Opera Goes to Hollywood — The Uneasy Marriage of Two Disparate Art Forms

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Mario Lanza (mariolanzatenor.com)

Mario Lanza was dressed to the nines as Enrico Caruso, one of the world’s greatest and most beloved opera stars – and his lifelong tenor idol. Lanza was fulfilling his childhood dream of making a film biography of the great man’s life for MGM Studios. It was to be called, appropriately enough, The Great Caruso. But if Mario had had his way, it would have been titled The Great Lanza.

As the conductor nodded for him to proceed, Lanza opened his million-dollar throat and proceeded to bawl out the aria, “Celeste Aida,” at the top of his lungs, capping the romantic piece off with a loud and protracted final B-flat.

Never mind that the work’s composer, Giuseppe Verdi, marked the high note to be taken softly; never mind that the film’s script, supposedly based on Dorothy Caruso’s 1945 biography of her late husband, was a complete and utter fiction, replete with numerous fabrications concerning the tenor’s life and career on and off the stage; and never mind, too, that there was no audience present to wildly applaud Lanza’s self-indulgence and lack of musical taste.

What mattered most to Lanza was that his legion of fans would soon be going to their neighborhood movie theaters to see the world’s most famous “opera” star make good on his boast that he was, without question, Caruso’s heir apparent – if not on the stage, then in the cinema.

Even though he was probably the best known classical artist to appear in pictures, Mario Lanza was the least “operatic” opera tenor ever to have graced the silver screen. Not that it ever prevented him from becoming one of Hollywood’s starriest attractions, as well as a bringer of highbrow entertainment to the unenlightened masses. It helped that he was an established pop idol who sold millions of hit records all over the world.

Remarkably, even during the silent-film era, opera on the screen was a widely accepted form of diversion, rivaling the Western, slapstick comedy, and serious melodrama in popularity and appeal. This may strike modern-day viewers as a bit of an oxymoron, but that was the attitude back then, in the burgeoning days of silent cinema where sight was more precious than sound.

With the advent of the all-talking, all-singing motion picture, opera and classical music, together with popular songs, musical comedy, dance-hall numbers, and all manner of variety acts – the proverbial “dog and pony” shows of yore – became increasingly heard as well as seen.

Theater, the Absurd

Before films, the only acting available to the paying public was in the legitimate theater and along the well-traveled vaudeville route, which stretched from the predominantly Jewish “borscht belt” in upstate New York to the hundreds of small-town gathering halls and recreation centers blanketed across the continental United States.

Opera, for better or worse, was a regular part of musical life in just about every one of these whistle-stop stages, mostly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early-twentieth centuries. Wherever there was a rough and ready theater available, one could typically find opera coexisting nearby.

Thus, a long-established performance tradition of opera had already been established just as the fledgling film industry began making its way across the country. The logical leap from stage to screen – and from music drama to movie melodrama – seemed not only plausible but well-nigh inevitable.

As a result, opera singers became frequent participants in a fairly large number of modest film productions. But despite their appearances in either silent or sound form, these artists’ acting abilities tended to mirror those of the stage in terms of melodramatic content and style.

And nothing could be more incongruous to moviegoers than to have opera performed within the structural confines of celluloid (or nitrate, as the case may be). For opera, as an art form, is by its nature a thoroughly theatrical endeavor. It demands — no, it insists — upon the presence of a live audience to be fully effective and appreciated.

Nevertheless, both silent and sound films starring famous opera singers in scenes, acts, arias, and ensembles were a common occurrence – a case of the art transcending the medium in which it originated. Often, it was the only way for audiences to enjoy opera performances; for many, in fact, it would be their first, if not only, exposure to this singular entertainment form.

On a personal note, opera is a subject I am very well versed in. As well I should be, after almost 45 years of listening to it on the radio and in recordings, seeing it performed on the stage, and watching it on television and on DVD. What has always attracted me about this under-appreciated but most fascinating of cinematic sub-genres, however, is the singing, in addition to the incredibly larger-than-life personalities who gave their all in helping to shape it.

But talk is cheap, as they say, and the proof is always in the pudding (or singing). So now, without further ado, let the curtain be raised on “Opera Goes to Hollywood.” Please enjoy the show! Oh, and no talking during the performance. Thank you!

Early Silent Offerings

There is some controversy among historians and scholars as to which piece of film was the first to feature an operatic performance.

Clearly, it’s difficult to count a thirty-second clip of Carmencita, a Thomas Edison-produced short made in 1894, of an actress performing the Habañera; or a brief two-minute showing of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, made in New York around the year 1898, as the first of these pioneering efforts. All the same, they both can share the honor of being the earliest of such historical records.

An hour-long silent version of Gounod’s opera Faust appeared a few years later, and is more likely the first “full length” operatic treatment. Shown in 1907, Faust incorporated a rudimentary form of prerecorded, synchronized sound that, if eyewitnesses from that era can be deemed reliable sources, proved quite a novelty around the turn of the century.

Other, more elaborate productions soon followed, some with live orchestral accompaniment, others with simultaneous vocal arrangements added to live screenings. In fact, many of these projects were built around the personal magnetism, or “star quality,” of the individual performers involved.

Interestingly, some singers’ acting abilities actually complemented their silent screen images, while others no doubt detracted from them, most likely due to their lack of the most elementary of thespian skills.

Enrico Caruso (far right) in My Cousin (popscreen.com)

Two of the best examples of the latter were the ones that starred the twentieth-century’s leading opera figure, Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso. The first, My Cousin, was made in 1918, and the second, The Splendid Romance, a year later. They came fairly late in Caruso’s career and did nothing in the way of furthering this extraordinary artist’s already cemented reputation. They might even have caused a few cracks in his legacy.

My Cousin proved such a dismal flop that his second feature went unreleased. It was one of the great man’s relatively few missteps in an otherwise stellar career.

Incidentally, it is his voice the dog Nipper happens to be listening to in the world-famous His Master’s Voice advertisements of the period. But the failure of so celebrated a stage figure as Caruso led to doubts as to the merits of the whole inflated enterprise from its very inception.

Woman’s Work is Never Done

A few years before the tenor’s ill-fated film foray, his frequent partner on the stage, American soprano Geraldine Farrar, had shown how it could be done. Her own silent-screen debut occurred in a movie version of Carmen (1915), based not on Georges Bizet’s tragedy but on the original Prosper Mérimée novella.

It was directed by movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who brought out Farrar’s beauty, charm, flirtatious nature, and beguiling presence, so much so that it captured the fancy of movie fans. The crafty DeMille’s insistence on absolute realism throughout – which included a live, onscreen bull fight, the first to be staged in Los Angeles in many a year – made the film a runaway hit.

Geraldine Farrar (flickr.com)

Farrar filmed five more features for the demanding Mr. DeMille, including one of Joan the Woman (1916), a very theatrical retelling of the story of the Maid of Orleans, and the first of the director’s religious pictures. But the bulk of her studio output was unrelated to opera. She left Hollywood for good in 1920.

All things being equal, it was Farrar’s stunning success in motion pictures that inspired Caruso to attempt a screen sojourn of his own. Still, the pleasures and pitfalls of a career in filmdom left many a hit-or-miss affair for singers great and small.

Not to be outdone, producer Samuel Goldwyn secured the services of another great soprano of the period, the Scottish-born Mary Garden, for the then-staggering sum of $10,000 dollars a week. She committed one of her most memorable stage roles to film, that of Massenet’s exotic courtesan Thaïs, in 1917.

Though she was without doubt Farrar’s chief rival on the stage, Garden was unable to score a bulls-eye with discriminating audiences, despite interest in the venture from the Vatican itself. She gave the genre one last try, in the unsuccessful The Splendid Singer (1918), and then promptly bid farewell to Hollywood for the stage.

Another beauty from that bygone era – one equally renowned for her amorous affairs as well as for her scantily-clad revues with the Paris Folies-Bergère – was the Italian diva Lina Cavalieri, who participated in a British-made Manon Lescaut in 1914, with her third husband, Metropolitan Opera tenor Lucien Muratore.

Adapted for the screen from the Abbé Prévost novel about the desirable young French coquette, it was the first of several productions Cavalieri starred in prior to 1921. Despite her obvious good looks and seductive charm, her lack of acting talent forced Cavalieri to abandon the cinema for the remainder of her career.

A rather offbeat 1915 production of Madame Butterfly starred, of all people, America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford (she of the waif-like golden curls), appallingly miscast as the Japanese geisha girl, Cio-Cio San. Because of copyright infringement laws, the film followed the original John Luther Long story instead of the composer’s more familiar setting.

There are many such examples of both the fortuitous and the egregious nature of opera stars in the silent era. Perhaps the most telling of these took place in French director Abel Gance’s massive six-hour historical epic Napoleon, released in 1927. Ever the creative visionary, Gance relied on the effective casting of Russian tenor Alexander Koubitzky as the revolutionary firebrand, Georges-Jacques Danton.

The rightness of his choice bore fruit in the great scene where Danton leads the seven hundred “bloodthirsty” extras at the Club des Cordeliers in an overly exuberant rendition of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The emotional content of this scene proved all the more powerful, given Koubitzky’s stirring delivery of the song and the active involvement of all concerned – done, oddly enough, without the benefit of sound.

