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Fram för framgång (1938)
Comedic side of a great legend of opera
This movie probably doesn't deserve a 7 rating per se, but taken in the context of comparable 1930s American five-and-dime movies and the almost mythic stature of the leading man, it is a jewel. Jussi Björling, if not universally recognized as the greatest operatic tenor of all time, was still the tenor who Dorothy Caruso said was entitled to wear Enrico's mantle and, in my mind 50 years after his death, bearer of the most harmonically gorgeous vice ever recorded at the operatic level.
Björling was criticized as being a "park-and-bark" singer, one who planted himself on the stage and sang without much skill in the acting department. Like many opera-goers, I don't care if the singer is fat, short, homely, or dramatically challenged, I buy the ticket to hear phenomenal vocalism. What a delightful bit of serendipity, then, to find this movie with plenty of performance from that golden voice and the legend himself having a ball, obviously in it for the fun and some first-class slapstick. In one scene aboard a boat on the ocean I kept thinking of Lou Costello. For a park-and-bark tenor Björling demonstrates first-class comic athleticism.
Thirty years after Björling's death the Swedish Royal Opera organized a tribute performance in his honor. There the great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström said the outward acting may have been stilted, but when she sang with him she saw in his eyes a total emotional immersion. The film is somewhat faded, of course, but I highly recommend it to fellow lifelong fans for insight into a highly enjoyable alternative side of our idol.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Stanley Holloway remembered.
What fun to see a younger and slimmer Stanley Holloway as the stationmaster. Not too much of a stretch to imagine him aging, swelling up in girth, and transmogrifying into Alfred P. Doolittle. I could even hear that British music hall voice: "All I want is a place somewhere, far away from the midnight air..." Not to mention Trevor Howard. Was this suave British gentleman really going to show up 25 years later as the craggy, chisel-jawed juggernaut of a priest in David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter"?
To fully grasp the mood and intent of the movie, one needs to understand Noel Coward, whose personality and works were a phenomenon of his time. Muted and laced with prickly repartee a bit beyond the threshold of real-world conversation, Coward struck a fine balance between the humor and gravity of emotions roiling just skin-deep under the constraints imposed by British politesse. In that light, the main disappointment in an otherwise moving work of art lies in the overly long, stultifying voice-overs.
I first heard "Brief Encounter" on the radio at least 65 years ago. One memory has stuck with me from that broadcast, the dullish, nicey-nice husband, played by Nigel Bruce (then the preeminent Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes) and his warm-hearted lines addressed to his wife toward the end of the play. A potential spoiler, I'll not quote them here; suffice it to say, they weighed significantly on an 8-year-old boy in Los Angeles.
Tonight We Sing (1953)
Schmaltzy movie, golden music
The movie itself is pure schmaltz (exemplified by tenor Jan Peerce's voice emanating from the face of a "Hollywoodier" actor), but the music is a treasure trove. The great Pinza portraying the great Chaliapin! One legend playing another? Not to mention Isaac Stern as Ysaye, and Toumanova as Pavlova. Wow! I know my Moussorgsky, and Pinza's extremely rare outing in the Russian original of "Boris" is impeccable. Best of all, I have heard a dozen versions of the final trio from Gounod's "Faust," including the thunderous Christoff-Gedda-de los Angeles rendition, but the Pinza-Peerce-Peters tour de force in this movie leaves me gasping for air. A travesty that no video is available. Someone on the Internet offers a print for $400+, but I neglected to bookmark and cannot relocate the source.