Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl, the second of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's productive collaborations with Louise Brooks, is a potent and gorgeously stylized depiction of an innocent young woman's destruction at the hands of the not-so-innocent. Brooks plays Thymian, a beautiful and sheltered pharmacist's daughter whose dawning realization about the cruel ways of the world coincides with the loss of the security of her family. The opening of the film enacts a lurid symbolic struggle between innocence and sin, naïveté and knowledge. Brooks' Thymian, dressed all in white on the occasion of her confirmation, her eyes wide beneath the iconic ridge of her dark bangs, looks around her with a complete lack of guile, sweetly accepting presents from family and friends, glowing with courtesy and grace.

She seems entirely unaware of all the sexually charged glances being exchanged all around her: the exaggerated leer of her father's assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) who all but licks his lips and bulges his eyes like a cartoon wolf when he looks at her; her father's (Josef Rovensky) sexual liaisons with one maid after another; her aunt's (Vera Pawlowa) grim knowledge of these constant affairs; the knowing glances and raised eyebrows of the party guests when they see the new maid Meta (Franziska Kinz), who brazenly stares at her employer with an invitingly wicked smile that openly suggests that the cycle is going to start again. Everyone but Thymian seems to know exactly what's going on, but she is blissfully unaware of the sexual drama surrounding her.

In her pure white confirmation dress, a band of flowers wrapped around her head, she's a vision of innocence so pure and unstained that the mere realization that sin and sexual predation exist in her household produces a fainting spell, confining her to bed as though she's taken ill. She sees the corpse of her beloved maid — who'd committed suicide after being abandoned by Thymian's father — then runs up the stairs in a daze, sees her father with his arm already around the new maid, both of them staring at the camera in a frozen pose, a sly smile on the face of the new maid in contrast to the serene blankness of the dead girl downstairs, and in one fluid motion Thymian swoons to the floor, overcome by the taint of impurity infiltrating her home.

This is only the beginning of Thymian's suffering, as Meinert takes advantage of her vulnerability and rapes her. Pabst freezes the frame at the moment when the creepy druggist lowers Thymian's limp form into bed, and then immediately cuts to a baby carriage being taken out of Thymian's room, months later, carrying the fruit of that forceful union. Thymian's family casts her out, and she's sent to a reformatory, which she soon escapes with her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), only to fall into a life of prostitution. The man she believes is going to save her, the disgraced and disinherited Count Osdorff (André Roanne), is actually a lazy and pathetic outcast who settles easily into a life of comfort at the brothel with Thymian and Erika. Pabst, though, doesn't portray the brothel as an entirely unpleasant life; the girls have fun and like each other, and Thymian certainly seems happier and better off there than she was under the care of the strict Christian moralists at the reformatory.

The reformatory is run by a stern mistress (Valeska Gert) whose usually stony face betrays an expression of ecstatic joy when whipping the girls through a frenzied gymnastics routine, and a bald-headed, looming movie monster giant (Andrews Engelmann) who first pops comically into the frame by standing up in front of a sign listing the many things that are "verboten" in this dismal place. This cartoonish giant delights in punishing the girls, grabbing them with a clawed hand at the scruff of their neck as though picking up a disobedient puppy, and his leering sadism is both creepy and hysterical — particularly when he runs a confiscated tube of lipstick across his own mouth, grinning impishly, then uses it to write a reminder to punish the girl he'd taken it from, a note signed with a heart to indicate his sadistic love of punishment.

Lesbian eroticism is another obvious subtext here, especially in the reformatory, where most of the girls have clipped, close-cropped boyish haircuts, and Erika introduces herself to Thymian by surreptitiously touching the new girl's leg with her foot and winking at her, echoing Meinert's leering winks. At bedtime, as Pabst pans down the line of girls getting ready for bed, two girls sit in the same bunk, giggling, and fall back into bed together. The scene where the matron tries to seize Thymian's diary is also loaded with suggestive intimacy, with the stern woman grabbing at Erika's bare legs, looking up at the two girls sitting in the top bunk, grasping at them with clawed hands. Later, when Thymian visits Erika at the brothel where she's staying, Pabst emphasizes the brothel's madame putting an intimate hand on the bare back of one of her girls — the gesture is repeated when the madame pushes Thymian together with a male client to dance — and then has Erika kneel before Thymian, taking off her shoes and undressing her, unbuttoning her demure reformatory blouse with its high collar to expose a V of flesh at her neck.

The film is steeped in this kind of sexual suggestiveness. Thymian's downfall has everything to do with sex and money, and sex and money come to be linked in very intimate ways for her. After her first night at the brothel, after she's spent the night with a man — swooning in his arms so that her limp form very much recalls her unconsciousness during Meinert's exploitation of her — the madame hands her an envelope of cash and makes it clear that it's from the man. Only then does the very naïve Thymian realize what's happened, and she recoils from the cash, which Pabst nevertheless emphasizes in a closeup. Much later, when her father dies and she receives an inheritance from Meinert for buying out the pharmacy, the camera glances from the pile of cash to Meinert's smug, cartoonishly grinning face, making it seem as though this too is a transaction, a belated payment for that long ago night when he'd taken her to bed.

It's not all grim tragedy here, though, and there's some limited comedy relief along the way. Among the humorous scenes is a very strange sequence where a goofy guy with a billy-goat beard (a possible anti-Semitic caricature) comes to see Thymian for "dance lessons," and she leads him in a bizarre calisthenic workout inspired by her reformatory exercise drills, while holding a drum protectively/suggestively over her crotch and beating it with a mallet in the way the reformatory mistress had done. The sexual symbolism is especially naked here, but those undercurrents are everywhere in this film.

