|The Great Caruso (1951)
Run time: Approved | 109 min | Biography, Drama, Music
Director: Richard Thorpe
Writers: William Ludwig
Stars: Mario Lanza, Ann Blyth, Dorothy Kirsten
The screen biography of the noted opera tenor is a fitting vehicle for Lanza and his powerful voice. Music devotees will revel in the many songs and arias presented.
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Let me just say this, and then feel free to comment: I truly don’t think that the late, great Mario Lanza ever had a better cinematic vehicle for his talents than "The Great Caruso." His larger than life personality and magnificent voice were never better served than here.
Like Caruso before him, and long before the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli, Lanza became THE tenor superstar of his generation. If there is anyone who wants to know why, just listen to him sing some of the magnificent arias in this film. "Cielo e Mar," "E Lucevan le stelle," and especially his matchless "Vesti la Giubba," are evidence enough that Lanza could, indeed, have become bigger than Caruso, had not his excesses caught up with him at such a young age.
I have just a couple of negative comments to insert here. First, the plot, while it makes for a good story, actually has very little to do with Caruso’s life (Read Enrico Caruso Jr.’s "Caruso: My Father and My Family" for a good, readable biography. He even compliments Lanza and his performance!). For one thing, Caruso didn’t die on stage, but several months after that last performance at the Metropolitan. Second, the "Italian" mannerisms in this movie are straight out of the Henry Armetta/"Life with Luigi" school, stereotyped to the hilt.
But, given the overall scheme of things, these are relatively minor complaints. As to the rest, I say that, for those of you who’ve never heard Lanza and wonder why he was so great, this film will give you ample proof. For those of you who were there when Lanza was in his prime, here’s a chance to live it all over again. A great film, and a matchless tribute to TWO of the legendary voices of our time.
I was 12 living in the coastal industry city of Luleå. I had never heard of Opera. My father was a movie projectionist. One evening i happened to see The Great Caruso. It was a breathtaking experience deep into my body. I was caught for ever by opera and I remember the deep sadness I felt in 1959 when my idol Mario Lanza died (similar to my sons feelings some 30 years later when John Lennon was killed). I have the Video and I have seen it many times on TCM Cabel TV – The Great Caruso will stay forever as the film that opened my eyes and emotions for music in general and opera in particular. Thank You MGM, Caruso but in particular thank You Mario Lanza.
THE GREAT CARUSO was the biggest hit in the world in 1951 and broke all box office records at Radio City Music Hall in a year when most "movergoers" were stay-at-homes watching their new 7" Motorola televisions. Almost all recent box office figures are false — because they fail to adjust inflation. Obviously today’s $10 movies will dominate. In 1951 it cost 90c to $1.60 at Radio City; 44c to 75c first run at Loew’s Palace in Washington DC, or 35c to 50c in neighborhood runs. What counts is the number of people responding to the picture, not unadjusted box office "media spin." The genius of THE GREAT CARUSO was that the filmmakers took most of the actual life of Enrico Caruso (really not a great story anyway) and threw it in the trash. Instead, 90% of the movie’s focus was on the music. Thus MGM gave us the best living opera singer MARIO LANZA doing the music of the best-ever historic opera singer ENRICO CARUSO. The result was a wonderful movie. Too bad LANZA would throw his life and career away on overeating. Too fat to play THE STUDENT PRINCE, Edmund Purdom took his place — with Lanza’s voice dubbed in, and with the formerly handsome and not-fat Lanza pictured in the advertising. If you want to see THE GREAT CARUSO, it’s almost always on eBay for $2.00 or less. Don’t be put off by the low price, as it reflects only the easy availability of copies, not the quality of the movie.
This movie can truly be called life-changing. It certainly changed my life; I was totally ignorant of opera before a chance re-run of this movie introduced me to a whole new musical world. As it turned out, I was in illustrious company. There is not a single contemporary tenor of note who was not inspired by this movie.
Let’s be honest from the outset: the movie bears little resemblance to the real Caruso’s life, and, yes, it is corny in the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals. But who cares? Lanza’s singing is perfection itself, and his vibrant personality overflows in practically every scene. The rest of the cast is good, with top-notch operatic singers Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, et al providing Lanza with some worthy (and rare) vocal support.
Highlights include a superb Vesti la Giubba, a moving Ave Maria and a rapturous Because. In all the movie contains 27 vocal items, with not a dull moment to be found amongst them.
See this movie and revel in a unique vocal talent. In the words of one admirer, Mario Lanza could "outsing the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir", and the movie is a stark reminder of how bland today’s singing idols really are. Enrico Caruso, Jr, was one observer who concurred with this view.While the movie overlooked his existence in favor of his half-sister Gloria, Caruso’s son had nothing but praise for the man who portrayed his father:
"Mario Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural gift for placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct conspicuously absent in the overwhelming majority of so-called ‘great’ singers. His diction was flawless, matched only by the superb Giuseppe di Stefano. His delivery was impassioned, his phrasing manly, and his tempi instinctively right — qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain.
"I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography."
Well said, Enrico Jnr, and viva il grande Lanza!