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Fox's insert liner notes for this serviceable musical biography proclaims With a Song in My Heart to be one of the greatest musicals ever made. It certainly was a sizeable success in 1952, when songstress Jane Froman was still in her prime as a radio and concert artist. But unless you're a fan of Ms. Froman, Susan Hayward or musical biographies in general, beware ... With a Song in My Heart brings odd thoughts to mind, such as, "I guess Hollywood can homogenize and neuter almost any story" and, "Don't they realize that the only thing propping up this picture is Thelma Ritter?"
The main titles for With a Song in My Heart (the subtitle "The Jane Froman Story" is an addition for the DVD) display a parade of badges for various armed forces units, letting us know right off the bat that the movie was made to appeal to Froman's legions of fans in the military. U.S. soldiers appreciated the celebrities that ventured to war fronts to entertain them and Froman's courage and lack of special pleading only increased her standing. Unlike Bob Hope, who re-invented his performing personality around his image as "Mr. USO", Froman just wanted to entertain. Her popularity waned only when 50s musical trends replaced her 30s and 40s standards. By now, the fan base with more than a cursory knowledge of who Froman was is over seventy years old. Films of Froman performing are rare, 1 even though she had her own television show in the early 1950s.
Produced and written by Lamar Trotti, With a Song flattens Jane Froman's story into musical biography material. She's a happy trouper from Missouri when David Wayne's Don Ross offers her fulltime management services just out of 'friendship'. Their marriage slowly fizzles, and Jane is open for something better when handsome John Burn saves her during the fateful plane wreck. Since the film can't afford to offend anyone, all of these people are presented as above petty human flaws. Don Ross gets a bit cranky when he drinks and Jane is afforded perhaps three minutes of screen time to feel sorry for herself. Most of the film shows her in dazzling gowns, expressing her emotions in song. Make that many songs. At least an hour of the film's 117 minutes is of Susan Hayward energetically lip-synching to Jane Froman's recordings.
Susan Hayward performs in a close approximation of the singer's style -- she was coached by Froman herself, on the set. The problem is that Froman's excellent vocal style never changes. Taken separately, the songs are good but twenty in a row are just too many. Even Blue Moon and I'll Walk Alone tend to drone as we lose interest in the fine modulated voice (which seems a bit low for Hayward). Hayward's accurate delivery and repetitive arm and hand movements also become tiresome; except for one dance number, the performances are almost identical. None of this hurt the film's popularity. Alfred Newman's score and arrangements even won the Oscar that year, beating out Singin' in the Rain. Somebody was doing something right, at least on commercial terms.
The film's final act trades on the idea that Froman was an inspiration to our boys overseas, and therefore sort of a warrior herself. Unfortunately, her USO shows for polite G.I.s in hospitals and aid stations are too much like movies in which vain divas prove themselves to be human beings by singing to orphans and the like, as in the syrupy Interrupted Melody -- another movie about a performer fighting her way through a physical infirmity. Writer Trotti reaches for both patriotism and pathos in the film's lowest scene: singing an 'around the U.S.A.' medley of state-themed songs (each duller than the one before), Jane takes time out to comfort a soldier suffering from shell-shock. She'd seen him back in New York as an eager-to-go paratrooper (young Robert Wagner). The stuttering soldier finds he can talk to Jane, even though the nurses say he has barely spoken in weeks. Jane Froman can't raise the dead or make the blind see, but giving a mute back his voice ain't bad.
Don't get me wrong -- Ms. Froman clearly raised morale, and cheering up troops is a good thing. But With a Song tiptoes from one convenient moment of uplift to the next, catering to audience expectations. We're given surefire baloney like Una Merkel as a 'cute' nun. Merkel uses the same mischievous smile that worked for her as a Warners' Gold Digger two decades earlier. The movie doesn't exactly say that Froman's survival was a Holy miracle, but it does offer a gold crucifix as evidence for believers who care to think that air crash safety can be enhanced by religious symbols.
Catering to the audience also means not upsetting them, so Jane Froman's full ordeal is minimized. In the river off Lisbon, John Burn, his spine fractured in several places, had to hold her head above water or she would have drowned. One leg was nearly severed and other grave injuries were scattered all over her body. Complications from these injuries continued for the rest of Jane's life. Things like that aren't suitable for a Hollywood musical, so they were dropped. The inspiring 'human interest' angle was all that was retained.