The plot unravels a bit towards the end with a predictable tonal shift towards an optimistic, redemptive conclusion, seemingly foisted upon Pabst by censors eager to end on a positive note after all this barely coded sex. Even here, though, Pabst's emotional poetry shines through. The film is never less than beautiful, its style fluid and expressionist while also remaining grounded in social realism. And Brooks is just magnificent, with a beautiful and vibrant face that was perfectly suited to the silent cinema. When she smiles, the screen glows, and when she's suffering her eyes seem to contain unimaginable depths of feeling, often assisted by Pabst's very sympathetic photography of her, as in the stunning shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears.

Posted in Cinema

Magnificent Obsession

Douglas Sirk was a master of the lurid Hollywood melodrama, transcending often outrageous and contrived material with the sheer force of the emotion and the visual rigor that he invested in these stories. In films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Sirk found profundity and great beauty in what would have been trash in the hands of others. In Magnificent Obsession, a forerunner to the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson pairing of All That Heaven Allows, not even Sirk can truly transcend what must be one of the worst plots and the worst screenplays in Hollywood history, a ridiculous pile-up of contrivances and silly plot twists in the service of a saccharine Christian-themed drama. It's a clunky and deeply strange film, and its absurd narrative prevents it from ever really being great, though Sirk's mise en scène and keen eye for painting in Technicolor elevate it at least to the level of a campy, emotionally intense tearjerker.

The story concerns the redemption of the callow playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), who gets a wake-up call when his boating accident indirectly causes the death of a prominent, well-loved local doctor because an important piece of medical equipment was being used to treat Bob when the doctor had a heart attack. Bob falls in love with the doctor's widow Helen (Jane Wyman), but his clumsy attempts to pursue her — using a bastardized version of the philosophy of Christian charity practiced by her husband, and taught to Bob by the husband's friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) — only results in further tragedy, when an accident leaves Helen blind. It's soapy in the extreme, particularly when Bob dedicates his life to medicine, becoming a doctor and using his wealth and his knowledge in an attempt to cure Helen's blindness even as he courts the blind woman (who apparently doesn't recognize his voice) under the laughable assumed name of Robby Robinson. Once one starts trying to pick apart the plot, it's difficult to stop, so it's best to just let it be, to try to overlook the unending cavalcade of absurdities and foolishness and sudden emotional reversals, to focus instead on the undeniably rapturous power of Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty's images, which are as always some of the finest examples of Technicolor extravagance.

Sirk makes this insane plot come alive with the sensuous power of his images. Resonating with the theme of literal and metaphorical blindness, Sirk continually bathes the characters in alternating blocks of light and shadow, draping the film in darkness. Walking across a room, they step into the light for a moment and are then swallowed up again in darkness, the shadows falling across faces and erasing features into black silhouettes in the night. For all his obvious love of bright, pastel colors, Sirk seems equally at home in inky blackness, stretching shadows across the frame so that the characters are perpetually shuttling back and forth between seeing and unseeing, between flashes of light and dark pools in which nothing can be seen. When Helen visits Switzerland for a barrage of tests with some famed eye surgeons, her face is totally profiled in shadow until the doctor pans a small light across her face, highlighting each of her eyes in turn, creating a tiny circle of light, a pinprick reflected in her shining eye.

This approach reaches its apex with the scene where Bob takes Helen out for a romantic evening. The whole sequence is draped in these kinds of shadows, simultaneously creating a sumptuously romantic mood and suggesting a visual analogue for Helen's blindness, the darkness all around them shading their faces, hiding them from one another. As they dance together, they twirl and their faces are alternately shaded and lit up, passing in and out of the shadows with each turn. Sirk's aesthetic has a meticulousness that works against the raw, oversized emotions of his material. At one point, Helen, blind, picks her way across a darkened room, carefully feeling for obstacles and making her way slowly through the shadow-strewn room, until she comes to a balcony where her extended hand knocks a potted plant off the ledge. The camera follows the plant's fall down to the street below, where it shatters with a loud crack, triggering Helen's breakdown at precisely that instant, as though a starter's pistol had been fired.

In another scene, when Bob is about to perform the climactic surgery that will inevitably restore Helen's sight and redeem him from his careless and wasteful past, he hesitates until he looks up to the viewing gallery, where he sees Randolph, this film's kindly incarnation of God, looking down on them with a benevolent smile, the operating table and the doctors around it reflected in the glass around Randolph. He then steps away, satisfied that Bob will perform this task, and Sirk holds the shot of the now-empty viewing gallery, the operating room still reflected in it, visually communicating that God has done his work of inspiration, and the rest of the task must be left to the hands of man.

The film is rich in this kind of loaded visual symbolism. Sirk often transcends the frankly stupid plot with the sheer emotional power of his images, which crackle with vitality and feeling even when the twists and turns of the script barely make a bit of sense. But, even though Sirk often worked with such lousy material, and routinely transformed it into masterpieces, here, for whatever reason, he can't quite perform that miracle. The result is a film that's as visually beautiful as one would expect, and often seething with raw and over-the-top emotion, but never comes together on the multiple levels that characterize Sirk's best work.

Posted in Cinema

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.

Posted in Cinema

The Great Caruso – 1951

The Great Caruso (1951) was the highest moneymaking film of 1951 and broke all records for attendance at its prestigious Radio City Music Hall run.  An astonishingly popular success, the film cemented rising star Mario Lanza’s place in Hollywood, if only briefly.  But what did it mean for Ann Blyth’s career?  Though only twenty-two years old, she had been around Hollywood long enough to need a boost in her career, and ended up getting a makeover. 

It was the first screen musical Ann Blyth appeared in since her four-in-a-row B-musicals from Universal that started her movie career seven years earlier (the first two, Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans covered here in our previous post)—a long dry spell for someone who wanted to do more musicals, and Caruso proved to be the launch pad for this next phase in her career.
Though she did sing a bit with Bing Crosby in Top o’ the Morning (1949), which we covered here, she was more or less a tagalong in Bing’s picture, and it took MGM’s lavish musical treatment of the life of opera great Enrico Caruso (with Ann performing only one song, as it turned out), to make both studio and public see her in a new light.

