by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie Charles and I watched when we got back from the library couldn’t have been more different: The Great Caruso, MGM’s 1951 biomusical allegedly about the great tenor Enrico Caruso, starring the great tenor Mario Lanza in a movie whose screenplay by William Ludwig bore only a tangential relationship to the facts of Caruso’s life. The movie Caruso, like the real one, was born to a poor family in Naples on February 25, 1873; sang in church choirs as a boy (Caruso and José Carreras — who said he was inspired to become an opera singer by watching The Great Caruso in his own boyhood — appear to be the only top-flight male opera singers who sang publicly on both sides of their voice change); eventually became a major opera singer, rising from provincial opera houses in Italy to the major Italian theatres and then an international career; married Dorothy Park Benjamin, the daughter of a wealthy and socially connected New Yorker; had a child with her, daughter Gloria; and died tragically young at age 47 after collapsing backstage during a performance. (Charles noted the irony that Lanza also died young, at 38.)
That’s about all the real Caruso and the fictional one have in common, though; among the important aspects of Caruso’s career this film either slights or omits completely are the importance of recording in his career (though he wasn’t the first major opera singer to record, he was the first to have huge hits on record, and contrary to the impression you get in the film, opera audiences in London and New York were both familiar with what his voice sounded like before he performed there because they’d heard his records); his long-term common-law relationship with Ada Giachetti, wife of an Italian merchant, by whom he had two sons (Enrico, Jr. and Rodolfo) but whom he couldn’t marry because Italian law didn’t allow for divorce until 1970; his successful defiance of a Mafia extortion attempt in 1908 and his reporting the extortionists to the police (perhaps the Mafia didn’t dare retaliate because they didn’t want the bad publicity and police crackdown likely to have resulted from a hit on Caruso, just as two decades later Johnny Irish, whose girlfriend Ruby Keeler had just left him for Al Jolson, was talked out of having Jolson killed by his fellow gangsters for fear of the consequences of murdering a major celebrity); his brief attempt at a film career (which made no sense because movies were still silent then, though Paramount tried their best by having Caruso lip-synch to one of his own records for the final scene of his film My Cousin and telling theatres to play the record when that scene was shown); or even the facts of his death (the movie cuts straight from Caruso collapsing before the fourth act of Martha — in reality the opera was L’Elisir d’Amore and he only lasted one act; also it was being performed by the Met but at a theatre in Brooklyn instead of their usual one in Manhattan — to someone from his entourage laying a wreath before a bust placed in the lobby of the Met as a post-mortem tribute); you wouldn’t know from this film that Caruso actually returned home to Italy after his collapse, tried to pull himself back to health, and lingered nearly eight months more before finally dying on August 2, 1921.
Needless to say, the Production Code Administration wouldn’t have let MGM dramatize the relationship between Caruso and Giachetti — an Italian film company tried to seize the chance by making their own Caruso movie in 1951, The Young Caruso, and like MGM they cast an actual singer, Mario Del Monaco, as Caruso (and Del Monaco, like Caruso but unlike Lanza, made most of his career in opera houses); their film took the parts of the Caruso story MGM wouldn’t have been able to touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole but it wasn’t a hit — and MGM hobbled themselves by basing the film on Dorothy Caruso’s second (1945; she’d published an earlier one in the 1920’s) memoir of her husband. The problem with that was that she’d only known him during the last 3 ½ years of his life — and even so, the credits say only that the film’s script was “suggested” by her book. Instead William Ludwig and director Richard Thorpe (who six years later would direct Elvis Presley in his first MGM movie, Jailhouse Rock — Caruso and Elvis might not seem to have had anything in common but they both recorded for the same label, Victor, and there’s at least one song they both recorded: “O sole mio,” which Elvis did with an English lyric as “It’s Now or Never”) used the bare bones of Caruso’s life as a clothesline on which to hang a bunch of familiar Hollywood clichés: Caruso is a rambunctious kid but also a mama’s boy who is heartbroken by his mother’s death; he dates a local girl whose rich father, a flour merchant, won’t let him marry her unless he gives up singing and works as his delivery person; eventually that flops when Caruso visits a friend in a restaurant and meets two star singers, sings for them and they tell him he has a shot at a professional career — all the while a drain is drenching the flour he’s supposed to be delivering in water, ruining it.
