Thursday, November 5, 2015

DEEP IN MY HEART: Blu-ray (MGM 1954) Warner Archive

Stanley Donen’s Deep In My Heart (1954) reports to be a movie bio-pic on the life and times of Austro-Hungarian born composer, Sigmund Romberg, whose sentimental operettas set the Broadway stage afire all the way back in the late teens and early 1920’s. Predictably, it’s a lie, despite screenwriter, Leonard Spigelgass having Elliott Arnold’s legitimate biography on Romberg from which to glean his inspiration.  But Deep In My Heart is neither interested in facts, nor even Romberg per say; only his music - the portly Romberg replaced with starchy animation by the lanky, yet thoroughly unconvincing, Mel Ferrer; the facts of Romberg’s relatively tepid and straight-forward rise to prominence, reconstituted as a series of farcical false starts in between which Donen has managed to insert no less than 22 songs from 11 Broadway shows in the composer’s back catalog. The last, and least remarkable of MGM’s three lavishly appointed bio-pics devoted to famous Tin Pan Alley composers (the studio’s previous two efforts, 1946’s Till The Clouds Roll By, and, 1948’s Words and Music, infinitely superior in virtually all regards, though chiefly, as more delicately structured, if no less fictional), Deep In My Heart is MGM’s last gasp to show off its formidable array of musical talent in some big and splashy production numbers. Honestly, they would have done better to do a Ziegfeld Follies revue-styled cavalcade and leave the intruding bits of dramedy between them on the cutting room floor. Ditto for the thoroughly wooden, Doe Avedon, cast as the second (herein, only) Mrs. Romberg; Lillian Harris.
Unlike Till The Clouds Roll By (that had the gentle, Robert Walker as Jerome Kern) or Words and Music (co-starring the superb Mickey Rooney as an ill-fated Lorenzo Hart; again, neither portraying their counterparts as they, in fact, were, though nevertheless managing to instill a sense of proportion into their performances), Deep In My Heart greatly suffers from Ferrer’s casting as the hoity-toity Romberg. Ferrer is too formal, too brittle in his mannerisms and too manic when he decides to cut loose and pretend to ‘be himself’. It’s an awkward, stilted and clumsy performance at best; his hoarse rendition of ‘When I Get Too Old To Dream’, capping off an orchestral celebration of Romberg’s music at Carnegie Hall, badly mangled as it brings down the curtain with a leaden thud of asbestos. The picture’s box office failure (it lost nearly half a million) is not entirely Ferrer’s doing. Neither can the flop be superficially blamed on ‘changing times and tastes’, although undeniably, both played their part in the debacle by the time Deep In My Heart had its theatrical debut. But Donen’s garish send-up to Romberg is a hand-me-down almost from the word ‘go’; its’ tinny and transparently conceived musical vignettes, cobbled together from MGM’s storehouse of props and set dressings used elsewhere to far better effect.
Without delving too deeply into a chronological inventory of the ‘something borrowed/something blue’ (as in, depressing); it is easy to spot wholesale costumes and backdrops excised (in some cases, without even minor alterations performed to spruce them up and/or camouflage the effect) from other – better – MGM musicals: the numbers, ‘Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise’ (‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’ from An American In Paris 1951), ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ (the spring sequence ripped from ‘A Bride's Wedding Day Song’ – a.k.a. ‘Currier and Ives’ from The Belle of New York 1952),’Will You Remember’ (‘On Your Toes/This Can’t Be Love’ from Words and Music), and, ‘Serenade’ (indiscriminately lifted from The Student Prince, released the same year as Deep In My Heart) carbon copies, ever so slightly embellished with nods to other marginally reconstituted trappings from 1938’s Marie Antoinette, 1948’s Easter Parade, and, 1945’s Ziegfeld Follies, and, Yolanda and the Thief. The net result is Deep In My Heart comes across as a shockingly pedestrian and second-rate affair, despite its staggering roster of star-powered talent and some very fine renditions of Romberg’s more celebrated masterworks.
