Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rose Marie - 1954

Rose Marie (1954) is a delightful surprise.  It stands on the shoulders of its 1936 predecessor, whose stars Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald became icons in their roles, and soars beyond that famous cliché, ironically, by joyously and most unselfconsciously wrapping itself in the old-time conventions of operetta and melodrama.  New technology, however—CinemaScope and Technicolor—gave this version a twist and a punch in a most convenient and happy marriage of the old and the new.

Ann Blyth was 24 going on 25 when she played the title role in this musical, and one is impressed by her ability to appear so young, so naturally and effortlessly a teenager when in her teen years she often played characters who were older, or least more poised and sophisticated.  Very light, natural-looking makeup, and her loose woodsman’s buckskins covering her shape help to create this illusion, but two things she does herself complete the picture—her animated expressions which, with the innocence of youth, do not mask her emotions, but let us see every flickering thought passing through her mind, and also the way she moves.  With an animal-like ease and strength, she lives the outdoor life like someone completely at home in the woods, not stomping about in her buckskin with exaggerated mannishness like Doris Day in Calamity Jane, but hiking, climbing on rocks, and running with the grace of an athlete. 
The picture of her seeming physical change was overshadowed in the press of the day, which took greater notice, with greater surprise, at her singing voice.  This was her first big singing role after her one song in The Great Caruso, which we covered here. 

A review in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times:

The surprise in Rose Marie is Ann Blyth’s singing voice, which is gloriously pitched, full, and strong.
The “new Ann Blyth” of the headline “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” (in pretty much every film she did she was always “new”), emphatically declares herself with her first song, the exhilarating “Free to Be Free".  Just like the character Rose Marie, who wants to live life in the wild without being forced into a “ladylike” life of restricted freedom in town, Ann Blyth is declaring her freedom in a way that says, “Look at me.  I can really sing.  This is my movie.”  Her range is quite demonstrably large in this song, even drifting down into the mezzo area, and her control is stunning, bang-on notes with no vibrato or trilling.  It’s a magnificent delivery and a great song to come charging out of the gate in this movie, as if to make the audience take notice—this is Rose Marie, the old chestnut you thought you knew, but didn’t.

The old chestnut, as it happens, was never produced the same way twice.  We think we know it as the template of all parodies involving a man in a Mountie’s uniform, from Dudley Do-Right to Monty Python’s male chorus in “The Lumberjack Song.”   It started as the second-longest running play of the 1920s, just behind The Student Prince, (we discussed that 1954 film last week here.)

As far as the popular parodies go, I confess, Dudley Do-Right was my first crush.  I know, he wasn’t very bright, but he exemplified honor, attention to duty, and all things respectably Canadian.  And he had that red coat.  Chick magnet.

He didn’t sing operetta, though.  Not like Mighty Mouse, who was a magnificent tenor.

I’m sorry, where was I going with this?

Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.

The Broadway play, an operetta that took its melodrama seriously, featured a boatload of songs, only a few of which survived in film versions.  The story was of Rose Marie, who loved Jim, a miner, who was accused of murdering an Indian named Black Eagle, whose girlfriend, Wanda, is the real killer.  Rose Marie is brokered off in marriage by her brother for money to marry city slicker Etienne Darcy.  Behind all this menagerie, is the stalwart Mountie, Sgt. Malone, who is on the trail of the murderer.  At one point, in a suspenseful moment to help Jim escape, Rose Marie signals him by singing the “Indian Love Call.”  Note: the love story is not between her and Sgt. Malone; it’s between her and Jim the Miner.  The Mountie sees that justice prevails, and Rose Marie is free to marry Jim and go off into the wilderness. 

Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.

The play wowed them at the Imperial Theatre from September 1924 through June 1926, and then brought back quickly by popular demand at the Century Theatre in a revival in 1927.  Hollywood, now poised to pounce on any Broadway hit, took over the property and promptly made the first of three movie versions of Rose-Marie in 1928.

A silent movie, obviously, it was released in February, six months before Ann Blyth was born, and starred an actress whom she would come to know years later—Joan Crawford.

Miss Crawford was something like 23 when she played Rose-Marie, with James Murray (so terrific in The Crowd, which we discussed here) as her lover Jim the Miner, and House Peters as the Mountie, Sgt. Malone.  There’s a nice still from the movie here at this website, Nitrateville.

