Wednesday, August 12, 2015

WITH A SONG IN MY HEART: THE JANE FROMAN STORY (2oth Century-Fox 1952) Fox Home Video

In the pantheon of truly outstanding musicals made at 2oth Century-Fox, Walter Lang’s With a Song in My Heart: The Jane Froman Story (1952) remains an unabashedly bright spot; a semi-biographical, sentimental tearjerker that continues to affect the soul as it quite deliberately plucks at the strings of our hearts. Few are the musicals that can so obviously manipulate without devolving into maudlin treacle. But in star, Susan Hayward, far too infrequently revived and revered as the truly outstanding performer she was, at least, these days, With A Song in My Heart exudes a sort of womanly grace and quiet rectitude, wholly in keeping with the lady of the title. Lip-syncing to Froman’s own tracks, Hayward does more than merely mouth the words or delve into a cleverly convincing pantomime. She creates an alternate reality that really sells the picture not only as a compelling human interest story, gussied up in the trappings of an elegant entertainment, but equally as convincing as high art. It behooves us to take pause a moment and pay homage to the woman who inspired this fictionalized account. The real Jane Froman was a much beloved torch singer, nightclub performer, major radio celebrity and minor movie star. Her crippling paralysis after a fiery plane crash triggered a lifelong battle against excruciating physical and mental anguish, extraordinary for Froman’s stamina, her stubborn resolve to see things through, her never waning devotion to God, and, ultimately, proving her testament to that ‘never surrender’ attitude, parlayed into personal triumph.
The world of entertainment no longer breeds such rare unicorns among us; either Froman or the actress who so embraces her story. They haven’t for some time. Jane Froman, with her indomitable desire to entertain us throughout the decades, reaching from beyond the grave long since her death in 1980; her classically trained, richly operatic mezzo soprano given over to the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin; here, at last was a songstress out to conquer virtually all forms of popular entertainment in her time. Like Judy Garland, Froman was the little dynamo that could, seemingly with no limitations she could not conquer. This tenacity would be cruelly tested after a USO Boeing Yankee Clipper she was flying home on crashed into the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal on February 22, 1943; derailing Froman’s success at the height of her career. For anyone else, surviving the crash would have been enough of an achievement. Of the fateful thirty-eight on board, only fifteen were pulled from this fiery wreckage alive.
And Froman’s injuries were considerable. A gash above the left knee had all but severed her leg. There were multiple fractures to her right arm, and, a compound fracture threatening to force doctors to amputate her right leg. In the moments before the crash, Froman had given her seat to another passenger, Tamara Drasin. Drasin did not survive; this whim of fate plaguing Froman’s conscience for the rest of her life. To many, including Froman, it must have seemed as though her career – if not her life – had come to a very abrupt and bittersweet end. Yet, if nothing else, hers had been a formidable run; begun on the radio, appearing opposite such luminaries as Bing Crosby and Jack Benny, joining the 1933 installment of the Ziegfeld Follies, garnering top honors as the most popular radio singer of 1934, and appearing in three big budget musical extravaganzas from 1933 to 1938. Froman was already a headliner when catastrophe struck. Then as now, the press reports of the plane crash and Froman’s threadbare survival from it were immediately treated as grand tragedy in a blitzkrieg of hype and hyperbole.
Ah, but those who speculated the best was now behind Jane Froman did not know her very well. Arguably, they did not know her at all. For Froman had set herself upon a vision quest to recover from her injuries in record time – if not entirely (she was forever to wear an archaic back brace to conceal her ongoing malady behind cleverly placed props and costuming) – then enough to exude the illusion of restored health, and a picture of arrogant defiance against seemingly insurmountable odds. Perhaps the emotional strength, co-pilot, John Curtis Burn (who would later become Jane’s second husband) had shown immediately after the rescue – fashioning a makeshift raft from floating debris with a broken back no less, and on which both he and Froman clung until help arrived – provided the necessary inspiration for Jane’s own steadfast recovery. Without question, it served as a bond of commonality that would eventually blossom into their steadfast and enduring romance. Undergoing thirty-nine excruciating operations to stave off what seemed like an inevitable amputation Froman wore a leg brace the remainder of her life but staunchly refused to let it slow her down. In fact, a scant two years later she was touring Europe, entertaining the troops in a daunting slate of 95 shows. To cope with chronic, agonizing pain, Froman turned to alcohol and pills; becoming addicted to both, but fighting off even these considerable demons, eventually to regain her health, sanity and remain clean and sober. From 1952 (the year Fox set to work immortalizing her story for the big screen) until 1955, Froman also hosted her own TV program on CBS.  A year later, she divorced her second husband, John Burn.
