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THAT MIDNIGHT KISS/THE TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson, Jose Iturbi, Ethel Barrymore, Keenan Wynn, Marjorie Reynolds, David Niven
Director: Norman Taurog
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods documentary, cartoon, three short subjects, two trailers
Length: 195 min.
Release Date: July 24, 2007

"I'll be singing opera someday, and no matter how many people there are, I'll be singing just to you."

Films ***

Alfredo Arnold Cocozza was born to Italian-American parents on January 31, 1921.  Raised in Philadelphia, this young boy was destined one day to become Mario Lanza, America's greatest tenor and international megastar.  That Lanza's preferred genre was the operatic aria made the extent of his international fame all the more remarkable.

Lanza's big break came following a performance at the famed Hollywood Bowl in the late 1940's.  MGM's boss, Louis B. Mayer, was always on the lookout for new talent, and he had been quite impressed by the charismatic young Italian-American with the warm tenor voice and barrel-chested good looks.  Subsequently, Mario Lanza soon was signed to a film contract with MGM.

The studio did not need to wait very long to see how the film-going public would respond to its latest singing discovery.  The tenor's debut film, That Midnight Kiss (1949), was a rousing success, virtually making Mario Lanza a household name overnight.  The film presented a rags-to-riches tale about a Philadelphia truck driver who becomes the toast of the local operatic scene.  As Lanza was a Philadelphia boy himself, the story was not so dissimilar from reality.

In That Midnight Kiss, Kathryn Grayson portrays Prudence Budell, a promising young singer whose wealthy grandmother Abigail Budell (Ethel Barrymore) is a patron of the fine arts.  Mrs. Budell has decided to finance a new civic opera company in Philadelphia to showcase the local talent (including her own granddaughter).  She hires the famed symphony conductor Jose Iturbi (playing himself) to lead her orchestra, secretly hoping that Iturbi will be able to transform her shy but gifted grand-daughter Prudence into the great singer that she is capable of becoming.

One day after rehearsal, Prudence arrives home at her grandmother's mansion to eavesdrop unexpectedly on a truck driver while he sings and play-tests the piano he has just delivered to the home.  Prudence recognizes the raw talent in this humble truck driver, Johnny Donnetti (Mario Lanza), and a few days later, persuades maestro Iturbi to grant the young man an audition.

Iturbi is equally impressed by young Johnny's singing but is uncertain about his ability to maintain his composure and perform before a large opera house audience.  Nevertheless, once Johnny finally receives his golden opportunity as a guest solo performer in one of Iturbi's concerts, he hits all the right notes.  A second opportunity arrives when the temperamental tenor for Mrs. Budell's new opera house unexpectedly quits, leaving Iturbi with little choice but to give young Johnny Donnetti a chance at the lead role.

To a degree, That Midnight Kiss follows the typical formula for a backstage musical as epitomized by 42nd Street.  However, it is mostly a showcase for some great classical music performances and operatic vocals.  There are a few famous operatic songs on display, including Nutile's "Mamma mia, che vo' sape," Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima," and Verdi's "Celeste Aida."  There are excerpts of piano compositions, including Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.  For more mainstream tastes, Mario Lanza also performs a number of English-language romantic ballads and duets with Kathryn Grayson, such as the very sweet "They Didn't Believe Me."  Listening to the warmth and vibrant texture of Lanza's singing voice, one can see why, at his peak, Lanza was able to cast such a spell over his audiences.

Following the theatrical release of That Midnight Kiss, Mario Lanza quickly found himself catapulted to the status of singing megastar with massive flocks of new adoring fans.  And why not?  The tenor was very charismatic and projected a very friendly persona on-screen.  And of course, there was his gorgeous voice, considered by many to be equal to if not surpassing that of the legendary Enrico Caruso.  The young tenor would soon out-sell even Sinatra and would embark upon a brief but brilliant recording and performing career that has since heavily influenced the likes of numerous singers from Elvis Presley to today's celebrated Three Tenors -  Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jose Carreras.  Acclaimed conductor Serge Koussevitzky, one of Mario Lanza's early mentors, is noted to have once remarked of his pupil, "Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years."  Truer words were never spoken.

For Lanza's next film, The Toast Of New Orleans (1950), MGM again cast their exciting new star opposite Kathryn Grayson, certainly MGM's best female singer and probably the only one capable of sufficiently keeping pace with the tenor.  This time around, Lanza portrays a bayou fisherman who is transformed into a great opera star (in essence, a variation on That Midnight Kiss).  What this light and comic period film lacks in originality, it compensates for with the glorious vocals by Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson.

Set in turn-of-the-century Louisiana, The Toast of New Orleans opens with an annual festival celebrating the blessing of the fishing fleet.  Among the local fishermen is Pepe Duvalle (Mario Lanza), who helps out on his Uncle Nicky's boat but has no head for business, only for pretty girls.

Naturally, when the celebrated opera singer Suzette Micheline (Kathryn Grayson) arrives in town with her director, Jacques Riboudeaux (David Niven), Pepe is quick to take notice.  Suzette's beauty may be tempered by her haughty airs, but Pepe enjoys the challenge of flirting with the willful diva and even engages in an impromptu duet "Be My Love."