Publicity photo, Joan Crawford with co-star House Peters.

Joan is quoted as having said, “I felt very uneasy as a French Canadian.”  An odd remark, considering she did not have to speak with an accent in this silent film, and considering her real name was Lucille Le Sueur.  The film is considered lost, but we can imagine the melodrama probably went over well as a favorite genre in the heyday of silents.

The second go-round for Rose Marie came in 1936, the famous matchup with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald.  Because these two stars already walked into the story with their own strong talents and screen personalities, and because MGM wanted to build up the team, the original story was scrapped.  Rose Marie 1936 bears little resemblance to the operetta, though a few songs remain, including the now famous “Indian Love Call,” which cemented the duo’s iconic place in film because it was sung in this movie an amazing four times.  Just in case we weren’t paying attention.

In this film, there is no Jim the Miner.  Rose Marie is an opera singer, going by her stage name, Marie de Flor.  We see Jeannette performing scenes from Roméo et Juliette and Tosca just to show she can do it.  

Her brother, John, is in trouble, on the lam in the Canadian wilderness, from murdering a cop.  He is strikingly played by a young James Stewart, who conveys the young man’s restlessness and pitiable scamp’s charm, and his ultimate hopeless future with great sympathy. 

Jeannette leaves the glittering opera house of Montreal, heads for the big woods, and hires a guide to take her to her brother.  She does not even attempt a French accent; she leaves that to her maid, played by the wonderful Una O’Connor.

Instead of a turn-of-the-century melodrama, we get a modern 1930s romantic comedy, admirable for the magnetism of its stars and its fast-paced plot.  Nelson Eddy is the Mountie, here called Sgt. Bruce, hunting her brother, and the race is on as to who will get to him first, Jeannette or Nelson.  From the moment they meet, Nelson is after her, too, and we know they will end up a romantic couple. 

Jeannette, playing a spoiled diva, has a great comedic scene when she tries to emulate a saloon torch singer, competing with her, unsuccessfully, to earn coins thrown at her from an inattentive audience. 

Nelson sings the title song “Rose Marie” to her in a canoe, while she slowly unbends her opinion that she hates all men.  The climax occurs when she finds her brother, but so does Nelson, and takes him in. 

The film is well done, with plenty of natural scenery (not filmed in Canada), but uses its share of rear-screen projection as well—particularly noticeable when Nelson Eddy rides in front of a troop of Mounties singing in his heroic baritone, “The Mounties.”  But it’s just him.

This movie, because it cemented the Eddy-MacDonald team and because of those four separate unrepentant blasts of “Indian Love Call,” rose above the quaint operetta on which it was based and took on a life of its own.

The Rose Marie of 1954, playfully, and with equal dash, revisits the old operetta with unabashed admiration and humor.  It is more leisurely-paced, and with its magnificent scenery (including location shooting in Alberta), glorious singing, CinemaScope and Technicolor, invites us to enjoy the marvels of technology on this very old-fashioned story.
Ann Blyth is Rose Marie Lemaitre, all alone in the world after the death of her trapper father.  Miss Blyth apparently had no qualms about playing a French Canadian, as her delightful accent is spot-on.  She has no qualms, either, about being alone in the world, for when the Mountie first encounters her, she is placidly fishing from a canoe, contentedly doing for herself, and wants no outside help.

The Mountie, Sgt. Malone, is Howard Keel, resplendent in that red coat enough to make me almost desert Dudley Do-Right.  He sings "The Mounties" while riding ahead of his troop of men, not rear screen projection.  He has the job of taking her out of the wilderness, (which as he tells in song is no place for girl) and bring her into protective custody. 
She is unwilling, even frightened to go with him, like an animal panicked at the sight of a cage.  She gets away, and he tracks her down, finding her cuddled up like a bear cub in sleep, but when he disturbs her, she attacks him with a knife.  At the first opportunity, she bites him.

Someday I'm going to have to tell you my coonskin cap story.  When I feel I know you better.

We may note that she runs like an athlete, not like Jeannette MacDonald, who runs through the woods like a sissy. 

