When Lauritz Met Leo: High-Brow High Jinks on MGM’s Luxury Liner

One of the stars of MGM’s charming musical cream puff, Luxury Liner (1948), is Lauritz Melchior. For those who may not recognize the name, Melchior was the greatest Wagnerian tenor of the 20th century—indeed, as his biographer Shirlee Emmons notes, he “may very well prove to be the greatest Heldentenor of all time.” Such was Melchior’s standing in the opera world that he was considered, per The Rough Guide to Opera, “a law unto himself.” Yet here he is, cavorting like a spring lamb on board the ocean liner of the movie’s title, his towering presence lending luster to this Technicolor piece of cotton candy. That’s rather like Winston Churchill deigning to appear as a presenter on the Oscar show—so vast is the difference in stature between the deigner and the deignee.

Rest assured, however, that Melchior himself had no pretensions about his own greatness. Although a famed Wagnerian interpreter on such stages as Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera, Melchior could also “play the clown without inhibitions,” writes Emmons—qualities that made him “a fine comedian in movies and radio, and, co-incidentally, [able] to sway the American public of the 1940s and 1950s from its ingrained belief that opera singers were highly dignified, exalted, and unfriendly creatures who sang pretentious music that the ordinary person could never understand.” In spite of his legendary status, Melchior had no problem being perceived by audiences as a “regular guy.” He wasn’t just a significant artist, but a “genuine celebrity,” says Emmons, and “an idol of popular culture.” In the 1940s this translated into popularity in radio and films, the mainstream entertainment media of that time. And it was through an astute combination of publicity, radio shows, movie appearances, concerts, and even commercials, that Melchior became “not merely a singer, but a famous singer”—almost equal in popularity to that other 1940s singing icon, Frank Sinatra.

The Sinatra analogy is not just metaphorical hype. Both singers, Emmons writes, had several career parallels, one being that they were the idols of bobby-soxers, a fact exploited in Melchior’s publicity. Melchior would even humorously imitate Sinatra’s crooning style on his radio appearances (with such airwave personalities as Fred Allen, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Eddie Cantor). When reporters asked Sinatra to reply in kind by imitating Melchior—crooning a bar or two of Tristan, perhaps—Sinatra demurred, calling a press conference to say that he hoped to sing a “heavenly duet” with Melchior some day, but not just yet. The Sinatra link also comes up in Luxury Liner, when Polly, the film’s young heroine (Jane Powell), gazes up in adoration at Melchior and gushes “You’re my Sinatra.” Whether any bobby-soxer ever gushed that Sinatra was her Melchior, we can’t say, but you get the idea.

Melchior’s pop-culture popularity was not a fluke. He really is a lot of fun in his movies. What’s more, the tenor brought a genuine zest to his roles; he’s clearly enjoying himself (he once remarked that his movie work was like a “vacation from Valhalla”). Melchior could be adroit with a comic line, as when asked, in LL, what his singing partner is like; he rolls his eyes and replies with understated huff, “a soprano.” He obviously loved to clown—at one point in the film he scat-sings a few bars in tandem with the swing-era singing group The Pied Pipers, wagging his ample bottom in time to the melody. And then there was the Voice: possessing, says Emmons, “a capacity for beautiful lyricism…; a ringing tone that was not diminished…by vicissitudes of range; [and] a superbly skillful and dramatic declamation of text.” Note the scene in LL when he sings the aria “Winterstürme” from Wagner’s Die Walküre (see clip above). Melchior is in his stateroom, chatting with a cleaning woman who tells him to go ahead and sing. The scene is pure Hollywood: our tenor sits down at the piano (it just happens to be there) and immediately rips off the aria with vim and brio, not even needing to warm up. Melchior was nearly sixty at the time, but he still sounds utterly youthful and ardent, the voice strong and secure, the singing marvelous. Frequently the camera cuts away to shots of Powell and Frances Gifford listening, their faces alight with the kind of worship usually reserved for Sinatra. All Melchior needs is to lean into a mike, and the image is complete.

Give your partner a lift: Jane Powell & Lauritz Melchior in Luxury Liner

Although he may have matched Sinatra in popularity, in appearance Melchior was most un-Sinatra-like. He looked like a larger, more imposing version of filmdom’s S.Z. Sakall, a Hungarian refugee turned comic actor who, with his rotund form, curly white locks and several layers of chubby chin, resembled a mobile chunk of Viennese pastry. (Not for nothing was Sakall nicknamed “Cuddles.”) Melchior’s bulky appearance (well over six feet, 250-plus pounds) limited him to the kinds of avuncular character roles associated with Sakall, but those roles also made him seem so much more jolly and approachable. Though always cast, in his five movies (Thrill of a Romance, Two Sisters From Boston, Luxury Liner, This Time For Keeps, and The Stars Are Singing), as a comic famous tenor—very much an extension of his clowning radio show persona—he was also the famous tenor as fairy godfather, serving as kindly confidante to the film’s heroine. In Melchior’s debut film, Thrill of a Romance (1945), he’s a famous tenor who functions as a huge and hugely lovable cupid-cum-chaperone to the two lovers, helping to smooth their path to happily ever after. Likewise, in LL he comforts and advises Powell about her emotional dilemmas, while also pairing with her for duets. Melchior seems right at home in this type of filmland fluff; perhaps a lifetime spent on the world’s great opera stages was apt preparation for the majestically silly heights of Hollywood musicals.