With a Song in My Heart does not delve too deeply into any of the aforementioned circumstances; either out of respect for its subject matter, or perhaps to remain inspirational and faithful only to the frothy patina of a Fox family-orientated musical from this vintage. With a Song in My Heart is a beguiling and tune-filled extravaganza for which Froman not only contributed heavily to story ideas, eventually fleshed out in Lamar Trotti’s screenplay, but also agreed to supply the rousing soundtrack, lip-synced by Susan Hayward.  The album was an immediate best-seller and the movie a runaway smash hit. Although exaggerated somewhat by the conventions of the atypically glamorous Fox musical milieu, With a Song in My Heart shares a remarkable fidelity to Froman’s life story… to a point: Froman’s meteoric rise to fame via the blind optimism and driving ambitions of her first husband, Don Ross (David Wayne in the film), and, the supportive/nurturing tenderness she garnered from her second husband, John Burn (Rory Calhoun) while the pair convalesced and healed from their injuries.
These points of truth are given considerable weight in Lamar Trotti’s screenplay. Indeed, they are the best sequences in the film, prone to genuine empathy and appreciation for the star being immortalized. The extent of Froman’s life-threatening injuries is somewhat glossed over in montage, with a fictional narration by the movie’s equally fictionalized private nurse, Clancy (the enduring and irrepressible, Thelma Ritter). Trotti’s screenplay avoids concentrating on Froman’s other physical and emotional scars. But these, in truth, endured long after most of her initial injuries had mended; references to her crippled hand, addiction to painkillers and Froman’s mounting personal insecurities that directly contributed to her alcoholism and second divorce are never mentioned - even in passing. In the glamorous Hollywood of old, sadly no more, the purpose and message of such films like With A Song in My Heart was not to extract the ugliness from a life’s history, but to extol and deify the more altruistic sacrifices and will to live; to move beyond an ostensibly insurmountable misfortune; to provide, with the utmost sincerity, a glowing portrait of that human virtuosity to aspire and dare to dream anew. Such hope and promise was as much a part of the real Jane Froman’s life as the hardships and it proved an elixir to the postwar national sense of pride.
To fill in the narrative gaps, Trotti’s screenplay zeroes in on Froman’s commitments during the war; fabricating a reoccurring friendship between the star and a GI Paratrooper, superbly played by Robert Wagner, who only appears in two brief scenes, but narrowly steals both from Susan Hayward. In the first, Wagner is introduced as the brash newcomer Fox had wasted no time in trademarking as their next male beauty; flirting with Froman as he requests her to sing him a ballad during her Manhattan nightclub act. It is an engaging, if ephemeral vignette, only completely understood when Wagner’s nameless GI resurfaces much later in the picture as a shell-shocked mute, barely conscious and emotionally scarred vet. Few images so successfully manage to tug at our heartstrings than this moment of youthful optimism turned asunder, briefly resurrected anew as Froman undertakes a painstakingly poignant rendition of the brave ballad, ‘I’ll Walk Alone’; the intensely felt tremble in her voice suddenly causing Wagner’s catatonic to be stirred, tears welling up and a weak half smile curling his lips.
The other unabashed moment of heart-plucking earnestness is The American Medley; a rousingly patriot compendium of time-honored songs written about the various states, sung in rapid succession by Froman to satisfy caterwauling requests from various military officers in attendance at one of her USO concerts, and, bookended by a stirring rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. Today, such outbursts of self-serving nationalistic joy are deemed as hokey at best or utterly passé. But you would be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the house at the end of this number; at times, ebullient (as when Froman belts out with gregarious aplomb ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ or ‘Chicago’), at others, melodically hopeful (Froman’s priceless rendition of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ utterly void of theatricality and brimming to the rafters with big-hearted sentiment). As such, With a Song in My Heart entirely lives up to its namesake; Froman’s outpouring of emotion only grown richer and more rewarding with the passage of time.
