George Sidney’s The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) is sophisticated film-making of the first magnitude: a lush and gushing ‘biopic’ made to order for the post-war generation’s kinship with frothy and fabulous A-list entertainments. Warner Bros. had begun the musical biopic cycle at the cusp of America’s involvement in the war with its tribute to George M. Cohan - Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). But it was MGM who popularized this subgenre throughout the mid-1940’s with movies like Till the Clouds Roll By (1946, reportedly Jerome Kern’s life story, though hardly) and Words and Music (1948, an even more egregious fictionalization of Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart). By all accounts these were glowing – if highly sanitized – fabrications of their famous subjects; the scripted melodrama concocted to neatly fit between a series of spellbinding production numbers showcasing the studio’s formidable and eclectic roster of stars.
The classic ‘biopic’ is therefore a lie, the public’s implicit acceptance of them rewriting history forever. Arguably, biopics continue to serve a purpose – our need to believe in people more perfect than the rest of us; extraordinary, colorful lives we might aspire to emulate. Arguably, after the war the biopic took on more ballast. Despite their speciousness, biopics were a retreat for audiences in general, and American audiences in particular, the latter desperate to recall, with pastel fondness, another more innocent time when life had a more even, refined and gentile cadence.
The sheer joy of these movies then – as it endures today - is not to be unearthed in truth, but as well-dressed reminders of dreams remembered – misty and rose-colored that - for all intent and purposes - never happened. So, perhaps in retrospect it’s no great surprise that while the Hollywood-ized treatment of Eddy Duchin’s life gets most of its major points right, it equally takes some celebrated artistic liberties along the way. These may not reveal the whole story, but ultimately they fulfill our collective needs in more satisfying ways.
Eddy Duchin was undeniably one of the great musical stylists of his generation; something of a pioneer of a technique Duchin himself coined as ‘sweet’ to distinguish its smooth and silken sound apart from the popularized jazzy riffs of his day. By all accounts, Duchin’s piano playing was hardly as accomplished or proficient as, say, Liberace’s; his laid back charm, congeniality at the keyboard, and, preference for playing cross-handed (try it sometime) belying the fact he had absolutely no formal musical training. Of course, in Eddy Duchin Hollywood recognized a near perfect sure-fire box office appeal; retelling a real-life tragic love story laden with its own inimitable brand of schmaltz.
Bittersweet is always better than just plain sweet, and Duchin’s life was hardly the proverbial bed of roses. He lost the love of his life, enterprising New York designer, Marjorie Oelrichs from complications immediately following the birth of their son, Peter, and Duchin would himself prematurely succumb to acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of forty-one. Between these bookends, the real Duchin story held so many inequitable hard knocks, heartbreaks and misfortunes that it is, frankly, remarkable screenwriter Samuel Taylor was able to discover any lightness to counterbalance the dark. At the crux of his story, Taylor’s creative license strives to extol the indomitable human spirit of a man repeatedly slapped down by the cruel hand of fate, yet resisting to surrender to it with every fiber in his being.
Eddy Duchin died in 1951 – five years before George Sidney’s celluloid tribute. In the interim, the traditional Hollywood musical – all bubble and bounce - had begun to experience the first inklings that its once galvanized popularity was on the wane. Post-war cinema tastes were rapidly changing, while television had quickly become the preferred venue for showcasing musical acts in variety hour programming. Ironically, the musical biopic was hotter than ever; the 1950’s embarking on a string of impeccably crafted tomes to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke (Young Man with A Horn 1950), Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story 1954) and Benny Goodman (The Benny Goodman Story 1956).
More than their predecessors, these movies all share a triumvirate of common threads. First, they are about band leaders and/or musicians struggling to carve their niche in the great American pantheon of popular music. Second, each film dedicates equal, if not - in fact - more, run time to its dramatic back story rather than its score. While music is still integral to telling the tale, it isn’t the whole show. Finally, each of the aforementioned movies features a dramatic – rather than musical - star at its helm; the likes of a Kirk Douglas, James Stewart or Steve Allen replacing bona fide musical talents like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Van Johnson.