If, at the phrase “Hollywood Musical,” you immediately think of Gene Kelly as An American in Paris, know, then, that not all movie musicals equal Arthur Freed. Freed was MGM’s reigning musical-producing genius in the 1940s and 1950s, whose unit made such acknowledged classics as Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, On the Town, Gigi, Brigadoon, and The Pirate; but not every MGM musical essayed such lofty artistic altitudes. LL was produced by the MGM unit headed by Joe Pasternak, who, says Ted Sennett, made “a series of featherweight musical entertainments,” usually distinguished by rich color cinematography, ornate sets, flashy production numbers, and almost-nonexistent plots. (Pasternak’s unit, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn, produced some of Esther Williams’ aquacade extravaganzas, which hewed to a plot line only until it was time for Esther to don a bathing suit and swim; it also oversaw a series of lavish musicals featuring that bull-in-a-china-shop tenor, Mario Lanza.) LL’s story, for example, is about a headstrong school girl (Powell) who stows away aboard the title vessel captained by her father (George Brent) and becomes friends with an attractive woman (Gifford) who provides romantic distraction for Dad. Oh yes, and Melchior plays (surprise!) a famous tenor. That’s about it; that and lots (and lots) of musical numbers, ranging in style from Latin to Wagner/Verdi to syrupy operetta to Cole Porter to Tin Pan Alley (“Yes, We Have No Bananas,” as swung by the Pipers). There’s a bit of something for everyone; Pasternak seemed to be taking no chances with audience taste.

In this sense, the Pasternak films are a throwback to the pre-Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musical era. The R&H musicals, beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943, were seen as an advancement in musical theater: instead of a string of discrete musical numbers hooked to a star comic, music and dance were now wedded to plot and character as a means of creating a coherent artistic statement—an aspiration reflected in Freed’s work. The Freed musicals are often unified by a single idea (e.g., Gershwin in Paris), and frequently use music and dance to convey heightened emotional expression (“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon, or the monumental title sequence from An American in Paris). In contrast, Pasternak’s musicals can be likened to the kind of entertainments churned out by MGM in the 1930s—those backstage Broadway Melodies of whatever year, in which Eleanor Powell tap-dances madly past rows of tuxedoed chorus boys, while a motley crew of talented singers, dancers, and comics (Buddy Ebsen, Sophie Tucker, Red Skelton, John Carroll, George Murphy, Ann Sothern, a young Judy Garland, and the marvelously named Robert Wildhack) ably takes up the slack. Similarly, LL’s story is basically an armature for musical numbers that in no way advance the narrative or develop character, but are really showcases for the likes of Xavier Cugat, the Pipers, Marina Koshetz, Melchior, and Powell. You could take any of Cugat’s numbers from LL and stick it into any other Pasternak/Powell musical—say, A Date With Judy—and you won’t feel a ripple of difference.

Singing for her supper: Jane Powell in Luxury Liner

The mention of Jane Powell inevitably brings up Pasternak’s other producing accomplishment: the girl soprano. He even devotes a chapter in his memoirs to it, remarking that he’s noted for “the dreadful invasion of the young on the picture screen during the Thirties.” If for nothing else, Pasternak will be remembered as the discoverer of and strategist behind Deanna Durbin at Universal Studios. Durbin was the first, and the best, of the Hollywood teen coloraturas who raged through the lesser musicals of the late 1930s through the 1940s, but she wasn’t Pasternak’s first adolescent songstress; he had already been producing movies with a teen soprano in Europe for Universal in the early 1930s (before emigrating to America to escape the Nazi threat). He continued the formula in Hollywood, creating vehicles that, as described by Clive Hirschhorn, “were sweet, naïve and thoroughly conventional, usually featuring nubile young sopranos,” such as Durbin, Gloria Jean, Ann Blyth, Kathryn Grayson, and Powell, the latter two at MGM, to where Pasternak shifted in the early 1940s. (In her autobiography, Powell recalls that at MGM Pasternak “was more or less assigned to me, and I to him,” and that she was always given the songs with high notes.) The music favored was a mixture of romantic pop and light classical (although Durbin did occasionally throw in a more dramatic aria, such as Puccini’s “Un Bel Di” in First Love). Pasternak’s formula may sound bland, but it was immensely successful; Durbin’s movies alone were such hits that they saved Universal from bankruptcy.

