Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deep in My Heart - 1954

Deep in My Heart (1954) is a delightful musical, a biography of composer Sigmund Romberg that is perhaps not so much biography as it is pastiche—but this is what makes it so successful.

It is long a common complaint of classic film fans, even fans of musicals, that filmed biographies of composers fall short of the mark when it comes to being authentic or factual.  I won’t disagree.  However, neither do I expect a musical, even in the form of a biography of a composer, to be a documentary.  It is first and foremost a revue of his music, and Deep in My Heart, though giving us a smattering of Romberg’s experiences as in immigrant to the U.S. in the days of Tin Pan Alley, nevertheless firmly keeps to his music as a method of telling the story of his aspirations as a composer.  To this end—fighting the “modern” trends of music with its soul-crushing disposable fads, and yearning for the opportunity to express himself in his own way—these ideals are timeless among creative people and in telling this story the film is completely successful.

Stanley Donen, I think, was an exceptional director of musicals, and his quick style and expressive camera work reminds me a little of the work of Michael Curtiz in a way, the way the camera sweeps, pans, and catches little things.  It is never static.  But it is the unlikely cast of this musical that is the most intriguing.  José Ferrer stars as composer Sigmund Romberg.  A star on Broadway in Shakespearian roles, and, of course, his Tony-Oscar-Emmy win for Cyrano—who in the world suggested, “Ah, a frothy musical on a Viennese composer of operettas!  Let’s get José Ferrer!”?  I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was a serendipitous choice.  Mr. Ferrer is astounding in this role.  A true Renaissance man, his abilities not only in dramatic acting, musicianship, languages, and a beautifully silly flare for comedy, Ferrer is perfect in this film.

Helen Traubel, another in the “how did they ever think of her?” category, is splendid as Ferrer’s longtime buddy, an immigrant like himself from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who carries the sentimental veneer of Old Vienna, while at the same time espousing a scrappy American immigrant’s idealism and love for her new country.  She owns the café where Ferrer, a newcomer to the New World himself, plays piano, sometimes his own lovely compositions, and also waits on tables.  She is with him through thick and thin throughout his career, just as much a part of his life at the beginning as at his triumphant final moments before the fade out.  Miss Traubel was something of a Renaissance woman herself: one of the Metropolitan Opera’s Wagnerian sopranos in the 1940s, she later wrote mystery novels and was a long-time baseball fan, eventually becoming part-owner of her favorite, and unhappily unsuccessful team, The St. Louis Browns.  She and Ferrer play off each other well, as much celebrating as parodying the gemütlichkeit of their culture.

Joining Miss Traubel in supporting Ferrer’s career is Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, Sigmund Romberg’s real-life partner in musical theatre.  Dorothy Donnelly had an interesting and important place in American theatre in the early days of the twentieth century; noted stage actress, even appearing in a few silent films, playwright, producer, and director.  She also enjoyed fame as the librettist to many of Romberg’s most successful operettas.  In this movie, she has the rather shadowy role of being Romberg’s advisor, supporter, partner, but also as played by the fey and lovely Merle Oberon, a woman silently in love with him, who, for whatever reason, keeps her infatuation to herself.  Miss Oberon gives the role an intriguing sadness.  Her best roles, the height of her career was behind her, but she gives this slight role a lustrous charm.

Rounding out the cast we are given more real-life personages, but presented, in typical Hollywood fashion, more as “types.”  Doe Avedon, who enjoyed only a brief career in film, plays the elegant upper crust debutante with whom Ferrer is smitten and eventually marries. 

Walter Pidgeon, now relegated from leading man to character roles, mostly fuddy-duddy businessmen, plays theatre impresario J.J. Shubert. 

Paul Henreid briefly plays Florenz Ziegfeld.  Later this year, we’re going to discuss a bit more about Florenz Ziegfeld and the actors who played him on film.

Paul Stewart, normally relegated to gangster types with that icy stare, here has a prominent role as Bert Townsend, Shubert’s producer who frankly admits to being in the theatre racket for the money and who panders to a public he feels are more likely to attend snappy shows with up-to-date situations, dialogue, and tunes.  He stomps down hard on Ferrer’s artistic bent for presenting operetta with all its cultural, dramatic, and musical richness, and this is the running theme of the story:  The artist being allowed to create what he wants versus what is currently the rage in the marketplace.