Sgt. Howard Keel catches her again.  Have a look at this image of him holding her, one-armed, from his horse, dangling her like a rag doll.  An indignant, frustrated rag doll.  Do you see any bit of the slick sociopath Veda Pierce here?  Any bit of haughty, conniving fashion plate Regina Hubbard, the graceful elegance of the Countess Marina?  The poised, demure high school graduate Gail Macaulay?
Few of Ann Blyth’s contemporaries were as versatile.  I love her little groan, equal parts despair and discomfort, when he hoists her into the saddle after she capitulates.

Howard Keel at first was not happy with the Mountie’s role in this film, finding him too weak and ineffectual…perhaps like Dudley Do-Right…but his requested changes to the script were made and he signed on, noting in his autobiography, Only Make Believe, that it was a fun shoot.

I didn’t sing with Ann Blyth, but she was a delightful cutie and sang beautifully.
They did not sing “Indian Love Call” together because in the original story, that song was for Rose Marie and Jim the Miner.  Here, he’s Jim the Trapper Who Wants to Also Pan for Gold, played by Fernando Lamas.  One of the film’s particular pleasures is giving us not one, but two baritones, who are rivals for the hand of Rose Marie, adding a bit more tension to the plot. 
Mr. Lamas, in deference to his impossible-to-disguise Argentine accent, is also supposed to be French Canadian.  Only to a Hollywood producer would this be logical.  He sounds about as French as the Mountie, but if you can overlook the Spanish accent coming out of his mouth, Fernando presents as a brooding, handsome mystery, who fascinates Rose Marie from the moment she meets him.  It will be a coming of age story as she struggles with her feelings for the two men.

You might stumble on some spoilers as we go. 

Bert Lahr is the comedy relief as the bumbling corporal.  When she is first brought into custody at the fort, Ann pleas with Bert, “You let go me, yes?”

“If I let go you, they let go me, and on a clear day I can see my pension.”  She bites him.
Ray Collins, one of my favorite stuffed shirts, here plays the inspector in charge.  By the time he visits, Ann has become docile, changed from her buckskin to a cut-down and tailored Mountie’s uniform as the post mascot.  Inspector Collins inspects the troops, berates the men for not shaving properly, and is pleased with the little Mountie who has no five o’clock shadow.  After a beat, the penny drops and he realizes it’s because she has a hormonal advantage.
“She’s a woman!” he blasts Howard Keel, who suddenly realizes that fact as well, now that it’s been pointed out to him.  He thinks of her as just a kid.  Collins wants to send her away, to his cousin, Marjorie Main, in town.  If the wilderness is no place for a woman, neither is the police constabulary.  Poor Rose Marie, just when she begins to adapt, she’s got no right to be here either.
There are several laugh-out-loud moments in the film, as everyone, not just Bert Lahr, gets to play for laughs.  One of the particular charms of Ann Blyth’s character is her quality of being quite innocently unselfconscious.  Mountie Howard tells her she is interesting to men, and she agrees, "You're right.  I am interesting."  He tells her she is beautiful, she beams at the coincidence, "I think so too."  She greets the inspector with enthusiasm, telling him about the horse Howard Keel taught her to ride.

“A fine horse, Monsieur.  Old, but still alive.  Like you, Monsieur.”  She deals with the ups and downs of life with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. 

But she does not want to go to town and leave the post, so she runs away.  Howard catches up, and instead of handcuffing her, explains that she will enjoy growing up and being attractive to men in the song “Rose Marie.”  By the song’s end, she is intrigued and wants to give it a try, and he is astonished to realize his own attraction for her.
Interesting how this scene is filmed.  First, it is an outdoor shot.  Rose Marie is furious that the inspector, “the man with the face” wants to send her away.  Her rant is hysterical.

“…the man with the face.  Oh, Mike, I hate this man most happily.”

“Well, what do you aim to do about it?”

“Kill him.”

“Kill him?”

“Sure.  It’s easy.  I show him how I shoot the hat at fifty paces, but I do not shoot the hat, I shoot the face.  Voilà.”
She leans against the trunk of a tree.  When she pushes herself off of it, she steps into what is a studio soundstage wilderness, but it is so imperceptible you don’t notice it unless you obsess over frames like me.  Howard sings his song, Ann steps back to the tree, leans her bottom against it, and we are back outside again.
This was the first musical ever to be filmed in CinemaScope, and it’s amazing how fluid the scenes are and how the shots vary.  In later musicals, including The Student Prince, Kismet, really most of the late 1950s musicals that were filmed in CinemaScope, the shots seem almost static.  In some cases, you see the characters wrenched into a kind of kick-line to fill up the horizontal space, and often the glaring far left and far right are empty.
Rose Marie has a vibrancy to its set-ups that makes use not only of the grandeur of the scenery just made for widescreen, but is used most effectively in indoor shots as well.  Over the shoulder shots, composition that makes use of the widescreen qualities, but does not scream CinemaScope gimmick.

