Serenade - An Underrated Treasure

Mario Lanza

Reviewed by Derek McGovern

Derek McGovern

Serenade is far and away Mario Lanza's most interesting movie, and has a great deal more going for it than Time Magazine and other habitual Lanza-knockers would care to admit. While undeniably flawed, Serenade contains moments of greatness that redeem its shortcomings, and successive viewings only enhance one's appreciation of this underrated work.

Most people would nominate The Great Caruso as Mario's best movie, and certainly it's a much more consistent film than Serenade. The Great Caruso also takes far fewer risks, featuring a "safe" choice of familiar operatic standards, and a screenplay that is little more than a series of entertaining vignettes. There is no real dramatic pulse to The Great Caruso at all, with a clichéd script that leaves Mario few opportunities to flex his acting muscles. On the positive side, Lanza is in exceptionally beautiful voice, and it is this combination of gorgeous vocalism and Mario's charisma that holds the whole thing together so well.

While The Great Caruso would probably be most Mariophiles' first choice as an introduction to Lanza, Serenade has so much more meat on its bones that it invariably makes the stronger impression, warts and all.

"I didn't know Lanza could act!" was one friend's response to this movie. And Lanza's acting is one of the big surprises in Serenade. For aside from some superb singing, Mario succeeds more often than not in a performance that should have been a revelation to moviegoers at the time, accustomed as they were to the tenor's fluffier cinematic vehicles. Not that he was given much credit for his efforts, with some critics preferring to comment on his appearance rather than acknowledge any real acting potential. "He looks like a colossal ravioli set on toothpicks," sneered Time Magazine in a typically mean-spirited and inaccurate review.

To be objective, Mario's acting does veer towards hamminess at times - a fault which director Anthony Mann should have corrected - but there are many scenes in which he is highly effective.

Could Lanza have become an accomplished screen actor? Ludwig Donath, who played the role of Enrico's manager in The Great Caruso, certainly thought so. While acknowledging that Mario lacked some of the fundamental aspects of screen acting, Donath felt that Lanza "had the warmth that one needs [to be an actor] and he loved the world of make believe." Vincent Price went further, observing that in Serenade Lanza performed "a thorough job, a sincerely conscientious one. He's so sincere, he is almost dedicated - like a New York actor." Price's comments were high praise indeed for a man who had not acted for over three years, and was undoubtedly nervous as shooting began on location in Mexico in the late summer of 1955.

James M. Cain's Serenade must have struck observers at the time as a strange choice for the tenor. After all, the novel had gained considerable notoriety for its themes of prostitution, violence and homosexuality, and one can imagine the image-conscious Joe Pasternak, producer of Lanza's previous movies and purveyor to the masses, shuddering at the thought of his "boy" appearing in such a lurid melodrama. Warner Bros, however, were mercifully not MGM, and indeed they prided themselves on their grittier approach to film-making.

It was Lanza's close friend Edmond O'Brien who apparently introduced the tenor to the novel. According to O'Brien, Mario was immediately enthused by the cinematic potential of Serenade, reasoning that the scenarists would be able to tone down some of the more controversial aspects of the novel without sacrificing its dramatic power. How well they succeeded in adapting Serenade to the screen I will discuss shortly. But enough introduction - let's go to the movie itself.

The film is available in two formats. A VCD of Serenade was released in 2003 in the Philippines (of all places), and features excellent sound quality, as well as better color and visual detail than that of the video - although the latter contains a sharper image. Oddly, the opening credits on the video version feature a bleary rendition of the title song that was never part of the theatrical version of the film. Mercifully, however, it is soon over and moments later we are treated to an exciting version of Rossini's La Danza.

The song served a similar function in The Great Caruso, but here - if anything - Lanza is even more impressive than in the earlier performance, singing with far greater depth to his voice, while having lost none of the brilliance of his upper register. His concluding high A goes on forever, and is a thrilling start to the movie. One could quibble and say that the piano accordion accompaniment and Mario are never really in sync with each other, but this doesn't bother me any more than the inappropriate echo chamber on what is supposedly an outdoor piece of singing. The important thing is that Mario is clearly in glorious voice.

The next scene is even better. Auditions had already featured in three of Mario's previous movies, and here the scriptwriters cleverly exploit the opportunities for jaw-dropping astonishment when the tenor begins to sing, and the naysayers are put in their place. It helps that his Torna a Surriento is magnificent, and that Lanza really does look as though he is singing. Although noticeably heavy in this scene, he looks in prime singing condition as he stands there in the restaurant, his black eyes shining as he soars to a spectacular high B that only he could pull off with such panache. My only regret is that the director has opted for a truncated version of the song, exposing a glaring edit on the phrase beginning: "E tu dice, 'Parto, addio!' "

An abridged and unremarkable O Soave Fanciulla with Jean Fenn follows, leading to one of my favorite scenes in the movie: the introduction of Vincent Price's acid-tongued impresario. Describing the unfortunate Miss Fenn's voice as "sounding like the brakes on the Rome express," Price is wickedly funny here in a delightful exchange with a very assured Lanza. "The Kendall Hale?" Mario enquires of his prospective sponsor. "I'm sure if there were any others, she would have had them shot as imposters," Price replies in typically campy vein.