This theme pulls this splendid movie from the cozy dream world of the usual MGM musical and plants it firmly in today’s era of art versus product marketability.  It’s the same for music, theatre, books, as it is for any artistic endeavor, and every artist can relate.  The only thing perhaps holding back a modern appreciation of the struggles Romberg faces in this film is that the struggles are over operetta.  Unfortunately, as we discussed last year in our posts on The Student Prince (1954), Rose Marie (1954) and The Great Caruso (1951), operetta, outside of regional theatre, no longer enjoys the popularity it once did.  Paul Stewart, the grumpy producer, feels the same.  He wants no part of these Viennese-inspired cupcakes.  He wants Al Jolson in blackface, college co-eds, and flaming youth.

Needing the money, and the exposure, Ferrer sells his soul, as it were, and allows himself to become the composer of a great number of these now-forgotten topical “hits” of the World War I era and the early 1920s.  He constantly hammers at Mr. Stewart to allow him to write the kind of music he wants to write, constantly shoving the score of Maytime in his face, at which Stewart turn up his nose like smelly garbage.  Maytime would become one of the colossal hits of Broadway, which finally gave Romberg a leg up on doing the kind of music he wanted.

The Student Prince, Desert Song, and Rose Marie were even bigger hits in the 1920s, and it is for these operettas, Romberg’s pride, that he is remembered and not the dreck he was forced to write earlier in his career.

So there, Paul Stewart.

A few scenes of note:  I love how the movie starts, slowly, elegantly, and grandly with a full orchestra, as the camera pans probingly, lovingly on the musicians at their instruments (I doubt close-ups were ever given to orchestra musicians before or probably since), then finally lands on José Ferrer conducting, and then, bang, the credits.  It is a classy way to begin.

The use of a roster of MGM stars to present the various musical numbers is genius: it allows the studio to play its first-stringers, and it allows most of the story to be centered on the music and not on any awkwardly strung-together “biography.”  Jane Powell and Vic Damone, Howard Keel, Tony Martin, Ann Miller all are presented in numbers that show off their best talents.

Ferrer, who, among his other talents, can sing a little as well, is presented in a charming number with his new wife, Rosemary Clooney, “Mr. and Mrs.”  And proves to be a pretty snappy dancer.

He also performs the ragtime novelty song and dance “Leg O’ Mutton Rag” with the delightfully game Helen Traubel.  Wagner?  Who’s that?

Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell dance to “One Alone” from The Desert Song in one of filmdom’s most sensual performances ever.  They way they move and cling to each other in perfect interpretation of the music makes her climbing over his body look curiously almost like ice dancing.  You’d swear there is more movement than the camera is capturing.

We see the fun stuff, and the most exquisitely beautiful popular music ever written.  “Softly, as a Morning Sunrise” is tops among these, and Helen Traubel gets to save it, most majestically, from its early foot-stomping mangled version as concocted by the Shuberts and the manic styling of Tamara Toumanova.

Gene Kelly, in a rare film duet song and dance with his brother Fred, appear in the “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen.”

But the tops is José Ferrer’s tour-de-force performance in the scene where he is requested to describe his latest work for the Shuberts, a silly romp called “Jazzadadadoo” from Bombo.  Embarrassed about this show, he is reluctant to act and sing it in front of his lady friend and her snobby mother, but once persuaded, he throws himself into it, manic and most hysterically funny.  The performance is incredible; not only does he compresses the entire plot of the ridiculous show in a single scene, but he dances, does mimicry, funny voices, smears on a little blackface to imitate Al Jolson, and will make you laugh until you cry or wet your pants or both.   It’s like a Monty Python skit.

Dignity slowly returns to Romberg, and the movie, when we witness his eventual vindication among the Shuberts and all low-brow folks when his operettas are the hits of the shallow 1920s; when he mourns the loss of his pal, Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, who sadly died at only 47; and in the final majestic number before a full orchestra, Romberg’s signature tune, “Deep in My Heart.”

But were the Shuberts right, did they have the last laugh in knowing that someday operetta would no longer be what the public wanted?