In town, Ann is taken under the wing of Marjorie Main, a blustering saloon keeper who’s sweet on Bert Lahr.  She’s got a motherly streak, and she teaches Ann to be a lady.  Ann recalled for Classic Images in 1995:

I think a lot of people don’t remember that Marjorie was really a marvelous dramatic actress.  She did some marvelous stage work, and, of course, a few roles like that in pictures as well…As funny as she could be, she could break your heart as well.
In these shots of Ann’s bedroom above the saloon the director makes use of the mirrors on either side and the window to open the space up for CinemaScope.  You can see Jim riding up through the open window.
In this series of shots, Jim sings of his love to her from the half-door of a trapper’s bunkhouse behind the stable.  The camera pulls back, reveals the top of a pine tree, and then embraces the second-story balcony where Rose Marie sings in response.
Before this, they have sung the famous “Indian Love Call” with a frank loveliness that seems to dare the audience, and snarky reviewers, to compare them with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald.  Ann holds the last note for around nine or ten seconds, but that’s not her record. She could hold the end of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from Kismet for a full nineteen.

“I can still do it,” she told interviewer Brian Kellow for Opera News in 2002.

Here is the “Indian Love Call.”



Love with devil-may-care Jim does not run smooth, however.  He is, by his own admission, “not the marrying kind.”  This is what he tells Wanda, the Indian maid whose jealousy will drive her to attempt to murder Jim/Fernando, fail, and then kill the Indian chief when he beats her for chasing after Jim.  Jim gets stuck with the rap, and, just as in the play, Rose Marie, tearing up, sings the “Indian Love Call” in reprise to signal to him that she does not love him, to make him leave and not wait for her so Howard Keel will not catch him.
In the middle of all this is a typically garish Busby Berkeley-choreographed number that is mesmerizing for its bizarre sexuality and plot pointlessness.  Wanda, played by Joan Taylor, who appears to be the only woman in the Indian village, takes part in some sort of fertility dance with a zillion braves.  Wanda sees Ann and Fernando watching, perceives they love each other, and you can’t help but be heartbroken for Wanda.

The 1936 Rose Marie includes the play’s original “Totem Tom-Tom” number in a much more natural style and setting, looking for all like a real tribal celebration, and it is more dramatic and moving for being so.  I’m not sure why the Busby Berkeley number, except that there is no big musical dance scene in this movie, apart from the charity dance at the saloon.  Maybe producer and director Mervyn LeRoy, whose work in this movie is otherwise very effective, fell back on the Big MGM Musical template and decided this weirdness was needed.  It is colorful, certainly, and eye catching, if a little stupefying.
The Mountie does catch his man, and Fernando is going to be hung, but Howard, stunned at Ann’s confession that she loves Fernando (Howard had earlier proposed to her), decides to sift through the evidence one more time and saves the day.  When Fernando is released, Ann, in gratitude, tells Howard she will marry him and do whatever he wants.  Howard wants her to put her buckskin clothes back on, and take a ride with him out of town.  When they are out in the woods, despite his earlier position that girls do not belong in the wild, he tells her that she was meant to be free and to live in the wilderness.  He sends her off with Fernando.  It is just the noble thing you’d expect a Mountie to do.
We could also marvel that not only is he telling her she is no less feminine for wearing buckskin and living a rugged life, but there is no suggestion that she and Fernando are going to rouse a justice of the peace in the middle of the night to marry them.  They’re just going off together in the wilderness in a bittersweet ending.  We cannot help but wonder how they will fare.  Will Jim be faithful to Rose Marie?  Will the Mountie ever find another girl to love him?  This is what happens when you stop thinking about the stars, when the stars are skillful enough to allow you to do that.
The principal players generally received good reviews, though most reviewers dismissed the story as an antique.