Hedda Hopper remarked in her syndicated column that when Ann…

…was cast opposite Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso…People looked at each other and said, “I didn’t know she had a voice.”

As Ann aptly, if perhaps ruefully, summed up the actress' perennial dilemma for a 1987 article in the Daily Breeze (Torrance, California): "People's memories are quite short.  You always have to keep reminding them of what you can do."

Ann set out to do just that when she started the ball rolling herself on this new musical phase in her career with an appearance at the 1949 Academy Awards®, held March 23, 1950 at the RKO Pantages Theatre, where she sang one of the nominated songs, “My Foolish Heart.”  Her voice is large, impressive, with a dramatic edge to her range as if hinting she can do more than interpret pop songs.  It is still not as full as it would sound in her coming screen musicals, but much more developed than those teen musicals for Universal.  Ann continued to study with teachers, and often a singer’s range and timbre will not reach its full potential until only after many years of training and physical maturity of the vocal chords.  You can hear her performance here, from a clip on the Internet Archive website, now in public domain.  Host Paul Douglas introduces her toward the end of this clip at 25:10 and the song lasts a little over three minutes.  Scroll down to 22nd Academy Awards Part 1.

One of the benefits of being loaned to MGM, and eventually signing with that studio, was her association with Maestro Leon Cepparo, who Ann Blyth credits for her vocal development as noted in an Opera News article by Brian Kellow from 2002.

He was wonderful—the only teacher that I studied with who was able to get across to me good technique.  It was like turning on a huge light bulb that others hadn’t been able to find.  He taught me how to cross over that bridge, that can be so treacherous, into the higher register.  And once you accomplish that, the sky can be the limit.  It’s a wonderful feeling.

In this fascinating article interviewing, and comparing, MGM’s 1950s sopranos—Ann Blyth, Kathryn Grayson, and Jane Powell—author Mr. Kellow remarks:

Of all the soprano stars on the lot at the time, Blyth may have had the most naturally beautiful instrument.  She phrased neatly and had solid breath support and control…

The financial and popular success of The Great Caruso was Ann’s gateway to doing more musicals, particularly of performing in operettas.  The two movies we’ll discuss over the next couple weeks: The Student Prince and Rose Marie are both operettas which gave her a chance to really display the rich beauty of her trained voice.  Both the music and vocal challenges are more complicated in operetta than they are in standard popular musicals.  Actors with even a passing ability to sing have often starred in popular musicals, on Broadway and on the screen—consider Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls (1955).  But an operetta requires more than just the ability to carry a tune, and it is in this venue where great singers can really unleash the full capacity of their talent.  (This is not to say that a pop singer can’t perform in operetta: Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith gave it a try in the 1980 Broadway revival (and 1983 film) of The Pirates of Penzance.)  Most popular musical scores are not as demanding, a walk on the beach, if you will, where an operetta is more like a hike uphill.  The notes achieved at the summit are glorious.

Obviously, operettas do not enjoy the same popularity among the general public today, or even an appreciation of the music being more difficult.  It may even seem incongruous that MGM would produce The Student Prince and Rose Marie (both 1954) in an era when the screen musical was on the wane, but then, it wasn’t so many years before that the team of Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald were top box office attractions, principally in operetta.

Of these years, in his Opera News article, Brian Kellow puts it simply that the studios “…were catering to an audience with tastes of tremendous depth and breadth.”

That opera and operetta had a place in the canon of popular music in the mid-twentieth century is something about which fans today can only look back on with wistful envy.  If we want further proof, we can, with a smile, take, for example, all those Chuck Jones-directed animated cartoons for Warner Bros.  What’s Opera Doc?(1957), starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as a tragic Wagnerian couple, is not merely parody; it’s an all-out appreciation of, and tribute to, operatic music.

Along with a general public—even among those who were not fans of opera and operetta, still were familiar enough to recognize arias even if they didn’t know the names of them or from which operas they came—there were movie producers like Joe Pasternak, who had a huge influence on Deanna Durbin’s career, and Jesse Lasky, both championing this form of music.  These two men together produced The Great Caruso.

And then something happened in the mid-1950s.  Despite the enormous success of Caruso, enough to attempt to produce follow-up films with Ann Blyth and Mario Lanza together and separately, the bottom fell out of musicals, but utterly killed operettas.  This was due partly to the greater expense of producing musicals than dramas or comedies.  Partly, it was due to the changing of the guard at MGM.  Dore Schary took the helm as production chief from Louis B. Mayer in 1951, and he disliked the genre. 

Interestingly, Mr. Kellow surmises in his article that, while Hollywood was giving less attention to operettas, producing The Student Prince and Rose Marie at MGM might have been a nod to the flourishing summer theatre of the day where this form of musical was familiar and still very popular.

Its popularity in film was most certainly on the wane in the late 1950s and 1960s when American pop culture fell under the influence of a new driving force: a younger audience, teenagers among them, with enough disposable income to steer the course of music and movies to their own tastes.

In the 1970s, when the first nostalgia wave crashed upon a fatigued America only too ready for something old rather than new, it was said to have been brought on by That’s Entertainment (1974), a compilation of MGM musical numbers that enjoyed terrific box office success.  Not everything old was new again, however.  Have a look at the glorious roster of MGM stars whose clips appear in this film.  Nowhere among them will you find Ann Blyth.

Despite the huge success of The Great Caruso and the revenue it brought to the studio in the nervous days of the early 1950s, dealing with deregulation of its distribution practices, the ending of the studio contract system, and competition from television, neither Caruso, nor her other musicals, were included in this salute to great MGM musicals.  We have a wee bit of Mario Lanza with Kathryn Grayson in The Toast of New Orleans, and of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing the obligatory “Indian Love Call.”  We have some time devoted to singers who couldn’t sing, like Elizabeth Taylor, who was dubbed; June Allyson, whose range was very limited; and Joan Crawford, for no explicable reason.