Owing to its wafer-thin plot, Donen has fallen back on giving us a chronological history of the Romberg shows; adding ‘flavor’ to the back story by transforming our ‘Rommie’ into a bombastic and self-appointed impresario, frequently showing his teeth as well as his chops where Broadway producer, Bert Townsend is concerned (Paul Stewart - toiling and roiling with Ferrer’s Romberg on the front lines for the formidable, J.J. Shubert: Walter Pigeon, utterly wasted in a throwaway cameo). The scenarios concocted by Spigelgass badly bungle what little of Romberg’s life’s story remains, particularly its references to Dorothy Donnelly (played with limpid exactitude by Merle Oberon). According the movie, Donnelly is little more than Romberg’s trusted ally and muse. In reality, she ranked as a formidable actress, playwright, librettist, producer and director in her own right; a respected ‘presence’ in the theater who not only had a decade-long string of successes apart from Romberg, but also made the libretto in his Student Prince (1924) legendary. Donnelly would also do Romberg proud in My Maryland (1927); the last show before her tragic death at the age of 47.
Yet, Deep In My Heart would have us believe at the time of My Maryland’s Broadway debut, Donnelly was immaculately attired and lying on a couch in her penthouse apartment, preparing to succumb to her undisclosed illness, gingerly begging Romberg to serenade her with a few bars of ‘Auf Wiedersehen’; a ballad excised from Romberg’s 1915 show, The Blue Paradise; the song immaculately executed by Wagnerian-sized dramatic soprano, Helen Traubel, who also is given some plum orchestrations for ‘Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise’ (a lyrical and stirring ballad. Traubel’s haunting chords send sublime chills running up and down the spine. It is arguably, her best performance in the picture), ‘You Will Remember Vienna’ and ‘Stouthearted Men’. In hindsight, it is rather obvious MGM was hoping to capitalize on Traubel’s earlier stature as an opera diva; eager to mold her into the sort of ‘specialty act’ they had earlier managed with the likes of Lauritz Melchior. Alas, Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell – even Jeanette MacDonald – Traubel is not; her imposing middle-aged girth and throaty execution of the songs in Deep In My Heart leaning more toward the theatrical than the cinematic.
At best, Deep In My Heart is an interesting failure, not so much for its incredible waste of some exceptionally high-priced talent, but rather, for the occasionally stirring anomalies it provides along the way; the inspired marriage of Cyd Charisse (dubbed by Carol Richards) and James Mitchell – with the leggy Charisse wrapping her undulant limbs about Mitchell’s taut frame, the irrefutable highlight of the picture; igniting the screen with their smoldering pas deux ‘One Alone’ from The Desert Song: the only impassioned and fully-formed number in the picture. One of the most disheartening aspects of Deep In My Heart is it literally stops the show to indulge in some gorgeous ballads that do not lend themselves to lavishly appointed tap or dance routines; George J. Folsey’s camera work ‘sitting pretty’, but also at a distance whilst the balladeer warbles his/her song as though going through a recital. When Donen manages a lampoon, as with Tamara Toumanova’s frenetic bastardization of ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’ – a sickening burlesque of this tender ode, the effect is not comedic, but garishly obtuse and off-putting.
At other times, Donen seems incapable, or perhaps merely has given up, on crafting anything even remotely artistic or intelligent to augment the score. As example: Tony Martin’s sublime cooing of ‘Lover, Come Back To Me’ (briefly accompanied by Joan Weldon) is shot mostly as a static medium shot with Martin staring off into oblivion; the camera stationary as if it were photographing an ‘actuality’ for the silent Nickelodeons; the vast, empty backdrop filled with an insipid array of fisherman’s nets and painted landscapes, depicting craggy paper mache rocks looking onto a moodily lit, foggy blue sea. In another of these waxworks, Jane Powell – attired in a low-cut bodice and Southern belle’s hoop skirts and petticoats, preens rigidly, placed among the artificial cherry blossoms shedding their petals as Vic Damone accompanies her on ‘The Road to Paradise’ and ‘Sweethearts’ from Maytime (Romberg’s biggest critical and financial hit). The musical sequences are at their best when they manage something between the truest intentions of the song, visualized with the mobility of the camera and a translucent star, unafraid to move around the proscenium; as in Howard Keel’s richly satisfying baritone, belting out ‘Your Land and My Land’ from My Maryland, or, even better, Gene Kelly’s one and only on-screen pairing with his brother, Fred, in the predictably rambunctious, ‘I Love To Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen’ from Romberg’s 1921 revue, Love Birds.  
