From Johann Strauss to George Gershwin: Music! Music! Music!

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, The Great Waltz (1938), The focus of Rhapsody in Blue (1945) is the incredible story and classic music of George Gershwin, whose short life ended at age 39, just a few  years before this film was made. The bio-drama from Warner Brothers. stars Robert Alda as the Brooklyn-born George Gershwin, who we witness rise from piano player in a vaudeville theater to song composer to creator of such landmark works as “An American in Paris” and “Porgy and Bess” and the title piece, his first major classical endeavor, for which he is probably best known.

Along the way, we discover that George is a driven man with little time to settle down despite romantic interest from singer Julie Adams (Joan Leslie) and painter Christine Gilbert (Alexis Smith). The cast boasts some of old Hollywood’s finest character actors including Charles Coburn, Albert Bassermann, Rosemary DeCamp as his mother (she was also Jimmy Cagney’s mom three years earlier in Yankee Doodle Dandy even though he was really eleven years her senior) and Morris Carnovsky as George’s proud father, who measures the importance of his son’s music by the length of each piece.

We also meet the many people who had important roles in Gershwin’s life over the years, including his brother and collaborator Ira, convincingly played by Herbert Rudley and by Darryl Hickman as young Ira. There are real-life performers as well, playing themselves, all who had great impact on the Gershwin story: Al Jolson, whose rendition of “Swanee” helped bring Gershwin his first big national hit; his close friend, Oscar Levant, who for many years became legendary as the prolific interpreter and performer of Gershwin’s music; jazz pianist and cafe singer Hazel Scott, whose performance of “The Man I Love” remains a highlight of the film; and both George White and Paul Whiteman, who were very much involved in the production and promotion of Gershwin music, from Tin Pan Alley to Carnegie Hall.

Director Irving Rapper (well-known for his Bette Davis weeper Now, Voyager), supposedly envisioned Tyrone Power in the lead but since Power was still serving in the U.S. military at the time production got under way, the Warner studio lobbied for one of their contact stars and Alda got the part, turning in a first-rate performance. Rhapsody in Blue offers a treasure trove of Gershwin songs. Among those featured are “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Lady Be Good,””Someone to Watch Over Me,” “S’Wonderful” and the list goes on and on. Not only are the musical selections generously interspersed into the film, they are also very near complete versions as well — some performed by the actual entertainers who originally introduced them.

Is Rhapsody in Blue dated? Maybe, but at a time when Hollywood biographies were in their heyday, audiences didn’t mind a few dramatic licenses and liberties taken with their favorite personalities’ stories — and this one is surely fictionalized to please the widest range of moviegoers.

The Great Waltz (1938) is a totally different type of movie but just as enjoyable for fans of classic cinema and exhilarating for classical music aficionados. It’s the life and times of Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss II and MGM presented a lavishly mounted film for its time.

The movie is filled with lush samples of such legendary Johann Strauss music as “The Blue Danube Waltz” and “Die Fledermas,” (which features lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) plus nine more Strauss favorites. One of the highlights of the film is witnessing Strauss compose “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which just happens to come to him in thin air as he enjoys a carriage ride through the woods with his mistress. Although this scene was not played for laughs, when taken out of context as it appeared in a segment of That’s Entertainment Part 2, it seemed quite comical. When the film is seen in its complete form however, it is spectacular and audiences accept it in earnest.

Fernand Gravet plays Johann Strauss II, a bank clerk in Vienna in 1845 whose obsession with waltzes inspires him to organize an orchestra. Soon, with help from some opera singers, Strauss’s music gains a following and he becomes the toast of Vienna. Strauss’ wife is played by lovely Luise Rainer, fresh from her ground-breaking consecutive Best Actress Academy Awards in 1936 for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth in 1937 . (Miss Rainer celebrated her 100th birthday in 2010). Although married, Johann carries on an affair with Hungarian opera singer Carla Donner, played by real-life opera star Miliza Korjus. MGM’s publicity department said at the time that “Korjus” is pronounced “gorgeous” (as pointed out two times in the movie’s trailer). MGM’s publicists were indeed busy promoting their latest release by employing such tag lines as “It’s The Great Ziegfeld in Waltz Time,” trying to cash in on the success of their previous year’s Academy Award winner.

In addition, the top-notch supporting cast includes Hugh Herbert, Lionel Atwill, Leonid Kinskey and Henry Hull. The director is Julien Duvivier, whose resume includes  numerous foreign efforts including Pepe Le Moko with Jean Gabin, Anna Karenina starring Vivien Leigh and The Little World of Don Camillo with French funnyman Fernandel. The film won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography and was also nominated for Best Film Editing as well as Best Supporting Actress (Miliza Korjus).

Both films are presented in remastered editions from the Warner Archive Collection.

And now, sit back and relax and enjoy scenes from an era gone by with the trailer for The Great Waltz from 1938: