Thursday, February 12, 2015


An almost completely fictional biopic about George Gershwin, one of the great composers of the 20th century. Once you've accepted that little in this film is based on fact (despite the presence in the film of several real-life friends of Gershwin), you can settle back and more or less enjoy this as a fictional film with some great music—though considering they had the Gershwin catalog to choose from, the renditions of most of the songs leave much to be desired. We begin with the working-class Gershwin family, and young brothers George and Ira excited to see that a piano is being delivered to their humble Bronx apartment. George (played as an adult by Robert Alda) takes to it immediately and soon works his way up to become a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley. On the side, he begins writing his own songs and taking lessons from Prof. Franck (Albert Bassermann) who feels Gershwin is wasting his talent on creating disposable pop music. Next thing you know, he's writing for singer Julie Adams (a fictitious character played by Joan Leslie) and he becomes the toast of Broadway, turning out songs like "Swanee" and "I Got Rhythm." Still pursuing serious music, his jazz-inflected "Rhapsody in Blue" is a smash success played in a concert hall by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. George and Julie get friendly though remaining chaste, but when George goes to Paris for musical inspiration (and eventually writes another serious piece, "An American in Paris"), he meets Christine (Alexis Smith), a well-connected woman-about-town, and a love triangle is set that ultimately goes nowhere. When he starts fretting about not having enough time to do everything he wants, and then begins getting debilitating headaches, we know the end (a brain tumor) is near.

There's no use pointing out the inaccuracies here because there are so many. Even when they get something right, like the success of "Rhapsody in Blue," not enough attention is given to it; it's just one more step on the ladder to the top. This is largely a missed opportunity for a colorful Gershwin revue; had this been done by Arthur Freed's unit at MGM, it would have been filled with stars performing the songs as splashy production numbers, but here at Warner Bros. we're stuck with lukewarm renditions, mostly by the bland Joan Leslie (voice dubbed by Sally Sweetland). Anne Brown, who actually played Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, sings a bit of "Summertime," and Hazel Scott and Al Jolson sing some songs as themselves.  And very few of the 20+ songs are done in their entirety. Alda is unremarkable in the central role, but a handful of other actors do nice work, including Morris Carnovsky as George's father, Herbert Rudley as Ira (pictured at right with Alda), Albert Bassermann as the music professor, and Alexis Smith as one of the two (totally fictitious) love interests—in real life, Gershwin apparently played the field. Best of all is Oscar Levant playing himself; the hangdog, snarky Levant (pictured top left with Alda) is always welcome in a sidekick role, and he actually knew and worked with Gershwin. In fact, it's Levant’s playing that we hear whenever we see Alda at the piano. The highlight of the film is the playing of the Rhapsody; it's well-played and well-shot, and as it comes about an hour into the movie, you can shut it off when it's over and miss the last draggy 75 minutes. [Warner Archive Instant]

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