There would be few opportunities ever again to present operetta on screen, and even popular musicals were on the wane.  Ann Blyth was newly married when Rose Marie was being filmed.  We can imagine it was a period of both personal and professional happiness.  Her wedding was, like many celebrity weddings, called The Wedding of the Year when it occurred in 1953, which we mentioned in this previous post, but except for that occasion, she managed to live so quietly that few took notice.

Hedda Hopper noted of Rose Marie in June 1954:

Ann just goes her own sweet way, making little fuss and fewer headlines.  Then, when you least expect it, she comes through with a Sunday punch and you find yourself blinking and asking, “Was that Ann Blyth?”
Come back next Thursday, when we have a chance to say, “Was that Ann Blyth?” again, and again, in three decades of musical theatre performances from the 1960s to the 1980s.  Until then, here’s the trailer for Rose Marie:


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Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p. 20.

Hartford Courant Magazine, June 6, 1954, article by Hedda Hopper, p. 10.

Keel, Howard, with Joyce Spizer.  Only Make Believe – My Life in Show Business (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2005) pp. 156-157.

Opera News, August 2002, article by Brian Kellow.

St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, March 22, 1954, “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” review by L.B., p. 34.
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THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!

Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Student Prince - 1954


The Student Prince (1954) began production in an atmosphere of controversy, and its reputation remains mired in an ironic history.  Today we may recall the film as the one Mario Lanza walked out on, that his voice was used for the musical numbers and lip-synched by his newbie replacement, Edmund Purdom.  There’s a lot more to this prim operetta—the one that happened off-stage, I mean, and it is the story of a dying studio system clutching at its waning power, a suicidal career move, and most especially, a perceived museum piece of old-fashioned entertainment that didn’t belong in the 1950s.

What most people seem to forget is that the Broadway musical on which the movie is based, which came to the Jolson’s 59th Street theater in 1924, was the smash hit of the 1920s, playing a then record 608 performances, running over a year and a half.  The turn-of-the twentieth century fairy tale of the prince and the barmaid may not have belonged in the Jazz Age, either, its quaint Gemütilichkeit a contradiction to the Roaring Twenties, yet it still packed them in and was wildly successful.

We may wonder with a smile if it was just because the Prohibition-era audiences got a charge out of the rollicking “Drink!  Drink!  Drink!” number. 


And it was revived on Broadway in 1931, and in 1943.

The story was based on a play and novel written around the turn of the twentieth century, which made it current events at the time, but by 1924 on Broadway, and then in 1927 when Hollywood took the property and turned it into a silent operetta (no smirking) with Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro, it was a slice of zeitgeist that charmed a faster-paced society.

What happened to all the excitement and goodwill by 1954? 

It seemed to walk out the door with Mario.


Last week we discussed The Great Caruso (1951) that made a star out of Mario Lanza, and gave Ann Blyth her first crack at a big screen musical for MGM.  Caruso enjoyed great financial success, which the studio hoped to repeat in The Student Prince, whose score by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly, were well known and, at least in the 1920s, considered a sure hit.

Ann Blyth was not the first choice for Kathie the barmaid,who hoists steins of beer at her uncle’s inn. 


According to author Armando Cesari in Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Jane Powell was originally considered for the role, but her pregnancy would have been too far along by the time of shooting and was replaced by Miss Blyth, who, in 1952 when the film was slated to be made, was still unmarried.  By the time the movie actually went into production, toward the end of 1953 and beginning of 1954, Ann was married and expecting her first child, such that now the studio needed to push forward the shooting to accommodate her.  (MGM had also tried to get Deanna Durbin out of retirement, but you couldn’t have pried Miss Durbin out of her comfy shell with a crowbar.)

Ann Blyth, by the way, for the only time in her screen career appears as a blonde in this movie.  I don’t know why.  It’s not distracting; she looks fine, but it’s just something of an affectation that doesn’t seem necessary.

In between all this was when the fireworks happened that affected the production of this musical and stamped its troubled legacy ever after.

In June 1952, Mario Lanza clashed with director Curtis Bernhardt on the first day of rehearsals and walked out.  Other actors who had worked with Bernhardt in the past had expressed a dislike of his brusque manner, but Lanza’s request that the studio replace him with Richard Thorpe, who directed Caruso, was rejected by MGM head Dore Schary and producer Joe Pasternak.  A compromise was reached on Mario’s various artistic complaints, including a few new songs, and in the next month, July, Mario came back and did the pre-production musical recordings.  According to author Mr. Cesari:

…to the amazement of everyone he recorded most of the numbers from the score in single takes.