The Lion Sings Tonight

Mae Murray & John Gilbert (allposters.com)

Spearheading the no less frequently plowed field of operetta was the scandalously opulent, and staggeringly over-budget, MGM production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (1925). It boasted a bizarre combination of actress Mae Murray with the elegant John Gilbert, one of the screen’s most passionate lovers (next to Rudolph Valentino, of course).

At the helm was Viennese actor-director Erich von Stroheim, once billed as “The Man You Love to Hate,” and for good reason. The frequent clashes between the martinet director, his female lead, and MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, led to Stroheim’s walking off the set on a number of occasions, and to his eventual banishment from movie-land for his wanton wastefulness.

These backstage machinations did not prevent the film from becoming a huge hit with the public (if not the critics), despite the obvious lack of operatic talent. It was an interesting reversal of the commonly held notion that female divas, not their directors and producers, were the “prima donnas” of the art form.

The studio followed this up with a silent version of La Bohème (1926), which became an even more potent box-office draw. It brought to the screen the delicate and fragile Mimi of the lovely Lillian Gish, in her highly-publicized MGM film debut. Her co-star was the ever-dashing John Gilbert (in one of his most “overripe” assumptions) as the poet Rodolphe.

Again, due to copyright infringement issues, the photoplay was based not on the popular Puccini work but on the stories found in Henri Murger’s book, Scènes de la vie de bohème, the same source Puccini’s librettists had used for their stage version.

Gish was singled out for her fine screen work. Indeed, her heart-rending death scene was particularly poignant. With comedian Edward Everett Horton as Colline (a musician in this version), Renée Adorée as Musette, and Gino Corrado (Hollywood’s perpetual Italian waiter) as the painter Marcel, and directed in sumptuous fashion by King Vidor, La Bohème left mascara stains on just about every cheek — a five-handkerchief tearjerker if there ever was one.

Basso Cantante

The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), an early sound production, starred yet another singer from the halcyon days of the gramophone era: the Russian émigré bass Feodor Chaliapin.

But unlike his contemporary Caruso before him (who passed away in 1921), the formidable Chaliapin was nearing the end of his operatic career when he was lured out of retirement for a chance to capture for posterity his striking persona in one his most vibrant stage portraits.

George Robey & Feodor Chaliapin (dvd.es)

Surprisingly, this Don Quixote was not the Massenet version of the story, which Chaliapin had premiered in some 20 years prior, but a more faithful rendering of Miguel de Cervantes’ great novel, filmed in simultaneous French, English, and German-language versions, by Czech-born director G.W. Pabst, with music by Frenchman Jacques Ibert.

Chaliapin even got to deliver four new songs composed especially for the film, which introduced viewers to his mellifluous vocal style.

The moving finale has the bass intoning a final adieu to his loyal friend, Sancho Panza (played by George Robey), as the pages of Cervantes’ huge tome miraculously reappear after having been thrown into the flames by the Spanish Inquisition.

Tenors, We Have Tenors

With the European community thriving as a cultural magnet for international talent, opera stars (in other words, tenors in particular) continued to dominate musical films in the period between the two world wars.

These films served to introduce a bevy of beautiful voices to the silver screen. Among the many productions released were sweetly sentimental trifles from pudgy Italian sensation Beniamino Gigli: Forever Yours (1937), with Joan Gardner and Hugh Wakefield, directed by Zoltan Korda and Stanley Irving; and Solo per te (1938), with fellow opera stars Maria Cebotari and Michael Bohnen.

There were marvelously musical ones from Austrian operetta king Richard Tauber, who appeared in a number of German and British-made quickie features during the thirties (Das Land des Lächelns from 1930; Blossom Time and April Romance, both 1934).

Polish tenor Jan Kiepura was another favorite who enjoyed a high degree of popularity away from the proscenium. He appeared frequently with his wife, soprano Marta Eggerth, in many a European-style production, among them The City of Song (1931), Tell Me Tonight (1932), My Song for You (1933), My Heart is Calling (1934), Give Us This Night and Thank You Madame (1936), and The Charm of La Bohème (1937), yet another version of Puccini’s poetic opera.

And Italian troubadour Nino Martini made his mark first in England, then in Hollywood, with several low-budget items, among them The Gay Desperado (1936), co-starring Ida Lupino and Leo Carrillo (The Cisco Kid), wherein he got to sing the lovely “The World is Mine Tonight,” a dead-ringer for Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. It was directed by the stylish Rouben Mamoulian; and Music for Madame (1937), with Joan Fontaine and lantern-jawed Alan Mowbray.

Martini’s acting style was, to put it mildly, straight out of the Chico Marx School of Artificial Italian. He succeeded only in perpetuating the stereotype of the dimwitted foreigner who stumbles onto the American dream through dumb luck and his own latent musical talent. You could say that Martini was the Forrest Gump of his generation.

Moving to our own shores, Hollywood can boast of the wavy-haired presence and stalwart tenor voice of the late, great Allan Jones, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner.

Allan Jones (leadinglightsautographs.com)

Jones’ first appearances were on the Broadway stage before embarking on a movie career, where he made many delightful musical films. Some of the more rambunctious were with the Marx Brothers, especially A Night at the Opera (1935), where he served as Kitty Carlisle’s love interest and sang the gorgeous musical number, “Alone”; and A Day at the Races (1937).

He then teamed with comics Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their hastily thrown together screen debut, One Night in the Tropics (1940). In between, Jones co-starred in the sound version of Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie (1935) with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; the excellent Universal sound remake of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1936) opposite Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, who recreated her Miss Julie; and one his best roles ever, opposite MacDonald again, in The Firefly (1937), directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Movie audiences got to hear Jones sing “Donkey Serenade,” which became closely identified with him throughout his career.

He continued to appear in countless musicals of the period, including The Great Victor Herbert (1939), the Rodgers & Hart production of The Boys from Syracuse (1940), Moonlight in Havana (1942), and various others.

He dropped out of sight after the war’s conclusion, only to resurface in the mid-sixties in two disappointing film duds: the humdrum Western Stage to Thunder Rock (1964), and the mediocre teen musical A Swingin’ Summer (1965).

Major Female Attractions

Thankfully, tenors were not the only talents to attain celebrity status on the screen. Women opera stars were also part of the vogue. Two of the best loved were the blonde Tennessee-born soprano Grace Moore, and the diminutive French singing sensation Lily Pons.

Moore, too, began on Broadway; only later on did she migrate to the stage of the Met before Hollywood beckoned. She made several pictures for MGM, where she was initially teamed with another budding young screen talent, the baritone Lawrence Tibbett, in a lavish version of New Moon (1930), set in pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia instead of the original eighteenth-century New Orleans.

The studio’s production head, wonder boy Irving Thalberg, became increasingly distressed over Moore’s expanding waste line, so he allowed her MGM contract to expire. This would not be the last time that august studio would get into a haggle over such a “weighty” issue (vide tenor Mario Lanza).

Moore was eventually picked up by Columbia where she went on to do her best work, even earning an Oscar nomination for her film, One Night of Love (1934). Her other features included Love Me Forever (1935) and I’ll Take Romance (1937). She was even invited to participate in Abel Gance’s film of the Charpentier opera, Louise (1938), with the leading French tenor of the day, the thrilling Georges Thill. It was to be her last screen appearance. She perished in a plane crash over Denmark, in 1947, while on tour in Europe.

During the height of Moore’s popularity and fame, RKO Pictures decided to tout the petite coloratura Lily Pons as their answer to the perky American. Unfortunately for RKO (and for Pons), her movie roles were mostly mediocre efforts. They included I Dream Too Much (1935), That Girl from Paris and Hitting a New High, both from 1937.

Pons was never able to captivate movie audiences with her acting as she had in the theater with her warbling. She made one more screen appearance, in the concert film Carnegie Hall (1947), singing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and the “Bell Song” from Delibes’ Lakmé, before calling it a night.

In France, the popularity of vivacious music hall actress and chanteuse Yvonne Printemps (née Wigniolle, near Paris) helped launch her European film career. She appeared in several beautifully mounted productions, many of which capitalized on her on captivating stage charm and classically trained voice. A real find, for once!

Yvonne Printemps (lucywho.com)

Some of her films were operatic in theme if not in substance; for example, La Dame aux Camélias (1934) and Adrienne Lecourvreur (1938). Her other major successes included Les Trois Valses (1938) and La Valse de Paris (1948), a screen biography of famed Opéra-Comique composer, Jacques Offenbach (highly fictionalized, that is), co-starring her longtime lover, actor Pierre Fresnay (The Grand Illusion).

There’s a typically farcical scene onstage where Printemps sings the romantic ditty “Dite lui,” from La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, directly at first to a Turkish caliph, then to the Russian czar and his son. The czar tosses a bouquet, which happens to land on the podium where Offenbach is conducting his work. He throws it onto the stage just in time for Printemps to snatch it up and blow kisses in the direction of the czar’s box. Charmante, charmante!

Despite several return trips to the States, Printemps never achieved the kind of meteoric rise in America as she had in France and Europe. She remained an attractive performer nonetheless, with an effervescent screen presence.

Less successful was New Yorker Mary Ellis, who started at the top and worked her way down to the bottom. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, continuing on to the Broadway stage and eventually to Paramount Studios, where she made several unsuccessful attempts at challenging the reign of Grace Moore and Jeanette MacDonald.

Ellis left La-La-Land for England, where she continued to appear on the London stage, and on British television, for years thereafter. She died on January 30, 2003 at the ripe old age of 105 (no thanks to Hollywood).

A Baritone Lover’s Delight

A gifted actor and charismatic stage performer in his own right was the American baritone Lawrence Tibbett (the son of a San Francisco sheriff, believe it or not), previously mentioned in connection with Grace Moore.

Laurel, Hardy & Tibbett (doctormarco.com)

Similar to what happened to the multi-talented Moore, Tibbett earned an Academy Award nomination as best actor in his very first film outing: The Rogue Song (1930), rather loosely based on Léhar’s operetta Gypsy Love. It was the first Technicolor talkie, and featured the comic duo of (wonder of wonders) Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, with direction by stage and screen star Lionel Barrymore, a fanatical opera buff.

Film preservation being what it was, the work has been all-but lost. Outside of a few stills and a brutally savaged European cut, relatively little remains of Rogue Song to document Tibbett’s magnetic ability to hold an audience spellbound. Fortunately, he did leave numerous 78 rpm’s of songs, scenes and arias, voiced in that still-glorious golden timbre of his. A star of the first magnitude!

Tibbett’s other MGM output never matched his propitious screen debut. They include the aforementioned New Moon (1930), with colleague Grace Moore, The Prodigal and The Cuban Love Song, with Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez (both 1931), his last for the studio. His works for other studios included Metropolitan (1935) and Under Your Spell (1936).

Sadly diminished vocal resources, augmented by heavy drinking, led to later disillusionment with his singing career. Tibbett died in poverty in 1960 after a long battle with alcoholism – a tragic end to a superb artist.

Another great singing-actor of the stage, who gravitated more to the movies, was American bass-baritone Paul Robeson. His impeccable athletic skills (Rutgers University) and academic credentials (Columbia University Law School) should have guaranteed him a comfortable living, but did not because of his skin color and leftist-leaning attitudes.

Robeson was popular in both Europe and New York, and made a few memorable appearances in the cinema. Among his best was an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Joe in Show Boat (his most famous role), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), and Tales of Manhattan (1942).

The song, “Ole Man River,” from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II work, became a theme of resistance for Robeson. He would sing the number at many of his concerts, often changing or adapting the lyrics to fit the times or the venue.

Robeson became a political activist for social causes in the late thirties, and was involved in many domestic and international movements for peace, racial equality and better working conditions for the poor and oppressed. His liberal political stance and constant contacts with Communist Russia, however, earned him the enmity of the U.S. State Department.

He never appeared in opera, but his natural cello-like voice had the quality and resonance of a truly one-of-a-kind instrument. Robeson enjoyed working in films, and frequently said that it afforded him a more natural and relaxed way of singing, freeing him up from the worry of having to pump his voice up for volume in order to be heard.

Some of his other films included Jericho (also known as Dark Sands, 1937) and The Proud Valley (1940). Robeson remains an enigmatic figure, full of unrealized potential. What a fabulous Sarastro or Boris Godunov he would have made!

Enchanted Evenings

Already at the end of an imposing opera career, Italian basso Ezio Pinza made a huge splash on Broadway in 1949, alongside the ebullient Mary Martin, in the hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific. He also starred in Fanny in 1954, this time opposite Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch).

Ezio Pinza (fanpix.net)

In Pinza’s autobiography, he recalled the incredible difficulty he had in memorizing his lines (remember, he was a non-native English speaker) due to constant changes to the book by the producers and the other, more experienced cast members, a normal practice in the theater. As he was a completely self-taught artist incapable of reading music, Pinza suffered greatly as a result of his inability to keep up with the rest.

That issue aside, he helped popularize South Pacific’s most romantic number “Some Enchanted Evening,” which completely revitalized his stage career. It also served as a springboard to a relatively brief dalliance with the silver screen.

Pinza was a casting director’s dream: he always managed to appear self-possessed as well as suave and sophisticated, a sort of elder Latin statesman with matinee-idol good looks, graying hair, and a wandering eye for the ladies – a personality not too far from his own.

His two major film contributions, Mr. Imperium with the platinum blonde Lana Turner, and Strictly Dishonorable (both 1951), were strictly minor affairs, while an earlier cameo role as himself, in Carnegie Hall (1947), was decidedly better, as was his later guest shot in Tonight We Sing (1953), the film biography of impresario Sol Hurok (David Wayne). In this one, he played the Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin, albeit with a distinctly Italianate touch and accent.

Pinza’s untimely death in 1957 forced Twentieth Century-Fox to look for a senior singing actor of the same exalted caliber who could play Emile de Becque in director Joshua Logan’s film version of South Pacific (1958). The studio thought it had found the perfect type in romantic leading man Rossano Brazzi, who turned out to have the same chiseled features, mild Mediterranean temperament, and salt-and-pepper coif as the debonair Pinza.

Despite the ready-made appearance, it became aurally apparent that Brazzi couldn’t carry a tune, much to the producers’ chagrin. Whereby Metropolitan Opera bass Giorgio Tozzi was hastily recruited to supply the actor’s singing voice. Why Tozzi, who was appearing opposite Mary Martin at the time – and in the same South Pacific musical – was not hired on-the-spot for the role remains an impenetrable mystery.

Even more irksome to Tozzi was the fact that Brazzi later claimed to have actually sung most of his role, with only a few high notes doctored in for good measure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Toast of Tinsel Town

It was in the late 1940s that Philadelphia-born Mario Lanza (real name Alfred Arnold Coccozza) came to the forefront as the reigning king of celluloid opera performers – and reasserted the dominance of the tenor in pictures.

Mario Lanza & Kathryn Grayson (rense.com)

Virtually all of his movie roles were variations on his own highly extroverted (and exceedingly volatile) screen personality, displayed to perfect “prima donna” perfection in MGM’s That Midnight Kiss (1949), wherein his role as a singing truck driver all-but guaranteed his success; and The Toast of New Orleans (1950), both with the long-suffering Kathryn Grayson.

In the aptly named Toast, the boorish Lanza has a grand old time as Grayson’s singing partner in the Act I finale to Madama Butterfly, which ends up as more wrestling match than love duet. He shared many an off-screen temper tantrum with his leading lady; there was no love lost between these two artists.

Other Lanza productions included Because You’re Mine (1952), with opera-loving Sgt. James Whitmore singing an excerpt from Verdi’s Il Trovatore; The Student Prince (voice only/1954), Serenade (1956), The Seven Hills of Rome (1958), and For the First Time (1959).

The enormous girth that Lanza sported, which he brought to the studio prior to filming Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, resulted in his suspension from the production. Only his sterling vocals remain intact on the soundtrack, mouthed in uncomfortably stilted fashion by the stiff-as-a-board Edmund Purdom. Ann Blyth was his main love interest.

Blyth previously co-starred with Lanza in The Great Caruso (1951), playing his wife Dorothy. That film was noteworthy for its abundant opera excerpts, in addition to being packed to the rafters with opera luminaries, among them Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Lucine Amara, Nicola Moscona, and Marina Koshetz, all of them regulars with the Metropolitan Opera — a place Lanza never set foot in.

Because of his emotional instability, high-flying lifestyle, and prodigious eating binges, Lanza was put out to pasture by MGM. Shortly afterward, he left the States for European fields of gold.

In 1959, while attempting to slim down for his next film project, Lanza died suddenly of a heart attack, at age 38, under what some would later describe as “suspicious circumstances.” His last breath was drawn, ironically enough, at a health spa in Italy. Arrivederci, Roma!

We All Make Mistakes

Not everyone made the successful transition to the screen, or arrived there with as much fanfare as Lanza.

Take, for example, the lovely American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, who made several film forays in the forties, most notably in Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as Catholic priests. She was the opera-singing friend of Der Bingle’s Father O’Malley, performing several well-vocalized extracts from Carmen. Stevens also displayed her lush singing voice in Carnegie Hall as well as other minor features, but there were no stampedes to the ticket office where she was concerned.

Lauritz Melchior, seated at left (heroictenor.com)

Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior (born in Denmark) was another prime example. A huge man, with an exceptionally rotund exterior and a jolly sense of humor to match, Melchior made a name for himself, first on the radio, and then in motion pictures with Thrill of a Romance (1945), Two Sisters from Boston (1946), This Time For Keeps (1947), and Luxury Liner (1948). Along with the equally hefty S.Z. “Chuckles” Sakall, Melchior was everybody’s favorite film uncle. But a major film star? Not likely.