Deep In My Heart opens with an orchestral fanfare and dedication to Sigmund Romberg, Jose Ferrer, presumably ‘conducting’ the MGM studio orchestra through an overture of highlights. From here, we regress to the studio’s time-honored New York Street outdoor set, looking uncharacteristically artificial and – at least for period dressing – sparsely populated by extras. We glimpse a much younger Romberg hurrying into the Café Vienna to work as a waiter. This Tyrolean establishment (a reconstitution of set decorations from The Student Prince and 1947’s Sinatra programmer, It Happened in Brooklyn) is run by Romberg’s good friend, Anna Mueller (Traubel). Anna has great faith in Rommie’s songwriting abilities. Not so much encouragement from songwriting promoter, Lazar Berrison, Sr.(David Burns) who, after hearing a sample of Romberg’s stuff, declares him old hat and passé.  The public doesn’t want to do their high stepping to three quarter time, but the jazzy riffs of ragtime. Undaunted, Romberg writes ‘The Leg of Mutton’ – a nonsensical ditty that nevertheless catches the popular zeitgeist and becomes a big seller.
Romberg is unimpressed, both with his residuals and the results. Nevertheless, a short while later, the popularity of the ‘Mutton’ attracts the attentions of Bert Townsend, the right hand man to Broadway impresario, J.J. Shubert. Interrupting Shubert’s rehearsals with prima chanteuse, Gaby Deslys (Tamara Toumanova), Romberg auditions a new song he has expressly written to impress Shubert. However, after listening to a few bars of ‘Softly, As In The Morning Sunrise’ – Gaby, Townsend and Shubert are all rather dismissive of its possibilities. “It’ll only be the best thing in the show,” a dissenting voice suggests, “Maybe even a first act finale.” Give that gal a prize; the notes of encouragement coming from the immaculately attired, Dorothy Donnelly. Romberg is gracious, offering to take Dorothy and Anna to lunch to celebrate his good fortunes. Alas, on opening night, Romberg witnesses what crass commercialism can do to a subtly sustained ballad. Gaby, cavorting in a skimpy costume, adorned from horn to hoof in lurid red feathers and prancing about like a circus pony; the song’s fragile lyrics having lost all poignancy as she stamps her high-heeled shoes down a majestic staircase.  It is a disaster; one, the public nevertheless seems to embrace – the critics too.
Later, at the Café Vienna, Romberg admonishes Townsend for his part in this artistic travesty, treating both him and Dorothy to a stirring rendition of the same song, hauntingly warbled by Anna with the most subtle of orchestrations to accompany her moody chords. Afterward, Romberg turns down Townsend’s offer for a lucrative contract with Shubert. He is encouraged by Dorothy to reconsider both his curtness and haste. A few Shubert shows under his belt will provide Romberg with the necessary clout to write his own ticket on Broadway. Besides, Romberg has expensive tastes; buying a pair of sports cars, having suits tailor-made, and moving into a fashionable penthouse apartment where he entertains reporters with notions of his latest daydream project – Maytime. Repeatedly turned down by Townsend and Shubert, Romberg is once again ready to throw in the towel until Dorothy suggests he play his cards right and close to his vest with an elaborate ruse. The next afternoon, Romberg and Dorothy ‘accidentally/on purpose’ bump into rival impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (Paul Henreid) at the Ritz as Shubert and Townsend look on. Ziegfeld is good-natured about helping Romberg have his way with his current employers. And although Shubert adamantly declares he will not be bullied into partaking of this thrice turned down show, citing how he can get an entire Viennese operetta company from Europe for next to nothing, it isn’t long before the old goat green lights Maytime for rehearsals.