Interestingly enough, in the novel it is Price's character with whom the singer falls in love initially. (The latter, incidentally, is actually a bisexual baritone in the book.) In adapting Serenade for the screen, the scenarists retained the implication that Price's character is homosexual, but transferred the object of Lanza's desire to his wealthy sponsor Kendall Hale, played by Joan Fontaine.

Miss Fontaine would not have been my first choice for the role. Although she oozes vindictiveness, there is little chemistry between her and Lanza - a vital aspect if one is to believe that Mario is hopelessly infatuated with her. She should positively exude sexual power (a la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct), but instead she merely seems conniving.

Fontaine's presence seems to have had an unusual effect on Lanza's acting. Perhaps overawed by her sterling reputation as an Academy Award-winning actress, he is strangely subdued in their first major scene together, speaking in a raspy whisper that must have caused the sound technicians some consternation.

In this scene, which takes place in Fontaine's luxurious suite, Lanza sings the melodramatic My Destiny. The song thereafter serves as a sinister musical motif whenever Fontaine's character is weaving her way inside the tenor's troubled mind. Better sung than the commercial version, Mario's lip-synching is the only flaw here as he miscues the final "my" at the conclusion of the song.

Another well-written scene with Lanza and Price in a taxi follows. Apart from the fact that Mario looks disconcertingly older than in the previous scene, he performs very well here, demonstrating his awareness that a good actor should not only deliver his lines effectively, but also listen and react. Price's faith in Lanza as an actor is well rewarded in this brief scene.

After such a good start to the movie, it is frustrating that the movie suddenly descends into typical Hollywoodese in a ludicrous scene involving Mario and his singing teacher (Joseph Calleia). Looking very ill at ease - as if he understands the absurdity of the demands being placed upon him - Mario is asked to sing a high C in full voice for his teacher without any warm-up. In the original script, this scene was conceived as a montage depicting Lanza's growing infatuation with Joan Fontaine. There is a montage of sorts in the film, but it is poorly executed, leaving the viewer to assume that Mario storms out of the room in emotional turmoil simply because he has caught sight of Joan Fontaine's photo on the piano.

Things are redeemed somewhat in a subsequent scene involving Joan Fontaine's manipulative powers as she coaxes Mario back to her room, but it is really Lanza's singing that successfully distracts us from the weakness of the narrative. In an operatic montage consisting of Di Rigori Armato, Amor Ti Vieta, and Di Quella Pira, Lanza is outstanding in the first two selections, and disappoints only on the final pinched high C of Di Quella Pira, which oddly is sung in costume despite the absence of the chorus. It's a great shame that an operatic snippet that Mario recorded for the movie from Act I of Tosca was not used instead, but then again the producers were probably more enamored of the visceral appeal of a high C than Lanza's superior singing of Qual Occhio al Mondo.

The Otello Act III Monologue (Dio! Mi Potevi Scagliar) follows shortly afterwards, and this scene is easily the most impressive of all Lanza's movies, both vocally and visually. Superbly filmed with one exception (an unnecessary - and clumsily inserted - "E' la!" from the performer playing Iago), we see the skyscrapers first as the orchestra roars the thunderous opening bars of the Monologue, followed by a sweeping shot inside the opera house that pans from an opened score of Otello to the stage itself, where Mario is rehearsing Verdi's sublime aria. Everything is superb about his acting and singing here, as he adroitly conveys Otello's inner turmoil, ranging from a resigned weariness to maniacal joy, and concluding with a stunning "O GIOIA!" that must have left cinemagoers dumbstruck by its brilliance. It is an extraordinary scene, and a poignant reminder of what Mario could have done with the role on stage. "Mr. Lanza never was in better voice," A.H. Weiler of The New York Times would later observe, and Mario's rendition of the Otello Monologue is arguably his greatest operatic achievement. As the critic John Cargher once remarked, the Otello Monologue alone would "assure Lanza of immortality."

After such an overwhelming scene, the movie inevitably feels anti-climactic, but there is still much to enjoy in the brief extract from Act III of Otello with Licia Albanese that follows, and Mario's resulting flight from America when he discovers that Joan Fontaine has abandoned him in her true-to-form fashion. Rather than bore everybody with painstaking detail, let's fast-forward to the first scene that takes place in Mexico.

Only Hollywood would depict a tenor going from the dramatic demands of Otello to the lightness of Don Ottavio's music in Don Giovanni, but to be charitable here let's assume that the scenarists were trying to emphasize that Mario's character is so down on his luck that he will accept any role, no matter how inappropriate for his voice type. Lanza's failed audition scene for Don Giovanni is another acting challenge that he almost pulls off. Slightly hammy here in places, he is nonetheless heartwrenching when he bursts into tears in an almost unbearable close-up that reinforces how far Warner Bros have taken him from his MGM days.