David Wayne's Don Ross goes sour just in time for the personality-challenged Rory Calhoun to take his place. What saves the movie is the presence of Thelma Ritter as Clancy, the one character that resembles something actually living and breathing. Ritter gave a boost to almost every picture she was in, and was nominated six times for supporting actress. Clancy is an American nurse who went to Europe as an ambulance driver and ended up in Portugal. 2 As happens in movies where the heroine needs a gal pal, she drops everything without explanation to play private nurse, housekeeper and best friend to Jane from there on out.
With a Song in My Heart has plenty of supporters that love the lack of cynicism in its straight-on mix of music, simple characters and moral uplift. Stories of people rising from adversity to triumph may be a cliché but they always sell, and we should be grateful for Lamar Trotti's overall good taste. If the film were made today, it could easily be like TV's pandering 'personal interest' featurettes praising Olympic hopefuls, all of whom seem to have overcome terrible odds to compete. It's not enough to be an ambitious athlete, because 'reality TV' demands that drama be manufactured in convenient bite-sized chunks. This issue is what makes the joke in Get Shorty work, when Chili Palmer recognizes actor Martin Weir: "His best part was when he played the crippled gay guy who climbed Mt. Whitney!"
Fox's DVD of With a Song in My Heart presents the show in a good transfer from a reasonable element made from its Technicolor separations. As is common, shots with dissolves have registration problems but the show looks very attractive overall. 3 Audio is in a solid English mono, with subs in English, French and Spanish.
A pair of docu extras tell the story of Jane Froman and the production of the film; here's where we see the stills of the singer, leg brace clearly visible, helping Hayward with her on-screen delivery. Thanks to the input of biographer Ilene Stone and others, Froman's life is illustrated with many good still images. No clips from her 50s TV shows appear, so we don't get to compare the singer's stage presence with Hayward's facsimile.
On an audio-only extra, 89 year-old John Burn recounts his fateful meeting with the singer just before the fateful crash and talks about their injuries and recovery. It's an excellent prime source document. The keep case also contains a couple of small still reproductions, and an insert essay composed of pure publicity hype.
With a Song in My Heart is notorious for a bit of unexpected nudity that may have escaped notice when it was new; the Fox Movie Channel even pointed it out on cable TV. In the film's one big dance number, Hayward's partner (Richard Allan?) apparently stepped on her gown, tugging it down and exposing her left breast for a good second. Although the shot is a fairly wide down angle, the problem is obvious. I only mention this because of the screaming hypocrisy that accompanied Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' at the Super Bowl a few seasons back, the debacle that inspired a toothless, misguided crackdown on broadcast smut (which is real enough). Although Jackson's display was in a sexed-up context and Hayward was simply trying to look elegant, the events are comparable. The With a Song in My Heart DVD carries two G ratings on the back, but America needs to be warned ... whatever you do, keep this disc out of the reach of children! 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. TV clips of Froman can be viewed on U-Tube.
2. This odd detail suggests that Clancy is supposed to have been one of the heroic volunteer nurses who offered their aid in the Spanish Civil War ... Clancy is a (gasp) leftist.
3. I've never heard an explanation for the tendency of Fox Technicolor musicals to overuse the color blue, as if the head of the art department were crazy about that color. Scene after scene has blue backings or blue curtains, often set off with deader blue grays or blue greens. Really warm colors are definitely avoided. The original Technicolor prints looked like this too. It's very strange.
4. It's fun to contemplate at what point the offending gland was discovered. Hayward must have known; as she spins we can see her holding her partner closer, on purpose. Did she not tell anyone, and the 'whoops' camera take ended up as the only good one? I think that even on a little Moviola screen editor Watson Webb would have noticed the nipple. Did the movie go out this way and nobody noticed? On a big screen this must have looked like a 3rd row view at Minsky's. Or did nobody spot it? Were audiences back then so numbed by sanitized entertainment that such a thing could slip by? This crucial cinematic issue is equaled only by a similar occurrence with Jane Russell (or her suba diving double) in Underwater (1955).
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