Sunday, September 13, 2015

With a Song in My Heart (20th Century-Fox, 1952)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I followed up The Great American Broadcast with another 20th Century-Fox musical, albeit from 11 years later, in which radio once again features prominently in the plot: With a Song in My Heart, a biopic of the radio and nightclub singer Jane Froman. She’s not exactly the biggest of names even among the people who love the pop music of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, probably because while the basic timbre of her voice was attractive, she sang in a deep contralto that was already becoming unfashionable when she was at her career peak. With a Song in My Heart, shot in typically stunning and vibrant three-strip Technicolor in 1952 by director Walter Lang, working from a script by Lamar Trotti (who also produced), essentially used the same schtick as The Jolson Story: the actual person the film was about supplied her own vocals, but another performer played her on screen. Originally 20th Century-Fox was going to use Jeanne Crain as Froman, but the singer put her foot down and demanded Susan Hayward on the ground that she was better looking, a finer actress and a closer match for Froman’s voice. The first two are accurate enough — it’s hard to imagine the anodyne Jeanne Crain throwing herself into the situations of Trotti’s script with the hell-bent-for-leather abandon of Susan Hayward — but the junctures between Hayward’s speaking voice and Froman’s significantly lower singing voice jar. The film begins at a banquet being held in Froman’s honor — which, as Charles noted, is shot in a considerably softer and less vibrant palette than we usually got from three-strip Technicolor — from which various voices narrate flashbacks telling Froman’s life story. The first one is told by David Wayne in character as Don Ross, who bombs out at his own radio audition as part of a duo presenting themselves as “cornpone” country characters, with a dreadful song to match, but parks himself in the radio studio’s audition room and plays piano as Froman comes in for an audition for the song “That Old Feeling.” At first it sounds like Trotti is copying Judy Garland’s marvelous audition sequence from the film Ziegfeld Girl, in which — at her father’s insistence — she did a ballad song in ragtime tempo, with “hotcha” interjections and arm movements that look like she was battling unseen demons, only the pianist at the audition tells her to slow down and sing the song from the heart while keeping her hands at her side. Then the radio station owner shows up and it turns out he wants the “hotcha” singer who massacred the song instead of the soulful balladeer who sang it with real fervor and emotion.

Jane gets a job singing spot commercials and ultimately rises to having her own singing show (this was at a time when singers often had 15-minute time slots five days a week on local stations), then gets booked to play live in a theatre that also shows films (which finally gives us a time cue when the film she’s booked with is Alexander’s Ragtime Band from 1938, even though the real Froman was popular before that — in 1935 she got a guest shot in the Warner Bros. musical Stars Over Broadway singing “You Let Me Down,” decently enough but hardly in the same league as Billie Holiday, who recorded the song around the same time, took out all the musical “sobs” its composer had written into it — and ended up with a version about ten times as heartbreaking as Froman’s). During the three remaining years before the U.S. enters World War II Froman becomes a star in virtually all extant entertainment media — live performance, radio, records and films — until Pearl Harbor gets attacked and Froman instantly signs up to perform at the servicemembers’ canteens and abroad with USO (United Services Organization) shows. Along the way she’s also married Don Ross even though she isn’t in love with him — it’s more that he’s comfortable and she feels she owes him because he promoted and managed her career — and she attempts to get him to take himself seriously as a songwriter, but he’s driven by demons of self-hate and doesn’t think his songs are any good even after she builds one of them, “The Right Kind,” into a hit. This causes her Production Code problems in the second half of the movie, when we finally meet the man she’s actually going to fall for, airline pilot John Burn (Rory Calhoun), on an ill-fated flight across the Atlantic to Lisbon in 1943 when she’s on her way to entertain the troops. The plane makes it across the Atlantic just fine but crashes in the Tagus River outside Lisbon, and only 15 of its 42 passengers and crew survive. Burn saves Jane but her leg is crushed and for the next several reels it’s touch-and-go as to whether Jane Froman will have to have her leg amputated, and even if she saves the leg, if it’ll ever heal to the point where she can walk again. (Well, it wouldn’t be a Susan Hayward movie if it didn’t either start as a tear-jerker or turn into one midway through — though the one thing Trotti didn’t do that most Susan Hayward screenwriters did is have her drink. Then again, as Charles noted, in his self-pitying jags David Wayne was doing enough drinking for both of them!)