The play is an ecstatic and immediate hit; a series of montages illustrating how Maytime’s sell out popularity is so great, it necessitates Shubert opening a second company on Broadway to manage the crowds. Success, however, goes to Romberg’s head and he suffers two back to back flops immediately thereafter; producing one of them outright by himself. Having once again depleted his bank accounts on a whim, a more contrite Romberg returns to the fold, declaring that from this moment on, he will leave the particulars up to those who have their fingers firmly affixed on the pulse of the public, and concentrate his best efforts on his skills as a song writer. Townsend explains to Romberg, Shubert’s latest project, ‘Jazz-a-doo’ is in big trouble, and Romberg ambitiously retreats to the country, together with fellow collaborators, Ben Judson (Jim Backus) and Harold Butterfield (Douglas Fowley) to iron out the kinks. Their bucolic retreat will be fortuitous in other ways, as Romberg meets Lillian Harris and her mother (Isobel Elsom) along the open road; the pair having suffered a flat tire. Romberg’s quick thinking spares them any further delay in their journey to the same retreat where he and his cohorts are staying; Lillian accidentally leaving behind her hand-pump; later, returned to her by Romberg at the retreat’s outdoor restaurant.  Mrs. Harris is not at all certain Romberg is the right man for her daughter. Neither does a fairly awkward ‘party’ Romberg gives inside his rented cabin, where he reenacts the entire plot of Jazz-a-doo for Lillian and her mother, convince the latter of his integrity as an amiable suitor. Too late for objections, as Lillian is smitten with Romberg and vice versa. After the briefest consternations, and an even briefer courtship, Lillian becomes Mrs. Romberg.
From here on in, Deep In My Heart almost entirely devolves into a primitive revue-styled travelogue through the Sigmund Romberg catalog; Lillian assuming the voice over narrations vacated by her husband; introducing us to the cavalcade of riches in Romberg’s repertoire. Somewhere along the way, Dorothy falls ill. Her off-screen death is dealt with swiftly; Romberg reluctantly moving to establish a partnership with Oscar Hammerstein. More truncated vignettes devoted to life behind the scenes, sandwiched between an interminable series of ballads and production numbers. Time passes. It always does. Attending the opening night party for his latest venture at the Café Vienna, Romberg suffers his most scathing reviews yet. Worse, he is inadvertently insulted by bobbysoxer, Arabella Bell (Susan Luckey), accompanied by her date, Lazar Berrison Jr. (Russ Tamblyn); told that his music is too highbrow for the masses.  But this criticism sparks Lillian to reconsider her husband’s place in the echelons of great composers.  Romberg has transcended Broadway. Encouraged to conduct a symphonic orchestra in a study of his greatest theatrical achievements, Romberg, briefly resists. In short order, he thinks better on his decision to delay, and, appears on stage at Carnegie Hall. His farewell speech to the audience is perhaps the most poetic part of the entire film; waxing whimsically about ‘high’ vs. ‘lowbrow’ and ‘art’ vs. ‘commerce’; his summation - reflections on a life richly lived and even more richly rewarded; Romberg saving his most heartfelt thanks for his beloved Lillian, bringing her on stage to share in this night of nights as the audience rises to give them both a standing ovation. 
Deep in My Heart is neither authentic to the period depicting Romberg’s life story nor factually grounded in the particulars of that life. First and foremost, the picture remains a glossy and tune-filled romp through the composer’s musical memories; some, arguably, better left to molder with the past. If only we had been given more of Romberg’s experiences as in immigrant in the days when Tin Pan Alley beckoned to the likes of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, then perhaps Deep In My Heart would have risen above its rather convivial, but decidedly antiseptic, trappings to become a moderately engaging tale about a creative genius ‘suffering’ for his art. No – it’s not that kind of picture. Alas and a lack, we are burdened by the weight of Metro’s glitterati, bending over backwards to impress, instead of being raised to rafters on waves of their spellbinding professionalism.