What distinguishes With A Song in My Heart from just another Fox musical is Susan Hayward’s heart-wrenching performance as Jane Froman. A distinguished and versatile actress of considerable force and magnitude; sadly relegated to all but forgotten B-grade status today, Hayward’s formidable movie legacy has been rather unceremoniously displaced from its rightful place in the upper echelons of true film stardom. Although her vocals are dubbed by Froman (who thought the casting of Hayward was ideal for the story of her life), Hayward delivers a blistering and poignant dramatic performance herein – rich and earthy in its pathos, joy and exuberance; conveying Froman’s triumph of the human spirit on a level that elevates this fairly standardized backstage story into a tour de force on every level. With A Song in My Heart is not just an atypically mounted solid and lavishly appointed musical from the Fox stables, but a great story about an as distinguished lady who refused to surrender to her darkest hour and the demons of fate that followed it. What more could one ask of or expect from a jubilant Hollywood musical?
Our story begins on the star-studded eve of the annual New York newspapermen’s ball with Froman receiving honorary distinction as ‘the most courageous entertainer of the year’. As she takes to the stage and begins to sing the title song, Leon Shamroy’s camera effortlessly glides about the room, settling on an adoring John Burns, his thoughts momentarily elsewhere. We regress to the mid-1930’s in flashback, Jane – the ingénue, determined to make good, but arriving too late for a coveted audition on a syndicated radio program, broadcast out of Cincinnati. Mistaking Vaudevillian, Don Ross for the station manager, Jane belts out ‘It’s a Good Day’; her infectious verve and style impressing Ross who, upon confiding to Froman he is not the manager, fetches the real McCoy to hear her sing. Of course, this inauspicious beginning launches Froman’s career as the station’s resident ‘staff singer’. Personal appearances follow and Ross, who is unable to attain any lasting success on his own, eventually undertakes to manage Jane’s career.
Believing Froman’s talents are not being utilized to their utmost, Ross orchestrates a lucrative series of nightclub gigs in New York. Soon, Jane is the toast of the town and Ross is enamored with his protégée. Alas, the feeling is hardly mutual. Although Jane is grateful to Ross for being her friend and mentor, she doesn’t really love him. It doesn’t matter. Ross bides his time and eventually wears Jane down. They are wed, though not entirely destined for the proverbial ‘happily ever after’. Alas, jealousy is the infamously familiar culprit of their eventual breakup; Ross increasingly dissatisfied with being the man behind the throne and picking quarrels with his wife, leading to frustrations and hurt feelings on both sides. Jane goes to Hollywood and makes a movie – then another. She’s hotter than ever. Yet, at the zenith of her popularity, she makes a momentous decision to throw it all away and devote herself to their marriage. Altruistically, Ross loosens the yoke of his conceit, realizing while he may not have had Jane’s best interests at heart for quite some time, she has decidedly proven to him their marriage means more to her than even her career.
Jane enlists in the USO as an entertainer; Ross concurring that the separation may be just what they need to recharge their batteries apart and later, to start anew.  Regrettably, during the ill-fated flight from London, via Bermuda and Lisbon, Jane briefly befriends co-pilot, John Burns and fellow entertainer, Jennifer March (Helen Westcott) who asks Jane to switch seats with her. The plane experiences mechanical failings shortly after takeoff, losing altitude and crashing into the Tagus River.  In the fiery aftermath and amidst the chaos and screams for help, John manages to rescue Jane from drowning, holding her broken body afloat against a piece of floating wreckage until each is saved by rescuers.  At hospital, Jane is attended to by sharp-shooting nurse, Clancy (Thelma Ritter) who will become her confidant and best friend. Jane also learns Jennifer died in the crash. Mercifully, John has survived. In the arduous months of recovery yet to follow, Jane and John grow close.
Through the agonizing pain and constant surgeries, the ever-looming threat of having her leg amputated, Jane struggles to maintain her cheery disposition.  John confides he is in love with her. But Jane resists reciprocating his affections, suggesting instead that only their shared experience has brought them together. It isn’t enough to build a relationship on. Jane is sent home to America shortly thereafter, taking Clancy with her as her private nurse. In New York, Ross stands beside his wife as she endures even more hideous operations to save her leg from the threat of amputation. But when John is well enough to travel, he too vies for a place in Jane’s heart and Jane confides in Clancy she is now in love with him too. Ever the pragmatist, Clancy advises Jane to forsake the romance and concentrate on her recovery; also on the proposed show Ross has been busily concocting for Jane to star in; essential to help pay for her mounting medical expenses.