Monsieur Riboudeaux, though amused at Pepe's rough edges, instantly recognizes superior vocal talent when he hears it and so invites the fisherman to sing for his New Orleans opera company.  Pepe initially turns down the invitation but later, when Uncle Nicky's boat sinks in a storm, he decides to take up the Riboudeaux offer.  Not only might Pepe earn some money to buy his uncle a new boat but he might also get another opportunity to court the lovely Suzette!

The Toast of New Orleans traces Pepe's transformation from an unkempt, adolescent personality into a well-polished and cultured gentleman.  Think of it as an operatic Pygmalion.  Pepe endures endless lessons on social graces and manners, dining, dancing, and dressing (all in addition to his regular vocal lessons).  With the reluctant Suzette as one of his mentors, Pepe learns quickly and even manages to eventually warm up his frosty opera co-star.

The film builds up to a powerful performance from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, but there are plenty of songs before that climactic moment.  Lanza performs several operatic arias, including Bizet's "Flower Song" from Carmen and a particularly good duet with Kathryn Grayson from Verdi's "Libiamo" from La traviata.  Mario Lanza even dances a little in the ensemble "The Tina-Lina" number and has a joyous if silly "Boom Biddy Boom Boom" stroll through the streets of New Orleans.  Kathryn Grayson gets her own solo for "Je Suis Titania."  Although "Be My Love" is the most famous ballad from this film, the two Lanza serenades "I'll Never Love You" and "Bayou Lullaby" are quite enchanting, too.  It has been said that Fred Astaire made love on-screen through his dancing.  Well, Mario Lanza made love through his singing, never more evident in this film than in the Act I finale from Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

Coincidentally, Mario Lanza had been performing in a stage version of Madame Butterfly when That Midnight Kiss transformed him virtually overnight into a megastar.  The Toast of New Orleans proved to be another smash hit for Mario Lanza, although the peak of his fame was yet to arrive a year later in The Great Caruso, in which Lanza portrayed his idol, Enrico Caruso.  Regrettably, Kathryn Grayson never performed opposite Mario Lanza in another film again (although she would appear in a trio of stellar musicals, including Kiss Me Kate and Show Boat, with the not-so-shabby Howard Keel!).

Still, only in the world of musicals could a truck driver or fisherman ever dream of winning the heart of a lovely and sophisticated diva such as Kathryn Grayson.  But if you look like Mario Lanza and sing like Mario Lanza, then perhaps anything is possible!

BONUS TRIVIA:  A young Rita Moreno appears in The Toast of New Orleans and demonstrates that even at a young age, she was already an exceptional dancer.

Video ***

Both films benefit from vibrant colors in the best Technicolor tradition.  While there is some trace of mildly soft texturing and color bleeding (typical of Technicolor films) and some awkwardly-photographed process shots in The Toast of New Orleans, there is nothing particularly distracting.  Truly, films today rarely look this luscious anymore.

Audio ***

What Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were for MGM in the 1930's, Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson were for the studio one decade later.  Their individual solos and duets together in That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans are so incredible that tears might literally flow from your eyes, monaural sound or not.

On a side note, the renowned pianist Amparo Iturbi, sister to Jose Iturbi, makes a brief cameo in That Midnight Kiss for a piano duet with her brother.

Features ***

This two-disc release is included in the box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2 but can also be purchased separately.

Disc One contains the film That Midnight Kiss and a few bonus features.  There are a pair of 1949 short subjects.  First is a black & white comedy "Sports Oddities" which offers a selection of impressive and unusual sport demonstrations.  The second short is the cartoon "Señor Droopy" (7 min.), in which an outmatched Droopy enters a bullfighting contest to win the hand of lovely Lina Romay (who makes a special cameo appearance).

More singing between Lanza and Grayson can be found in an outtake of "One Love of Mine."  Lastly, there is the film's theatrical trailer.

Disc Two contains the film The Toast of New Orleans and a few related extras.  The best bonus is the hour-long documentary Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods (58 min.).  This 2006 BBC production traces the career of the great American tenor from his childhood to his early singing career, his meteoric rise to fame thanks to his MGM films, and his eventual status as the world's top-selling recording artist and musical icon, even surpassing Frank Sinatra.

Part of Mario Lanza's great appeal was his ability to shift with equal comfort between Italian opera and pop show tunes, including his smash hit "Be My Love."  This documentary is complemented by numerous clips from Lanza's various films as well as still photographs, television excerpts, and interviews with former friends and colleagues.

The documentary also discusses Lanza's personal problems, including his fiery disposition, excessive drinking and eating, and gradual disillusionment with Hollywood.  Mario Lanza died prematurely at age thirty-eight from a pulmonary embolus, but his legacy continues to influence singers today.

Also on the disc are a pair of vintage 1940 James Fitzpatrick Traveltalk shorts about New Orleans.  "Modern New Orleans" (8 min.) captures the sights and sounds of modern-day New Orleans' harbors and streets, while "Old New Orleans" (8 min.) samples the historic landmarks, architecture, and cuisine of the city.  Lastly, this disc also has a theatrical trailer for The Toast of New Orleans.

Summary:

Mario Lanza was probably the greatest male vocalist ever to appear in an MGM musical.  While his film career was regrettably short-lived, the two films in this fine double-feature collection clearly demonstrate the amazing presence, charisma, and vocals that made Lanza one of the world's greatest stars in his day.

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