Friday, March 9, 2012

Sincerely Yours (International Artists/Warner Bros., 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our movie last night was one I’d been curious about for a long time: Sincerely Yours, the truly bizarre 1955 remake of The Man Who Played God starring Liberace in the role originally played by George Arliss in a 1922 silent version and then again in 1932, in a marvelous early talkie in which he and his friend Murray Kinnell discovered a young actress named Bette Davis who had bombed out after six months under contract to Universal and signed her to play the female lead. (In order to get the part she had to agree to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. if Jack Warner picked up her option after she finished the film; she ended up staying 18 years, and despite all the arguments she and Warner got into over her career and her role assignments, in 1974 she was big enough to say that those had been “the greatest 18 years of my life.”) The Man Who Played God (the 1932 version) has got some bad press over the years, mainly from those who (like Davis biographer Charles Higham) don’t like Arliss’s highly stylized, theatrical acting style, but I remember it as a great film, with the Arliss and Davis characters’ generational clash communicated effectively by their clashing acting styles — Arliss’s slow, fruity, self-consciously “theatrical” and British; Davis’s fast, relatively naturalistic and American.

Unfortunately, that’s not the movie we’re dealing with now: the basics of the plot remain — a major concert pianist loses his hearing, learns to lip-read, uses powerful binoculars to eavesdrop on the conversations of people in the park below his apartment and “plays God” by using his money to help them when they need it (the original story was written as a play by Jules Eckert Goodman called The Silent Voice in 1914, with Wade Boteler as the star; Arliss filmed it twice, in 1922 and 1932; and two years after Liberace’s version there was another take on The Man Who Played God on the Lux Video Theatre TV show with Boris Karloff in the role — and that would certainly be worth seeing!) — but Arliss’s powerful, if stylized, acting in the lead is replaced by Liberace’s total non-acting. When I first saw Liberace’s first movie, South Sea Sinner (1950), I noted that its four principals had a clash of acting styles: MacDonald Carey’s phlegmatic noir (anti-)heroics, Shelley Winters’ sexpot playing (I wrote, “As the classic whore with a heart of gold, she had no problem with the whore part but really had to work overtime to show us the heart of gold”), Frank Lovejoy’s straightforward old-line Hollywood acting and Liberace’s total non-acting. “The few lines he gets in the film are delivered in a perfectly flat, even monotone that doesn’t even try to convey emotion,” I wrote, “and it’s odd indeed that someone who speaks reasonably eloquently in the film about the rise and fall of a piece of music couldn’t duplicate that effect when he was merely speaking instead of playing.”

In Sincerely Yours the problem is even worse because Liberace is supposed to be the lead — he got the part in the first place (as the first of an intended three-film contract with Warners, though Sincerely Yours was such a box-office bomb that the studio paid Liberace off and didn’t make the other two films) as the result of his fantastic popularity on TV and in person — and there’s one positive thing that can be said about Liberace’s work here: for all the bizarre idiocy of his act, he actually was a quite capable piano player with a surprising command of a wide variety of musical genres. Some of them work better than others — like the hard-core classical concerto he’s playing in the opening sequence or his later (supposedly) impromptu performance of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” in a party scene (unlike José Iturbi in his attempt at boogie, Liberace really gets into the spirit of the music and actually seems to be having fun) — and while some of his selections (notably a Gershwin medley of “Embraceable You,” “Swanee” and “The Man I Love”) don’t sound any better than one would expect from a better-than-average cocktail-lounge pianist, others (including a solo version of Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” — hardly in the same league as Art Tatum’s recording, just as Liberace’s version of “Tiger Rag” on a Soundie hardly matches the Tatum version, also from Tatum’s first solo session in 1933, but still reasonably credible as stride-piano jazz) work surprisingly well.

