RHAPSODY IN BLUE (Warner Brothers, 1945), directed by Irving Rapper, subtitled "The Story of George Gershwin," is a tribute to America's most original composer of the twentieth century. It's an entertaining musical biography if one could overlook its faults. Made at the time when movies of this type dominated the screen, beginning with YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) with James Cagney as actor and songwriter George M. Cohan, Warners later contributed another using a song title to personify the subject matter, Cole Porter in NIGHT AND DAY (1946) as portrayed by Cary Grant. Obviously YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is the best of the three, however, while NIGHT AND DAY offers an added plus with Technicolor, it makes RHAPSODY IN BLUE better than what it is. Unlike the two mentioned bio-pics, RHAPSODY IN BLUE is not headlined by a major name, but a newcomer named Robert Alda, who, unlike Cagney and Grant, never became a top rank star. One thing going for Alda is his resemblance to George Gershwin, and how acceptable he is in what has become his best known film role. Unfortunately, that's where the Gershwin legend ends. Hoping for another YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, Warners reused its co-stars, Joan Leslie as the fictitious girlfriend, and Rosemary DeCamp as the mother, the sort of roles they've done before. The result: the music that outscores an episodic story. The story of George Gershwin, according to an original story by Sonya Levien, opens on the lower East side of Manhattan with brothers George and Ira Gershwin as boys (Darryl Hickman and Mickey Roth) watching men delivering a piano to their apartment. The piano was ordered for Ira to take lessons, but their mother, Rose (Rosemary DeCamp) can't help but notice George's natural talent for the piano without a single lesson. Years pass, the now adult George (Robert Alda), develops a new method in piano playing, lands a job playing songs for customers, getting himself fired for going against management by demonstrating his own songs. In time, he gets his big break when publisher Max Dreyfus (Charles Coburn) introduces Gershwin's latest composition, "Swanee," to Broadway entertainer Al Jolson, who likes the song so much that he introduces it in his next Broadway show, SINBAD. Jolson's delivery to "Swanee" elevates Gershwin into an exceptional and most original composer. Collaborating his songs with Ira (Herbert Rudley), Broadway shows featuring one hit song after another, along with George's on and off romances with Julie Adams (Joan Leslie), a singer who loves him, and Christine Gilbert (Alexis Smith), a socialite/ divorcée who knows she'll be nothing more than a backdrop to his life. In spite of fame and fortune, especially with his masterpiece, "Rhapsody in Blue," George is not a happy man, and strives to improve himself, doing everything in such quick pace as if he has some premonition of an untimely death. The supporting players feature Julie Bishop as Lee Gershwin; Albert Basserman as Professor Frank; Morris Conovsky as Morris Gershwin; Johnny Downs as a tap-dancer; with Paul Whiteman, George White, Tom Patricola, Hazel Scott guest starring as themselves. A pity that Fred Astaire, whose best known for introducing some classic Gershwin tunes, didn't appear. The highlight of the program is Al Jolson singing "Swanee." This became Jolson's final contribution to the motion picture by which he takes part in the plot, but this would not be the last time his voice would be heard on screen. Jolson appears in two key scenes, each in his black-face trademark, first from his dressing room on the telephone and later on opening night. While age has caught up with Jolson physically, his delivery to "Swanee" proves he still has that old magic. A pity he didn't contribute more to the story. Oscar Levant, playing his usual droll self, provides some amusing moments as Gershwin's close friend, as well as his piano solos. Of the many songs composed by George Gershwin, the ones selected for the soundtrack include: "Smiles," (not by Gershwin); "Swanee," "S' Wonderful, S' Marvelous," "Somebody Loves Me," "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," "Lady Be Good," "Blue Monday Blues" followed by "My Joe" and "Mother Mine," "Rhapsody in Blue" (conducted by Paul Whiteman); Braham's "Lullaby" (background score); Hazel Scott's piano playing and vocalization of "The Man I Love" (in French); "Clap Yo Hands," "Fascinatin' Rhythm," "I Got Rhythm" and "Yankee Doodle Blues"; "Liza," "Bidin' My Time," "Embraceable You," "An American in Paris" (instrumental); "Cuban Rhapsody," "Our Love is Here to Stay," "Delicious," "Summertime" from PORGY AND BESS; "Concerto in F", "135th Street Blues," "Love Walked In," "Concerto in F" (reprise); and "Rhapsody in Blue"(reprise/finale). Not historically accurate as one would like it to be, although the costumes and hair styles do fit into the time frames, RHAPSODY IN BLUE should be a delight for Gershwin fans, considering how it concentrates more on his songs than on his personal life. Running more than two hours, the narrative includes several scenes that drag on, but as long as there's enough Gershwin music to fill in the void, it shouldn't appear endless. RHAPSODY IN BLUE, may not be the success in the tradition of YANKEE DOODLE DANDY nor Robert Alda as legendary as James Cagney, but George Gershwin's contribution to American music, jazz, blues and/or folk opera, remains legendary. RHAPSODY IN BLUE formerly available on video cassette, is shown on Turner Classic Movies. Running time: 142 minutes - "a very important piece." (***1/2)
Rhapsody in Blue
Biography / Drama / Musical / Romance
Rhapsody in Blue
Biography / Drama / Musical / Romance
George Gershwin is a driven composer whose need to succeed destroys his relationship with singer Julie Adams and socialite Christine Gilbert.
December 27, 2020