by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was That Midnight Kiss, a 1949 musical from Joe Pasternak’s unit at MGM that was Mario Lanza’s first movie — he got an “Introducing” credit while Kathryn Grayson and José Iturbi were top-billed. The director was Norman Taurog, who got a reputation for handling temperamental performers from his days making Jackie Cooper’s movies as a child — he took over the 1943 Girl Crazy after Judy Garland threatened to quit the production if the original director, Busby Berkeley, continued on the project (though the one sequence Berkeley directed, the big final number on “I Got Rhythm,” is by far the best sequence in the film!) — and though I’m not sure what Lanza was like to work with this early, when he was still an unknown to movie audiences, the stories of his antics later in his career — the primo don rages, the sexual harassment of his co-stars and the flood of obscenities that emerged from his mouth whenever his formidable will was crossed — are almost too well known.
That Midnight Kiss was written by Bruce Manning and Tamara Hovey, and the shadow of Pasternak’s early productions at Universal with Deanna Durbin hangs heavy over this film; Manning was one of the main writers on Durbin’s early hits and Pasternak, who had already given Jane Powell a star build-up along Durbinesque lines, was clearly trying to do the same with Grayson here. She plays Prudence Budell, granddaughter of Philadelphia’s leading arts patroness Abigail Trent Budell (a monumentally overqualified Ethel Barrymore), who in her younger days wanted to be a diva herself but was forced by her family to put such ambitions aside. Now she’s living vicariously through the operatic ambitions of her granddaughter and, having already endowed a symphony orchestra in Philadelphia and hired José Iturbi (playing himself) to be both its piano soloist and its music director, she now proposes to start an opera company of her own and launch her granddaughter’s career co-starring with established tenor Guido Russino Betelli (Thomas Gomez) — only Betelli proves to be an egomaniacal jerk and so homely that when the two sing the love duet “Verrano a te sull’aura” from Lucia di Lammermoor, Prudence keeps turning away from him for fear that if she tries to sing a love duet directly to him, she’ll end up laughing.
Meanwhile, a couple of truck drivers come to the Budell home to move a piano, and one of them is Johnny Donnetti (Mario Lanza), a tenor with a fabulous voice. The other, Artie Geoffrey Glenson (Keenan Wynn), appoints himself as Donnetti’s manager, and at this point the film starts looking like A Night at the Opera without the Marx Brothers — the well-known tenor whose primo don antics get him fired and replaced by the young unknown with a better voice (Lanza’s own, of course — Gomez was almost certainly dubbed in the sequences in which he’s shown singing); when Artie is proffered Glenson’s contract Charles and I couldn’t help but start saying, “The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part … ”
Anyway, despite Abigail’s understandable doubts about launching her new opera company with two unknowns, Donnetti gets the part and they start rehearsing a wide variety of operas — until Prudence meets Donnetti’s former girlfriend, Mary (Marjorie Reynolds, in quite a comedown from her role as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner and Bing Crosby’s girlfriend in Holiday Inn!), and doesn’t get that they’re “former.” She goes into a jealous hissy-fit that lasts for the second half of the movie — at one point she even gets Donnetti to walk out and Betelli briefly reappears to replace him — but of course by the end they’re lovers both on-stage and off, while Mary is neatly paired off with Artie just to get them both out of the way.
That Midnight Kiss is one of those movies whose plot is merely an excuse for the song cues, and Kathryn Grayson was a capable singer but a mezzo-soprano clearly out of her element in coloratura soprano music (she sings big set-pieces like “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, almost certainly transposed down for her voice and taken at slow tempi so she could do the ornamentation carefully and cautiously) — and acting-wise she plods through a part in which the young Jeanette MacDonald would have sparkled. Not that that matters, though, because Lanza is the real star attraction of this movie; younger, thinner and a good deal hunkier than he was later — he looks surprisingly like the young Elvis through much of it — he sings his own opera excerpts (“Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and “Celeste Aïda” from Verdi’s Aïda) gloriously, in full voice (his tenor lies a bit high for the Verdi, but who cares?), and the two pop songs he’s given to sing, Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me” and Bronislaw Kaper’s “I Know, I Know, I Know” (the one song especially written for this film), he does in a crooning falsetto that’s actually more appealing than the stentorian way he did “Be My Love” (from his next MGM film, The Toast of New Orleans) and other pop material he did later.
For all his deficiencies as a human being, Lanza was a glorious singer, endowing everything he sang with emotion and soul (his record of the “Serenade” from Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince is by far the best of this oft-recorded number, filled with intense heartbreak and longing far beyond virtually every other singer who’s tried this song), and in That Midnight Kiss he’s likable in a part that (as Robert Osborne noted in his introduction to the film) echoes Lanza’s real background: a Philadelphia native from an Italian immigrant family (who, inevitably, own a restaurant — Charles joked that he recognized the Italian-restaurant set as one MGM used again and again but said this was probably the first time we’d ever seen it in color) who served in World War II, came home and got a job as a truck driver; there’s nothing of the off-putting arrogance that seeped through from his real-life personality into his later roles (though The Great Caruso and Serenade remain his best films — despite the de-Gaying of James M. Cain’s novel Serenade for the movie), and before he went on his destructive cycle of putting on the pounds and then having to lose them again for his next film, he was actually quite good looking as well.
That Midnight Kiss — the title comes from the kiss Lanza gives Grayson after he’s hired an orchestra to stand below her house and serenade her, sort of like the opening scene of The Barber of Seville — is no great shakes as a movie, and Kathryn Grayson really wasn’t credible as an opera singer (fortunately for her career MGM backed away from casting her as a prima donna after The Toast of New Orleans and instead gave her three films with Howard Keel, all based on classic American musicals instead of opera: Show Boat, Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me, Kate), but Lanza’s glorious singing and sheer hunkiness make this movie watchable.