Thelma Ritter, of all people, turns up in the Lisbon hospital where she’s being treated — she plays Nurse Clancy, who was stranded in Portugal when the war broke out and got a job at the local hospital, where she’s practically the only nurse who isn’t a nun — and, as usual, her salty disposition and no-nonsense unsentimentality are a real treat and help keep this movie from getting too gooey. Eventually, even though she’s still using a wheelchair, Jane Froman is considered sufficiently healed to play a nightclub engagement in New York City, where she’s put on a moving platform that contains a baby piano she can lean on for support (which couldn’t help but remind me of the story Sarah Bernhardt told Geraldine Farrar while coaching her in the part of Tosca; Farrar complimented Bernhardt on the business she’d worked out of leaning against a chair during the Tosca-Scarpia confrontation, and Bernhardt said it was because she’d had a leg amputated and needed the chair to hold her up; Farrar said she might like to copy that in her own performance and Bernhardt said, “Let us pray that you never have to do it for the same reason as I”). A servicemember identified only as “GI Paratrooper” (Robert Wagner) hops on the platform with Jane and the piano, and they sing a sort-of duet on “Tea for Two” (at least this time Wagner’s voice isn’t as downright offensive as it was when he sang “Vive la Companie!” in the 1953 Titanic so atrociously that Charles turned to me and said, “I’m rooting for the iceberg”). Of course Jane’s leg heals completely, Don Ross gallantly bows out of her life so she can marry the hot young pilot John Burn, and Jane takes that long-delayed USO tour of Europe even though by the time she gets there the war is already over and she’s entertaining the troops participating in the U.S. occupation of Germany. The film climaxes with a big “American Medley,” in which she sings songs associated with various U.S. states (of course an obnoxious loudmouth demands that she include Texas, and she responds with “Deep in the Heart of Texas”), leads up to “Dixie” and then finishes with “America, the Beautiful.” During her big show Robert Wagner’s character appears again, having been rendered mute through what was then called “shell shock” and is now generally referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and she miraculously cures him by singing “I’ll Walk Alone” to his face.

With a Song in My Heart is a big, blowsy movie but it’s good fun even though it’s got one inevitable problem: the songs are so familiar it’s hard to avoid comparing Froman’s and Hayward’s performances of them with those by other people who did them better. Froman does a hot version of “Get Happy,” including the song’s verse and emphasizing its pseudo-gospel content —though her clingy, backless red dress seems to come more from hell than heaven — but the Hayward/Froman number here hardly compares to the stunning routine Judy Garland and a male chorus did to the same song in Summer Stock just two years earlier. Likewise Froman sings “I’m Through with Love” quite well but hardly compares in intensity to the version Bing Crosby performed much earlier (he introduced the song in 1931) or Marilyn Monroe did later (she sings it in Some Like It Hot and communicates a world-weariness that transcends her character and the overall comic concept of the film), and while her version of “That Old Feeling” is moving, Frank Sinatra’s prayer-like version recorded for Columbia in the 1940’s is even more intense. Nonetheless, With a Song in My Heart is an appealing film, with Trotti and Lang smoothly blending the elements of music, drama and soap opera and Hayward delivering an excellent performance even though there are other films on her résumé that challenged her more (including I’ll Cry Tomorrow, another showbiz biopic — this one about Lillian Roth, who actually was an alcoholic until she sobered up — I believe that film was the first ever to mention Alcoholics Anonymous — and her bad-girl performance in I Want to Live!). It was also amusing to see Hayward perform “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” the song written for Bette Davis to sing in the 1943 musical Thank Your Lucky Stars — one of the many odd intersections of their careers: in 1963 Hayward made the film Stolen Hours, a remake of Davis’s Dark Victory, and in 1964 they appeared together in Where Love Has Gone, playing mother and daughter in a film à clef about the Lana Turner-Cheryl Crane-Johnny Stompanato scandal.