Not coincidentally, Eddy Duchin was reborn on the big screen as a showcase for the electric styling of another truly outstanding pianist/band leader, Carmen Cavallaro. The two actually share an uncanny physical resemblance, and, it is a genuine pity Columbia Pictures did not see it, or even consider the possibility of casting Cavallaro as the movie’s doppelganger. Instead, we get Tyrone Power – somewhat past his prime as the one-time all-American hunky heartthrob, promoted in the trades as a valiant successor to Rudolph Valentino’s great lover. Time and hindsight would illustrate another tragic parallel between Duchin’s life story and Tyrone Power; the latter dying of a heart attack at the age of forty-four, just two years after this movie’s release and only three years older than his alter ego.
Personally, I have always thought Power did his best work as the slick bon vivant in more contemporary fare like The Eddy Duchin Story, instead of all those period costume dramas Fox persistently cast him in, luridly photographed in blazing Technicolor, though more often succumbing to turgidly scripted melodrama. No such artistic malaise inflicts The Eddy Duchin Story; a unbeatably well-rounded entertainment. Walter Holscher’s masterly art direction and Harry Stradling Sr.'s delicious cinematography utilize every inch of the expansive Cinemascope frame.
By 1959, the Central Park Casino, where Duchin had made his mark early on, was no more (the lavishly appointed Victorian baroque structure razed in 1935 to make way for a rather uninspired playground). But the park’s other famed venue, Tavern on the Green, proves a sublime substitute. Better still, the performances given by Power and the rest of the cast excel at bringing this bygone era to life. Samuel A. Taylor’s sentimental screenplay never sinks into maudlin mire, but maintains a genuine respect and affinity for the man and his music. Bottom line – this is a quality effort from top to bottom, rolling off the back lot with all the stylish accoutrements of a Duesenberg and sparkling better than most any coveted vintage of pink champagne. The movie plays like an elixir for the world-weary; a Valentine to Duchin’s artistry set against the impossibly handsome backdrop of an uber-decadent, magically magnificent Manhattan skyline, more fabulously an idea spawned from the heads of ‘moon river’ daydreamers than any reality inherent to the city planners.
We begin our journey through this timeless pastiche with Duchin’s arrival in the Big Apple; a fresh-faced kid (well…sort of, as played by the obviously middle-aged Tyrone Power) – all spunk and energy, with starry-eyed dreams of becoming a big shot in the Leo Reisman (Larry Keating) Orchestra. Apparently, Reisman had seen Duchin perform with a band organized by some ‘college kids’ – a decidedly unimpressive effort – but one where Reisman immediately recognized Duchin’s talents as a piano player. Unfortunately, this chance meeting has led to a misunderstanding; Duchin assuming Reisman was offering him a job. Arriving at the Central Park Casino to have this mistaken promise fulfilled, Duchin’s optimistic bubble is burst when both Reisman and his manager, Lou Sherwood (James Whitmore) echo similar sentiments – the Reisman Orchestra doesn’t need two pianists! It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But Duchin’s number isn’t up…not yet.
Disillusioned, dejected and forlorn, Duchin takes his seat at the piano before the casino opens for business, tickling the ivories and catching the ear of New York designer, Marjorie Oelrichs (Kim Novak, looking somewhat bloated rather than sexy herein). Marjorie comes from a good family – or rather, old money; some of it spent by her benevolent uncle, Sherman Wadsworth (Shepperd Strudwick) and Aunt Edith (Frieda Inescort) to set Marjorie up in business, and this at a time when women – particularly those of culture and leisure were hardly encouraged to exercise their creative aspirations via a concerted work ethic.
Marjorie can definitely relate to Eddy’s predicament, and thus, an immediate friendship is born. Moreover, Marjorie has clout with the jet set and Reisman, enticing Lou to hire Eddy as fill-in when the orchestra is taking their break. It does not take much coaxing for Reisman to agree, and Marjorie further eases Eddy into the big time by getting up to dance while he plays, thus drawing the public’s attention away from their conversations to take notice of Duchin’s extraordinary talents at the keyboard.