The omission of Ann Blyth is especially regrettable when one considers that in the days before TCM, before VHS and DVD, That’s Entertainment kept alive the joyful memory of screen musicals for adoring fans and introduced them to a new generation—and here they were omitting one of its best singers and most radiant performers.

Paradoxically, while MGM seemed to forget her contribution, Ann Blyth was busy those years performing musicals on stage around the country, continuing and flourishing in her art rather than eulogizing it from the sidelines, and singing as well as ever.  In a few weeks, we’ll talk about her stage performances.

On the heels of the success of That’s Entertainment came That’s Entertainment Part II (1976), with another tribute to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and a parade of great stars, including segments on MGM non-musicals, but no Ann Blyth.

That’s Entertainment Part III rolled around in 1994, more Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, some really fabulous sequences on 1950s musicals, including a thorough examination of Joan Crawford’s bizarre “Two-Faced Woman” number from Torch Song (1953), even bits devoted to the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello.  No Ann Blyth.

Today, her four MGM musicals (including Kismet, which we discussed here) have all been shown on TCM, are currently released on DVD, and one wonders if they will generate a new fan base just by virtue of our having access to them again.  They will certainly have our attention here for the next month.

So we begin with The Great Caruso.

The movie, typical with most filmed biographies of the day, fictionalizes areas of Enrico Caruso’s life, most glaringly omitting his mistress and the two sons he had with her.  But the film serves up a beautiful spectrum of arias or parts of arias that give us a kind of college survey course on opera.  It’s a gorgeous spectacle, with generous offerings of some of the best, and probably most familiar, scores—from Aida, Tosca, Rigoletto, La Boheme, Pagliacci, Lucia de Lammermoor, and Marta, among others.

According to a note on the IMDb website, Bess Flowers can be seen in the front row attending the Lucia de Lammermoor performance.  My, but she does get around.

We are treated to sweeping shots of opulent opera house interiors, the stage seen from different angles, from the orchestra, from the pit, from the loge and the last balcony, from backstage and the wings, and in the dressing rooms.  We are thoroughly immersed in the world of opera and blanketed by the gorgeous voice of Maria Lanza.

I don’t know if an interest in Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was revived by this film—regrettably, the movie only makes a brief visual reference to his making recordings of his voice.  Caruso was among the first, along with tenor John McCormack, to dabble in the new technology of phonograph records at the turn of the twentieth century.  By making his voice available, cheaply, to the masses, he became in his day—what we call in our day—a “rock star.” 

It is perhaps inevitable, due to Mario Lanza’s own magnificent voice, that the movie is really more Lanza than Caruso.  Ann Blyth plays the young American socialite he marries.  Though her stern father, played by Carl Benton Reid, is a patron of the arts and supporter of the Metropolitan Opera, Ann’s character is not from the opera world.  

She does not get to perform these glorious arias, but was given a single popular tune to sing, “The Most Wonderful Night of the Year,” which she sings while waltzing with Mario Lanza after they are married to tell him that he is going to be a father.  It became the hit song of the movie, released here as you see as a single by Ann Blyth.  It was such a hit that Lanza also recorded it.

This was only Mr. Lanza’s third movie.  He came on the Hollywood scene like a meteor, and this film cemented his popularity.  He had a curious screen presence.  He was not really a great actor, somewhat stiff in some scenes and overplaying others, but he had remarkable magnetism.  He really captures our attention every time he’s on screen.  It was easy for him to overpower others in scenes with him, whether consciously or unconsciously, but Ann held her own in their scenes together, even in her stillness she draws our attention—mainly, I think, because she emotionally supports Mario Lanza.

Recalling the oft-repeated quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the effect that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal, I would suggest that Ann Blyth made Lanza appear romantic, far beyond what the script was able to accomplish about a short, older, slightly rotund opera singer played by a short, young, slightly rotund opera singer, and beyond what Lanza was able to accomplish himself, despite his charm and handsome looks and his strong screen personality.  It is her adoration that makes him a romantic hero.

They enjoyed working together, though some in Hollywood raised eyebrows in amused anticipation at how Lanza, known for his mercurial temperament and vulgar language, would work beside the quietly ladylike Ann Blyth.

Hedda Hopper commented in her column:

She seems to have a calming effect on even the most volatile people.  When she was set to play opposite Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, I thought, “Well, at last Annie’s let herself in for some fireworks…”  To the contrary, Mario, who likes to think of himself as “The Tiger,” came out looking like a lamb.  Not long ago he told me: “That girl is wonderful.  I have great respect for her.”

According to the Opera News article quoting Ann, producer Joe Pasternak took Lanza aside and…

…had a nice chat about his behavior—minding his words and so forth.

In Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, author Armando Cesari notes:

He admired and respected the young actress and was always careful with his language in her presence.  Blyth reciprocated the admiration.  She was genuinely fond of Lanza and had enjoyed working with him on The Great Caruso.

In January 2005, she was a special guest, along with her friend, Jane Powell, at a tribute to Mario Lanza at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

Responding to Eddie Muller’s question on stage at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 2006 about how exciting it was to work on Caruso, Ann Blyth replied:

It was, because that was one movie that I believe everyone—certainly at MGM—they were pretty sure that was going to be a big movie and, of course, it turned out to be, mainly  because of Mario Lanza, his exquisite voice, and just the beautiful look of the movie.  Again, that's another one most people remember fondly and that makes me happy.

The reviews for the film were split between critics knowledgeable about opera who felt the storyline was lightweight, and the critics and public who were swept away by the music.  This from The Age (Melbourne, Australia) finds Lanza has…

No resonance, little expression…

Nor is the story commendable, although it is no worse than the usual bowdlerized film biography.  It has been written for the simple, romantic taste…

Ann Blyth, who looks more impossibly radiant than ever in Technicolor, sings something called “The Loveliest Night of the Year,” which is really our old friend “Over the Waves” thinly disguised with new lyrics…the film is still enjoyable entertainment.