And who could forget Brooklyn’s own Robert Merrill, in his disastrous debut flick, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952), famous (or infamous – take your pick) for having given most of its musical numbers not to baritone Merrill, but to the movie’s non-operatic female lead, the bubbly Dinah Shore. Then-general manager of the Met Opera, Rudolf Bing punished Merrill for having abandoned his duties at the house for such a ridiculous endeavor. With hat in hand, and tail planted firmly between his legs, Merrill returned to the company the following year and resumed his contractual obligations. And that ended that!

Not to be outdone, Sergio Franchi was a rising tenor star with the voice and looks of a young Corelli. He eventually branched off into Lanza mode, but without that performer’s self-indulgent antics. Franchi not only participated in opera, but had a thriving crossover career in the theater, appearing frequently on Broadway (the musical Nine, for instance), in cabarets, nightclubs, and such. He sang and recorded show tunes, as well as operatic selections and hit songs, and was a frequent guest performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, in addition to appearances on game shows, talk shows, variety and other programs. His sister was the actress/singer Dana Valery.

Franchi’s lone screen venture, however, was as the lovesick Italian peasant in Stanley Kramer’s overlong The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), with a powerhouse ensemble headed up by Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Hardy Kruger, and Virna Lisi. In such highfalutin company, Franchi vanished into the woodwork. His stillborn film career floundered as a result.

Anna Moffo (images.com)

Another one-shot-wonder was the beautiful American soprano Anna Moffo. A stunning Violetta in La Traviata, a memorable Mimi in Bohème, and an emotionally compelling Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, Moffo’s unfortunate screen debut occurred in the artificial surroundings of an all-star soap opera that was Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers (1970). It was an abysmal three-hour-tour of bedrooms and boudoirs of the rich and famous, an insipid tale of a South American banana republic gone amok that tanked ever-so-badly at the box office, taking Moffo’s acting career with it.

Even legendary diva Maria Callas got into the action, so to speak, in her one and only screen sortie, but in a non-singing/non-operatic capacity, as Euripides’ Medea (1970), written and directed by neo-Fascist auteur, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Not surprisingly, it was a notorious disaster for the former opera star. Callas died, alone and in poor health, in 1977.

But the most disreputable debut of the lot involved one of the Three Tenors: Luciano Pavarotti. There is precious little to recommend in Yes, Giorgio (1982), his fiasco of a feature film debut, which was commandeered by his manager, the late Herbert Breslin. It co-starred (if that’s the proper term) Kathryn Harrold and a perilously unfunny Eddie Albert as a Herbert Breslin-lookalike.

With additional music by John Williams, guest appearances by soprano Leona Mitchell, San Francisco Opera director Kurt Herbert Adler, and conductor Emerson Buckley, and indifferently directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes), it had all the makings of a lemon before it was even ripe. The plot, such as it was, involved an ailing tenor (Pavarotti, naturally) who happens to fall in love with an American throat specialist (Dr. Harrold) after she miraculously “cures” him of his ailment – more like a heavy case of stage fright.

The movie is rather silly, to put it mildly, a precious waste of talent – especially Luciano’s – and fraught with situations that are unreservedly cliché, even by Hollywood standards. Not to mince words, but the whole project was just plain awful. Buy a Pavarotti CD, if you must, but avoid this “comedy” at all costs.

Yes, Giorgio became Luciano’s Achilles heel, and a major thorn in his side for many years. Curiously, the film became a prophetic portent of the caricature the tenor was to become in his later years; which only goes to show that, no matter how great one is on the operatic stage, you can’t always make it on your own in front of the camera.

Artificial Creations

This leads us into the next cycle of films: that is, operas or opera-like works created specifically, and exclusively, by and for the film medium. No finer examples of this exist than Orson Welles’ magnificent Citizen Kane (1941) and The Phantom of the Opera (both the 1943 and 1962 versions).

The thrust of the action of Citizen Kane reaches a climax in the debut of Kane’s wife, Susan, who delivers an ersatz solo. Kane’s score was written by the dean of film-score composers, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s regular working partner. His challenge, as suggested by Welles himself, was to write a fake opera excerpt, from a bogus work called Salammbô, that appears at key moments in the drama.

The aria was supposed to be in the French Oriental style of the late nineteenth-century, a form still very much in vogue at the time of the film’s creation. Herrmann did Welles one better: he wrote an unbelievably difficult air that flirted with the highest registers of the female voice, sung to annoying imperfection by an unidentified member of the San Francisco Opera Company.

Welles was a rabid opera buff who had personally seen Mary Garden in the flesh, along with other famous stars of the day. His love of the art form resulted in his interspersing of small snippets of tunes into his films, including Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa,” from The Barber of Seville. But as far as disastrous stage debuts went, Susan Kane’s bow in Salammbô took the cinematic cake, and then some.

Early on, we had the epic Anthony Adverse (1936), which boasted an original score by child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk). No complaints there. However, the brief operatic sequence featured in that production was curiously not by Korngold, but composed instead by one Aldo Franchetti. It was called The Duchess of Ferrara.

Although the film is supposed to take place during the Napoleonic Era, the opera sounds like a mishmash of the worst works of Jules Massenet, but with a perfectly charming melody quite out of place on the early nineteenth-century stage. Olivia de Havilland is Madame Georges, the mistress of Napoleon, and former lover of the title hero, the noble Fredric March.

Lest us recall, too, the incongruously named Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), which called for horror-movie icon Boris Karloff to play a put upon bass suspected of committing murder and mayhem at the matinee. The opera sequence of the title, Carnival, was composed by none other than iconoclastic musical misanthrope (and perpetual hypochondriac), Oscar Levant. Talk about a throwaway!

Claude Rains & Susana Foster (photo lunch.com)

The first sound Phantom of the Opera by Universal Pictures, starring Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier, and Claude Rains as the mild-mannered Phantom, boasts a fairly unique score by British composer Edward Ward, in which themes from Chopin piano sonatas and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony were combined to make two phony operas, Amour et Gloire and The Masked Prince from the Caucasus. Otherwise, two excerpts from Flotow’s Martha (used because they were in the public domain) were interpolated into this horror hodgepodge. Anything to save a buck.

A second Phantom of the Opera, from 1962, produced by Hammer Studios and starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, had better makeup effects and provided more chills, pound for pound, than the dull Rains version. The main highlight happened to be a modern-sounding (to our ears, anyway) interpretation of the Joan of Arc story scored by Edwin T. Astley. Our Phantom seems to bring out the originality bug in film composers.

Other examples of fake opera, and there are quite a few of them, include one from the British film The Glass Mountain (1949), with a major score by Fellini’s favorite composer, the classically trained Nino Rota (La Strada, The Godfather: Parts I & II). It featured a charming performance by La Scala baritone Tito Gobbi, who co-starred with Italian actress Valentina Cortese. It’s biggest claim to fame was that the faux opera was filmed on the stage of the real Teatro La Fenice, in Venice. Va bene!

As mentioned above, Rota was also responsible for scoring Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. He did not, however, incorporate the delightfully quaint Neapolitan light opera Senza Mamma into the mix. This being a family affair, that honor was reserved for (you guessed it) the director’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino.

The entire sequence features young Vito Corleone (played by a characteristically stoic Robert De Niro) enjoying a night out with his friend Genco, by watching a performance, in authentic Neapolitan dialect, of a local melodrama in a crowded theater. The part of the singer who holds a pistol to his forehead was sung by tenor Livio Giorgi. So much for play-acting.

Unsung Heroes

Speaking of play-acting, the persistently annoyed fellow who played the vocal coach in Citizen Kane, the Spanish-born Fortunio Bonanova, was, in fact, an actual opera singer earlier in his career, as well as a novelist, a playwright, and a composer of several operettas. He is best remembered as Lou’s Uncle Bozzo in a 1953 episode of TV’s The Abbott and Costello Show.

Another actor, Basil Ruysdael, held leading bass-baritone status at the Metropolitan Opera for a number of years. He appeared alongside Caruso and Farrar at one time, and even coached Lawrence Tibbett for a spell. Ruysdael also worked as a radio announcer and Broadway stage actor prior to going into films in featured character parts (Pinky, Broken Arrow, The Violent Men, The Horse Soldiers).

The menacing stage and screen villain Eduardo Ciannelli (Gunga Din) obtained a medical degree in his native Italy, before pursuing a career in opera as a baritone, primarily in Italy, then throughout Europe. He emigrated to the U.S. after service in World War I, appearing in several musical comedies (Lady Bill and Rose Marie). He began his long association with the cinema in mostly character parts, and was usually cast as the heavy due to his harsh features. (But he was such a nice guy…)

Walter Slezak, son of the portly Wagnerian tenor Leo Slezak, was never a singer to begin with, but more of a romantic lead in silent films. Because of his inability to control his weight, he switched to character parts and enjoyed a prolific career in films for many years. Slezak appeared in a variety of roles, both comic and villainous, throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, acting with everyone from Abbot and Costello and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to Ronald Reagan and Bonzo the Chimp.

His only operatic excursion was in a 1957 production of Johann Strauss’ operetta The Gypsy Baron at the Met, in an English-language adaptation. He played the pig farmer Zsupan, and was surrounded by such notables as tenor Nicolai Gedda and soprano Lisa Della Casa. Bravo, Walter!

