Musical Monday: Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

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 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Rhapsody in Blue (1945) – Musical #211

Studio:
Warner Bros.

Director:
Irving Rapper

Starring:
Robert Alda, Joan Leslie, Alexis Smith, Charles Coburn, Julie Bishop, Albert Bassermann, Morris Carnovsky, Rosemary DeCamp, Herbert Rudley, Darryl Hickman, Mickey Roth, Andrew Tombes, Will Wright, Johnny Downs, Gower Champion (uncredited)
Themselves: Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman, Hazel Scott, George White, Al Jolson, Elsa Maxwell, Anne Brown, Tom Patricola

Plot:
A biographical film on composer and musician George Gershwin (Alda). The film follows his rise to fame to his death in 1937.

Morris Carnovsky, Robert Alda and Herbert Rudley as Morris Gershwin, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin.

Trivia:
• First film of Robert Alda.
• Director Irving Rapper wanted Tyrone Power in the role of George Gershwin, but Power was fighting in World War II. Jack Warner then recommended Cary Grant or John Garfield to Rapper, according to an Aug. 1980 interview with Irving Rapper published in “Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System.”
• Ray Turner dubbed Robert Alda’s piano playing. Other sources say that Oscar Levant dubbed the piano playing of Robert Alda and Paul Whiteman.
• Hazel Scott’s last film appearance until 1958.
• Several real-life performances were recreated for the film:
– Actress and soprano singer Anne Brown recreated her role of Bess from the original Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess” for the “Summertime” number.
– Al Jolson performed “Swanee,” a song he made famous. This was Al Jolson’s last film appearance. He later provided the singing voice for the Jolson biopics.
– Tom Patricola performs “Somebody Loves Me” as he did in “Scandals.”
– Paul Whiteman re-creates Gershwin’s numbers he performed.
• Sally Sweetland dubbed the singing voice of Joan Leslie, and Bill Days dubbed Mark Stevens.
• First film appearance of dancer, choreographer Gower Champion.
• Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman and George White all were personal friends of George Gershwin and play themselves in the film.
• Filmed in 1943 but held for a 1945 release, according to Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation by Sam Staggs.
• Robert Alda got his son, future actor Alan Alda, a cocker spaniel while filming this movie. Because Robert was starring in “Rhapsody in Blue,” the dog was named “Rhapsody.”
• Some of George Gershwin’s original items from his art collections were loaned to Warner Bros. for the film, including “Army Doctor” by Amedeo Modigliani; “Abstraction” by Antoine Masson; Georges Roualt’s “Three Clowns;” and Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Near Paris,” according to the American Film Institute.

Robert Alda and Joan Leslie in “Rhapsody in Blue”

Highlights:
• Musical performances by Hazel Scott and Joan Leslie
• The Gerswhin songbook played throughout the film.

Notable Songs:
• “‘S Wonderful” performed by the chorus
• “I Got Rhythm” performed by Hazel Scott
• “The Man I Love” performed by Hazel Scott
• “Somebody Loves Me” performed by Tom Patricola and Joan Leslie
• “Lady Be Good” performed by the chorus
• “Summertime” performed by Anne Brown and chorus
• “Rhapsody in Blue”
• “The American in Paris” suite

My review:
When you consider the American songbook, one of the greatest contributors was composer George Gershwin. Gone too soon at age 39, George Gershwin left us with some of the greatest songs like “Somebody Loves Me” to modern jazz made for an orchestra like “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Gershwin’s life was immortalized, along with his music, in the 1945 biographical film “Rhapsody in Blue.”

There was difficulty when it came to casting the great composer. Director Irving Rapper originally wanted Tyrone Power, who would have to be loaned from 20th Century Fox to Warner Bros. But Power wasn’t available due to his service in World War II. Then Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner recommended Cary Grant or John Garfield, according to a 1980 interview with Rapper.

Instead, it was settled on newcomer Robert Alda. Before this film role, Alda was performing in vaudeville and burlesque.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by actors who play real-life figures and fictional characters, and then some of the cast were real-life friends or entertainers who worked with Gershwin.

Popular Warner Bros. actresses Joan Leslie and Alexis Smith play fictional romantic characters. Morris Carnovsky and Rosemary DeCamp play Gershwin’s parents, and Herbert Rudley plays Ira Gershwin. While there were several Gershwin children in real life, the family portrayed in the film is significantly smaller.

Songwriter George Gershwin

Additionally, the cast was real-life collaborators and friends playing themselves, including:
• Oscar Levant
• Anne Brown, who
• Al Jolson, who performs “Swanee,” a song he made famous. Unfortunately, seeing Al Jolson in the cast should clue you in that he performs this song in blackface.
• Tom Patricola, who performs “Somebody Loves Me” as he did in “Scandals.”
• Bandleader Paul Whiteman, who re-creates Gershwin numbers he performed.
• Producer George White

In addition to the extensive cast, the true highlight of this film is all of the music. Nearly 30 Gershwin numbers are performed, as they were written for Broadway shows, jazz compositions and opera.

Joan Leslie is such a highlight performing some of these numbers, like “Somebody Loves Me.” Sources say that Leslie was dubbed by Sally Sweetland, though sometimes I wonder if she’s doing her own singing.

We also see Anne Brown perform “Summertime,” as she did in the original Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.”

We hear “Rhapsody in Blue” in its entirety for his longer compositions, though it is shortly shorter – I believe it was slightly sped up. We also hear the whole “American in Paris” suite. Rather than watching an orchestra perform “An American in Paris,” we instead see Gershwin traveling through Paris.

While some of Gershwin’s contemporaries felt this film was ridiculous, I think it’s an entertaining film filled with memorable songs. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, this will feel like less of a musical but a salute to the composer.

You will leave this movie assuming Gershwin wrote the whole American songbook.

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