Like the other teenagers in this select group, Powell was noted not only for her high notes but her high spirits. As the title of her autobiography says, she was The Girl Next Door: petite, cute, perky, vivacious, and prone to sparkly eyes and smiles. Today she’s probably best known for her adult musical roles as Fred Astaire’s sister in Royal Wedding and as one of the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. However, Powell had a lengthy career as a juvenile singing star: Nancy Goes to Rio, A Date With Judy, Two Weeks With Love, Three Daring Daughters, Holiday in Mexico—no matter the title, the plot, notes Sennett, basically features Powell as “a chirruping maiden with family or mildly romantic problems.” LL is no different; Powell bustles about, interfering with everyone’s shipboard business, while taking time out to warble innumerable musical numbers—a multi-ethnic “Alouette” with the kitchen staff; “Spring Came Back to Vienna”; and “The Peanut Vendor,” in which, backed by Cugat’s orchestra, she tosses in snippets of such coloratura standards as Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” and Dinorah’s “Ombre Légère” aria, for the benefit of Melchior, who’s listening (see clip below). Depending on your taste and mood, you can find Powell awfully endearing or awfully tiring. But she was, as Pasternak wrote of her, a “natural”; her energy and humor permeate her films. While as a singer she’s nowhere near Melchior’s league (and, in terms of girl sopranos, our own preference is for the warm-toned Durbin), she’s lively, sweet, and uncomplicated, with the right amount of girlish trill in her voice. Her bubbly adolescents created a romanticized, sentimental portrait of American girlhood that, seen from today’s jaundiced 21st-century perspective, must look either sadly nostalgic or simply unbelievable. But such is the conviction of Powell’s performances that you never laugh at this image; Powell managed to bring genuine emotional sincerity to these saccharine characters.

What Powell, and Melchior, ably demonstrate in LL is the elasticity with which golden-age Hollywood musicals combined classical and popular music (and performers) in their narratives. In Three Daring Daughters, for example, Powell sings Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette aria, “Je Veux Vivre,” and quite well, too, accompanied by the classical pianist José Iturbi. But Pasternak wasn’t the only producer to add classical music to his movies, nor was Melchior the only opera singer to appear in a mainstream (non-opera adaptation) film. As early as 1930 the great Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett was starring in The Rogue Song as a singing bandit, with Laurel and Hardy, no less, as his co-stars (a lost film, unfortunately). There were also the 1930s Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operetta vehicles, as well as non-musical films with opera settings, such as San Francisco (MacDonald singing from La Traviata and Faust), The Phantom of the Opera, and The Climax (and don’t forget Charlie Chan at the Opera, in which Boris Karloff lip-synchs in the role of an operatic basso). Other famous opera stars performing before the camera included Grace Moore, Ezio Pinza, Lily Pons, even the magnificent Kirsten Flagstad (who appears, incongruously, in full Valkyrie regalia to boom out Brunnhilde’s “Hojotoho!” aria in The Big Broadcast of 1938, and may have the distinction of being the only opera star introduced by Bob Hope). And then there’s the Musical Genius biopic: those highly fictionalized versions of the lives of Johann Strauss, Frederic Chopin, Enrico Caruso, Franz Liszt, or Robert Schumann, which often (as anyone who’s seen the composing-in-the-park sequence from The Great Waltz can testify) reached operatic heights of giddiness (though there’s the excellent Marjorie Lawrence biography, Interrupted Melody, which included heavy doses of Wagner). While these movies may have had shortcomings both as films and as biographies, they did give audiences a sumptuous earful of great classical music—which, in effect, was the point.

Perhaps these Hollywood movies diluted, even travestied, the high art of classical music—opera fans, per Emmons, were dismayed to see Melchior ‘sell out’ to Hollywood. On the other hand, Melchior and the other film-gracing opera stars, as well as numerous segments of opera performance in dozens of films, brought an exalted art form to mass audiences. In the years before television, regional theater, and YouTube, listeners not living in major cities would have had limited opportunities to hear opera outside of gramophone records, radio, and movies. But perhaps audiences did not, as Emmons claimed, perceive opera as unapproachable, aloof, or out of reach. There obviously was a mass market for classical music; after all, so many movies were already giving it to viewers, to be enjoyed at any neighborhood movie theater. As Melchior himself proved, opera could be as near, and as friendly, as The Tenor Next Door.

BONUS CLIP: Included below is an audio clip of Melchior singing Meyerbeer’s “O Paradiso” (in German), to give you a sense of what he really could do when he let the lungs out.

Sources:

Boyden, Matthew, The Rough Guide to Opera, 3rd Edition, London: Rough Guides Ltd., 2002

Emmons, Shirlee, Tristanissimo: The Authorized Biography of Heroic Tenor Lauritz Melchior, New York: Schirmer Books, A Division of MacMillan, Inc., 1990

Hirschhorn, Clive, The Hollywood Musical, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1981, 1983

“Joe Pasternak,” IMDB Web site, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0664990/

“Joe Pasternak,” Wikipedia Web site, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Pasternak

Pasternak, Joe, as told to David Chandler, Easy the Hard Way, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956

Powell, Jane, The Girl Next Door…And How She Grew, New York: William Merrow & Company, Inc., 1988

Sennett, Ted, Hollywood Musicals, New York: Harry N. Abrahams, Inc. Publishers, 1981

Movie and audio clips are from http://www.youtube.com

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