The Mexican scenes were filmed first when Lanza was at his heaviest, and his overweight, disheveled appearance is another example of Warner Bros' superior sense of realism. (Joe Pasternak, who was always so conscious of Lanza's grooming, must have had another fit when he saw these scenes.) Indeed the tenor should look out of shape in Mexico, since his character has clearly reached rock bottom. Mexico, or more precisely San Miguel de Allende, brings us into contact with the fiery Sarita Montiel in the role of Juana, sanitized here as a famous bullfighter's daughter rather than as the novel's common prostitute.

Montiel is excellent in almost every scene, and restores much of the storyline's credibility. The same cannot be said of Lanza's performance, however, which is frankly uneven in several of the key Mexico scenes. Quite possibly he was unsure of himself in the initial stages of filming, but whatever the reason a retake should definitely have been made of the confrontation scene in which Montiel passionately tells him: "You lived through the fever, but your heart is dead!" Clearly nervous here, he overacts - a great pity given the spectacular location filming and atmospheric mood in this scene.

Lanza's Ave Maria redeems everything, however. Looking pale and very overweight, he enters a church where Sarita Montiel is quietly praying. Speaking (conveniently!) in English, her words visibly affect Lanza, and in a very subtle piece of acting, he kneels before the altar and quietly begins Schubert's famous hymn. This is the first time that Montiel's character has heard Lanza sing, and her reaction is beautifully captured. Most impressive of all is the way Lanza looks at her at the conclusion of the piece, breaking her heart (and ours) with his simple dignity and sweetness. It is a magical moment that never fails to move me.

A sweet rendition of the title song follows shortly afterwards, together with a melodramatic storm scene. Avoiding the steaminess of the love-making depicted in the novel, the latter scene has its admirers among Lanza's female aficionados, but for my money something is amiss in its execution. For one thing, Sarita Montiel appears to be running in the wrong direction as she rushes into Mario's arms, and passionate kiss notwithstanding, the whole scene feels too contrived to work as effectively as it should.

The final third of the movie takes place in San Francisco and New York, and it is at this point that Anthony Mann's direction becomes noticeably uninspired. The movie is already starting to feel long, and what is really needed here is a much more dramatic approach. To be fair, Mann is not helped by the scenarists' feeble plot resolution, but more about that shortly.

Returning to San Francisco with Montiel (by now his wife), Lanza looks ten years younger as he stands outside the restaurant where he had once worked. "It seems like so many years ago," he remarks, and indeed it does. Once inside the restaurant, he delivers a superb O Paradiso, which brings down the house. This was actually the final scene filmed, and Mario's handsome slimmed-down appearance led one journalist visiting the set to assume that the tenor was in magnificent physical shape throughout his latest movie.

Some wonderful banter from Vincent Price follows, along with Lanza's splendid rendition of the Lamento Di Federico. This scene, however, is not particularly well filmed, with Lanza too distant on the stage for much of the aria. He is also noticeably heavier than in the O Paradiso scene. Nessun Dorma fares even worse, with the camera angle making Lanza appear ridiculously short, and the lip-synching poor throughout. Not that this rendition of Nessun Dorma was by any means Lanza's crowning glory - it should have been though, and a retake of Mario's singing of the aria and some imaginative direction could have made this a highly impressive scene.

The final three scenes are poorly written and directed. In the first of them, Montiel threatens Joan Fontaine with a bullfighter's sword, but the scene lacks both credibility and drama, and we never feel for a moment that the latter is in any danger. There should be murderous intent in Montiel's eyes as she approaches Fontaine, and fast-paced editing could have given the scene some much-needed intensity. Seconds later, Montiel is rather improbably struck down by a bus while she stands on the road, screaming in advance - and seemingly waiting for the vehicle to hit her.

The final scene is equally uninspired. While Mario stands on the stage delivering a surprisingly strained rendition of the title song, his cousin (hammily portrayed by Harry Bellaver) cries out from the wings: "She's gonna be all right!" It's a feeble end to an otherwise robust melodrama, and it is tantalizing to consider how - with a little imagination and flair - the movie could have ended.

Personally, I would have opted for a much braver approach. It might have been pushing the movie's luck as far as the censors were concerned, but imagine the impact if Montiel's character had killed the despicable Fontaine, and then been fatally injured herself? This is much more along the lines of the novel, and would have catapulted the film to instant noir status.

Equally brave would have been the final scene with a now-bereaved Mario in a tribute concert to his beloved, tears streaming down his expressive face, as he sings the alternate title song (recorded for the movie, but inexplicably discarded): "We've got the night, we've got our love, we've got our se-re-NADE!" Soaring to the heavens, Lanza's singing has no equal on these final phrases, and the impact of such an ending would have rendered cinema audiences speechless. Oh well, one can only dream…

All criticism aside, Serenade remains a source of immense pleasure to me, and it is richly deserving of far wider appreciation. I trust this little tribute of mine helps that process along.