It is one of the great ironies of Mario Lanza's movie career that his best film, Serenade, should have been eclipsed at the box office by his weakest effort, the meandering Seven Hills of Rome. The latter contains so few opportunities for Mario - either vocally or dramatically - that it emerges as a lifeless, stillborn piece of movie-making. Lanza himself described the movie as "lousy" and condemned his performance in it as "terrible." While he was certainly being far too harsh on his efforts, this stinging self-criticism ensured that his next - and final - cinematic effort, the 1958 For the First Time, would be a considerable improvement over the previous movie. Vocally magnificent, and possessed of a sweetness that redeems its many shortcomings, For the First Time emerges as a touching swansong from an extraordinary talent.
>From the very beginning, the angelic choir that heralds the opening credits makes it clear that this is not a movie for prune-faced cynics. The film historian David Shipman, in one of his pedantic and self-important tomes on movie-making, would later slam the picture, adding that some reviewers had envied the plight of the leading lady, Johanna von Koczian, who for plot purposes is deaf. At least, he implied, she was spared the "misfortune" of hearing Lanza sing. Shipman conveniently overlooked the fact that von Koczian does hear Mario's voice, and that furthermore the tenor is in glorious vocal form throughout (with one exception, which I'll get to later.) Howard S. Thompson of The New York Times was a rare source of critical approval, singling out Lanza's courtship of Miss von Koczian as believable and charming, and calling the movie "the tenor's most disarming vehicle in years."
"Toning his voice down - mercifully - he never sounded better," was also Thompson's assessment of Lanza's singing, and he lavished special praise on the tenor's renditions of O Sole Mio, Vesti la Giubba, and Nium Mi Tema. He also commented approvingly on Lanza's slimmed-down appearance, a great improvement, he said, "over the previous year's Seven Hills of Rome, in which he looked like the eighth [hill]."
What Thompson overlooked, however, was the alarming evidence that Lanza was clearly far from well in his final movie. Mario may have been slimmer throughout much of the film - not only in comparison with Seven Hills, but also several of his earlier movies - but here he often looks tired and subdued, with noticeable bags under the eyes and a strangely "painted" appearance confirming his precarious state of health. At other times he looks disarmingly handsome - almost like the Mario of yore, with his endearing qualities of mischief and warmth written all over his expressive features.
The final shooting script of For the First Time was reportedly inferior to the original version that Lanza had approved. What he thought of the changes is unclear, but as with Seven Hills of Rome, far greater attention should have been paid to the dialogue, which is often bland and uninspired. The other major drawback to the movie is its plot resolution - a recurring problem in several of Mario's films. Johanna von Koczian's character is initially deaf, then has her hearing restored in a groundbreaking operation, only to lose it again before it is all-too-conveniently regained in a dramatically flat depiction. Would that the scenarists "had dared to follow through with a logical downbeat ending," was Howard S. Thompson's only complaint of the movie, and he is right. Either von Koczian should have lost her hearing - once and for all! - thus imbuing the movie with considerable poignancy, OR the climactic scene in which Lanza learns that her hearing had only temporarily disappeared should have been given real urgency and suspense. As it is, Mario is merely informed by Miss von Koczian's uncle that his niece's hearing has returned, to which he rather feebly replies: "Thank Heaven."
A downbeat ending would have heightened the element of pathos in the movie's original title: Silent Melody. One only needs to consider the plight of poor Johanna, doomed to a Beethovian world in which she can only relive her aural memories of Mario in her "inner ear," to imagine how devastating such a conclusion could have been. It would be fascinating to unearth the original script and learn if such an ending was ever contemplated.
However, rather than continue to bemoan another lost opportunity in a Lanza movie, let's focus instead on some of the film's most enjoyable moments.
