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DVD SAVANT

The Eddy Duchin Story


The Eddy Duchin Story
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
1956 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 123 min. / Street Date July 16, 2002 / $24.95
Starring Kim Novak, Tyrone Power, Rex Thompson, James Whitmore, Victoria Shaw, Shepperd Strudwick, Frieda Inescort, Gloria Holden, Larry Keating
Cinematography
Cinematography Harry Stradling
Production Designer
Film Editors Viola Lawrence, Jack W. Ogilvie
Original Music George Duning
Written by Samuel Taylor, story by Leo Katcher
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by George Sidney

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Musical Biographies in the classic Hollywood mold are all but dead - this is the genre that uses the repertoire of a famous composer or performer to create an instant musical, usually distorting beyond recognition any troublesome facts that might get in the way. The Eddy Duchin Story is a beauty, a warm and believable tale that doesn't try to be much more than two hours of melody and emotion. It's also got fine performances from Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, and the City of New York.

Synopsis:

Running away from a career as a pharmacist, pianist Eddy Duchin (Tyrone Power) gets a job playing intermissions at the Central Park Casino for big bandleader Leo Reisman (Larry Keating), thanks to the intervention of socialite Marjorie Oelrichs (Kim Novak). Eddy's popularity soars, and 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, and after his happy marriage, Eddy is certain that there must be some angel looking after him. And then tragedy steps in to change everything.

The Musical Biography subgenre is usually a black pit of mawkish plotting and overeager actors, sandwiched between overblown production numbers drawn from the subject talent's hit output. If the events of the story have anything at all to do with the facts, it's accidental. A case in point is Night and Day, where Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. Why is it all so glamorized and phony? Because with the powerhouse Porter songbook involved, the object was to glorify the composer and help sell more records.

The biographical subject's personality is usually enlarged to become as big and romantic as his music. There's nothing very cinematic about watching a composer as he writes a song, which is why Three Little Words becomes a vaudeville show, and Yankee Doodle Dandy an ode to patriotic idealism. Facts are rewritten to fit the Legend. The dull problems of real people are kept out; instead we get fiery personalities driven to create, whose private lives are full of tempestuous romance and mournful tragedy. You'd think there'd be a few curmudgeons or creeps on Broadway, but in Musical Biography, the heroes are all touched by 'genius', a magic 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 jumped to a new level of existence, like a demi-god - and the rapture of their great music is there to convince us of it.

Two '50s pictures backed off somewhat from the schmaltz of things like Sincerely Yours, where Liberace played somebody else who might as well have been Liberace. Universal's The Glenn Miller Story softened the bandleader's professional life, and glorified his relationship with his wife beyond believability, riffing off the conservative chemistry of Jimmy Stewart and the perfect '50s housewife, June Allyson. But this Glenn Miller at least had problems developing his style, and the impracticality of having a home life with the star career was at least an issue.

(spoilers)

The success of Universal's hit must have inspired Jerry Wald to give Eddy Duchin a try. Duchin was a popular pianist of the '30s who dazzled the hi-toned nightclub crowd with his keyboard style, which included stunts like reversing hands in the middle of a piece. Duchin died in 1951, providing the movie with a bittersweet ending, but he also had an earlier tragedy to overcome, the death of his first wife Marjorie during childbirth. It was a personal blow that torpedoed what had previously been a charmed life - the perfect material for a Musical Biography. For positive uplift, there's Eddy's son Peter, who became a very popular pianist in his own right.

With a story that didn't need hype to provide the requisite pride and pathos, director George Sidney is able to give The Eddy Duchin Story a sense of balance and elegance. Tyrone Power is far too old to play the young Duchin, but fares much better than he did in The Long Gray Line the year before. Power's keyboard work is visually convincing (to this un-musical reviewer), as if he learned a little piano before faking the fancy moves of the first pianist superstar.

But the big appeal of The Eddy Duchin Story is Kim Novak, who at that time was just blooming as one of the biggest stars in town. 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 hoodlum students in Five Against the House, and she never seemed sufficiently smart to be the femme fatale of Pushover. Nobody wears clothes as did she - and in The Eddy Duchin Story she's both sensual and forbiddingly ladylike at the same time, qualities that surely excited Alfred Hitchcock when he needed a replacement for Vera Miles in Vertigo.

George Sidney bathes the film in production value rare for a Columbia picture. The nightclub sets are tasteful and packed with patrons in period costumes; Sidney's MGM experience is well-utilized to make sure that the frequent musical interludes don't become repetitive. Some border on the obvious, as when sailor-Eddy plays a duet with an Okinowan tot on a piano 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.

Even more classy and nostalgic are the film's many scenes set in New York, mostly in and around Central Park and Park Avenue. The Technicolor photograpy captures many moods, in good and rainy weather. Coupled with the lush music score, these sections are pleasant in and of themselves, like the scenery in a widescreen Western.

(spoilers again)

At one point it looks like the film is going to plunge into melodrama. Marjorie admits on her wedding night to being terrified of the wind, a dark thought that barges in, as if a stagehand walked onscreen carrying a sign reading, 'Harbinger of Death.' We've just witnessed about 40 minutes of upward career arc that's culminated in both artistic and personal success, so it's about time for 'the problem' to show up. Danny Kaye lost his child in The Five Pennies; here Eddy Duchin loses his beloved wife.

Amazingly, Marjorie's death isn't overplayed and is all the more touching for it. The rest of the film covers Eddy's initial estrangement from his growing son, his war service, and his second chance at romance before leukemia cut him short. All of it retains a sense of restraint. The thankless role of wife Number 2 in Eddy's life is played by a young Victoria Shaw, seen mostly in cheaper Columbia films like Sam Fuller's Verboten!. Later on, she played the robot Queen in Westworld. Yes, it is a soap opera, but Power's anxiety and Shaw's strength make for good drama.

James Whitmore, even more subdued than usual, fills out the stock role of agent manager; young Rex Thompson plays young Peter Duchin rather well. He was Deborah Kerr's son in the same year's The King and I. Somewhere among the party girls is a young Betsy Jones-Moreland, who later became a Roger Corman perennial.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Eddy Duchin Story is almost perfect-looking, with vibrant colors and a slick surface that resembles the glow of the original Technicolor prints. Reviews of the previous laserdisc mentioned an indistinct image that's been completely fixed now. It's probably cropped a bit horizontally; 'scope pictures on video are rarely transferred at full width. This crops away the anamorphic flaw of early CinemaScope lenses, a tendency to 'squash' objects at the extreme left of the frame. On this disc, you can see the effect in the line of West Point Cadets at the beginning of the trailer for The Long Gray Line.

The stereophonic sound is terrific, with good separation. For extras, there are only a pair of trailers. The one for The Eddy Duchin Story lays on the 'class' sell with a trowel.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Eddy Duchin Story rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 23, 2002


Footnote:

1. Savant has a whole boxful of publicity test stills of Kim from 1954-55; they try out just about every hair and makeup style you can imagine. Plenty of the possible Kims are just 'wrong', but one in the stack approaches the look of Vertigo.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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