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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.

Humoresque

Gasser

Humoresque (1947)

     Today’s review is an example of the power Joan Crawford wielded in the 1940s and, I think, to the limitations of the actress’ talents. Although speculation swirled that Crawford could get an Oscar nomination for Humoresque, the only reason it does not get the lower rating of Dullsville is because the music and performance of that music is really striking.

     Demanding top billing even though her role is secondary to that of John Garfield and she does not make her appearance until 30 minutes in, Crawford expected great things from the picture that featured Cinematographer Ernest Haller and Producer Jerry Wald, both of whom were involved with her award-winning turn in Mildred Pierce. Humoresque, however did not manage to be nominated for any Academy Award outside of Best Score, and frankly I find it surprising Crawford and others thought the woman could claim her own.

     It does not seem as though Crawford managed to make any enemies on this picture, however, even turning one cast member to a friend. The story goes that upon first meeting Crawford on the set, Garfield ignored the outstretched hand and greeting the star offered and instead said, “So you’re Joan Crawford, the big movie star. Glad to meet ya,” before pinching her breast. That riled Crawford only for a moment before she asserted the two would get along fine. And the duo did after Crawford insisted certain scenes be reshot to provide Garfield with more favorable lighting.

     Garfield does put on a nice performance as Paul Boray, a highly talented violinist. The story –based on the Fannie Hurst best seller of the same name with leftover inspiration from Wald’s previous Rhapsody in Blue biopic on George Gershwin– flashes back on Paul’s pursuit of music since a child. The son of Italian-American grocery owners (changed from Jewish in the book), Paul is not wholeheartedly supported by his family in his musical studies, especially during the depression when he is being formally trained. Paul’s friend and trainer, pianist Sid (Oscar Levant) introduces the young genius to a wealthy couple and patrons of the arts, the Wrights. Joan comes in as wife Helen Wright, an alcoholic whom Crawford once described as having too much time on her hands and love in her heart. That certainly softens the motivation of a character who generally has little appeal to me. Helen sets up/pays for Paul’s debut, which sets his career moving and he continues to play larger and more prestigious venues.

     The conflict arises in that 1. Helen is married; 2. Paul’s mother disapproves of his relationship with Helen; 3. Paul is too devoted to his violin to properly love Helen. When things wind down to the point that Helen’s husband is prepared to give her a divorce, the woman is conflicted because Paul proves he will not drop everything for her. Nevertheless it looks like the two will be getting married, which prompts Paul’s mother to converse with Helen. She thinks Helen is bad for her good boy and it seems Helen is dissuaded from some how disrupting Paul’s life by marrying him. SPOILER ALERT So, distraught by her love for Paul and the gallons of alcohol she has been drinking, Helen drowns herself in the ocean. This self-sacrificing-type move is not uncommon in stories where one party is bad for the other who happens to be hopelessly in love with the first. In Humoresque, however, it seems as though Paul would be more of a detriment to Helen’s life (because she will always come second) and less like Helen’s posh society standing would bring down his career or morality or something. It is difficult to sympathise with Helen because she is not the protagonist and her alcoholism makes her a less-than-endearing character.

     What does redeem this picture, however, is the magnificent musical performances therein. Strictly classical tunes make up Paul’s repertoire, and his fast and nimble playing seem to be the work of Garfield himself. Cleverly, however, the performances were shot close enough to Garfield to hide that fact that Musical Director Isaac Stern is crouched uncomfortably below the star while lending both his arms to the bowing and fingering. Levant, on the other hand, was an accomplished pianist and composer, on top of being the sole source of the film’s wisecracks and humor.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; Turner Classic Movies

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