Duchin becomes an integral part of Reisman’s Orchestra, eventually featured with his own specialty numbers. These positively wow the casino’s patrons. Duchin’s immediate success brings him notoriety and modest wealth. But he still is not exactly accepted into high society. Edith and Sherman invite him to one of their lavish house parties, but only as a performer – not their guest. When Eddy learns this he becomes sullen and moody, making glib remarks to Marjorie about ‘his place’ in the world. She replies, “Right now your place is beside me.”
Marjorie is so right for Eddy it hurts. So when Eddy invites his parents (John Mylong and Gloria Holden) to the casino to share in his success, their fête is compounded by Marjorie’s impromptu declaration that she intends to marry their son. Miraculously, Sherman and Edith set aside their classicism almost immediately and embrace this union. It all looks like very smooth sailing ahead.
Except that on their wedding night, Marjorie experiences the first signs trouble is afoot. A brewing thunderstorm blowing over the balcony of their Fifth Ave. apartment terribly frightens her. She tells Eddy this is a very bad omen. Refusing to believe it, he tenderly placates Marjorie's worst fears; a prophecy realized a short while later when Marjorie dies of complications from giving birth to their son, Peter (first played by Mickey Maga, age 5, then Rex Thompson, age 12, whom many will remember as Deborah Kerr’s son in The King and I 1956). Eddie is overwhelmed with grief, placing the infant in Sherman and Edith’s care (in reality, Peter was looked after by Marjorie’s close friends, statesman, W. Averell Harriman and his wife, Marie Norton Whitney Harriman) while he embarks on a whirlwind tour – first in Europe, then America – eventually returning to New York at Lou’s grumbling behest. At first apprehensive, Eddy is delighted to see his son. But five long years of separation have made Peter a virtual stranger to him. Father and son go out on a lark. But Eddy is unable to reach the boy through kindness.
Enlisting in the war, Eddy helps liberate a ravaged city in the South Pacific, engaging a destitute child (Warren Hsieh) with his impromptu piano playing inside the bombed out shell of an abandoned nightclub. Realizing he just might be able to reach Peter through these same musical inspirations, Eddy returns to New York after the war to discover Peter is already quite accomplished at the piano, having collected Eddy’s records and learned to play some of their melodies by heart.
Peter’s governess, Chiquita Wynn (Victoria Shaw) tries to bring father and son closer together. But Peter resists and Eddy becomes increasingly impatient, even going so far as to blame Chiquita’s influences for their inability to bond. Eventually, Eddy comes to his senses. After all, how could Peter love, or even respect a man he’s never really known? In the meantime, Eddy begins to have feelings for Chiquita to whom he eventually proposes. For the briefest of times it looks as though this newly bonded family will survive.
Alas, during a lavish engagement at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, Eddy suddenly experiences crippling pain in his fingers. He withdraws from the piano and shortly thereafter seeks the counsel of a doctor, only to be diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer. Sharing the news with Chiquita is one thing. But Peter…how will he ever explain it to him? Eddy takes his son to the playground where the Central Park Casino once stood, his bittersweet muddling of the facts momentarily befuddling the boy, who becomes angry that his father is ‘going away’ once again. Peter thinks better on his initial dismay, tearfully embracing Eddy. A short while later, Eddy and Peter return to their townhouse; Chiquita encouraging father and son to play a duet at the pair of pianos in their living room.
George Sidney’s masterful handling of ‘the end’ of Eddy Duchin’s life spares us the predictably drawn out deathbed scene (a main staple in these type of ‘life story’ scenarios) – replaced in Samuel Taylor’s screenplay by a tastefully understated moment of farewell. Eddy and Peter are facing one another from the benches of their respective pianos, Chiquita with her arm tenderly resting on Peter’s shoulder. Harry Stradling’s camera slowly rises overhead from Peter’s concentrated efforts, showing us only Eddy’s hands at his keyboard - suddenly shaking, then withdrawn - the camera tilting back to Peter and Chiquita in a slow pull back, now revealing an empty bench at the second piano while Peter continues to play on. Eddy Duchin may be gone, but his legacy endures in that musical protégé (Peter Duchin still very much with us) who also became a celebrated band leader for a time.