Then Mr. Lanza, whose mercurial temperament and thin skin made him unable to accept criticism and was vulnerable to stress, suffered a personal trauma when unexpected financial troubles came down hard on him.  According to the author, he suffered from nervous tension and accordingly, did not use good judgment when it came to his artistic differences with the director, and in his stubborn noncompliance with studio orders. Unable to take frustration, he just walked out again.  There have always been rumors about Lanza’s having gained too much weight and was dismissed from The Student Prince for that, but he was fit at the time of rehearsals and his real troubles with weight gain and dangerous crash dieting happened afterwards, at least in part as a reaction to the stress of his troubles with MGM.  His troubles compounded when the studio sued him for walking out. 

Movie production was canceled in September 1952.  The studio sued Lanza, and the lawsuit took over the news, and lives of many.  In October, Ann was interviewed by William Brownell for the New York Times:

“We were all disappointed to miss making this picture,” she commented.  “Mr. Lanza and I had so much fun making The Great Caruso, and I’m sure nobody thought anything would go wrong with this one.  He seemed to be in good spirits and satisfied with everything.  We had already finished all the pre-production musical recordings and were all set to film the story portion.

“I feel so sorry for all the others connected with the picture—the technicians, the supporting players, the musicians and dancers.  We waited around on the set for over a week, but Mr. Lanza didn’t appear.  Finally they told us that the picture wouldn’t be made and everyone was thrown out of work.  But I actually feel most sorry for Mr. Lanza.  If only we could help him some way…”

Her strikingly sympathetic words might almost be taken for a portent on the eventual end of Mario Lanza’s career and his life—which happened sooner than anyone could have imagined.  He died in 1959 at 38 years old of a heart attack and other health issues.  He was born in 1921, the same year Caruso died, and was considered to be his heir as the world’s greatest tenor, or would have been, according to varied opinions, if he had lived longer, or lived a more disciplined life, trained harder, had forsaken Hollywood for the opera world...or just not walked out on The Student Prince.  

The last was apparently his own opinion.  According to author Mr. Cesari:

During the last period of his life, Lanza would confess, “I now admit the biggest mistake I ever made was to walk out of Metro.”

But he left behind his voice. 

We’ll get to that in a minute.


Ann Blyth was still contracted to Universal-International at this time, and neither they, nor she, were willing to just let the grass grow under her feet in the meantime.  Buoyed by the success of The Great Caruso, she continued her voice training and performed at local venues whenever possible.  Syndicated columnist Gene Handsaker noted in June 1952:

Little Ann Blyth has more singing volume than I thought.  Annie recently sang five songs before the Greater Los Angeles Press Club.  When she turned away from the mike, to face part of her audience, she proved that her voice is as strong as it is beautiful.

But apparently, Universal still had no intention of casting her in musicals, for the remainder of her time with them was spent in the drama The World in His Arms (1952), which we covered here, and the comedy Sally and Saint Anne (1952), which we covered here.  Two more dramas, One Minute to Zero and All the Brothers Were Valiant, which we’ll cover down the road, were made before the clock ran out on her Universal contract and she moseyed over to MGM and her next musical, Rose Marie (1954), which we’ll talk about next week.

With Rose Marie and The Student Prince, as well as a biopic of their composer, Sigmund Romberg, Deep in My Heart starring José Ferrer, 1954 must have been The Year of Sigmund Romberg.  We’ll have to cover Deep in My Heart sometime.

In May 1953, MGM offered a compromise that would let them proceed with making the musical—without Lanza, that would also end their lawsuit against him.  Their proposal: for Mario to let them use the vocal soundtrack he already recorded in return for their dropping the suit.  Lanza, still stunned that the studio did not seem to want him back, and under mounting debt, could not withstand a prolonged court case, agreed.

Film production finally continued (ironically under director Richard Thorpe, whom Lanza wanted from the beginning).  Lanza was replaced by English newcomer Edmund Purdom, as The Student Prince became one of Hollywood’s most infamous voice-dubbing controversies.  Another would be Ann’s singing being dubbed by Gogi Grant in The Helen Morgan Story (1957).  We’ll get to that down the road.

