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William A. Seiter
Broken hearts in Ireland. Sean is a great tenor, in semi-retirement, living in a village close to Mary, the woman he's always loved. Mary's aunt convinced her to marry a man for his money; he's has recently deserted her, leaving her penniless. She and her two children, Eileen and Tad, move in with the selfish and austere aunt and are miserable. Eileen is falling in love with Fergus, a young man who's off to Dublin to seek his fortune. Sean is drawn out of retirement and goes on tour in America. At his first concert, he's nervous and out of sorts until the last song, when peace descends on him like a gift. What has happened, and can family life be set right? Written by
SONG O MY HEART (Fox, 1930), directed by Frank Borzage, introduces Irish tenor John McCormack (1884-1945) to the motion picture screen. A legendary performer in his day, best known for his concert singing of opera and traditional Irish songs, the film also marked the debut of Maureen O'Sullivan (in her Janet Gaynor type head-dress) and farewell appearance of former silent screen star, Alice Joyce.
Set in a small Irish village, Sean O'Carolan (John McCormack), who gave up his singing career after losing Mary (Alice Joyce) to another but wealthier man some years ago, witnesses her return, along with her two children, Eileen (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tad (Tommy Clifford). Mary, whose husband has deserted her, leaving the family penniless, is forced to take up residence in the home of her spinster Aunt Elizabeth Kennedy (Emily Fitzroy), the one responsible for her forced, loveless marriage. Eileen finds herself falling through the same situation through Aunt Elizabeth's interference with her romance to Fergus O'Donnell (John Garrick). As for Sean, he finally accepts an offer concert singing in New York from impresario Dennis Fullerton (Edward Martindel). Performing to a full house accompanied by his friend, Vincent Glennon (Edward Schneider) at the piano, Sean's success leads to a world tour. After receiving notice via telegram of Mary's death, Sean is now left with the decision whether to go on with his singing career or return home to obligate Mary's request by going against the strong-willed Elizabeth and caring for her children.
Unlike most movie musicals of the early sound era, SONG O MY HEART contains no dancing, no smiling chorines or any vocalizing from its supporting principal players. All the songs are recited by its star attraction, John McCormack. The selected songs include: "Then You'll Remember Me," "A Fairy Story by the Fire," "Just for Today," "I Feel You Near Me," "Will You Marry Me, Kitty My Love," "Rose of Tralee," "Rose of Tralee" (reprize); "Luoghi Sereny E Cari," "The Little Blue Boy," "Plaisir D'Amor," "All Mein Ged Anlen," "Mother Ireland" and "A Pair of Blue Eyes." Of the 13 or so presented, "A Fairy Story" stands out as one where McCormack sings to the gathering of happy children. For the concert sequence, lasting close to 20 minutes, there's only one breakaway during McCormack's singing, that with "The Little Blue Boy" as this sequence fades to visual of a little boy (Wally Albright) playing with his stuffed dog and toy soldiers, then heading for bed where the "Angels take him to heaven," concluding with the vision of these abandoned toys covered hauntingly by cobwebs. "A Pair of Blue Eyes," one of its finest tunes, is carried over through the exit music fadeout.
Under Borzage's direction, SONG O MY HEART gives the impression of a John Ford movie, especially the Irish village scenes with Ford stock players, J. Farrell MacDonald and J.M. Kerrigan as Dan Rafferty and Peter Conlon, playing friendly rivals doing their comic-style exchanges. Tommy Collins, the youngest member, about 11 or so, offers some childish pranks tricking his friend, Aloysius McGonigan (Raymond Borzage) to some fun and games leaving him with some bruises and exposed bandage marks. Also in the cast are Effie Ellsler (Mona); Andres De Segurla (Guido) and Mary Gordon in a brief bit as one of the villagers.
Regardless of McCormack's physical burly appearance, his singing (sounding close to the style of John Boles) with elegance and grace, is easy to see why he was so successful, he never starred in another motion picture again. In spite of his popularity, Hollywood never attempted a biographical musical based on his life in the tradition of THE JOLSON STORY (1946) to carry McCormack name to future generations, though in some ways, SONG O MY HEART comes close to it. McCormack did, however, appear on screen again, in WINGS IN THE MORNING (20th-Fox, 1937) starring Annabella and Henry Fonda. Contributing to a small role, McCormack, playing himself, sings four beautiful songs, including "Those Endearing Young Charms."
Unseen since its initial release, SONG O MY HEART began circulating again in revival theaters after its rediscovery in the 1970s. Availability on video cassette became a reality in the 1990s, and DVD through 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment in 2008 as part of its Frank Borzage collection. The DVD contains an added bonus, a synchronized version with original underscoring and singing sequences. The part-talkie is not only three minutes longer (90 minutes) to the all-talking feature (87 minutes), but is, in many ways, better. The legend of McCormack, captured on film, may be of little or no interest today due to the passing of time and new celebrity interests, but is overall a worthy offering and a very rare find indeed, especially for a St. Patrick's Day film festival. (***)
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