Salvatore Baccaloni (periodicolabarra.com.ar)

Salvatore Baccaloni was another legitimate opera star – a basso buffo, to be exact – who appeared frequently in Italy and at the Met alongside such stalwarts as Ezio Pinza, Robert Merrill, Bidu Sayão, and many others. Baccaloni found a new source of income in films of the fifties and sixties. Some of his film work included Full of Life (1956) with Judy Holiday and Richard Conte, Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) with Jerry Lewis, the film version of the Pinza hit Fanny (1961) starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer, and the Charlton Heston vehicle The Pigeon That Took Rome (1961) with Elsa Martinelli and Harry Guardino — probably the least funniest comedy of that year. Baccaloni never sang a note on the screen. How rude!

Finally, another character actor well known for his repertory of Italians, Greeks, Poles, Indians, criminals, priests, good-guys, fall-guys, tough-guys, and the like was the late Anthony Caruso. He, too, started vocal lessons early in life, until someone pointed out to him that despite his musical surname, actors make more money than opera singers. Thank goodness Caruso took that advice to heart. TV and sci-fi fans may recognize him as one of the alien gangsters in the Star Trek episode, “A Piece of the Action.”

Something Different This Way Comes

To coin a phrase from Monty Python: “And now for something completely different,” and brother, do we mean different. Here goes:

First up is an all-dance version of Carmen, directed by the Spanish Carlos Saura (talk about type-casting), who brings an authentic flamenco flavor to Bizet’s passionate opera. It’s a highly successful film adaptation — the dance episodes are unbeatable — which wisely uses the London/Decca recording of the work featuring rich mezzo Regina Resnik (an alumnus of my high school, by the way) and powerhouse tenor Mario Del Monaco.

Next, we have first-time French postmodern director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who helmed the vastly entertaining 1981 film Diva. He also wrote the screenplay. It was a sleeper hit in America due mostly to its “way too cool” approach to the staid subject matter of a publicity-shy opera singer who wishes to remain anonymous, and unrecorded. Real-life African-American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez appears as the reluctant diva. She gets to sing the emotionally charged aria, “Ebben, ne andro lontana,” from Catalani’s La Wally. She’s befriended by a young mailman and opera lover Jules (Frederic Andrei), who in turn is pursued by some nasty criminals. It’s all in good fun, and successfully mixed highbrow classical fare with witty Continental farce.

Plavalaguna (tumblr.com)

This is followed by The Fifth Element from 1997. Directed by another Frenchman, Luc Besson, this one’s a science-fiction fantasy story whose highlight is a blue-toned, curved-headed, far-out space-alien opera star named Plavalaguna, who winds up singing part of the Mad Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. She ends it, however, in a rousing rock-techno-disco combo filled with outlandish high and low notes — hugely augmented by a Moog synthesizer-like instrument. Donizetti would be spinning in his grave.

The role of Plavalaguna is performed by French actress Maïwenn LeBesco (Leon, the Professional), Besson’s girlfriend at the time, and sung by Albanian lyric soprano Inva Mulla Tchako. The theater used in the film was the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, in London. Outside of Signor Donizetti, the so-called “Diva Dance” was composed and produced by Eric Serra, who wrote the multi-ethnic film score. Nice try, Eric.

And last but not least, one of the strangest film adaptations of all involving seemingly familiar territory – but completely reworked to suit our “modern” sensibilities — is the esoteric Aria from 1987. Employing several famous directors (Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicholas Roeg, and six others), each one illustrated a particular aria or piece from a famous (or not-so-famous) opera, among the chosen being Lully’s Armide, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Puccini’s Turandot.

Elvis in Aria (dvdtalk.com)

Aria can best be described as a Disney Fantasia for adults. Well… yes and no, and even that’s being kind. Perhaps it’s more in the style of a musical potpourri, something we used to find on MTV, when that station was still putting out music videos. Be that as it may, nothing can top the sight of an overweight actor dressed up as Elvis Presley (in a white jump suit, high collar, and dark sunglasses), rocking and rolling in time to the music of “La donna é mobile,” sung on the soundtrack by Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus.

On that sour note, we conclude this survey of opera in the movies. May the Phantom continue to hit that high note – preferably, off-screen and out of ear shot. ♫

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Alfredo Kraus — ‘The’ Spanish Tenor for the Times

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Alfredo Kraus as Werther (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Tall, handsome, blue-eyed — and sporting a slightly graying mustache in his later years — Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus remained slim and trim even in his late sixties. He was the only singer I ever came into close contact with while living in New York City.

Though I saw many Metropolitan Opera artists near-and-around Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, it was in the winter of 1979 — at the New York Coliseum, of all places —  that I finally got up the nerve to actually talk to one of them.

My first contact with Kraus occurred during the annual New York Automobile Show, where I spotted him among the hundreds of onlookers. Taking a deep breath, I nervously went over to introduce myself. Well, it was more like I forced my trembling hand into his — and not very spontaneously, either — as I attempted to say (in my broken Spanish) how much I had admired his performance as Ernesto in that season’s presentation of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. A gorgeous blonde in a full-length fur coat was by his side, ogling this pathetic young stranger.

Ever the gentleman, Kraus accepted my greeting graciously if a bit reluctantly, thanked me for the compliment, and sped off with the fur-coated beauty to gaze at the autos. I personally would have preferred to gaze at the blonde, but whatever. I have never forgotten that brief encounter with one of my tenor idols.

Canary Islander

To discuss Alfredo Kraus’ art is to describe a singer who knew exactly what he wanted from his voice. To begin with, he was born in the exotic Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, on September 24, 1927, of an Austrian father and a Spanish mother. Despite having studied industrial engineering, Kraus embarked upon a singing career soon after graduation. He had played and studied the piano as a youth, and had even sung in local choirs and churches while pursuing his professional degree.

With the added encouragement of having won a prize in a 1955 vocal competition in Geneva, Switzerland, Kraus made his first stage appearances in zarzuela (the Spanish equivalent of operetta). His official operatic debut, however, occurred a year later in Cairo, Egypt, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, a role he would return to on many occasions.

At an age when many of us were still in diapers, Kraus was chosen to play the Spanish tenor Julián Gayarre in a 1958 film, for which he also supplied the singer’s voice on the soundtrack. He took part as well in a series of performances of La Traviata in Lisbon that have long since passed into legend; he sang the part of Alfredo Germont to the Violetta of fiery opera diva, Maria Callas.

Kraus went on to sing in all the major capitals of the world, but remained a loyal and frequent visitor to his hometown of Las Palmas, Gran Canárias. Both a concert hall and a biennial vocal festival were inaugurated there in his honor. Since his death on September 10, 1999 at the age of 71, the festival has continued to attract an international array of aspiring artists.

He first recorded his signature role of the Duke in Rigoletto around 1960 for Deutsche Grammophon. The conductor was the venerable Italian maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Kraus was surrounded by other noteworthy talents, including Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ettore Bastianini, and Ivo Vinco; it was a fine recording but gave little indication of the extraordinarily gifted voice that was yet to make itself heard.

His second traversal of the role, for RCA Victor Records in 1963 under Georg Solti, proved more illuminating. Upon listening to this performance in the late-sixties, my initial impression was that the record label had made some sort of huge casting error, employing a light comprimario for the vigorous, womanizing Duke. I was used to much heftier tones in the part, i.e., those of Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker, or Jan Peerce. As this was my first exposure to Kraus, it was a most disturbing discovery.

After the prelude, Kraus sang the opening air, “Questa o quella” with the requisite grace and buoyancy the score demanded, with nary a hint of vocal fireworks in his interpretation. Indeed, until the duet with Gilda in the second scene of the act, Kraus had done only a fairly respectable job, but no more.

He was then joined by soprano Anna Moffo in a lively reading of “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima,” the stretta portion of their love scene. It was here that I heard Kraus conclude the number with a truly spectacular — and, I might add, totally unexpected — unwritten high D that caught me completely off guard. So thrilling was this note in its execution and delivery that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I took immediate notice, and I wanted to hear more of this fabulous new tenor sensation.

Rarely Performed Aria

Kraus as the Duke (auladecanto.com)

Sure enough, I did hear him again in the second act. This being an uncut performance, Kraus was given the unusual opportunity of tossing off the rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” after having turned in a melting “Parmi veder le lagrime.”

In the London/Decca recording of Rigoletto made two years prior — featuring the young Joan Sutherland as Gilda — the Duke on that occasion, tenor Renato Cioni, had also attempted this notoriously difficult piece. He was of the same light tone and timbre as Kraus, and had earlier recorded a complete Lucia di Lammermoor with the Australian soprano for the same label. He put in a noble effort, in my opinion.

Despite the similarities in vocal equipment and repertory, however, the difference in artistry between the two tenors was immediately apparent. Kraus capped the air off with another incredibly taken high D, a note I thought was beyond the reach of most tenors on the then-current operatic scene — and that included the aforementioned Del Monaco, Tucker and Peerce, as well as Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Carlo Bergonzi. Not even the late, great Luciano Pavarotti, in the early 1980s, could have hit that note with the same fluidity and ease that Alfredo Kraus had.