For the First Time cheekily begins with a scene that must have infuriated Hamburg music lovers with memories of Lanza's real-life non-appearance in their own city the previous year. In the movie, however, Mario does eventually appear - singing outside the Vienna opera house on top of a taxi in a surprisingly strained rendition of La Donna e' Mobile. Some sloppy dubbing during a snatch of Bella Figlia Dell'Amore immediately follows, and we are then introduced to the characters played by Kurt Kasznar and Zsa Zsa Gabor. "Remember how I kept you undercover in Mexico last year?" purrs Gabor in one of the movie's better exchanges. "I sure do," replies Mario. "We were the only two people in Acapulco who didn't get a suntan."
The snappy dialogue is maintained in the next scene, a delightful piece of banter between Lanza and Gabor in a bar in Capri. Mario looks exceedingly handsome here, and his delivery of the lines is suave and assured. "I'm hiding from a cruel, ungrateful world," he mockingly informs Gabor in a deliberately theatrical voice. "Must you hide alone?" Gabor asks seductively. "No," replies Mario. "No. [pause] Let's have a little supper on my terrace." Putting on their respective pairs of dark glasses, the two then disappear into the night together, leaving us to our own imaginations as to what may follow.
An enjoyably corny scene follows in Capri's main square. Poking fun at his real-life weight problem, Mario briefly jumps on a set of scales, shaking his head at the results. Things then become rather silly with the supposedly incognito Lanza reading a magazine which contains a cover shot of himself in exactly the same apparel. Naturally, he is immediately recognized by a group of adoring girls, and coerced into singing. "What's your favourite aria?" he asks his audience. "Don't you know anything good?" replies one ingrate, to whom Mario amusingly cocks an eyebrow. "Good?" he responds in mock-astonishment, as his eyes mischievously dart about. "Something very cool and dreamy," requests another young woman. Mario happily obliges in a beautiful rendition of Come Prima. It's immediately apparent that he is in wonderfully rich voice, and his tender phrasing at the beginning of the song is a seductive delight.
However, director Rudolph Mate's careless approach lets the Come Prima scene down slightly. In the second half of the song Mario is awkwardly filmed from behind as he walks among the audience, ultimately coming into contact with Johanna Von Koczian. The latter is rather implausibly introduced as she walks into the assembled throng reading a letter and oblivious to Lanza's presence. (It would have been more effective to have placed her sitting quietly away from the group, thus allowing Mario to approach her out of curiosity that she is not responding to his performance.) The final note of the song is also poorly filmed, with sloppy editing causing the on-screen Mario to finish the song before the singing has actually ended.
Gripes aside, the scene conveys much of Mario's charisma as a performer, and he is clearly enjoying himself immensely here.
In the next scene Mario appears rather tired and drawn, as he again encounters Johanna against a spectacular backdrop of Capri's dazzling blue sea. The dialogue in all of the film's outdoor scenes was recorded at a later stage, and here the scene is not helped by some marginal dubbing. Hans Sohnker and Annie Rosar, in the respective roles of Johanna's uncle and housekeeper, are also introduced in a poorly-written encounter involving the former's pet goat.
Mario's appearance then changes dramatically in the scene that follows at Sohnker's villa. Filmed in a Berlin studio two months after the previous scene, Mario appears puffy and bloated, but acts beautifully with restraint and conviction. An accomplished actor himself, Sohnker would later praise Mario's performance in For the First Time, singling out the Vesti la Giubba scene as the moment in which he first realized that Lanza could act.
And indeed Mario does act convincingly for the most part, making his often-wooden dialogue seem considerably more sophisticated than it has any right to sound. Were it not for the distracting sight of his ever-changing appearance - coupled with moments of tiredness which render him somewhat subdued at times - this would probably rank as his smoothest on-screen performance. Of course Mario would not be Mario if he didn't go grandly over the top on at least one occasion, and he cheerfully obliges in the endearing proposal scene. "Keep this for me for the rest of our lives!" he passionately exclaims to Johanna as he gives her a ring, and wraps her in a tender embrace. At other times, he appears so natural and relaxed that he scarcely appears to be acting. One example of this is the scene in which he bids farewell to Zsa Zsa as he boards the ferry to Naples. Saying goodbye to her, he turns away, but then looks at her again in a sweet moment that transports an otherwise ordinary scene into something unexpectedly touching and real.
