Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Lady’s Morals (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was A Lady’s Morals, an oddly titled MGM production from 1930 directed by Sidney Franklin (MGM studio head Irving Thalberg’s choice when he wanted a “class” directorial effort, and an excellent filmmaker who’s largely been ignored by the auteur crowd) from a script by the usual committee — Dorothy Farnum (story), Hans Kräly and Claudine West (scenario), John Meehan and Arthur Richman (dialogue) — in a story that’s at least ostensibly a biopic of 19th century opera and concert diva Jenny Lind. The script comes at least within hailing distance of some of the facts of Lind’s life — she was born in Sweden (and nicknamed the “Swedish Nightingale,” which got used as the title of another biopic, made in 1941 in Germany), had an early stellar career in opera, went through a vocal crisis, got out of it but decided to concentrate on a concert and recital career after that, and was presented in the U.S. in 1850 by none other than circus impresario P. T. Barnum — but most of the movie is an artfully done soap opera in which Lind (played by real-life opera star Grace Moore in her film debut) meets and ultimately falls in love with struggling composer Paul Brandt (Reginald Denny, totally undercast in a role that demanded Ronald Colman or Leslie Howard). Alas, when Lind’s voice cracks during a performance of Bellini’s Norma (“at the end of a long and grueling tour,” a silent movie-style intertitle tells us — and the presence of an intertitle in what’s otherwise a quite sophisticated and technically well-made early talkie is itself startling) there’s a riot in the theatre started by partisans of the city’s reigning diva, Rosatti (Judith Vosselli), during which Paul is beaten and his eyes are so badly injured he ends up blind. No matter, though; while she continues her career Jenny also ends up with Paul as his companion and his caregiver. The film was conceived as a vehicle for Moore, who had a totally different sort of voice from the real Jenny Lind — Lind never recorded (she died in 1887, just missing the improvement of the phonograph to the point where it could at least kinda-sorta do justice to music and the human singing voice) but from the existing reviews and the music written for her (including one of Verdi’s less regarded operas, I Masnadieri) it’s clear that she was a light-voiced coloratura soprano, whereas Moore was a lyric soprano whose most famous roles were in operas that weren’t written yet when Lind was active (or, for that matter, alive): Puccini’s “Big Three” (La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly), Massenet’s Manon and Charpentier’s Louise (the last of which she made a film of in France in 1939 that was considered good enough its soundtrack was eventually issued on CD).

Moore gets to sing two excerpts from genuine operas, “Rataplan” from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment (which she performs in the original French — this is one of those operas written by an Italian composer for a French theatre and therefore originally in French but later translated, usually badly, into Italian) and “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma. Her voice suits the “Rataplan!” beautifully — and it’s helped by an infectiously amusing staging in which Paul goes on stage as one of the supers and stays on well past his appointed exit so he can get close to her — but “Casta Diva,” the aria on which her voice cracks when she’s forced to encore it, is way over her head. (At least I give the filmmakers credit for using two operas that did exist during Jenny Lind’s career.) Moore was the sort of singer Maria Callas would largely put out of business, with a glorious, well-trained and evenly-produced voice but almost no sense of drama. In her most famous film, One Night of Love (Columbia, 1934) she sings “Un bel dì” from Butterfly beautifully from a sheer vocal point of view, but she omits the breathless anticipation any modern singer would bring to the line “Chi sarà? Chi sarà?” and completely fails to bring the aria to dramatic life. “Casta Diva” was an aria even less suited to Moore’s gifts than “Un bel dì”; when Bellini wrote Norma for Giuditta Pasta he was writing a role that demanded a soprano with dramatic power and volume and coloratura skill — what the Italians call a soprano drammatica d’agilità — and there’ve been damned few of those in operatic history and only two, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, who recorded extensively enough that we can judge their voices (though Zinka Milanov did surprisingly well in her surviving Met broadcasts of Norma — she didn’t bring to the role the myriad dramatic subtleties that Callas did, but she acted the part far more effectively and multidimensionally than one might expect from the famous anecdote of her telling a director who was trying to guide her through a performance, “This is where I stand, this is where I sit, this is where I sing”). Moore sings it the way she sang “Un bel dì” in One Night of Love three years later, savoring the sheer beauty of the music but doing nothing with it dramatically — one wouldn’t guess from hearing her that this is an opera about a Druid high priestess who’s trying to talk her people out of mounting a fruitless revolution against their Roman occupiers, and who’s also trying to conceal that she broke her vows by having sex with the Roman proconsul and bearing him two children.

Oddly, A Lady’s Morals (a strange title for a film about an opera singer — it was called Jenny Lind for the U.K. release and in the French-language version Moore filmed with a different, and otherwise all-French, cast) seems stronger when the heroine isn’t singing; the dialogue is light and witty, Franklin’s direction assured and without the glacial immobility so many early talkies suffered from, and while the romantic intrigue and soap-opera complications may have relatively little to do with Lind’s actual life they are presented effectively and even movingly — and, praise be, Franklin and the writing committee avoided the horrible old cliché of having Paul regain his sight at the end. Moore had a checkered career in films; she started out as a musical and operetta singer, made her operatic debut in Bohème in 1928, then in 1930 was lured to Hollywood by Irving Thalberg and cast in A Lady’s Morals and then opposite another real-life opera star, Lawrence Tibbett, in New Moon. Both films flopped and Moore went back to the opera stage; in 1934 she was offered the female lead opposite Maurice Chevalier in the sound remake of The Merry Widow, but she demanded equal billing with him, he refused, so Jeanette MacDonald got the part and Moore got passed down to Columbia, who put her in the film One Night of Love — in which she plays an aspiring diva who falls in love with her imperious voice teacher (Tullio Carminati). One Night of Love was a surprise hit — the most successful film about opera ever made until The Great Caruso (1951) — and Columbia made four more films with her before dwindling box-office returns led to the end of their association. She went on to make the Louise film in France (with Abel Gance directing and equally illustrious singers, Georges Thill and André Pernet, in the key male roles) and performed mostly in concerts until her tragic death in a plane crash in 1947.