José Ferrer as Romberg is a mistake – period. Ditto for Doe Avedon’s glacially unappealing upper crust debutante with whom Ferrer’s Romberg eventually discovers unwavering bliss.  There is no on-screen chemistry between these two co-stars, either as lovers or man and wife, leaving a queer residual taste of an incestuous ‘brother and sister’ relationship to linger and unsettle. Ferrer, a formidable star on Broadway, who proved a triple threat in Cyrano (winning a Tony, Oscar, and, Emmy for it), thoroughly lacks the intangible grace of Sigmund Romberg. In tandem, Ferrer’s rectitude and solemnity during the first third of the picture renders Romberg a fairly unlikable caricature of the head-strong and heart-sore starving artist. The story is on surer footing with Helen Traubel’s staunchly pleasant New World meets Old World café owner; unwaveringly at Rommie’s side through thick and thin; Traubel trading on her own Renaissance appeal as one of the foremost divas of the Metropolitan Opera; her performance as much a celebration as a parody of this bygone Viennese gemütlichkeit. Although never fully exploited in the film, Merle Oberon is a gingerly empathetic, Dorothy Donnelly; Romberg’s real-life partner in the musical theater and the long-suffering hand of guidance, secretly in love with a guy who basically never realizes it until after she has passed from this world into the next. Oberon manages to emanate an intriguing sadness. I was, at least in flashes, reminded of her luminous Cathy Linton from Wuthering Heights (1939) more than once while watching Deep In My Heart; also, oddly enough, gleaning whiffs of Ona Munson’s prostitute, Belle Watling from Gone With The Wind (1939).
Disappointment abounds with the supporting roles: one-time leading men, Walter Pidgeon and Paul Henreid, herein reduced to stick-in-the-mud rivals. Yet, it is perhaps saying quite a lot that even by 1954 Sigmund Romberg’s appeal in the American theater had all but dried up. MGM, the purveyors of some of the greatest operettas preserved on celluloid throughout the mid-1930’s would valiantly attempt to resurrect this genre several times throughout the 1950’s, but with hit or miss effectiveness. Today, the operetta is regarded as little better than a quaint and decidedly creaky relic; its schmaltz stamped out by the rock/pop operas of an Andrew Lloyd Webber or Steven Sondheim. Evidently, the producers of Deep In My Heart are acutely aware Romberg’s time has already passed; altering between his weightier arias in The Student Prince and Maytime and the razzmatazz moments in Jazz-A-Doo and The Blushing Bride; when Romberg was forced to pander to the times in which he too lived.
If only made a few years earlier, Deep In My Heart might have served as both an affirmation and vindication of Romberg’s immortal melodies that, for the briefest wrinkle in time, did catch the popular zeitgeist in America, providing definitive links between the new world’s vibrant get up and go, married to an even more rewarding middle-European culturalism; the nation’s advancing march of time toward the ‘new music’ of a bolder generation yet to follow it. Instead, Deep In My Heart seems ever more the incongruous and stifling millstone in support of the repressive conservatism during the Eisenhower fifties: MGM’s last ditch effort to make the poodle-skirt and cardigan sweater sect sit up and take notice of their elders, even as what is being force-fed to them as high art goes well beyond the rank cliché in confirming to them it is decidedly not hip to be ‘square,’ daddy-o.   
Ironically, Warner Home Video seems intent on cramming its lesser catalog in hi-def, completely ignorant of the myriad of treasures waiting to be unearthed elsewhere from their formidable warehouses of movie-land magic as yet untapped on Blu-ray. Honestly, I don’t get this release. Not only are there better MGM musicals awaiting the royal 1080p treatment, but there are decidedly better Stanley Donen musicals out there. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers …anyone?!? My initial assessment of WAC’s decision-making processes, as merely dipping into deep catalog they feel can best be ported over to hi-def via minimal clean-up and remastering, has been rendered moot by a quick revisit to, and side-by-side comparison of, Warner Home Video’s tired old DVD release from 2004 and this stunning Blu-ray debut.