This was Ann’s second color motion picture; the first was Red Canyon (1949), which we’ll cover down the road.

Ann also enjoyed a life-long friendship with Dorothy Kirsten, who appeared in the movie as Louse Heggar, friend to Ann’s father, and co-star of Enrico Caruso in several of the opera segments.  An interpreter not only of opera, but of pop and show tunes, she enjoyed a long career with the Metropolitan Opera and in concert and television appearances. Miss Kirsten’s vibrant soprano soars in duets with Mr. Lanza and in a fine solo moment.

“To this day,” Ann told radio host Casper Citron in her interview at WOR in 1992, “Dorothy Kirsten is a very special person to me.”

Ann, of course, as we mentioned in our intro post to this series here, was introduced to the world of opera while still a young child when she performed children’s roles in La Boheme and Carmen in New York City for the San Carlo Opera Company.  It was tempting for her, after her four-musical run for MGM to consider further training to work towards performing in opera herself, as noted in a syndicated column by Erskine Johnson in 1955.  Her coach, Maestro Cepparo…

…has urged her to work toward opera as a goal…

“He’s always at me to do things that I never thought I was capable of achieving vocally,” says Ann, “If I can ever build my voice sufficiently, perhaps opera will be possible.  But you can’t do it overnight.  You have to build your voice.  You have to train so that you can sing for four hours at a stretch.  To me opera is the epitome of everything.  I’d love to sing Puccini.”

By this time, however, her young family was growing, she had other professional goals as well, and she realized that, as she told Eddie Muller in 2006:

Opera is an entirely different animal, and you have to devote your entire life to that, to the exclusion, really, of just about everything else.

A few favorite scenes in The Great Caruso:

Mario Lanza’s soft, sweet rendition of "Torna a Surriento" at the piano when he first meets Ann, while she, a schoolgirl, sits in her sailor dress with a ramrod straight posture, her rapture at his voice expressed only with the rise and fall of her quickened breathing.  They are not sitting together, and we don’t know who to watch more.

All of Lanza’s operatic performances, but especially the final one in Marta, where he sings the version of “The Last Rose of Summer” a lovely tune made heartbreaking as he, now ill, fights for breath, fights for his voice, leaning on Dorothy Kirsten for vocal support, and physical support.  It is splendid acting; we feel his struggle and we fear for him.

The scene where, holding his baby daughter, Lanza listens to a new recording of his voice in a room filled with his colleagues, staff, and Ann Blyth, who at first watch the record spin, riveted to the phonograph.  Then the camera draws us to Lanza, who is engrossed in the baby, and she is fascinated by him.  It is as if they are the only two people in the room.  It’s a charming scene, where the baby lifts her fingers in the air, wanting to touch his face, but hesitant, as if Mario Lanza is some kind of miracle that might disappear if she grabbed his nose.

The camera pulls back to the rest of the room, and we see now they are watching Mario and the baby, still listening to the record playing, but absorbed now in the sight of father and daughter, and no one more deeply touched by the scene than Ann Blyth.

Her waltz with Mario as she sings “The Loveliest Night of the Year” in her lovely lyric soprano.  Her warm, rich voice tenderly carries and supports the lilting tune, rather than embroiders it  (as is the case when singing an aria); she would be more challenged by her songs in the coming The Student Prince and Rose Marie, but we can tell her voice has grown stronger and matured from the Universal B-musicals, and see the promise of a major musical star.

The scene where shortly after the baby is born, and Mario places the infant in her mother’s arms, and together Mario and Ann sing “live” and a cappella, a verse from the novelty number “Under the Bamboo Tree.”  They sing softly to calm the baby, to entertain themselves, to be silly, and their voices meld beautifully.

Though we may lump The Great Caruso as one of those typical Hollywood biographies that were not “realistic,” and despite whatever faults the film possesses, it has a noble legacy: many opera singers admittedly trace their interest and discovery of opera to Maria Lanza in this movie.  Two great tenors of our time: Placido Domingo and José Carreras, are among them.

Come back next week when Ann Blyth hits the high notes in the operetta The Student Prince.  It was supposed to be a re-match with Mario Lanza—but only his voice showed up.

Until then, have a look at the scene where Ann sings “The Loveliest Night of the Year.”

And a little something from the great Caruso:


The Age (Melbourne, Australia), August 25, 1951.

Cesari, Armando.  Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, (Baskerville Publishers, 2004) p. 164.

Daily Breeze (Torrance, California), February 24, 1987, "Ann Blyth Has Always Stayed in Tune With Life" by Sandra Kresiwirth, p. C1.

Hartford Courant, June 6, 1954, syndicated column by Hedda Hopper, p. 10.

Internet Archive website.

Muller, Eddie – interview with Ann Blyth on stage at Castro Theatre, San Francisco, transcript posted on The Evening Class blog.

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

Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau, Missouri) August 8, 1955, syndicated column by Erskine Johnson.


Karen at Shows and Satin nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award.  My sincere thanks to her.  To accept the award, one must list seven interesting facts about oneself, and nominate 15 other bloggers.  While I’m honored to be named, I’m going to sit out participating.  I’m just not an interesting person, but thanks, Karen.


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.


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.

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. 


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 will soon be issued in paperback.

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.
Posted in Old Movie Blog

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.


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.


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.


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.

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. 


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.
Posted in Old Movie Blog

Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans – 1944

Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans, both released in 1944, were Ann Blyth’s first two films.  They are an intriguing view of a very young, still developing talent, but we can recognize the composure and maturity that carried her through her career and her life.  The camera loves her.  She seems, with ladylike reticence, to be waiting for a proper introduction to us, but with Donald O’Connor bringing her to the party, she’s in good hands.