In 1996, Peter Duchin published a memoir ‘Ghost of A Chance’ - a largely glowing tribute to his father that nevertheless rectifies the glossed over discrepancies made in The Eddy Duchin Story. Viewed today, The Eddy Duchin Story holds up remarkably well; less of a songbook to Duchin’s career and more the romanticized, though delicate, tearjerker – popularized a la Douglas Sirk in the mid to late 1950’s. This one never fails to tug at our emotional heartstrings. The strengths of the picture outweigh its narrative lapses. The luminous orchestrations and score, played to perfection by Carmen Cavallaro behind the scenes and convincingly fingered by Tyrone Power in the movie, are just one of the movie’s embarrassment of riches best left to be discovered by the first time viewer. Despite his lack of youthfulness, Tyrone Power delivers a mostly credible performance, perhaps slipping into overwrought sentiment just once, when Duchin returns to the casino after hours on Christmas Eve to bawl his eyes out over Marjorie’s untimely passing.
To some extent the movie’s second half is hampered by Kim Novak’s sudden departure – Victoria Shaw, with her brittle, clipped accent, a mere flickering candle to Novak’s genuine incandescence. And Samuel Taylor’s screenplay briefly succumbs to a series of episodic vignettes tracing Eddy’s departure overseas during the war. Yet, if these sequences are less successful than either the beginning or the end of the story, neither do they submarine nor dampen (much) the overall dramatic arc carefully constructed by Taylor and deftly realized in visual terms by George Sidney and Harry Stradling.
This is a marvelous melodrama with music added in for good measure; never top heavy in its moralizations (the way a lot of movies from the 1950’s tend to be) or succumbing to hammy acting and/or overwrought sentiment to make its points about the fallibility and fleeting ethereal qualities of life. What could have so easily played as grand downbeat tragedy, herein has been gently massaged and tenderly reconstituted as one of the most unlikely celebrations of a man’s contributions to both life and that iconic tapestry in 20th century music. While debate continues about the magnitude of Eddy Duchin’s artistry – that it may not have rivaled his contemporaries - none could have wished for a finer epitaph; one ultimately securing Duchin’s immortality in popular music.
Sony Home Entertainment debuts The Eddy Duchin Story on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s limited edition series in a mostly satisfying 1080p transfer – with minor caveats to be briefly discussed herein. The pluses in hi-def are obvious to anyone with eyes; a razor-sharp image with simply ravishing Technicolor bursting forth, good solid contrast and a smattering of film grain. Sony’s Grover Crisp and his technical wizards had their work cut out for them because the original archived elements were not in great shape. At times, shortcomings remain in evidence; slight nicks, chips and scratches are still present (that ought to have been digitally removed beforehand); some built-in flicker and ‘breathing’ around the edges of the frame (infrequent and not terribly distracting) and film grain (at times, seems on the obvious ‘heavy’ side, belying the movie having been shot in grain-concealing Technicolor). With regards to color – periodically, flesh looks more orange than natural. We also have a few very brief moments of edge enhancement – not a deal breaker in my opinion although present nonetheless.
The 2.0 audio is remarkably resilient, as is the isolated score and effects track. One might have hoped for another comprehensive audio commentary from Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo but we don’t get it this time around; a sin rectified by Kirgo’s comprehensive liner notes. (Aside: it seems almost grossly insulting to refer to Kirgo’s writing as ‘notes’ as she consistently applies her vast storehouse of knowledge on some of the most meaningful mini-essays. No small accomplishment, indeed!) Bottom line: this disc will surely not disappoint. It isn’t perfect, but Sony wasn’t working with elements diligently preserved in the past. Under Grover Crisp’s guidance, the studio’s present day commitments to their library in hi-def remains highly commendable and, arguably, unsurpassed. The Eddy Duchin Story comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)