Hollywood calculus on Broadway composer bio-pics runs in direct disproportion to their talent. Hence, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter get ridiculous pics, while George M. Cohan, Kalmar & Ruby & Sigmund Romberg ‘win, place & show.’ Maybe it’s just lower expectations.* Whatever the cause, this film’s a breezy, unexpected charmer for anyone not completely allergic to operetta. Stanley Donen, who couldn’t have been thrilled with the assignment, strips down the usual fusty M-G-M look for speed & forward momentum, while Roger Edens, long-time second to M-G-M master-of-musicals Arthur Freed, called in every favor he had on the lot to stuff his first solo credit with fab specialty numbers. José Ferrer, skewered in THE BAND WAGON/’53 as a credit hog, was always a bit of a cold fish . . . so he’s just right for Romberg, a man who put all his passion into big slurpy melodies. Ferrer’s real life wife, Rosemary Clooney, stops by to share a verse, but José really scores acting out an entire B’way show in an eight minute marathon ‘numbo.’ (The fictitious show, JAZZ-A-DOO, is presumably BOMBO, a big hit for Al Jolson in 1921 which means BLACKFACE ALERT!) Gene Kelly does a nifty duo with brother Fred; Cyd Charisse is incredibly sexy in DESERT SONG and, a bit later, her husband, Tony Martin, incredibly virile on Oscar Hammerstein’s God-given lyric for ‘LOVER COME BACK; Jane Powell & Vic Damone aim for the fences in full operetta mode; Ann Miller looks, for once, like a complete dancer; and producer Edens, in a casting coup, has an Isolde up his sleeve, the great, rather matronly Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. She pours out the goods as Romberg’s mentor, then brings it down to a fine thread for a frankly gorgeous ‘SOFTLY, AS IN MORNING SUNRISE.’ Lots of opera stars tried to make the move from The Met to Hollywood, but few took so naturally to it. No wonder Edens immediately worked up a smash Las Vegas act for her, that Jerry Lewis & Blake Edwards cast her in films or that she co-starred with Groucho Marx in THE MIKADO on tv.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Naturally, the one guy the studios really wanted was the one guy they could never get: Irving Berlin. Not only the biggest catalog of hits, he had, by far, the most dramatic life story; Dickens couldn’t have dreamed it up. But Berlin was too smart to sell. A tough & savvy salesman, he preferred quasi-bio-pics which let him dip into his catalog over & over & over.
DOUBLE-BILL: Romberg’s shows were considered old-fashioned even when they were new, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from turning them into hit films, even in the silent days. Ernst Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27 is bittersweet perfection, with Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer & a naughty dachshund all giving the performances of their lives. (But it needs a better musical soundtrack then it has on the current DVD.)