Thursday, May 2, 2013

Interrupted Melody (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Interrupted Melody, a 1955 MGM biopic of opera star Marjorie Lawrence starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence with Glenn Ford as her husband, Dr. Thomas King. Ford, one of the nastier egomaniacs in Hollywood history (read the chapter on the making of the film A Pocketful of Miracles in Frank Capra’s autobiography The Name Above the Title for a particularly nasty and venomous portrait of him), not only insisted that he get top billing (for a biopic about a woman!) but pulled all the typical upstaging tricks on Parker, including walking away from her on screen so she had to turn her back to the camera to keep up with him. He’s also simply not an appealing screen presence and one can’t help but think this film would have been better with a more disciplined and charismatic leading man. Marjorie Lawrence was never an operatic superstar but the reason she wasn’t — at the height of her career she was stricken by polio and ended up in a wheelchair — made her story irresistible for MGM producer Jack Cummings, who assigned it to director Curtis Bernhardt (a German expat who brought at least a bit of Continental sophistication to what otherwise might have been a rather dreary tear-jerker) and writers William Ludwig and Sonya Levien, based on Lawrence’s own memoir. When the film opens, Marjorie Lawrence is a spirited tomboy growing up on a sheep farm in Winchelsea, Australia (I’d forgotten Marjorie Lawrence was Australian, but that adds her to the list of Nellie Melba, Florence Austral and Joan Sutherland as major divas from Australia — plus Kiri te Kanawa from New Zealand if you want to cover all of “Down Under”) who’s secretly entered a singing contest whose first prize is a scholarship to study voice in Paris. When she sneaks out of the family farmhouse to go to the contest, she’s overcome with stage fright but she manages to sneak out there (after first removing her corset) and wins the contest with her rendition of “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlos. (Some of the commentators on have marveled at the sheer range of the movie Lawrence’s repertoire, ranging from mezzo arias like “O don fatale” and Musetta’s waltz to the hochdramatische Sopran repertoire of Wagner, the real Lawrence’s specialty — she also recorded the final scene from Richard Strauss’s Salome, in French, but Salome was probably still Verboten to the Production Code people and also would have likely entailed royalties to Strauss’s estate, since it was still under copyright in 1955 — though MGM probably did have to pay royalties to Puccini’s publishers and heirs for the bits of La Bohème.)

She ends up living a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris as she tries to get the attention of voice teacher Mme. Gilly (Ann Codee), who finally takes her on as a pupil after Lawrence hears one of her other students (played by Eleanor Parker’s voice double, Eileen Farrell) miss the high note at the end of “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca (the only Puccini role in the real Lawrence’s repertoire, by the way) and she sings it from outside, holding it way longer than any singer in a complete production would dare. Mme. Gilly takes Lawrence as a student and arranges for her to make her professional debut as Musetta in Monte Carlo when another singer drops out of the production — “They need a singer, and you need a job!” she says. Just after her sensationally successful debut Lawrence meets and instantly falls in love with Thomas King (Glenn Ford), a U.S. doctor who’s just on his way back home from a year of study at the Sorbonne (so how did he end up in Monte Carlo?), though she doesn’t run into him again until she’s already a major star and is about to make her debut at the Met in Götterdämmerung. There’s a nice scene showing her independence in which she insists on actually riding a horse into the flames during the Immolation Scene instead of just walking it in as the production’s prissy director, Leopold Sachse (listed as playing himself!), insists — “I’ve been riding horses since I was five!” she declaims — and of course she’s a sensational success, only she breaks the engagement with a European count (Steven Bekassy) her brother and manager, Cyril Lawrence (Roger Moore — off the top of my head I can’t think of another movie about opera featuring an actor who played James Bond!), arranged for her and marries the doctor instead even though he won’t take money from her (either directly or through the referrals her celebrity and contacts among the 1 percent could get him).

She’s offered the chance to open the Met season in Tristan und Isolde but only if she takes the role on tour in South America first — and at the first rehearsal she misses two high notes in the “Liebestod” and collapses. She’s diagnosed with polio by the South American doctors and her husband comes to get her, then moves her back to his native Florida in hopes a program of warm beach-water baths, massages and exercises will restore her ability to walk. He gets the upper part of her body to work but she still can’t move her legs, and he puts her through a course of tough love — including, in one gratuitously cruel scene, putting on one of her records and daring her, if she doesn’t want to listen to it, to make her way to the phonograph and turn it off herself. (I did note that Glenn Ford did the range-of-motion exercise on Eleanor Parker correctly, placing his hand above her knee as he bent her leg with his other hand. I was taught that the hand needs to be either just above or just below the knee, never actually on it, as the actor doing ROM’s in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her did it.) Eventually Lawrence regains her voice but not her confidence — she is once again overcome by stage fright when she’s booked to appear with the Florida Philharmonic — only she gets her mojo back through a curious deus ex machina: World War II. She’s persuaded by her husband’s colleague and friend, Dr. Ed Ryson (Peter Leeds), to sing at army hospitals, and when she protests that she’s in a wheelchair she’s told that most of her audience will be, too. Accordingly she turns up in hospital wards, combat zones and on a ship, belting out “Over the Rainbow” (Eileen Farrell’s rendition wasn’t going to keep Judy Garland awake nights worrying about the competition, but it’s quite good — among Farrell’s qualifications for the job of Lawrence’s voice double here was her ability to sing pop songs idiomatically instead of sounding like an opera singer “slumming”), “Anchors Aweigh,” the “Caisson Song,” a beautifully moving rendition of “Annie Laurie” and — inevitably, since she’s playing an Australian — “Waltzing Matilda.” After the war ends the Met books her to perform Isolde at long last, announcing that they will alter the production to accommodate her disability — and at the climax of the “Liebestod” she uses the braces she’s been equipped with by then to stand up for the final bars. The End.

 Interrupted Melody is a quite good opera biopic for the first half and a shameless tearjerker for the second half (and it wasn’t the only role Eleanor Parker played that year that required her to use a wheelchair: she did it in The Man with the Golden Arm as well), but it’s a film I’ve always liked mainly for the authority of the two people essentially sharing the female lead. Eleanor Parker is excellent as the on-screen Lawrence and Eileen Farrell is absolutely breathtaking as her voice double, easily encompassing a range of material few real opera singers would attempt. It’s particularly interesting to compare her version of “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly with the one Grace Moore filmed for her movie One Night of Love in 1934; Moore sang the aria gorgeously but didn’t bother to act it — she didn’t do a breathless effect on the “Chi sarà? Chi sarà?” lines — while Eileen Farrell somewhat overdid the anticipation at that point but still turned in a performance that was dramatically effective as well as musically impeccable. Eileen Farrell didn’t become an operatic superstar — though she had the vocal chops for it — mainly because she concentrated her career on concerts, radio (back when U.S. radio still broadcast a fair amount of classical music) and recordings and did few, if any, staged performances of opera. (She sang in the U.S. premiere of Cherubini’s Medea in an American Opera Society concert performance in New York in 1955, but she was overshadowed in the role by Maria Callas, who sang it in staged productions.) It would be silly to expect factual accuracy from a Hollywood biopic, so it’s probably beside the point to mention that while the real Marjorie Lawrence did make a triumphal postwar comeback in Tristan und Isolde, it was in London (not New York) and it was an unstaged concert performance (led by Sir Thomas Beecham), not an actual production. Still, Interrupted Melody is an entertaining film, several cuts above the usual monstrosities that resulted when classic Hollywood tried its hand at depicting opera, and the vocal authority of Eileen Farrell on the soundtrack really “makes” this movie.