Listen to the music.  “Softly as a Summer Sunrise” is one of the loveliness, most sensual tunes ever written, and is still performed by jazz/blues singers today, as well as “Lover, Come Back to Me” both from the operetta The New Moon.

And consider that if Linda Rondstadt and Kermit the Frog can perform “When I Grow to Old to Dream,” then it really is a cool song after all, isn’t it?

In this old radio show, we have Ferrer, Rosemary Clooney, Jane Powell and others on the soundtrack promoting the film: 

Deep in My Heart, sometimes shown on TCM, is available on DVD here:

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2015. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission. 


My book on Ann Blyth's career--Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th. To that end, I’ll be looking for some help in the pre-launch phase, so I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).



Caftan Woman said...

"So Deep in My Heart" is one of those movies I have seen so many times I have lost count. I can never turn away when it pops up on television. Sometimes with the cheering thought that "Bombo" is coming up and sometimes with the gloomy realilzation that "I've missed "Bombo"!

I recall a CBC special of several years ago that celebrated Romberg. It is a sad world indeed where he is not celebrated.

Kevin Deany said...

Excellent article, Jacqueline, on a most delightful film. It's one of my favorite M-G-M musicals, though it's not one people immediately think of.

Romberg wasn't always well served by the movies, but he was here.And MAYTIME and NEW MOON are great. But then there's Warner's 1943 version of THE DESERT SONG, a tough one to sit through and I love Dennis Morgan.

One of the worst adaptations was Universal's UP IN CENTRAL PARK, with Deanna Durbin. The film jettisons most of the score, with film's biggest hits, "Close as Pages in a Book" to mere background music. Just horrible.

I may have mentioned this before, but I'm surprised by this operetta revival at 1950s movie theaters, with this, and new versions of THE DESERT SONG, ROSE MARIE, THE VAGABOND KING. Was it a pushback to rock and roll, or just one of those nostalgia trends that occasionally pops up? TV had versions of operettas too. Nelson Eddy performed a live version of THE DESERT SONG, broadcast on television. It's a curious phenomenen.

Speaking of operetta biographies, I've always wanted to see Paramount's THE GREAT VICTOR HERBERT (1938) with Walter Connelley, Allan Jones and Mary Martin. It never shows up anywhere, but got good reviews. Mrs. Herbert was very pleased with the film, especially the musical direction of the film's numbers.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

CW, you have exquisite taste. Would have liked to have seen the CBC special, but if TV offerings are few, there's at least YouTube.

Kevin, I often think of your remarks on the posts of ROSE MARIE, THE STUDENT PRINCE, etc, about the brief interest in operetta in the 1950s films. I think the 1980s also experienced a similar brief revival, though only in regional civic opera companies for the most part - though the PIRATES OF PENZANCE did make it to Broadway. I like to think it's the durability of the music that makes popular culture turn to it from time to time.

I've never seen THE GREAT VICTOR HERBERT either. It might be fun to try to hunt that down.

Anonymous said...

I love these musical biographies, simply for all the great musical numbers. I do so agree "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" is heavenly.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I agree, Vienna, these kinds of movies are fun for the roundup of songs. "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" is one of my very favorites.

Christian Esquevin said...

Very nice review of this musical, an overlooked classic as you point out.
I've enjoyed it very much too. The costume designer Helen Rose considered Cyd Charisse' outfit in her dance number one of her best designs. I'd like to help publicize your book on Ann Blyth - probably with a Q&A. We'll keep in touch.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Christian. I'm so pleased there are so many fans of this movie. How nice that Helen Rose counted the Charisse costume in this as one of her favorites; I didn't know that. Cyd is smashing in anything, but this is really a lovely costume for her. Thank you so much for helping publicize the Ann Blyth book. I'll look forward to that.

Yvette said...

I don't think I've ever seen this movie, Jacqueline. None of it rings any bells in my memory vault. Though it seems to me I would very naturally have watched this on televison at some time in the past. But I'm drawing a blank. So I have something definitely to look forward to if I can find it online somewhere. I love Jose Ferrer. The only major Puerto Rican star beside Rita Moreno that ever springs to mind.

Gene Kelly dancing with his brother? How did I miss this?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I hope you can see it sometime soon, Yvette. It's really quite lovely, and the "specialty acts" are such fun. Ferrer is fabulous.

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