Musical Monday: The Great Caruso (1951)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Great Caruso (1951) – Musical #341


Richard Thorpe

Mario Lanza, Ann Blyth, Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, Richard Hageman, Carl Benton Reid, Yvette Duguay, Angela Clarke, Mario Siletti, Alan Napier, Ludwig Donath, Pál Jávor, Mae Clarke (uncredited), George Chakiris (uncredited)

Biographical musical about Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (Lanza). The film begins when he is a boy in Naples and follows his rise to fame. He faces struggles along the way, such as disapproval from the fathers of girlfriends and American opera audiences not welcoming him with open arms.

– Based on Dorothy Caruso’s biography on her husband, Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death (1945). Dorothy Caruso died in 1955.
– Mario Lanza’s third movie.
– Caruso was Mario Lanza’s idol and he said playing him was “was an unbelievable dream come true,” according to Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy by Armando Cesari
– This was the next-to-last completed MGM film under Louis B. Mayer’s supervision. The last was Show Boat (1951). After 27 years, Mayer was replaced by Dore Schary who only ran the studio for six years.
– Ferruccio Tagliavini, Richard Tucker and Jussi Björling were considered for the role at one time. MGM asked Björling to have a nose job to look more like Caruso.
– Alexander Korda was also researching doing a film on Caruso.
– Features Metropolitan Opera stars such as sopranos Teresa Celli, Lucine Amara and Marina Koshetz, mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, baritone Giuseppe Valdengo and bass Nicola Moscona.
– Actress Mae Clarke has an uncredited role
– George Chakiris has an uncredited role as a dancer
– Working title was “The Life of Caruso”

Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza in costume as Caruso

Awards and Nominations:
– Douglas Shearer won an Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording
– Helen Rose and Gile Steele were nominated for Best Costume Design, Color
– Peter Herman Adler and Johnny Green were nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture

– All of the opera performances

Notable Songs:
– “Celeste Aida” performed by Mario Lanza and Dorothy Kirsten
– “The Loveliest Night of the Year” performed by Ann Blyth
– “La Danza” performed by Mario Lanza
– “In Questa Tomba” performed by Mario Lanza and Dorothy Kirsten

My review:
When it comes to a biographical film, the wrong person portraying a historical or influential character can ruin it. For example, Ray Danton as George Raft in “The George Raft Story” (1961) is just plain ridiculous.

But in the case of “The Great Caruso,” Mario Lanza was the perfect choice, and producers looked for several years for the right person to play the famous Italian operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso. Caruso performed from 1895 until his death in 1921.

Producer Jesse Lasky wanted to bring the life of Caruso to screen for several years, but the issue was finding the right tenor. Lasky filmed the only two films Caruso made, “My Cousin” and “The Splendid Romance,” according to the book Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy by Armando Cesari. Lasky considered bringing in a newcomer in the 1930s for the role as well as several other tenors. Alexander Korda was also interested in making a film on Caruso.

Lasky heard Mario Lanza sing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947 and asked for the opinion of Edward Johnson, the manager of the Met, who said Lanza had the look, voice and temperament for the role, according to Cesari’s book. The rest…as they say…is history.

Mario Lanza’s star rose quickly. “The Great Caruso” was only his third film. His two films, That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950), paired him with operatic singer Kathryn Grayson.

With his early success, Lanza was compared to Caruso, which made Lanza uncomfortable. Caruso was his idol and he didn’t feel that he measured up to him, according to the book Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy by Armando Cesari.

Lanza’s leading lady is the lovely Ann Blyth, who also has an operatic singing voice. Blyth plays Caruso’s wife, Dorothy Caruso. She, unfortunately, doesn’t sing much in the movie, but does sing a lovely ballad to her husband and then her newborn baby. Blyth, like always, does a wonderful job and looks immaculate in Helen Rose gowns.

In addition to the supporting cast, Lanza is flanked by Metropolitan Opera stars such as Teresa Celli, Lucine Amara, Marina Koshetz, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo and Nicola Moscona. Having professional opera stars in this film adds to the magnificence of the opera numbers that help show Caruso’s rise to fame. These are all beautiful and I love to see which opera will be performed next. If you aren’t a fan of opera, you may not enjoy these or this film, but the music is beautiful.

In addition to the marvelous singing performances, “The Great Caruso” is shot in gorgeous Technicolor.

Like nearly all biographical films made during the classic era, there are some factual inaccuracies, such as:
– Caruso is shown singing a minor role in the chorus of Puccini’s “Tosca.” Caruso never sang in the chorus or a supporting role.
– The film shows Caruso’s debut performance with the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s Aida. His debut performance with the Met was Rigoletto. His debut was a success, unlike the film’s depiction showing that he was met with a cold reception.

The biggest inaccuracy would be with how Caruso died. In the film, he dies on stage due to a throat hemorrhage. While Caruso had a throat hemorrhage during his career, this was not what killed him. He died from peritonitis at his home in Naples. However, that would probably have been harder to explain in the film.

Another fact that is (not surprisingly) mentioned at all is that Caruso had a partner Ada Giachetti from 1898 to 1908. The two had four children together (two died in childbirth). The film only depicts Dorothy as his only wife figure and Gloria as his only child.

Of his brief film career, “The Great Caruso” is my favorite of Lanza’s films and best suits his voice and character. The storyline gave him a purpose to sing, rather than just a truck driver or something that happens to have a beautiful voice.

Mario Lanza and Ann Blyth in “The Great Caruso.”

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