It’s when Liberace speaks that the problems start: he is utterly unable to inflect his voice in any way whatsoever, and in the big scene towards the end when he lip-reads a conversation between his fiancée (Dorothy Malone in the role formerly played by Bette Davis) and her other boyfriend (Alex Nicol) and realizes she loves the other guy and not him, he sends her away to the other man with his blessings in a tone of voice that made me think that the next thing he was going to do was anticipate his characterization in his only other feature film, The Loved One (1966), and offer to sell them a coffin. The movie keeps tugging at the heartstrings, not in any way that has any dramatic integrity (as The Man Who Played God did), but in the most treacly sentimental ways imaginable, from Liberace paying for an operation that allows a crippled boy (Richard Eyer) to play football with his classmates again to him, during one of his periodic remissions into being able to hear again, appearing at a benefit for something or other and offering to play requests for $100 each (one of which is a sappy-sweet song Liberace sings — and like Benny Goodman, whatever talents Liberace had as an instrumentalist did not carry over to his vocal cords — and for which he’s credited with the music, with Paul Francis Webster writing the lyrics and probably wishing he were still collaborating with another famous piano player, Duke Ellington, though reveals the melody was actually from a Chopin nocturne) and finally wearing a sequined jacket for the first time in the film and giving us a glimpse of — pardon the expression — the real Liberace.

Sincerely Yours was pretty obviously remodeled by its writer, Irving Wallace, along the lines of Universal’s sensationally successful Magnificent Obsession two years earlier — even though in that movie it was the woman, not the man, who became disabled; and it was blindness, not deafness (and let’s face it, in a visual medium like motion pictures regaining one’s sight is a lot easier to dramatize than regaining one’s hearing!) — down to the final scene in a hospital room in which Liberace (or “Anthony Warrin,” as the character is called in this film — “shortened from Warrinofsky,” we’re told to explain the odd spelling) undergoes an operation, at first can’t hear even though he’s supposed to be recovered, then suddenly reacts to the sound of a nurse dropping some sort of surgical instrument and it’s revealed that he can hear, so he can go on to his long-delayed debut at Carnegie Hall and not only play what Harry and Michael Medved called “the nauseous mix of classics and kitsch that is, after all, his stock-in-trade” but do a tap-dance routine. At the sight of that I felt like joking about Fred Astaire appearing there next week and playing the piano — until I remembered that Astaire was actually a quite capable piano player (certainly Astaire played the piano a hell of a lot better than Liberace danced!) — just as, earlier, during the big operation scene I commented on the similarity to Magnificent Obsession and said, “Gee, my surgeon looks just like Rock Hudson!” — and Charles fired back, “Yes, and I’m getting a stiffie!”

Certainly there are a lot of scenes in Sincerely Yours that, shall we say, hint at Liberace’s real-life sexual orientation — notably one in which he walks in on his manager (William Demarest, somehow managing to cling to his dignity through all this and actually getting a few of the laughs his “comic-relief” character was there for) naked in the bathtub (or at least as revealingly naked as the Production Code would allow), as well as the scenes in which he’s supposed to kiss women (not only Malone but also his long-suffering secretary, played by Joanne Dru, whom he ends up with at the end) and he looks like he’s about to throw up. By any normal artistic standards Sincerely Yours is a perfectly awful movie, and yet it was every bit as entertainingly campy as I’d expected; it’s so wrong-headed it’s absolutely fascinating — the other actors keep pitching Liberace softballs and he keeps missing them — and though the idea that it could actually have been made that way in 1955 is preposterous, I found myself wishing that Warners had cast James Dean in the lead and billed Liberace as his piano double the way Mario Lanza was billed as Edmund Purdom’s voice double in The Student Prince two years earlier: Dean could easily have nailed the character’s angst (and the genuinely Bisexual Dean wouldn’t have had the visible difficulties romancing women on screen the Gay Liberace did!) while Liberace’s presence, confined to the soundtrack and kept off the screen, would actually have been genuinely entertaining and even moving. I think the late William K. Everson summarized the difference between The Man Who Played God and Sincerely Yours all too appropriately when he wrote, “In order to play this part, it is not necessary that one actually know how to play the piano, which Liberace could and George Arliss couldn’t; it is important that one be able to act, which Arliss could and Liberace couldn’t.”