|'); document.write(''); //-->|
The vogue for musical biographies in the classic Hollywood mold was beginning to wane when Anthony Mann and James Stewart scored a major hit The Glenn Miller Story, a romanticized telling of the life of the famous, ill-fated band leader. Two years later Columbia came up with this look at another big name, a pianist-bandleader who specialized in a lush Manhattan sound as opposed to the jazz of his time. Director George Sidney's The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) is a sincere and leisurely tale that doesn't try to be much more than two hours of melody and emotion. It also features fine performances from Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, and the City of New York.
New York, 1931: running away from a career as a pharmacist, young pianist Eddy Duchin (Tyrone Power) gets a job at the Central Park Casino playing intermissions for big bandleader Leo Reisman (Larry Keating). His introduction to the tuxedo set comes thanks to the intervention of beautiful socialite Marjorie Oelrichs (Kim Novak). As Eddy's popularity soars he overcomes his ambitions to join high society, only to fall in love with Marjorie. Duchin and his piano-led orchestra eventually become a top attraction of the Depression years. After his happy wedding to Marjorie, Eddy is certain that an angel must be looking after him. And then tragedy steps in to change everything.
Hollywood musical biographies date quickly. Many are little more than mawkish bits of plotting and overeager actors, sandwiched between overblown production numbers. Real biographical facts are not a requirement, as the subject's personality is usually enlarged to become as big and romantic as his music. There's nothing very cinematic about watching a composer writing a song, which is why Words and Music (Rodgers & Hart) becomes a vaudeville show and Yankee Doodle Dandy (George M.Cohan) an ode to patriotic idealism. In these pictures the heroes are all touched by a magical 'genius' that opens doors and creates riches out of pure harmony. In movies like The Al Jolson Story, the message is that the 'great talent' has attained a new level of existence, like a demigod -- and the great music is there to convince us of it.
Eddy Duchin is the perfect material for a musical biography, a wildly popular New York pianist of the 1930s. He dazzled the hi-toned nightclub crowd with his keyboard style, which included stunts like reversing hands in the middle of a piece. Duchin's early passing in 1951 provides the movie with a bittersweet ending, but central to his story is a personal tragedy that torpedoed what had previously been a charmed life. Much of the second half of The Eddy Duchin Story shows a bitter man only slowly finding his way back to his earlier values. For positive uplift, there's Eddy's son Peter, who in real live idolized his father and became a popular pianist in his own right.
Duchin's story needs no exaggeration to generate the requisite pride and pathos of the genre, and director George Sidney lends it a sense of balance and elegance. Tyrone Power is far too old to play the young Duchin but his makeup here fares much better than that in John Ford's The Long Gray Line just a year earlier. To untrained eyes Power's keyboard work is quite convincing, as if he had studied Duchin's style before faking the fancy moves of the first pianist superstar.
But the biggest appeal of The Eddy Duchin Story is probably Kim Novak, who at the time was in first bloom as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She's perfectly cast here as a classy heiress who swims in only the most exclusive Park Avenue circles. The manners and gilt of these surroundings are far more natural to her than the rowdy campus life in Five Against the House, and Novak never seemed enough of a schemer to be the femme fatale of Pushover. In The Eddy Duchin Story she's sensual and forbiddingly ladylike at the same time, qualities that surely excited Alfred Hitchcock when he needed a replacement for Vera Miles in Vertigo. No star wears clothing as well as did Novak; she hasn't a single un-photogenic angle.
After forty minutes of upward career arc culminating in artistic and personal success, the Duchins have finally reached a state of bliss, installed in a glorious penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. That's when the film takes a sudden plunge into melodrama. On her wedding night Marjorie admits her terror of the wind, an unwelcome dark thought that enters as if a stagehand walked onscreen carrying a sign reading: Harbinger of Doom. Personal loss is a staple of musical biographies. As 'Red' Nichols, Danny Kaye lost a beloved child in The Five Pennies, and Eddy Duchin has his own date with tragedy. Kim Novak's sudden exit from the movie puts a definite damper on the proceedings.
The rest of the film covers Eddy's initial estrangement from his growing son, his war service, and his second chance at happiness before leukemia cut short his days. All of it retains a sense of restraint. The thankless role of wife Number Two is played by a young Victoria Shaw, an interesting actress seen mostly in cheaper Columbia fare such as Sam Fuller's Verboten! Power's anxiety and Shaw's strength prevent the show from veering into soap opera.
George Sidney bathes The Eddy Duchin Story in glossy production values. The tasteful nightclub sets are packed with patrons in period costumes. Sidney's utilizes his MGM experience to prevent the frequent musical interludes from becoming repetitive. Some border on the obvious, as when sailor-Eddy plays a duet with an Okinawan tot on a piano found in a bombed-out bar. But the hot numbers in the NYC nightclubs set a standard for classy presentation, especially I'll Take Manhattan and Brazil, complete with fancy angles through Duchin's shiny grand piano.
Even more classy and nostalgic are the film's many scenes filmed on location in and around Central Park and Park Avenue. The Technicolor photography captures many moods, especially in rainy weather. Coupled with the lush music score, these romantic sections are pleasant in and of themselves, like the scenery in a widescreen Western.
James Whitmore, more subdued than is usual, fills out the stock role of Duchin's agent and manager. Young Rex Thompson played Deborah Kerr's son in the same year's The King and I and lends some interesting shadings to young Peter Duchin. Somewhere among the party girls is a young Betsy Jones-Moreland, who later became a Roger Corman perennial.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Eddy Duchin Story is a handsome rendering of this beautifully filmed show. Set against George Duning's romantic music, many of those scenes wandering through Central Park have the elegance of a fashion shoot. Tyrone Power & Kim Novak in color and CinemaScope, strolling in Manhattan... it's a piece of Hollywood glamour.
The carefully produced audio track is in two-channel stereo, and an Isolated Music and Effects track is present. The original trailer plays up the film's classier aspects. Julie Kirgo's insert notes compare the real Mr. and Mrs. Duchin with their fictional counterparts and note the similar fate of star Tyrone Power, who died just two years later at the age of 44.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Eddy Duchin Story Blu-ray rates:
1. From correspondent "B", 3.29.14:
The ideal extra for this disc would have been the late Three Stooges short in which the boys are put in some sort of mortal danger. Joe Besser, in one of the funniest moments of his brief tenure as a Stooge, begins to panic and cries out, "I can't die! I can't die! I haven't seen THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY yet!"
Always makes me laugh.
Best, Always. -- B.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.