My recollection of the London version was of poor, underpowered Cioni being totally swamped by the male chorus — and thoroughly ducking the high note to boot. To be perfectly fair, Kraus had a most modest voice of the slenderest proportions, but it was an extremely flexible and perfectly tuned instrument, which he used to project to the outermost reaches of the auditorium with no apparent strain.

He never produced a mechanical or artificial sound, and his wonderful expressive ability came directly from the heart. More importantly, his beautiful voice had an enviable and seemingly effortless top extension.

His models were the Italian tenors Aureliano Pertile, Dino Borgioli, Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, five totally different vocal personalities. He studied all five of them, but especially Schipa, Tagliavini and Lauri-Volpi.

From Schipa, Kraus learned to caress the voice, to wrap it in the sheer beauty of its sound, and to use that sound to present the text in a naturally beguiling and completely comprehensible way. Coincidentally, Schipa was the singer he most resembled vocally. From Tagliavini, Kraus learned to convey the honeyed tones for which that tenor was so famous, and to sing in a lovely mezza voce without resorting to crooning. And from Lauri-Volpi, he learned to take that singer’s squillo sound and trumpet-like top notes (which both Schipa and Tagliavini lacked), and shape them to perfectly complement whatever role he sang.

Kraus had much in common with another fine singer of his generation, the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. Their respective repertoires frequently overlapped, especially in French opera. And, like Gedda, Kraus never forced his supple tone into parts he was unprepared or unqualified for. He never undertook a role that was beyond his capacity to excel in, neither did he sing too frequently nor fly more often than he should. This was undoubtedly the secret of his longevity as a vocalist.

The other, not so well-kept secret was Kraus’ amazing ability to hit the highest notes. Although he recorded Calaf’s arias from Turandot, along with “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, and even Il Trovatore’s “Di quella pira” — with excellently produced, unwritten high C’s — he never sang the complete roles onstage.

In an interview with reporter Edwin Newman for Opera News in the early 1990s, Kraus claimed to have sung Rodolfo in La Bohème, Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, only a few times very early in his career, and in small theaters with a reduced orchestra. He never returned to them thereafter. It was our loss.

On the Stage

Kraus & Gabriel Bacquier (www.youtube.com)
Kraus & Gabriel Bacquier (www.youtube.com)

I saw Kraus only once on the stage: it was on January 11, 1979, in a new production of Don Pasquale, with an all-star Met Opera cast headed by popular American soprano Beverly Sills, the fabulous French singing-actor Gabriel Bacquier, and Swedish baritone Häkan Hagegärd (Papageno in Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute). The conductor was Nicola Rescigno.

The highlight of the evening was watching the tenor’s sprightly entrance, hearing his pointed vocalizing, and enjoying his wonderful comic timing. His gorgeous phrasing and lithe lyricism were put to splendid use in the third act. Sills was already past her best, but her magical duet with Kraus, coming so soon after his aria, “Com’è gentil,” in which he floated his high note on a seamless thread of silk, brought down the house.

I saw him again in the Met telecast of Don Pasquale a year later, and as Edgardo to Sutherland’s Lucia in 1982. Though he in no way resembled the ardent young Scottish lover, Kraus still sang with admirable alacrity. Regrettably, the opera was presented with standard cuts, so the rousing (and rarely heard) Wolf’s Crag scene between him and the rich-voiced Enrico of Puerto Rican baritone Pablo Elvira went by the wayside.

Kraus also made an elegant and impassioned Faust in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Gounod’s opera, with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Richard Stilwell, and conductor Georges Prêtre. The work was broadcast several times over the air, and on public television, to increasing acclaim.

His light-lyric vocal category was able to encompass most of the French repertoire (Des Grieux in Manon, Faust, Gérald in Lakmé, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, Roméo, Werther), in addition to principal parts in Donizetti (Edgardo, Ernesto, Fernando in La Favorita, Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Tonio in La Fille du Régiment), Rossini (Almaviva in The Barber of Seville), Bellini (Arturo in I Puritani, Elvino in La Sonnambula), Mozart (Belmonte in Cosi fan Tutte, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni), Verdi (Alfredo, the Duke, Fenton in Falstaff), and even Boito (Faust in Mefistofele).

He never sang verismo roles on the stage, although he would have made an excellent Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, or even Ruggero in the same composer’s La Rondine. He should have sung the role of his namesake, Alfred, in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, a part tailor-made for his comedic and vocal talents.

Verdi was more problematic, for besides Alfredo, the Duke and Fenton, there were relatively few parts by the Italian master for his type of voice category. Perhaps the early Oberto, Un Giorno di Regno, or I Due Foscari were well within his reach, but he never sang them. He did record the role of Fenton in Falstaff, though,with Solti at the helm; and as far as major French roles were concerned, what an absolutely fabulous Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots he would have made, or Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, as his recorded extracts have shown. He did leave a rich legacy on disc, however, and for that we can all be grateful.

Poetic Justice

A Kraus performance frequently had the element of surprise to it — an interpolated high note or two, a twist, a turn or uniquely embellished word or phrase — that made whatever he sang indelibly his.

Kraus as Hoffmann (lastfm.es)

The part of the poet Hoffmann, for example, was no exception. The last complete performance I heard him sing was the January 1985 live Met broadcast of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. During the Prologue, Kraus launched into the Chanson de Kleinzach. At its climax, he let out a high note that seemed to emanate from somewhere other than onstage. The audience gasped audibly, and was so stunned by this unforeseen inclusion that it knew not whether to applaud or sit idly by. Applause surely would have been a sacrilege to the temple of this beloved artist.

The note that Kraus unleashed into the auditorium had appeared so suddenly — and with such laser-like focus — it was greeted with only (by Kraus’ standards) a tepid ovation, except by the vociferous claque members which lined the back of the auditorium. I’d like to think most of the gathering simply wanted to savor the sound of what they had just heard, rather than destroy the supreme beauty of that unforgettable moment. To quote a line from Mefistofele, “Arrestati, sei bello” (“Stay, thou art beautiful”).

Late in his career, Kraus made a specialty of Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled work. Like the Duke before him, the part of the melancholy poet fit Kraus’ voice like the proverbial hand in the glove. It was a role his idol Schipa had long ago mastered. So youthfully impassioned and emotionally intense was Kraus’ performance of it that I’m sure there were few in the audience who realized they were hearing a man in his mid-to-late-50s.

The very last time I saw Kraus perform onscreen was during the televised gala concert for Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine in the early nineties, in which he sang Werther’s third act lament, “Pourquoi me réveiller?”

His aristocratic bearing and spare but simple hand gestures were in perfect synchronization with the romantic nature of the piece. True to form, Kraus hit the two top A’s squarely and securely. He held on to them for so long it felt as if his very life force were about to eke out, lest he suddenly cut them off.

Sadly, at this stage in the artist’s career, his physical appearance betrayed his advanced age, but I sincerely doubt any singer at the time could have approached this piece in quite the same extraordinarily moving manner as Kraus had: he was greeted with the loudest, sincerest, and most vocal applause of any performer that night.

The current popularity of the Latin breed of romantic tenor continues to reflect Kraus’ growing importance, reputation and influence, beginning with the newer generation of Marcelo Álvarez and José Cura from Argentina; Juan Diego Flórez representing Peru; Ramón Vargas and Rolando Villazón of Mexico; and the Venezuelan Aquiles Machado. Roberto Alagna and Marcello Giordani (both Sicilian by birth), along with native Italian Vittorio Grigolo, can also be counted as Mediterranean heirs to Kraus’ vocal mantle, particularly in French opera.

Alfredo Kraus (spainisculture.com)
Alfredo Kraus (spainisculture.com)

But there will never be another vocal phenomenon like Alfredo Kraus, a true master of elegance and style on the concert stage and in the theater. His performances will continue to be studied, emulated, and recaptured in the abundant work of others, and his voice will be heard anew in his many fine and memorable recordings. He will long be remembered for his enduring contributions to the art of lyric singing.

I’m still waiting for the singer who can titillate me with an unwritten high D the way Kraus had some 40 or so years ago. Maybe I should try going back to the Automobile Show at the Coliseum. Who knows? I might even bump into that blonde again. ◙

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Three Titanic Tenors — Del Monaco, Corelli, and Tucker

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We are all familiar with the universally hailed trio of the Three Tenors, comprised of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and the late Luciano Pavarotti. But does anyone remember, with any degree of affection, Three Titanic Tenors who came before them — namely, the great Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Richard Tucker?

Is there anybody around today who recalls how their voluminous, dramatic, larger-than-life voices seemed to fill every inch of the theaters they sang in, with such ease and facility and without apparent effort? Why, I’m sure there is!

They were all more or less contemporaries of each other, and epitomized to a postwar, opera-starved generation the “Golden Age of Tenor Singing” at the Metropolitan Opera, and abroad, for the better part of three decades.

The first of these truly magnificent and unforgettable vocal phenomena — for these are the only words that come to mind in describing what their voices meant to me personally — was Del Monaco.