It must have helped that he got on exceptionally well with the entire cast, all of whom perform their roles with as much distinction as the weak script allows. Hans Sohnker and Johanna von Koczian shine throughout, with the latter my second choice (after Sarita Montiel) for the prize of Lanza's best leading lady. The 25-year-old actress may have seemed a little young for Lanza (who looks every bit his 37 years - and then some at times), but there is a genuine chemistry between the two that makes up for the age difference.
Apart from several in-jokes about Mario's weight, I was also amused by the insertion of Antonio Cocozza (Lanza's father), as the name of one of the men arrested after a rather silly brawl scene.
But in-jokes and good acting aside, it is Mario's singing in For the First Time that rescues the whole thing from the clutches of mediocrity. The movie contains the most perfectly balanced musical programme of any of Lanza's movies since The Great Caruso, and vocally this is a much more consistent film than Serenade. Given the disappointing box office performance of the latter (probably not helped by its heavyweight operatic content), the producers of For the First Time must have initially blanched at the idea of Mario singing so much solid opera in the movie. Yet to their credit, Lanza was ultimately allowed to sing complete renditions of the Otello Finale and Vesti la Giubba, together with the sparkling E Voi Ridete trio from Cosi Fan Tutte and the triumphant Grand March from Aida.
The latter was a strange choice with which to end the movie. Mario is in magnificent form, but a happier-looking Lanza singing on his own would have been my choice for the concluding scene. (Come Prima - perhaps in Italian this time with the intro included - could have been reprised instead.) As it is, Mario looks edgy as he stands on the stage of the Rome Opera House, and at least the director could have shown him basking in the audience's applause, and perhaps throwing kisses to Johanna, rather than leaving us with a final look of anxiety. Perhaps he is merely acting out the role of Radames, but it is still an awkward moment.
The other operatic scenes were more skillfully handled. While we will have to wait until the movie is released on DVD to appreciate the Cosi Fan Tutte scene in its entirety (the cropping on the VHS version cuts Mario out of the picture at times), it's a delightfully sung and acted vignette. The director should have been spanked, however, for letting Mario put out his arm to break his fall in the Otello scene. After all, Otello has just stabbed himself, and falling comfortably should be the last thing on his mind!
Vesti la Giubba is the best scene by far. The cutaways (for plot purposes) to Johanna and her uncle are a little distracting, but whenever the camera is on Lanza, he is utterly compelling. I will not bore everyone by repeating my critique of his singing from an earlier essay, but I will say this: one could not wish for a more effective Canio, either vocally or visually. Mario lip-synchs most effectively on the climactic high A, and equally affecting is the way he looks down with unbearable sadness after he has finished the aria. This scene would later provide a most moving conclusion to the 1983 documentary, Mario Lanza: The American Caruso.
Among the non-operatic moments, O Sole Mio and the rousing Hofbrauhaus Song stand out as well-filmed accounts of Lanza in ringing vocal form. Schubert's Ave Maria is beautifully sung, but marred by an unfortunate close-up of a very tired-looking Mario. Among the remaining selections, my one regret is that we are treated only to the very last part of I Love Thee. This is a different version from the more subdued rendition featured on the soundtrack album, and here Lanza simply dazzles the ears with his superb singing. "I LOVE thee, dear!" he soars without limitation. Properly filmed in its entirety - with Lanza in concert mode - this, too, could have served as a thrilling conclusion to the movie.
But weak moments aside (and there are plenty of them), the film still has a lot going for it. To be sure, For the First Time will never win any prizes for cinematic achievement, but for this viewer, at least, it continues to provide pleasure long after far more acclaimed movies of its era have been forgotten. In short, it's a sweet little gem of a movie, and I hope that Mario was proud of it.