ‘Un Furtiva Lacrima’ and ‘Mama Mia Che Vo Sape (both featuring Lanza in fine voice), although audiences of the day were more likely heard humming the time honored love song, ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ or the film’s finale, ‘Love Is Music’; a regurgitated variation on Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, as they exited the theater.
This gave L.B. Mayer an idea. Why not write an original pop tune for Lanza to sing in his next picture? Thus, Taurog’s follow-up, The Toast of New Orleans (1950) contains the first certifiable chart topper in Lanza’s career – ‘Be My Love’; a romantic ballad sung as competition with co-star Kathryn Grayson. If anything, The Toast of New Orleans (1950) is an even more beguiled concoction of musical clichés, yet so aptly stitched together that one can almost forgive its convivial plot by Sy Gomberg and George Wells. Herein, Grayson is snooty opera star, Suzette Micheline – self-possessed, yet instantly loveable in all her misguided arrogance. This ego gets tested by the likes of burly bayou fisherman, Pepe Abellard Duvalle (Lanza) – a gregarious and playful sort who cannot help but deflate Suzette’s pretensions with his devilish good cheer. A tempestuous romance blossoms between the two – much to the chagrin of Suzette’s agent, Jacques Riboudeux (David Niven).
Once again, MGM throws all of its glamor and schmaltz into the brew, catching the sweet smell of success in box office returns. If anything The Toast of New Orleans was even more popular than That Midnight Kiss, cementing Lanza’s reputation as a musical film star of the first magnitude. Lanza and Grayson cooing ‘Be My Love’ became an instant best-selling record, the film’s other musical highlights including Verdi’s ‘Brindisi’, ‘I’ll Never Love You’ and Bizet’s ‘Je Suis Titania.’  The pairing of Lanza and Grayson could have gone on indefinitely. In fact, there had been rumors circulated to the press that MGM was building an entire repertoire around the couple in much the same way they had done with the teaming of Nelson Eddy with Jeanette MacDonald more than a decade earlier. Regrettably, Lanza and Grayson would not appear together again. There are many rumors as to why. One suggests that Grayson had tired of Lanza’s ego, his mild condescension of her thin soprano and his arrogance about his own self-importance in the movie.
Another rumor claims that Lanza refused to work with Grayson because he thought her an inferior costar. This rumor, it should be noted, is even flimsier than the first. For Kathryn Grayson had been an established musical star at MGM throughout the 1940s. She could also be temperamental at times. Infrequently, she required another contract singer to dub in her high ‘C’s. But Grayson’s presence extended well beyond her singing capabilities. Indeed, she was a clever actress who could hold her own in comedy as well as drama. And in retrospect the other female costars to appear opposite Lanza in his later films; Anne Blyth in The Great Caruso and Joan Fontaine in Serenade generally lacked Grayson’s spark to match Lanza, even if some of them were, undeniably, better actresses. Together Grayson and Lanza have a rare chemistry indeed, perhaps mutually antagonistic, but stirring a backstage fire that translates into smoldering sensuality on camera.  
Whatever the truth, the pair only made these two films together and Lanza was to see his own prospects incrementally dwindle as opera’s popularity once more began to cool at the box office. The Great Caruso (1951) notwithstanding Mario Lanza’s later films starting with Because You’re Mine (1952) became shameless excuses to have the tenor warble songs and arias. As for Grayson; she peaked that same year with a Technicolor remake of Show Boat (1951), followed by two more successes, Lovely To Look At (1952) and Kiss Me Kate (1953) – arguably the greatest musical of her entirely career.
As for Mario Lanza, he had a scant seven years left to live and spent most of them bitterly discontented with the films he was being asked to make. By the time MGM acquired Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1954), Lanza was so physically bloated that an executive decision was made to remove him from the project, even though he had already pre-recorded all of his songs for the picture. The studio recast the film with Edmund Purdon – a popular and handsome leading man – using Lanza’s vocals as lip sync issuing from Purdon’s slender frame. It was the beginning of the end for Lanza’s movie career. His last few efforts were puerile at best, singing cocktail hour pop tunes in The Seven Hills of Rome or mocking his own standards in the utterly forgettable, For The First Time – ironically, his last movie.
Viewing That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans back to back one can see both the veritable promise and utter waste of Lanza’s debut. MGM has fashioned two very substandard narratives with all of the lavish appointments the studio was justly famous for during the 1930s and 40s. Each film is undeniably good looking. Yet neither is a masterpiece. Lanza and Grayson give it their all and there is much to be said of their acting and singing - both first rate. Superficially, the movies are enjoyable as disposable pop art. It is, in fact, quite thrilling to watch the historic emergence of one of the twentieth century’s greatest vocal talents. Arguably, Mario Lanza never disappointed on that score. But in hindsight MGM squandered the tenor’s talent on run of the mill projects.  
Warner Home Video has done an admirable job on both transfers. The Technicolor image appears slightly more vibrant on the latter title, though both films are relatively sharp and free of digital and age related artifacts. A tad more grain is evident on That Midnight Kiss, though it does not distract. Contrast levels on both are just a notch below where they should be. Flesh tones are more natural on That Midnight Kiss, just slightly more orange on The Toast of New Orleans. But That Midnight Kiss suffers from infrequent Technicolor mis-registration that creates annoying halos and tends to blur the image – occasionally to distraction. The audio on both titles is mono. Though the results are quite adequate on That Midnight Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans appears to suffer from some rather obvious boost in the treble, with a rather grating sonic characteristic if played at higher decibels. Neither audio recording wins merits for stellar sound reproduction – a shame since Lanza in stereo would have been a decided treat. Perhaps the original audio stems no longer exist on these titles. Extras include a glowing tribute to Lanza – the artist - audio outtakes, surviving excised footage from That Midnight Kiss, vintage featurettes, cartoons and theatrical trailers for both films. Bottom line: I’m going to recommend these movies as a time capsule. They attest to Mario Lanza the pop star. Mario Lanza the singer is best discovered elsewhere among his many vinyl/CD recordings.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
That Midnight Kiss 3
The Toast of New Orleans 3
That Midnight Kiss 3
The Toast of New Orleans 3.5

1 comment:

Derek McGovern said...

Nice article!

Can I just point out one (rather crucial) mistake?

Lanza did indeed sing staged performances of complete operas, and he received excellent reviews for his singing and superb vocal quality. Here's a link to the reviews of some of his performances:

At the time of his death, Lanza had undertaken to return to opera, with a performance as Canio planned for the Rome Opera in the 1960-61 season. He had also enlisted the help of his friend and mentor, NBC conductor Peter Herman Adler (of The Great Caruso fame) to prepare for his return, and was working diligently with a top vocal coach in Rome at the time of his death. Complete opera recordings were also being planned by RCA at the time of Lanza's death.