B-movies to be sure, they are the tentative beginning of her thirteen-year film career that reaped a quick rise to stardom—but not just yet.  How much she took with her from her radio and stage training and applied it to her new screen career, and what she might have had to jettison to adapt makes interesting speculation—for this fresh-faced newcomer had been working since the age of six.  If she had learned anything by the age of fourteen-going-on-fifteen, when these films were made, it was that every new experience brought new wisdom, and a revelation, perhaps, that though one could not always create opportunity, one could still carve out a space on which to build the future.

She recalled this period for Modern Screen in 1955:

I guess everyone dreams about being in pictures.  I was no different.  I loved the stage.  But children’s parts, especially good ones, don’t come along too often, and pictures promised at least the chance of steady income.

A pragmatic approach for a young person, but perhaps entirely in character for a woman who would become known in Hollywood as much for her discretion, sense, and serenity as for her talent and beauty.

She and her mother had been several months touring with the road production of Watch On the Rhine (after having played Broadway for a year—see our intro post to this series here), and her seven-year movie contract with Universal meant she could unpack her suitcase for good, though far away from New York and Connecticut where family lived.  There would still be plenty of travel in her future, but from this point forward, California would be home.

The irony was that she came to Universal a dramatic actress—they discovered only in their interview with her that she could also sing.  Sufficiently impressed with this ability, they started her off in musicals.  The ink on the contract was still wet in December 1942 when an article by Harold V. Cohen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette crowed, “Pretty little Ann Blyth…may be Universal’s new Deanna Durbin.”

After four B-musicals, Ann was loaned to Warner Bros. for Mildred Pierce (1945), see our post here, and when she returned to the Universal lot, never did another musical for them again.  She wanted to do musicals, but it would take a new studio—MGM—to give her that chance.

The first four movies, all musicals, that Ann made for Universal were Chip off the Old Block, The Merry Monahans, Babes on Swing Street, and Bowery to Broadway, and were all released in 1944.  We’ll discuss the other two films later in the year.  It’s difficult to say if they were made in order of their release, as Donald O’Connor was in most of them and the studio was in a race to crank out as many films with him as possible before he entered the Army Air Corps late in 1944.

Donald O’Connor is quoted in Dick Moore’s book Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star—But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car:

They tried to finish all those pictures before I went into the service.  We worked three pictures at one time: the one coming up, the one we were doing, and we dubbed the one we’d just finished.  That’s all we did: work.  It’s amazing we had as much fun as we did, grinding them out like that.

Despite MGM’s glossier and more famous “Andy Hardy” series, according to author Bernard F. Dick in City of Dreams-The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures:

Universal movies featured more teenagers and young adults than any other studio—Deanna Durbin, Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan, Susanna Foster, Grace MacDonald, Ann Blyth…Gloria Jean…

Hedda Hopper noted in her column in February 1943:

Children on the upbeat at Universal.  Since Deanna Durbin and Gloria Jean made so much money for them, Henry Koster has little Ann Blyth…who was so good in Watch on the Rhine…while talking to her, he discovered she could sing.

Universal already had its youth unit, The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, and the young dramatic stage actress, who it was discovered could also sing, was plunked into this energetic world of home front teens just shy of draft age.  Ann would recall these films as “good learning experiences.”

Later on in the year, we’re going to talk a little about Ann’s teen years in Hollywood.

Chip off the Old Block, released February 1944, in her very first film, gives her third billing after Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan--above the title.  This also, along with the uneven quality of the first four films, makes it difficult to really understand what might have been in the can first.  At some point in the frenetic assembly line, the studio decided she was worth featuring.

She is, not for the first time, playing older, a young woman of college age who, having been raised by an uncle and aunt in Hawaii, is now coming to New York City to live with her mother. (Played by Helen Vinson.  Her grandmother is Helen Broderick.)  “My mother and grandmother are famous actresses, and I guess you can’t be that and raise children too.”

She’d have a chance to prove that one wrong some years later.

Donald O’Connor is a campus cut-up at a military academy who performs in the school show.  His father is a career naval officer.  We don’t know what kind of career Donald has mapped out for himself—he laments that he’d be in the war already if his eyesight were better, but he’s so good at performing that his pal, young theater hoofer Peggy Ryan, enlists his help to get an audition.  

She is the comedienne of the piece, no real rival for Ann Blyth for Donald’s affections, though there are some misunderstandings that push the plot along like kids playing kick-the-can until the final number, where all three are on stage performing for war relief.

Our introduction to Ann Blyth is, serendipitously for us train fans, on a train.  Donald sits apart from her, doing eye exercises for his lousy vision, and she misinterprets it as somewhat grotesque flirting.  After a spat and reconciliation, they are cozily ensconced on the rear train platform (which, sadly, nobody can do anymore), and sing a duet.  Her voice is a pleasing soprano, but nowhere near the range, control and richness of what it would become with more training in the next decade. 

Like Donald, she is also a teen with a conscience and wants to do her bit for the war effort, and intends to divide her time between China Relief, the Red Cross, and the canteen, but is dragged into the theater because she sings so swell, and she agrees to do it if the producers give all the money to the war effort.

There is a subplot about Donald mistakenly thinking his naval father is selling plans to a Nazi spy, and a back story that his father and Ann’s mother were once engaged, and where his grandfather and Ann’s grandmother also had a broken-off relationship.  At first, mom and grandma don’t want Ann to have anything to do with Donald, fearing she will be hurt as they were, and they try to scuttle the friendship.  That’s all probably too much for one movie, but Ann shares her first screen kiss with Donald—she goes after him—so this little lightweight movie manages to accomplish a lot for her debut. 

There’s also Joel Kupperman, the seven-year-old math genius from the Quiz Kids radio program.  I’m not sure how he wandered in, but he’s cute as a bug, even if his recitation of math equations makes my head hurt.