Although she must be carried to and from the stage, Jane’s Broadway debut is a critical and financial success. Alas, the run is cut short when more complications arise. Jane becomes depressed at the thought of losing her leg. Motivated by her stubborn devotion, Clancy admonishes Jane for her self-pity. In private, however, she weeps sincere tears. Another nightclub engagement follows, Jane charming a brash young paratrooper with a song. Afterward, John tells Jane she must choose her future. Instead, Jane encourages Clancy to go with her overseas on a grueling USO tour. In Europe, Jane sings to the wounded men. In some ways, she derives great strength from this series of concerts, realizing how many of the wounded are facing the same adversities as she. It’s a revelation, made all the more humbling when Jane is reunited with the same paratrooper she sung to in New York, now among the wounded and a pitiful shell of his former self. Jane’s solo, dedicated to the young man, manages to stir a half smile. She gingerly takes him in her embrace at the end of the song and he begins to speak for the first time in many months.
As their thirty-thousand mile tour draws to a close, Jane leads the soldier corps in a rousing tribute to America – the beautiful, as Clancy looks on. Receiving a drunken phone call from Ross, informing him he will not be waiting at the docks for Jane’s return, John rushes to meet the ship instead. The flashback concludes with a return to the newspaperman’s ball; Jane bringing the festivities to a close, truly with a song in her heart and John taking great pride in the small part he has played in this great lady’s life.  With a Song in My Heart is one of the last musicals to be photographed full frame and in vintage Technicolor. Within the year, Darryl F. Zanuck would announce his sweeping reform with Cinemascope, putting all future Fox films into production in the newly christened widescreen format.
Viewed today, the movie’s sentiment is hardly strained. Fox’s lurid use of Technicolor throughout the 1940’s and early 50’s was the envy of every other studio; the centerpiece of its’ colorful candy-box undoubtedly their musicals starring Betty Grable, June Haver, Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye. With a Song in My Heart has Susan Hayward in their stead. While the aforementioned ladies are undeniably tops in taps and knew their way around a song, Hayward is a decidedly superior actress; a quality necessary to carry off this complex role. Although looking nothing like the real Froman, Hayward embodies her alter ego’s spirit; nee – the essential spark, so indelibly Jane Froman. It is this verisimilitude that gives With A Song in My Heart its joyously sturdy center; one great performer giving purpose, meaning and strength to another’s contributions, largely unseen or even, perhaps, unknown to the general public, despite Froman’s high-profile career. Few movie biopics have taken their subjects as seriously; fewer still, remaining as closely adhered to the facts of the person being immortalized. With A Song in My Heart is therefore a rarity; deliciously inspirational and marginally truthful in the same sustained breath.
Unfortunately, Fox’s ‘restored’ full frame DVD falls severely short of expectations. Visually, this is a real mixed bag. Image quality ranges from sharp and nicely contrasted, to downright grainy, with mis-registered 3-strip Technicolor creating disgusting halos around just about everything. When the image is properly aligned we get a reasonable facsimile of what Fox’s garish vintage Technicolor must have looked like. We must remember, Fox ditched all of its separation masters in the late 1970’s; a shortsighted purge hampering future custodians of their classic library when remastering these movies to home video. The mis-registered portions of With A Song in My Heart are painfully obvious to observe; blue/green halos distorting the clarity and generally making everything go horrendously out of focus.
Color fidelity is equally questionable; flesh tones varying greatly from pale pink to ruddy orange. Contrast levels appear a tad low with a considerable loss of fine detail throughout. Grain and age-related artifacts are also a problem, though both have been somewhat tempered by Fox’s restoration efforts thus far. There are ways to minimize these shortcomings and create a more competent master in hi-def. It all boils down to time and money; alas, judging by the studio’s recent stalemate, two commodities the powers that be seem wholly unwilling to invest. Extras include three insightful documentaries on the real Froman; one a personal audio account (supplemented by still images) from her second husband, Robert Burns. There’s also an interactive press kit, restoration comparison featurette and the film’s original theatrical trailer to whet the film collector’s appetite. Bottom line: recommended for content. The transfer is suspect and deserves an upgrade.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

No comments: