The Great Caruso (1951)

RICHARD THORPE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.  USA, 1951.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Screenplay by Sonya Levien, William Ludwig, suggested by the biography of Enrico Caruso by Dorothy Caruso.  Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg.  Produced by Joe Pasternak.  Music by Johnny Green, Peter Herman Adler.  Production Design by Cedric Gibbons, Gabriel ScognamilloCostume Design by Helen Rose, Gile Steele.  Film Editing by Gene Ruggiero.  Academy Awards 1951.  

Mario Lanza and Dorothy Kirsten in The Great Caruso.

Mario Lanza had a few short years as a box office superstar, his popularity mainly fueled by the success of this biopic of famed turn-of-the-century opera superstar Enrico Caruso. The subject is perfectly in line with the famed opera singer’s talents, taking us through Caruso’s career from his early days in Naples, where he tries to work a day job to impress the daughter of a salt merchant but finds he is too impractical for anything other than show business, through his training to his first steps on Italy’s opera stages. His giant and beautiful voice eventually takes him around the world, the toast of Europe before coming to America and finding that his debut at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City is not welcomed in the manner to which he has become accustomed. The main reason, according to this factually adulterous film, is that the critic who dislikes him seems to have sway over all other musical opinions in town, and is that much more irritated by the fact that his daughter (played by a luminous Ann Blyth) has captured our hero’s eye. A miniscule awareness of Caruso’s real biography won’t prevent you from understanding that most of what is happening is made up, it’s rare to find an honest film about a real individual made by a Hollywood studio of this era (or a culturally accurate one for that matter, the scenes of Caruso’s childhood in Italy might as well have been set on the It’s A Small World ride at Disney World), but it does have its dark and cynical moments: a man thinks he has a voice, Caruso says in the film’s smartest scene, but he learns that it is the voice that has the man, for his talent gives him many rewards but also keeps him far away from many of his life’s most important moments. Fans of the musical genre and Lanza himself will be in heaven, as barely a word is breathed before there’s another excuse for a musical number, and he sounds and looks magnificent in all of them. Real-life opera singer Dorothy Kirsten is terrific in all her scenes as one of Caruso’s colleagues, transmitting a great deal of warmth and intelligence with ease and strength.

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