Released at the tail end of 1954, Deep in My Heart was one of the last features to utilize 3-strip Technicolor, printed over to early Eastman Color stock. The shortcomings of this ‘conversion’ process are evident throughout Deep In My Heart, but greatly minimized on this new Blu-ray release that, from top to bottom, is bar none, an impressive feat of restoration and preservation by any stretch of the technological continuum one might choose to apply as a critique. Not only do we have a thoroughly vibrant, and razor-sharp image to applaud, but exceptional resolution that extols fine details in Walter Plunkett and Helen Rose’s sumptuous costumes; also, Sydney Guilaroff’s immaculate hair and makeup applications. There is a word for this presentation – and it is ‘gorgeous’. Visually, Deep In My Heart doesn’t suffer greatly from its transitional film-processing techniques, but dupes still look like dupes.
Miraculously, Warner’s remastering efforts have been able to create a more seamless integrity between these disparate elements; the effect not nearly as jarring as before. The overture, with main titles optically printed over Jose Ferrer conducting the MGM orchestra, still look somewhat softly focused, and with a slight fading of the otherwise rich and varied hues of Technicolor. This is to be expected and marginally forgiven. The other great joy here is hearing the film’s score and songs repurposed in 5.0 DTS; a decided upgrade from the old 5.0 Dolby Digital DVD audio, and, most assuredly, designed to please. I am always impressed by how well vintage audio – particularly early stereo – holds up to our contemporary palettes. These artisans were working with equipment that, by today’s standards, was not only antiquated, but downright antique. However such fidelity was achieved back then, we are the beneficiaries of some expert sound recordings today; the very best efforts readily capable to challenge and excite our acoustic nerves.    
Still, Deep In My Heart would not have been my first, second, nor even a third choice for a Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive. I will continue to champion WAC’s efforts because the quality is definitely there. But their decision-making processes, chiefly as to what comes first and foremost down their hi-def pipeline, is, at least to my mind, highly suspect. Many years ago, VP George Feltenstein, presently in charge of the archive, went on record as saying ‘no creative’ should ever be entrusted with managing a film library, as they would only set about to release their own personal favorites over other titles having more marketability, thereby sinking the fiscal feasibility and sustainability of future ventures. With this Blu-ray release, I find such comments rather gauche to downright laughable. Hey, George: whose favorite at WAC was Deep In My Heart – because I can honestly speak for many cinephiles when I say this one ranks far, far below other deep catalog musicals in the Warner canon still awaiting a Blu-ray release.
You know, titles like High Society, Silk Stockings, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Student Prince, virtually all of the Astaire/Rogers movies, a goodly number of Esther Williams’ sundrenched and splashy aquacades (Bathing Beauty, Million Dollar Mermaid, Easy To Love), a fair number of Jane Powell’s bright and breezy ventures (Nancy Goes To Rio, Holiday in Mexico, A Date with Judy), and, one or three of Mario Lanza’s movies (That Midnight Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans, The Great Caruso), all four of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show’ extravaganzas, and, at least a handful of Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald operettas, plus classic Eleanor Powell spectacles from the 1930’s (Rosalie, and Born To Dance).  Also, I would prod the collector to reconsider how Warner Home Video proper gave us a thoroughly botched Blu-ray release of Anchors Aweigh – a much beloved and Oscar-nominated Gene Kelly musical. Now, WAC provides us with an impeccable hi-def transfer of Deep In My Heart – one of the most forgettable and dullest of Metro’s musical flops. Personally, I would have much preferred Till The Clouds Roll By or Words and Music to Deep In My Heart. Does any of this make sense – but particularly from Mr. Feltenstein’s aforementioned marketing standpoint? Hmmmm. On Blu-ray, Deep In My Heart sparkles as too few vintage catalog titles do. So, kudos to Warner for doing right by this release. I just wish they had chosen tigers to turkeys. Bottom line: recommended for quality alone. I could easily pass on the movie itself.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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