Tuesday, 28 June 2011

With a Song in My Heart (1952)

I wrote recently that 20th Century Fox was not known as a hotbed of musicals a la MGM, and here I am again complimenting them on a splendid musical film -- although this one is really a biopic of a famous singer of the time, Jane Froman, nowadays largely unknown. The popular singer with the contralto voice became swiftly successful on radio and in cluband and she introduced a treasury of the era's 'standard' classic ballads.  Here she is personified by Susan Hayward, Oscar-nominated for the role, but the intense actress does more than just portray Froman; she studied and absorbed her body-language, her song phrasing, and her overall persona with the result that although she is in fact lip-synching the nearly 30 tunes that Froman provides for the soundtrack, you would place bets that Hayward is indeed doing her own singing -- that's how natural it all looks and sounds.  The film's musical director Alfred Newman actually won that year's Academy Award and he was in competition with "Singin' in the Rain".

The story is relatively faithful to the singer's own life.  Encouraged by her first husband, a musician well-played by David Wayne, her career takes off into the stratosphere, while his goes nowhere -- although the film is not any sort of riff on "A Star is Born".  On her first air trip overseas to entertain the troops, the flight crashes and she was one of the lucky survivors.  She was kept afloat by a pilot (played soppily by Rory Calhoun) portrayed here as the 'love of her life'. (They did indeed eventually marry, but soon divorced before her retirement and husband number three).  Despite horrific bodily injuries requiring dozens of separate and painful operations, she kept up her spirits, encouraged by her down-to-earth nurse and companion Clancy, played by the always-memorable Thelma Ritter, and continued to entertain both at home and on the battlefield throughout the 40s, despite the wheelchairs and the crutches. There are two especially touching scenes containing an early role for the young Robert Wagner as she sings to him in a New York nightclub and then recognises him amongst the badly injured soldiers in a European hospital and draws him out of his shell-shocked silence.  In fact the whole end scene with its American Medley celebrating the various hometowns and home states of the cheering GIs is as tear-jerking (in a nice way) as could be.  Irresistible.

A final few words in praise of character actress Ritter: She was one of those players who managed to walk away with their scenes, starting with her first bit part as a disgruntled shopper in Macy's toy department in l946's "Miracle on 34th Street". She was Oscar-nominated both for her work in the above movie and for five other films ("All About Eve", "The Mating Season", "Pickup on South Street", "Pillow Talk", and "Birdman of Alcatraz"), but she never won.   More's the pity, since she was one of those largely unsung actors who make even the most fantastic scenario just that little bit more real.  Cheers, Thelma! 
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