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Rhapsody in Blue

Ring a Ding Ding

Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

     George Gershwin is probably my favorite composer after Cole Porter, so I was naturally interested in Rhapsody in Blue, a docudrama about his life. I can honestly say, however, that my conclusion of this film’s worth is independent of whatever favorable bias I might have. It’s a really darn good movie.

     I have found that with nondocumentary features about someone’s life, one has to take the story with grain of salt. I think this is especially true for older movies of this sort, and I point directly to Night and Day about Cole Porter, which was referenced in the contemporary Delovely as being quite the fanciful take on the homosexual composer’s life. That being said, I cannot attest to the accuracy of Rhapsody in Blue as I have not read up on the actual life and times of the great Gershwin. In fact, TCM.com calls the movie a “fictionalized” account of his life, so who knows what was taken from reality.
     Robert Alda plays George, who grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan with his parents and older brother Ira (who would eventually become a lyricist and contribute to a great number of his brother’s scores). He has an early knack for piano playing and works his way through various teachers until sticking with Professor Frank (Albert Basserman). He tries various jobs including substitute pianist for Chico Marx (yet to be seen on screen) and pianist at a shop selling sheet music. It is in the latter job that he meets Julie Adams (Joan Leslie) when demonstrating sheet music, including something of his own.
     George eventually has his music published after Al Jolson, playing himself, sings “Swanee” in a show, and he starts to write songs for a variety of stage productions thereafter, ever growing in popularity. He eventually strives to compose a concerto and “Rhapsody in Blue” is born. Now George goes to France to study music, but ends up fawning over an artist, Christine Gilbert (Alexis Smith) and brings her back to New York where girlfriend Julie is crushed. Nevertheless the new woman eventually goes her own way leaving George to live the single life. Next up is an opera, which becomes “Porgy and Bess”. George dies rather suddenly after trying to reconnect with Julie.
     Perhaps the best part of this movie was the performers playing themselves. Oscar Levant plays himself, apparently a close friend and frequent arranger of Gershwin’s tunes. Bandleader Paul Whiteman was instrumental in bringing some of his songs to success, and the aforementioned Al Jolson. Also showing up were Director George White, jazz pianist/singer Hazel Scott, and Anne Brown, the original Bess from “Porgy and Bess”.  I’ve always enjoyed Levant for his dry humor. He makes a great addition to any picture.
     The flick nicely highlights some of the most notable Gershwin classics. The movie plays the full 10 minute orchestration of “Rhapsody in Blue”, which one would expect to get dull, but it sure is riveting.
     I also must point out that Alexis Smith plays Gershwin’s love interest in France. She also played Linda Porter, wife to Cole, in Night and Day, which is a strange coincidence.
  • Rhapsody in Blue is set for midnight ET April 30 and 1:30 p.m. ET May 9 on TCM.
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