Mario Del Monaco (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Mario Del Monaco was born on July 27, 1915, in Florence, Italy, in the same region that would later produce Franco Corelli. He made his initial appearance, in 1939, in Pesaro as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. Officially, however, he debuted in the 1940-41 season at the Teatro Puccini in Milan, as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

It was only after World War II that the full, dramatic singing voice we came to know and adore was developed, as Del Monaco inevitably moved on to bigger and heavier parts, particularly that of Andrea Chénier, which he sang for the first time at La Scala, Milan, in 1949. It was a role he had carefully prepared with the work’s composer, Umberto Giordano, and became for him, along with Otello, his two most frequently performed parts.

His debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1951, as Radames in Aida. While at the house, Del Monaco sang Canio in Pagliacci, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Don José in Carmen, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, Ernani, Andrea Chénier, and, of course, his greatest role, that of the Moor in Verdi’s Otello.

When a decade later it was Franco Corelli’s turn to appear there, Del Monaco politely bowed out. For ten years he had sung many of the great Verdi and verismo roles at the Met. Unfortunately, he could not bring himself to share the spotlight with this young rival, so he departed.

In 1965, Del Monaco was involved in a life-threatening automobile accident that necessitated frequent kidney-dialysis treatment. Despite this setback, he continued to sing all over the world until he officially retired from the stage, in 1975, at the age of sixty. He had been singing professionally for over 35 years.

Mario Del Monaco died on October 16, 1982, near Venice, of congestive heart failure. He was 67 at the time.

A Lion on the Stage

Del Monaco’s iron-lunged approach to singing has never been equaled by any tenor, with the possible exception of Corelli. But even Franco had never sung a complete Otello on the stage as Mario had so often done.

In many people’s minds, the Lion of Venice was Del Monaco’s most complete portrayal. He showered the role onstage (and on records) with a torrential volley of sound, not to mention his total commitment to the part. Other major roles were treated with equal care: his Canio became a wounded beast; his Chénier, utterly tremendous as well as heroic; and his Radames, a warrior first and foremost.

Del Monaco’s voice in its prime was a huge instrument: it was even and firm, from top to bottom. My father first heard the tenor in performance, at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil, during the late 1940s, as Enzo Grimaldo in La Gioconda, then as Radames. Dad was part of the paid claque at the time. Years later, he would recount that while it took Del Monaco an unusually long time to warm up — much to the impatience of the audience hearing “Celeste Aida” — he gave truly stupendous interpretations of these parts.

In addition to close study of the vocal score, the tenor also designed most of his own costumes, and brought to the theater his ferocious presence and thorough understanding of the drama behind the words.

Del Monaco’s recordings were generally the first complete stereo versions of many of the standard repertory items we now take for granted. His were the ones I and many of my generation grew up with and heard. Because of his talents, Del Monaco was one of the first singers to have been given an exclusive contract with Decca/London Records for nearly two decades; in addition, he twice committed the roles of Canio, Turiddu and Otello to disc for the label, an unheard-of practice at the time.

His frequent partner for many of these historic sessions was the opulent-voiced Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi. The couple’s first complete stereo recording of La Fanciulla del West, made in 1958, featured a luxury lineup of artists: Cornell MacNeil, Giorgio Tozzi, Piero de Palma, and conductor Franco Capuana. I consider it the best recorded Fanciulla around, and the most vocally and dramatically satisfying.

Del Monaco as Dick Johnson (photo cs.princeton.edu)

The tenor’s prodigious outpourings in his two dramatic solos, “Or son sei mesi” (with much judicious word painting and a wonderful choice of phrasing) and “Ch’ella mi creda,” must be heard to be believed, although Del Monaco offered surprising gentleness and grace in his duets with Tebaldi.

His recording of Faust in Mefistofele is his most underrated achievement, a sensitive portrayal of the old philosopher who longs for youth and love. He joined the sessions late, after the original tenor, Giuseppe Di Stefano, had been let go. For such a large, unwieldy instrument as his, Del Monaco instinctively grasped the heart of the role; indeed, his renditions of the arias “Dai campi, dai prati,” “Colma il suo cor d’un palpito,” and especially the final “Giunto sul passo estremo,” are unsurpassed in line, beauty, sensitivity and passion. You’d have to go back to Aureliano Pertile for a better example of legato singing as fine as this.

Incidentally, critics accused the dramatic tenor of lacking a true legato line, or of not putting enough lyricism into the part. My advice would be to listen carefully to this recording. You’ll be convinced otherwise, and amply rewarded, with what Del Monaco does here. True, Di Stefano may have had a sweeter sound, but Del Monaco delivers the goods, in spades! He may just miss out on a few high notes, but the rest is nuanced poetry. The opera was committed to disc in 1959, and remains a personal favorite of mine among all the tenor’s commercial output.

The two versions he made of Canio in Pagliacci  likewise showcase his continuing evolution as a performer and interpreter. Whereas the earlier one from 1953 (in mono sound) concentrated itself more on sheer volume, the later (and better) 1960 stereo remake featured a more vocally mature artist, with an insightful characterization of the tragic clown who laughs though his heart is breaking — and with only a slight diminution of vocal resources.

His “Vesti la giubba” is gripping from first note to last. Notice how Del Monaco climaxes the piece with a stunning catch in the throat instead of the usual hysterical sobbing. The aria does not feel like a single, self-contained showstopper but an integral part of the whole. It’s a classic performance to place alongside that of the great Caruso.

Del Monaco had a late blooming vocal autumn. Around the years 1967-70, London issued several recordings, many of rarely performed verismo works. Among them is the first complete stereo recording of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally with Tebaldi and Piero Cappuccilli, great scenes from Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, and a complete stereo version of Fedora by Giordano, the latter two starring the legendary diva, soprano Magda Olivero. These were more nostalgic than revelatory, and spotlighted Del Monaco’s rather unfortunate tendency to bleat out the notes, but they still managed to earn him considerable accolades and complemented Olivero’s ripe emoting to perfection.

His less frequent forays into Wagner territory — Siegmund’s two scenes from Act I of Die Walküre, for instance — did not prove convincing due to the tenor’s poor command of German and his rather hectoring vocal style. He can be commended, however, for at least having attempted this change of pace so late in his career.

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Franco (real name Dario) Corelli was born in Ancona, Italy, on either April 8, 1921 or August 23, 1923. This discrepancy in his birth dates has never been completely reconciled. But then again, most concrete facts about Corelli remain an impenetrable mystery.

Take, for example, his operatic debut, which Corelli made in 1951, after having won a vocal competition that, as legend had us believe, he never wanted to enter in the first place — so much for advance planning.

He was completely self-taught after early lessons nearly ruined his ample top notes, or so Corelli claimed. He learned most of his vocal artistry by imitation and repetition, after listening to numerous recordings of the great Italian tenors Beniamino Gigli, Galliano Masini, Aureliano Pertile, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

He sang often in his early career, appearing in a variety of offbeat roles, many in infrequently performed works such as Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Donizettí’s Poliuto, and Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo. He was Pierre Bezukhov in the La Scala premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and even sang in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Hercule.

Corelli made his first recordings for the Italian Cetra label in the early 1950s. They reveal a large, almost uncontrollable voice of raw animal magnetism, with an uncharacteristic vibrato to his tone (which later disappeared almost entirely), as well as a certain “cavalier” attitude toward note values. Nevertheless, the potential for greatness was undoubtedly there.

Franco Corelli (francocorelligaleon.com)

In 1956, he made a widely admired film of Puccini’s Tosca, opposite the Floria Tosca of Franca Duval, and Afro Poli as Scarpia (voiced by Maria Caniglia and his close friend, baritone Gian Giacomo Guelfi). Indeed, Corelli never looked more heroic — especially in his frock coat, frilly shirt and tights.

He went on to sing all over Italy and Europe, before making his debut, in 1961, at the old Metropolitan Opera House alongside soprano Leontyne Price in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. He appeared in a variety of leading roles there, including Cavaradossi, Calaf, Turiddu, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Don Carlo, Ernani, Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, and Enzo in La Gioconda.

Parlez-vous Français?

His surprise transition to the French repertoire occurred somewhat late in his professional career, although he had previously sung Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, in Italy, but only in his native tongue. Corelli also sang Raoul de Nangis in a star-studded, Italian-language revival of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at La Scala in 1962, but he first encountered the part of Roméo in 1968, and later sang in Massenet’s Werther in 1972, both new productions at the Met.

Though Corelli also recorded Faust for Decca/London, he never sang the role onstage; a pity, for he obviously had the looks and requisite lirico spinto sound for Gounod’s romantic protagonist. He continued singing until 1976, when he gave his final stage performance as Rodolfo in Bohème at Torre del Lago, with soprano Adriana Maliponte.

Corelli quite possibly possessed the most powerful and masculine tenor voice I have ever heard. His enormous high C’s were the most potent and thrilling imaginable, as evidenced by his recordings of Manrico, Cavaradossi, and Calaf. He was certainly one of the handsomest leading men ever to set foot on the operatic stage, so much so that it left soprano Maria Callas in a jealous tizzy — unjustly so, for Corelli was reported to have been invariably kind and considerate to all his colleagues.