Here’s the trailer:



Ann’s singing here is lovely, and she continues to display a vocal agility (even more pronounced in Rose Marie, which was filmed before this) that had not been evident through the songs offered her in any movie in which she had ever sung.  While it’s true she continued to train and develop her voice such that she was a much better singer in 1954 than she was in 1944 when she started in her first Universal B-musical (see our previous post on Chip off the Old Block here), but it is also true that operetta, this supposedly antiquated (by pop 1954 standards) allowed us to experience the depth and fullness of her singing ability in a way a popular musical would not.  Ann Blyth could sing popular musicals and pop songs, even saloon songs (I’m looking at you “Oceania Roll”), but banging out the crisp high notes on the rousing “Come Boys” number, or facing off toe-to-toe with the great tenor Mario Lanza (and cheek-to-cheek on screen with Edmund Purdom) in “Deep in My Heart” are marvelous demonstrations of her vocal range and agility, and moments of musical bliss. 

Here’s a look at “Deep in My Heart”:



As Brian Kellow in his 2002 Opera News article remarks:

One of the best things about her singing is its no-frills emotional directness.

I would suggest this is also one of the best things about her acting.

However, our old friend Bosley Crowther of the New York Times (it seems one of my great pleasures in life is disagreeing with Bosley Crowther) reported in his review:

…natty little Ann Blyth does her own singing, they tell us—and does it quite nicely, too.  Of course, is a bit fragile for a barmaid and a bit on the prim and proper site.

Here I have to once again, disagree about the “fragile.”  Have a look at the way Ann hoists three full liter-size beer steins in each hand as she sings “Come Boys,” serving them to thirsty, singing male students and picking up more by the handful from passing trays, all the while climbing over benches, tables, and patrons.  It’s like an Olympic event.  That little woman must have had a vise-like grip.  I’ll bet if she shook hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger, she’d make him cry like a little girl.


We have a very charming account of what it was like to perform in this scene from one of those students, by the name of Ralph:

I was in constant awe working so closely with this charming, beautiful, friendly actress.  She treated all of us as equals, joking, talking and enjoying our company as we enjoyed hers.  To this day I can recall the good feelings on that set just because Ann Blyth made it that way.

Please head over to Ralph’s blog here for more on his experience as an extra in The Student Prince.

The movie features Louis Calhern as the king, who must marry off his grandson, played by Edmund Purdom, in an arranged marriage to a wealthy princess (played by Betta St. John) to save his kingdom because they’re broke.  Mr. Purdom, handsome, haughty, but lacking in personality, is something of a jerk.  Who wants to marry a poor jerk?  A rich jerk, maybe, but not a poor one.  He has only his charms to recommend him, and he’s low on charm.

Edmund Gwenn, who played Ann’s grandpa in Sally and Saint Anne, is the kindly old professor and mentor to Purdom, who suggests that the lad be sent off to college with the commoners so he can learn about life and how not to be a jerk.  With his mustache and muttonchops, Mr. Gwenn looks a little like Emperor Franz Josef.  It’s a good look on him.


John Williams, a favorite and whom we last saw with Ann here as the prosecuting attorney in A Woman’sVengeance (1948) has a comic role as the disapproving, snippy chamberlain who goes with Mr. Purdom to college and acts like his babysitter.  His dignity is assaulted in practically every scene.

Richard Anderson, another favorite, and who we last saw as Ann’s beau in The Buster Keaton Story(1957) here, plays one of the students who befriends Purdom and encourages him to binge drink as a form of social interaction.


Edmund Purdom drinks copiously, meets Ann, and through the course of a rocky courtship, falls in love and learns not to be quite such a jerk.  He also learns, to his regret, what it means to be king.

I like the scene where a disgruntled chef chases him out of his kitchen with a meat cleaver.  I don’t know who plays the chef, but I love his rolling R’s German accent.  Since the cartoon-watching days of my early childhood, I've always had a love of scenes where somebody chases somebody else with a meat cleaver.  That's not something I would tell everybody, so don't let that get around.  It sounds worse than it is. 

S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall plays Ann's uncle, the innkeeper with his customary middle European loving fretfulness.


Purdom performs well in his “singing” scenes, having prepared diligently for several weeks for the role.  He may not have had the screen magnetism of Mario Lanza—and one cannot hear Lanza’s voice without wondering how he might have appeared in the film—but Purdom is handsome and if this were really his singing voice we’d be talking about a major new star.