Some favorite moments:

Arthur Treacher and Minna Gombell as the former vaudevillians, now turned butler and maid of Ann’s mother and grandmother.  He liked playing a butler so much on stage, he decided to become one.  He still dances up stairs.

The drugstore reconciliation scene (see our previous post on romance in drugstores here) and the endearing soda jerk listening to their tiff as if engrossed in a soap opera.

The sarcastic line, when Ann is fighting with Donald, “What train did you take this morning, the subway from Times Square to 49th Street?”  It’s only one stop, and Ann lived on East 49th Street before she came to Hollywood.

The way nobody makes a joke out of the lady cabdriver.  She’s doing war work.

Peggy Ryan.  My gosh, that girl was talented.  More on that below.  But though Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan eclipsed the other “Jacks and Jills” in popularity and became a team, the addition of Ann Blyth made them a triangle, with Ryan relegated to the pal or sister parts.  From a review in The Windsor (Ontario) Daily Star, May 1944:

The studio seems to have decided that Miss Ryan is a comedienne, and not glamorous enough for the junior romancing required.

So to share feminine honors opposite O’Connor, Universal has introduced Ann Blyth.  She’s a very junior miss who was in the stage version of Watch on the Rhine and looks 14 if she’s a day.

Trying to keep both Miss Blyth and Miss Ryan sympathetic cuts down conflict there, so they drag in the family rivalry.

O’Connor is his bright and brashful self and Miss Ryan again the angular dynamo, matching her partner in mugging. Miss Blyth is a shrinking violet in comparison and so put in the shade.

I get a kick out of the “looks 14 if she’s a day” line, but I have to disagree.  With the regulation upsweep hairdo, she’s quite grown up here, and looks the same age as Peggy Ryan, who in real life was actually some four years older.  It’s funny, and a little sickening, that aging was such a dark cloud over the heads of young performers.  Our old obtuse friend Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deigned to discuss the shenanigans:

The juvenile precocity of Donald O’Connor is wearing off as age is creeping up—the young man is now all of 18 and looks it…

He describes the film as “lackluster” and singles out Ann as only “a pretty newcomer.”  Peggy Ryan gets the mud slung: “Peggy Ryan is a clowning annoyance.”

According to Ann’s interview in the above-mentioned Modern Screen article, the preview for Chip off the Old Block took place out in Glendale.  “It took forever to get there by streetcar and bus.”

Ann’s mother accompanied her, and Ann recalled:

She probably realized that I had a lot to learn, but there for the first time on the screen was her daughter.  Her daughter made little impression on anyone else.  Nobody recognized me outside.  Nobody asked me for an autograph.

The next movie, The Merry Monahans was released seven months later, in September 1944, followed immediately by the third, Babes on Swing Street in October, and the last, Bowery to Broadway in November.

In December, Mildred Pierce went into production.  Nothing would be the same after that.

The Merry Monahans is one of those fun “passing parade of years” movies, where a decade and more fans through our eyes in a flurry of newspaper headlines and the ups and downs of a vaudeville family.  Jack Oakie teams with lovely Rosemary DeCamp at the turn of the twentieth century on stage, and proposes marriage, but his problems with alcohol have him helplessly entangled with another woman, who drags him to the altar first.  Oakie is likeable in the role, and poignant when he nobly faces heartbreak. 

It is a loveless marriage, and his wife leaves him.  Nobody misses her.  Oakie continues the act with their two kids: Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan.  Catch the scene where the kids are shown much younger using some sort of camera perspective trickery to make them appear much shorter than Oakie.

We’re taken up to the World War I era, where the act is traveling by train, and we have another train meet cute between Donald and Ann Blyth.  He is bored, wanders around the train, eventually decides to climb onto the train roof and stroll around up there.  Shades of his later role as Buster Keaton (see our post on Donald and Ann’s matchup in The Buster Keaton Story 1957, here).  In a later scene, he takes her up there with him.

When he climbs down, covered in soot, he lands on the rear train platform, and who is sitting there?  Ann Blyth, of course.  She thinks he is a hobo, feels sorry for him, and gives him a dollar.

Ann is also in vaudeville, traveling with her mother and the lead in the act, a distinguished dramatic actor played by John Miljan, who has eyes for her mother, and who takes a Svengali-type interest in Ann’s career. 

Here, Ann is not the breezy and self-confident sophisticate she was in Chip off the Old Block.  She’s playing closer to her own age, looks younger with the World War I-era long ringlets and old-fashioned clothing, and she immediately draws our sympathy for her anxiety over performing, of not being good enough and not pleasing her mother and Mr. Miljan, who coaches her.  She has to make good because they have to eat, otherwise, she’s not sure she belongs in this world of theatre.  A sad, sweet girl, doing her best to keep up, though she is overwhelmed.

We see at once that Ann Blyth has, in her second film, already established her ability to appear completely different to her previous movie role.  Her versatility, as we’ve seen in this year-long series on Ann Blyth, was the most striking and notable feature of her acting career, and is a quality she came in with from day one. Also, as we’ve seen, this very talent of simply being versatile could be useful in exploiting new opportunities; but it could also hold one back in an industry that seemed always to hire based on type.

Consider Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan, a very successful team as teens and both enormously talented.  They are the same in every film, because that was what clicked with the audiences.  Miss Ryan’s film career would not last much longer, and Mr. O’Connor would have a struggle to re-establish himself after his military service.  Francis the Talking Mule came to his rescue, and eventually, of course, there would be his exceptional performance in Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and a few other big musicals in the 1950s, and his own TV show.  Peggy Ryan and Donald O’Connor were seen as a sort of B-movie Mickey and Judy.  As a team, they were equally talented to the better known, more glossily produced Mickey and Judy team.  As individual performers—I would suggest they were even better.