From there the film goes into a long series of snippets and montages of opera excerpts with Caruso, Dorothy Kirsten (one of only two opera singers who actually has a character role in the movie — as the Met’s star soprano, “Louise Heggar” — Jarmila Novotnà also appears as a temperamental diva who rubs Caruso the wrong way at Covent Garden), and the rest of the opera stars here, Blanche Thebom, Teresa Celli, Nicola Moscona, Giuseppe Valdengo, Lucine Amara and Marina Koshetz, who only appear in anonymous supporting roles in the big opera montages. Along the way Caruso runs into trouble because the patrons at the Diamond Horseshoe of the Met find his singing crude by comparison to that of Jean De Reszke (Alan Napier), whose voice is supposedly more lyrical and aristocratic (we don’t know for sure because the only recordings of De Reszke’s voice that survive are home-cylinder recordings from the Met stage by Lionel Mapleson, Jr.) — though once De Reszke himself praises Caruso and gives him a standing ovation, his success is assured. The film barely scratched the surface of the cinematic potential of Caruso’s life — it doesn’t mention that not only was he the first singer to lip-synch to his own voice for a movie scene, it also doesn’t show him becoming the first singer to broadcast live from the Met stage (in 1910, when the owner of an experimental station took a mike and his transmitter to the Met and shoved the mike in Caruso’s face as he sang the “Siciliana,” the tenor’s opening aria in Cavalleria Rusticana — since the tenor sings this behind a closed curtain the radio engineer could get away with this — and broadcast it to an audience mostly of people staffing radios on board ships) and it shows a recording session reasonably accurately (not only are recording horns rather than mikes being used to pick up the sound — Caruso missed the era of electrical recording by just four years — but the violinists are playing Stroh violins, which had horns instead of standard soundboards so they could focus the sound of their instruments towards the recording horn) but vastly underestimates the importance of records in building Caruso’s career. (The film also doesn’t show that Caruso was an accomplished sketch artist and caricaturist as well as a singer — there’s a brief scene in which Caruso has some of his own sketches hanging above his piano but you’d have to be a real Caruso buff to understand the significance of the image — and of all the film’s deviations from reality, probably the funniest is the one showing Caruso singing the lead in Puccini’s Tosca several years before Puccini wrote it.)
Enrico Caruso, Jr.’s book records his profoundly mixed reaction towards the movie, which he hated for having written himself, his brother and their mother out of Caruso’s life (more than once, he said, he would introduce himself as Caruso’s son and be told, “No, Caruso didn’t have any sons — he only had a daughter — I saw it in the movies!”) but which he loved for Lanza’s performance. The more persnickety critics complained that Caruso’s and Lanza’s voices weren’t that similar — Caruso was a low, almost baritonal tenor (which probably helped his recording career, because the early recording equipment had a limited frequency range and low tenors and high baritones were the easiest voices to record) and Lanza a high lyric tenor — but that doesn’t matter when you’re watching the movie because as little as it resembled Caruso’s (despite Lanza’s rather demented conviction that he was literally the Caruso lama — which seems to have come from nothing more than the coincidence that Lanza was born in 1921, the year Caruso died), Lanza’s was one of the most glorious voices ever recorded. Just about everything written about him — especially by Dore Schary, then MGM’s head of production, in his book Heyday — describes him as a handful, virtually impossible to work with, an egomaniac with a penchant for sexually harassing his co-stars and a devil-may-care attitude towards work. But somehow when he opens his mouth and that gorgeous sound comes out, none of this matters; he may not have been that close to the Caruso sound but he certainly captured the Caruso soul.
Interestingly, though Caruso sang and recorded pop songs as well as opera (he introduced George M. Cohan’s World War I morale booster, “Over There,” and I’m surprised, especially given that 1951 was in the middle of the McCarthy era, that MGM’s filmmakers missed the obvious chance to wave the flag by showing Caruso singing “Over There”), virtually all the musical excerpts picked here are from major operas. There are a few of the Neapolitan songs Caruso recorded so engagingly (RCA Victor issued in the 1950’s an anthology called Great Tenors Sing Neapolitan Songs but, though most of the singers represented were Italian, Caruso was the only Neapolitan) but the only pop songs included are “Because” (the song by Caruso accompanist Guy d’Hardelot that became traditionally sung at weddings), “Sweethearts” from Victor Herbert’s operetta (which was sung by Dorothy Kirsten, not Lanza) and “The Loveliest Night of the Year” (a supposedly new song but actually using the melody of the traditional “Over the Waves”), sung briefly by Lanza but only after it’s introduced by his co-star, Ann Blyth, as Dorothy. (There’s also a brief snippet of the pop song “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a real turn-of-the-last-century hit that Judy Garland had revived engagingly in Meet Me in St. Louis and which Lanza and Blyth sing as a light-hearted duet.)
The rest of the music is opera, and the real pleasure of this film is hearing one of the great operatic voices of all time impersonate one of the other great operatic voices of all time in top-flight material, with the full gloss of the MGM studio orchestra behind him and the whole thing photographed in luscious three-strip Technicolor — and this is a movie from back in the days when color films were actually colorful, when they used much more of the spectrum than the dreary greens and browns that predominate in most films made today. The Great Caruso is the sort of movie you don’t fault for being unrealistic because as it stands it’s a lot of fun — though I still found myself wishing in the 1970’s that someone would make a new film of Caruso’s life, especially since Plácido Domingo was then at the early peak of his career and would have been the perfect person, physically and vocally, to play him.