Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rhapsody in Blue - 1945

Rhapsody in Blue (1945) presents George Gershwin’s piece “Rhapsody in Blue” almost in its entirety.  This, and cameo appearances by some who knew and collaborated with Gershwin: Paul Whiteman, Oscar Levant, and Al Jolson – playing themselves, make this film a worthwhile entry in our series on musicals about composers.  However, it’s so lacking in factual material, or even an interesting fictional tale – that there’s not much else to recommend the movie.

Adding to these detriments is a dour subplot of the main character plodding through life to his well-telegraphed doom.  The film was made some eight years after George Gershwin’s death at the age of 38 from a malignant brain tumor.  The story is told through that lens.  It is less a celebration of his life, ambition, and his prodigious contribution to American music, than it is a quietly haunting march of the walking dead.  Perhaps it was difficult not to film this movie within a prism of grief.

There are bright spots in the film, most notable of which is jazz and classical pianist Hazel Scott, who appeared in a handful of 1940s musicals as a specialty act.  A class act she was: elegant and stunningly beautiful, as well as being sublimely blessed with talent.  She is the most sparkling image in this movie.

Alexis Smith and Joan Leslie are also on hand as George Gershwin’s two (fictional) romantic relationships, with Miss Smith in her customary cool, intelligent beauty role, and Joan Leslie as the loser in the triangle when Gershwin cannot commit to her but seems to forget her in the dust of his ambition. Miss Leslie loses her all-American girlishness in this film that brought her to stardom at Warner’s, and instead appears quite moving and lovely as a sadder-but-wiser woman. 
Robert Alda plays George Gershwin (his screen debut), and though Alda is likable, it’s a performance so low key that it is hard to appreciate what drove this clearly driven man.  Perhaps it is just too difficult to visually depict the inner turmoil and ecstasy of the creative process.

Herbert Rudley is his brother and lyricist Ira, who was his closest relationship.  Sweet and reliable Morris Carnovsky and Rosemary DeCamp are Mama and Papa.

Eddie Marr plays lyricist Buddy De Silva, who we saw portrayed by Gordon MacRae earlier in this series here in The Best Things in Life are Free (1956).

Will Wright plays Rachmaninoff, the thought of which still cracks me up.

Mark Stevens, who we saw earlier in this series in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now has a brief uncredited role as a singer. I’m pretty sure his tenor voice is dubbed here.

When first viewing Rhapsody in Blue years ago, I remember thinking how unrealistically stupid it was that when George Gershwin’s headaches seemed so severe, nobody thought of taking him to a doctor. I have since learned that when he finally did seek medical help in June 1937, he was ironically given a clean bill of health and told that his problem was hysteria.  A month later he fell into a coma and then it was decided that he had a brain tumor.  Gershwin died having emergency surgery.  So what is least believable in old movies is sometimes what we must believe.

The movie takes us from his childhood days in New York, to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Paris, and the Hollywood Bowl.  We are treated to “Swanee,” by a hyperkinetic Jolson, and snippets of “The Man I love” and “Yankee Doodle Blues” from Hazel Scott, a bit of “Embraceable You,” from Joan Leslie, who was unable to finish overcome by her hurt that Gershwin has brought Alexis Smith to a party.  We have Anne Brown and Todd Duncan recreating their Broadway roles as Porgy and Bess, but not enough of them.  Just bits.  We don’t get enough of Gershwin in this movie about Gershwin.

Oscar Levant and Charles Coburn are welcome additions to the cast, as they anchor the dreaminess of the proceedings with invariably caustic but sensible remarks, but as mentioned in our last entry in this series, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, the film would have been better served – especially with the shocking passing of the man still clearly mourned by the entertainment world – with a greater tribute by just presenting performances of his music, and not reminding us with foreshadowing at every turn that he was doomed to live a short life.

I would have rather had a film that left the audience lost in the rapture of his music, and observing the busy course of his full life, have had the sudden end of his life come as a shock, as indeed it did for people in 1937.  That way we can better appreciate his work, and also share in the sense of loss, coming to understand its magnitude on the American Songbook.

“Work is a compulsion.  It’s an obsession,” George says, but the obsession of this movie is not his work; it’s his death.

Come back next Thursday when we cap off this series on musicals about composers with a double-header: a look Cole Porter’s career through Night and Day (1946) and De-Lovely (2004).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.


Caftan Woman said...

A misguided film indeed. Truth would have worked. An array of talent performing the great music would have worked.

A memory has stirred. Michael Feinstein presented this on TCM a while back and apparently the family (mother?) had some sort of say in what ended up on the screen. It really was too soon for this project.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

CW, you're probably right, it was just too soon to make the movie. Yes, Feinstein introduced the movie. The mother, but I think mainly Ira also kept the story from drifting into George's private life and his many romances. But when it comes to films about composers, I think it's possible to still have a good movie even if the private life is not covered in depth by just showcasing all that great music. I'd at least like to hear a song to the end.

joel65913 said...

I agree that the basic story is the standard Hollywood studio pablum crap that diminished such films as Night and Day, Look For the Silver Lining and so forth but the glorious music makes up for a great deal of that. What hurts the film more is that Alda is merely serviceable in the lead. A decent actor but not a Movie Star which this sort of vehicle requires.

At least in Night and Day you had Cary Grant, someone with massive charisma to carry you through the piffle they tried to spoon feed you about Porter's private life.

Poor Alexis Smith wasted yet again!! That she managed to be so memorable in the nothing roles she was usually handed time after time is a credit to her. It's sad really, an actress of great skill as she eventually was able to show thrown into one ornamental role after another. She would have been the perfect Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, aside from the physical aspect of the role she possessed the one thing that none of the actresses who have played her so far have had-a voice full of money. When I read the book she was who I envisioned right from the start.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi Joel, welcome. I also think Alexis Smith was tops, and not used wisely or enough. The Daisy Buchanan role in THE GREAT GATSBY never occurred to me, but that's quite an idea. "A voice full of money." Yeah. That would have been something.

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