O’Connor and Ryan were impressive dancers.  There are comic numbers that include amazing acrobatics and athleticism.  There are explosive tap numbers, and there are sweeping, elegant ballroom dances that surpass anything done by Mickey and Judy, and are the equal to any performance of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and their partners. 

In a lavish solo number, Peggy Ryan, who though she may have not been allowed to display a great acting range in her teaming with Donald O’Connor, and whose singing was only fair, here displays remarkable versatility as a dancer.  She is exquisite in ballet, ballroom, elegantly dropping the mugging comic persona for an enchanting presence as one of the great screen dancers.  I think this is too little acknowledged today, and maybe she has become forgotten by all but her fans, but we need to rectify that.  I hope to discuss more of her work in the future.  The Ryan-O’Connor dance team couldn’t be beat.

The Merry Monahans is mostly music, and some of the numbers staged as theatre shows are fantastic, especially the quite long “Manhattan Follies” sequence at the end, which leaves not a lot of time for plot.  Just as in Chip off the Old Block, there’s a lot happening here and it could almost be divided up into two or three movies.  First, there is the surprise when Ann’s mother comes to fetch her off the back train platform and…gasp!  It’s Rosemary DeCamp!  Jack Oakie’s former love!  And Jack Oakie is Donald O’Connor’s dad!  The coincidence is all too remarkable!

You can see where this is going.  However, there’s a whole lot to wade through before we get one big happy family.  John Miljan’s controlling influence over Ann and her mother is sinister, and where Ann is concerned, really quite creepy.  That could have been a whole movie by itself.

Then there is the recurrence of Jack Oakie’s drinking problem and how he messes up the act and Donald and Peggy have to go it alone.

Ann gets a nice variety of scenes in this movie that showcase her abilities.  Her first solo is sweet rendition of “If You Wore a Tulip” performed as part of a vaudeville act rehearsal.  Her dramatic abilities shine in the tension over John Miljan’s harsh influence over her, especially when she is moved to tears under his criticism, and her final standoff with him.  She even gets a nice comic scene when she has run away (“I can’t stand him anymore.”) and she and Donald are mulling over their problems on a park bench where an Irish cop played by Robert Homans (Hollywood Stereotype #412), on the lookout for the reported runaway, has discovered them. 

Ann, innocent as you please, launches into her Irish accent (possibly borrowed from her Irish-born mother, but I’m sure she put it back when she done using it), and berates “my fine policeman” for thinking she was anything but the proud daughter of another Irish cop.

They attempt to be married at a town hall, but the clerk rats on them.  He’s played by Ian Wolfe, who years later showed up as Ann’s butler in Wagon Train’s “The Jenny Tannen Story” (see this previous post here).
Gavin Muir, who we’ll later see as the dogged inspector plaguing Ann’s life in Thunder on the Hill (1951-which we discussed here) is the Broadway impresario who gives them all their big break.

Problems get resolved a little too quickly at the end, but then, we have to move fast because we’re running out of film.  The Merry Monahans is, for all its weaknesses, a really delightful movie with an unassuming cast so incredibly talented that we need to dismiss the sum total of the movie parts and just focus on the individuals who rise above the movie-making assembly line and prove themselves to be real troupers.

Before the movie was released to the general public, it was previewed at Camp Pendleton, whose proximity to Hollywood made it the lucky beneficiary of many visits from Hollywood stars donating their time to entertain.  A newspaper article from July 1944, probably a not a little beefed up by the studio publicity department, quote one “rugged Marine” back from battle on Tarawa and the Marshalls as admiring newcomer Ann Blyth, “She not only sings like an angel—she looks like one.”  Ann the “young singing and acting sensation of Universal’s The Merry Monahans had been made sweetheart of the regiment.”

She sang at the camp, and was lauded by other marines as “another Deanna Durbin.”  The article also mentions the “as yet unreleased” Bowery to Broadway, so here again, we don’t really know if these first four films were actually made all at the same time. 

Now she is on the threshold of film greatness while only in her middle teens.

This, despite the crackling sound of hyperbole, proved to be true, but not yet for her singing.  She was unexpectedly loaned to Warner Bros. for Mildred Pierce and her searing performance as the evil Veda broke the cycle of light teen musicals and would earn her a reputation as a promising dramatic actress.  Though she kept hoping for another musical from her home studio, it was not until she was loaned to MGM for The Great Caruso (1951) that Ann appeared in another screen musical.  It took some campaigning to get that role, and that role finally launched her string of big 1950s musicals, to the point where some may have forgotten what a tremendous dramatic actress she was.

If that meant she did not enjoy the firmly cemented screen persona that made Peggy Ryan and Donald O’Connor so easily identifiable to the public and so easily marketable by Universal, nevertheless it made for a longer lasting career with what must have been a satisfying degree of variety.

For the rest of this month, we’re going to cover that progression of screen musicals in the 1950s.  Come back next Thursday, when we start off with The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza.

To my knowledge, neither Chip off the Old Block or The Merry Monahans has been released in VHS or DVD (please correct me if I'm wrong), but bits can be found on YouTube.

To American readers: Wishing you a very happy Independence Day tomorrow.


Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p.18.

Deseret News (Salt Lake City), July 19, 1944, p. 7 “Ann Sings, Looks Like Angel.”

Dick, Bernard F.  City of Dreams-The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (University of Kentucky Press, 1997), p. x

Modern Screen, October 1955, “High Road to Happiness” by Ida Zeitlin, p. 82.

Moore, Dick. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star—But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, c. 1984), p. 124.

The New York Times, March 17, 1944, review by Bosley Crowther.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 3, 1942, article by Harold V. Cohen, p. 22.

St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, February 18, 1943, syndicated column by Hedda Hopper, p. 15.

The Windsor (Ontario) Daily Star – article by Annie Oakley, May 8, 1944.


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.


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.

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. 


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 will soon be issued in paperback.

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.
Posted in Old Movie Blog