Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Song that Almost Never Ends

Film: Interrupted Melody
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve never made it a secret that I’m not a fan of musicals in general. When that musical is actually opera, I cringe even more. So it’s no surprise that Interrupted Melody has been sitting on my DVR since mid-December. I haven’t wanted to watch it. In fact, I’ve honestly been dreading it. I tried to watch it a few months ago and didn’t get past the first few notes of operatic soprano belting before it was time to try something else. Little did I know that the opera would be the least egregious part of this film.

Interrupted Melody is the story of Marjorie Lawrence, a woman who went from the Australian outback to an internationally acclaimed diva. The high concept part of the film is that at the height of her career, Lawrence was stricken with polio, cutting her career short and spiraling her into a depression. This was the film that I expected, and I suppose that in some sense I got it, but it takes us some time to get there.

That paragraph above serves as a pretty solid plot summary, although there are some significant things I’ve left out. We start with Marjorie (Eleanor Parker) winning a singing contest, which gets her sent to Paris. She essentially breaks in on someone else’s lesson and forces her way into a tryout. We jump ahead some time and Marjorie is debuting around Europe. It is during this period that she meets Dr. Tom King (Glenn Ford). They spend a night together after one of her performances, she sees him off to his boat back to the states, and she goes on with her career.

Eventually, she comes to New York to play the Metropolitan. It is here that she is reunited with Dr. King. Eventually, she gets him to agree to marry her, sweetening the deal by saying that she’ll give up touring and will instead stick with the Met exclusively. He agrees. Not long after their marriage (which we are fortunate to not have to sit through), she is given an ultimatum—go on a five-month tour of South America to prepare for Tristan and Isolde, or the Met will not renew her contract. She goes, along with her brother/manager Cyril (Roger Moore sporting a pencil-thin mustache, which makes him look like a goober). It is here that she contracts polio, threatening her career. This happens a full hour into the film, meaning that the first hour is listening to her sing and witnessing a very tepid romance.

Anyway, once stricken, Marjorie loses the will to live and becomes really pathetic. Dr. Tom gets his tough love cruelty on, and forces her to do things for herself to make her stronger. After a foiled suicide attempt, Marjorie starts singing again. Eventually, she becomes a regular on the USO tour during World War II, and after the war begins her singing career again. With that, the curtain finally drops.

It feels weird to say this, but the opera parts of the film are genuinely the best thing here. Why? The answer to that is simple: when she’s on stage singing, Eleanor Parker isn’t talking, and when she’s talking the film is at its worst. Parker plays this role as if she is a 14-year-old girl. Everything is either the height of ecstasy or the worst possible event. She says every line with a breathless excitement as if each word she is uttering is the most important thing she has ever said in her life. More than that, the film paints the melodrama on as thickly as it can. Marjorie Lawrence comes off as a whiny child having a tantrum because every moment of her life isn’t as special as it can be. We get to witness multiple moments where she storms off stage, afraid of performing badly. Even at the end, at her moment of return, she starts whining to cancel the show, asking for her husband to come rescue her.

The “moment” of the film happens when Tom, frustrated with her complete give up on life, puts on a recording of her singing and then refuses to turn it off. This forces her to crawl out of bed to knock over the table to shut off the recording. It’s an ugly moment. Tom King is portrayed at times as a complete bastard and at times as a complete saint. It’s as much suggested that he gave up his medical practice to move to Florida to help her recover, and implied that he spends part of his day fishing because it’s cheaper than groceries and they are broke (but not so broke that they don’t have a maid, of course. This is 1950s Hollywood, after all).

I think it’s worth noting that the real Marjorie Lawrence was disappointed in this biopic of her life, suggesting that it had little to do with the actual events of her life. She was doubly disappointed in that she wasn’t asked to dub the singing parts of her own performances. No, that went to Eileen Farrell, who appears in the film as the opera student unable to hit a particular high note. In truth, Eleanor Powell actually sang the arias during the filming, so she does actually look like she’s singing.

Really, the opera parts are the best sections of the film because these are the sections of the film that display actual talent. The rest is overacted and dreary, and I couldn’t wait for this one to finish up. I’m getting a lot of those lately. Must be something in the water.

Why to watch Interrupted Melody: Surprise, surprise, the opera is actually pretty good.
Why not to watch: Eleanor Parker in particular is painfully melodramatic.

2 comments:

  1. Hey look, you're not TOTALLY bashing opera! I'm counting that as a win!

    ReplyDelete