But it wasn’t his singing voice, and that, for perhaps the first time in the history of Hollywood, where dubbing went on all the time since the advent of sound pictures but nobody made a big deal out of it, was what dragged down this movie and possibly Purdom’s start in Hollywood.  He went on to other films, in fact, his next was a rematch with Ann in the historical drama The King’s Thief (1955), which we’ll get to down the road.  He was a talented actor, a beautiful speaker, but having lip-synched to one of the most famous voices of the era, despite that role seeming, as it should have been, a tremendous career opportunity, only tarnished his image as a second-string weak imitation.  Purdom deserved better, and so did the movie.


The film also carried the image of a poor substitute, inferior goods.  The reviews were mixed, with some positive, such as this one from Howard Pearson in his syndicated column from May 1954:

Before the song is half-way through, audiences will not be conscious that Purdom is not singing.  The work of blending his lip movements to the Lanza’s voice has been well-nigh perfect…Also, Purdom is so handsome and personable, it’s a certainty audiences won’t care that he isn’t singing…”

With Mario Lanza’s great big, fat screen credit, nobody was allowed to forget it was him singing.

That first song is “Summertime in Heidelberg,” a sweet tune he sings in a duet with Ann Blyth, which she starts, seated at a piano, with shy and hesitant wistfulness.  No “opera singing” here, it’s as gentle as a lullaby.  He picks up the tune and takes it over.  The image is like a metaphor for the movie: her guiding the newcomer Purdom into the spotlight with his first song on screen, and Lanza’s voice, the ghost that wouldn’t go away, taking over not only Purdom’s credibility, but the taking over the rest of the song from Ann while she sits in the foreground in silence. For my part, though Mr. Lanza’s voice is always a pleasure, I would prefer to have less Lanza and more Blyth.  He again has the lion’s share of the music.

Here’s a look at “Summertime in Heidelberg”:



Other reviews were more dismissive, suggesting the genre of operetta had had its day.  Perhaps, in the new era of filming on location, the studio soundstage “village” seemed artificial, but is totally in keeping with the theatrical mode of operetta.  To have made it more “realistic” would have been to cut its artistry off at the knees. 

In an interview with Lance Erikson Ghulam for Classic Images in 1995, Ann recalled:

In some ways, I thought it was photographed beautifully and had some great character actors.  I still feel that Edmund Purdom did a marvelous job…Certainly, if [Mario] had been in the movie, things would have been quite different.  So much had been written about his problems with the studio that I think everyone was waiting to pounce on the movie.


If Mario Lanza’s arrogance was punished by his cutting off his nose to spite his face, then MGM’s arrogance in cherry picking the voice of one major star and assigning it to a newcomer—quite publically as if to prove a point that stars were replaceable—had an effect as well.  The film did middling at the box office, but the record album of Lanza’s recordings was a smash.  It became Mario Lanza’s best selling LP, his first gold album.

That LP, just as the movie, also leaves a legacy of contractual misfortune.  Ann Blyth’s vocals were done by Gale Sherwood, because Ann did not have a contract with RCA, the producer of the album.

Two weeks before The Student Prince premiered, Ann's first child was born, beginning a new and very happy chapter in her personal life.  Professionally, with the coming autumn, she would continue her career in what would come to be one of its most satisfying facets: singing in concert on stage.  Her Las Vegas act is described in this previous post.

Come back next Thursday when we discuss Rose Marie, a lavish production featuring Ann as the feisty backwoods waif, Howard Keel as her Mountie guardian, and Fernando Lamas as the wily trapper in a tuneful, and heartbreaking, romantic triangle.  The triangle was haunted, however, by another duo.


Posted by Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog.

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Cesari, Armando.  Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Baskerville Publishers, Inc.) pp.164, 166, p. 173

Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p.20.

Daytona Beach Morning Journal, June 3, 1952, p. 4 “Hollywood Report” syndicated column by Gene Handsaker.

Deseret News (Salt Lake City), May 8, 1954, syndicated by Howard Pearson, p. B 3.

Milwaukee Journal, May 2, 1954, “It Pays to Be Good” by Sue Chambers.

New York Times, October 12, 1952, article by William Brownell, p. x5; June 16, 1954, review by Bosley Crowther, p. 18

Opera News, August 2002, article by Brian Kellow, pp. 38-44.

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THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!

Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.