He was the reigning Calaf at the Metropolitan and at La Scala — and has there ever been a more thrilling rendition of the Act II confrontation scene with the icy Princess Turandot, voiced by the incomparable Birgit Nilsson? Despite the notoriety, he considered his favorite role that of the poet Andrea Chénier.

I personally thought his greatest triumphs were as Roméo, and especially as Werther. Werther was certainly an unusual assignment for him, one he only assumed as a personal favor to outgoing Met Opera general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing. Franco begged out of the premiere, but the second night audience got to see a major undertaking.

Although he spoke little to no French, Corelli did surprisingly well with the vocal aspects; and physically, he was the melancholy poet personified. His legato at the time wasn’t as smoothly flowing as in earlier days. Still, he shared a real oneness with the part. Corelli captured the true essence of the character, despite the imperfect diction and noticeable vocal decline.

Final Appearances

His last U.S. television appearance came in 1972. It was at Rudolf Bing’s gala farewell concert, taped by network TV to be shown in prime time. Unfortunately, the station had decided to air only brief excerpts of scenes, so viewers were denied the chance of seeing the complete performances.

The tenor did get to sing a portion of the Act I love duet from Otello, with Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara as Desdemona and German maestro Karl Boehm at the helm. Franco had already sung that afternoon’s final Met broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and was visibly tired; but he sang his heart out for the cameras, and he (and the prompter) were in exceptionally good voice.

It was his first live rendition of anything from the Verdi opera anywhere, and what a treat it was for his many fans! The final note of “Venere splende” poured out of him like free-flowing lava. I imagined at the time that a commercial break would eventually have to cut him off, but I was proven wrong. The audience roared their approval to the rafters.

Corelli had an almost irrational fear of failure, and suffered constantly from a bewildering and increasingly troubling stage fright. He wasn’t helped by a nagging wife, who’s only task was to wait for him in the wings in order to criticize his every fault.

Corelli & Mirella Freni (francocorelli.com)

When his top notes began to fail him, Corelli wisely decided to call it a career. I last heard him in a live broadcast of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette from Boston in the mid-seventies, where he cracked on his high B-flat in an otherwise lovely interpretation of the air, “Ah! Leve-toi, soleil.” He recovered later on to deliver a most powerful and moving performance.

Corelli left many recorded extracts of arias, duets, scenes, popular songs, complete operas, and the like for posterity. One of his all-time best is an early album of complete scenes from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which was originally released in the early fifties by Cetra, and co-starred his Italian colleague, Gian Giacomo Guelfi as Don Carlo.

These two immense and leonine voices joined together to vibrate the very studio foundation they were in; it was probably the loudest, most earth-shaking display of male testosterone ever recorded. Hearing the album even once will forever spoil you for this type of ferocious, take-no-prisoners approach to singing — clearly nowhere in evidence today.

Corelli passed away quietly on October 29, 2003, in Milan, the city of his earliest stage triumphs. He was the longest lived of the three.

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Richard Tucker (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Richard Tucker (né Reuben Tickel or Ticker) was born on August 13, 1913, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a heavily orthodox Jewish neighborhood. He studied to become a cantor, but circumstances conspired to turn him into the greatest American tenor of the past 60 years.

He made his first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House at the urging of then-general manager and former tenor Edward Johnson, who recognized in the young man a truly remarkable Italianate voice.

His debut there was in 1945 as Enzo in La Gioconda, and an unqualified triumph it was. Tucker’s early career at the Met was spent mostly in lighter parts, as he proved with his singing of such roles as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, and Alfred in Die Fledermaus (all in English translation).

Later, he took on the great tenor roles of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Radames in Aida, Manrico in Il Trovatore, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Canio in Pagliacci, and Samson in Samson et Dalila.

Eléazar in La Juive was a role most often associated with Enrico Caruso, and one that Tucker had long wanted to do at the Met. Unfortunately, he was denied that privilege and was only able to sing it in Barcelona in the seventies, just a few years before his untimely death. His recorded highlights on RCA Victor are a cherished memento of that occasion.

The American Caruso

Tucker’s voice had often been compared to Caruso’s for its beauty, vibrancy, and superb staying power. Even his physical appearance led many critics to dub him “The American Caruso.” Obviously, he was a particular favorite in Italy, and was even honored there with the title of Commendatore of the Realm.

He was unbeatable as Rudolfo in Verdi’s early-period masterpiece Luisa Miller, but he has gone on the record as declaring his favorite part to be that of the Chévalier Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. Although he never recorded the role complete, his many recordings featuring arias from Puccini’s first big success illustrate Tucker’s fondness for this passionate, youthful role. It is without a doubt his most extroverted performance on disc, full of vigor and vitality, crystal-clear phrasing, and full-throated vocal abandon.

He also sang Cavaradossi in Tosca, Calaf in Turandot, Rodolfo in La Boheme, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Andrea Chénier.  He died on January 8, 1975, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just before a joint concert he was about to give with his old friend and frequent stage partner, baritone Robert Merrill.

Although fervently religious, Tucker had a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious joie de vivre. He was full of outrageous pranks and practical jokes, as attested to by his various colleagues. He and fellow New Yorker, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, were such a hit together as Don José and Carmen, and so believable in their respective roles, that their sold-out performances at the Old Met were coined, at one time, “the hottest ticket on Broadway.”

Recorded Highs

Tucker was an early and frequent recording artist in his career, and carved out a fine niche for himself at Columbia Records, a lifelong association. He recorded many of his most famous roles prior to singing them on the stage.

One of these was done at the insistence of the iron-willed Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro wanted Tucker for the part of Radames in Aida. The young tenor told the conductor that he had not previously sung the strenuous role before, but Toscanini felt (and quite rightly so) that Tucker’s more straightforward approach was absolutely perfect for the young warrior. The RCA Victor recording and accompanying video of the sessions is now considered an established classic.

Tucker had an unfortunate running rivalry with another of Toscanini’s favorite singers, the tenor Jan Peerce, who in reality was his brother-in-law. Seriously hampered, at times, by his short stature, clunky stage deportment and silent-movie acting style, Tucker nevertheless persevered sufficiently enough to convince theatergoers of his total sincerity in whatever he did.

Tucker (richardtucker.org)

A good case in point is his late occurring Canio from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which he sang excerpts from on The Ed Sullivan Show in late 1969. It is a fitting document of his renowned ability to move an audience. His unrivaled intensity and powerful, explosive interpretation of “No, Pagliaccio non son” and “Vesti la giubba” galvanized television viewers; he was even more spectacular in the part at the Met. He also wore Caruso’s old clown costume, which gave his appearance an air of nostalgia.

Tucker had few rivals for the role of Don Alvaro in Forza. Whether he admitted it or not, his early vocal training as a cantor helped him through the difficult, high-lying passages. In the hands of another tenor, the role becomes pure vocal mush, but in Tucker’s experienced shoes, we feel the desperation in the character’s voice. Obviously, his commitment to the part is never in doubt. This is what set Tucker apart from his younger colleagues.

He made two memorable complete recordings of Forza del Destino: the first, in 1954, for EMI/Angel under Tullio Serafin, and co-starring Maria Callas, Carlo Tagliabue, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni; the second (and superior) one a decade later for RCA Victor, with Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, his friend Robert Merrill, and bass Giorgio Tozzi.

Tucker’s Duke of Mantua and Alfredo in La Traviata were well-nigh classic portrayals. He even sang Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra in his last season at the Met, and was all set to assume another new role, as Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani, when he suddenly passed away.

It may have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime coincidences, or a powerful portent from the entertainment gods, but between the years 1975 and 1976 the opera world lost all three of the Titanic Tenors, who ceased to captivate us with their vibrant voices either through early retirement or an untimely passing.

It was a loss we are still reeling from today. We will never have another triumvirate such as this incomparable tenor threesome. Fortunately for their fans, they recorded extensively, and left us a suitably rich legacy of their roles for each succeeding generation to enjoy and thrill to. ◙

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Recommended Recordings

Mario Del Monaco:
Andrea Chénier (Tebaldi, Bastianini – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
Cavalleria Rusticana (Simionato, MacNeil, Satre – Serafin) London/Decca
La Fanciulla del West (Tebaldi, MacNeil, Tozzi, De Palma – Capuana) London/Decca
Fedora (Olivero, Gobbi – Gardelli) London/Decca
La Gioconda (Cerquetti, Simionato, Bastianini, Siepi – Gavazzeni) London/Decca
Mefistofele (Tebaldi, Siepi, Cavalli, De Palma – Serafin) London/Decca
Otello (Tebaldi, Protti, Romanato, Corena, Cesarini, Krause – Karajan) London/Decca
Pagliacci (Tucci, MacNeil, Capecchi, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) London/Decca

Franco Corelli:
Andrea Chénier (Stella, Sereni – Santini) EMI/Angel
Carmen (Price, Freni, Merrill – Karajan) RCA Victor/BMG
Faust (Sutherland, Ghiaurov, Massard – Bonynge) London/Decca
Pagliacci (Amara, Gobbi, Zanasi, Spina – Matacic) EMI/Angel
Roméo et Juliette (Freni, Gui, Lublin, Depraz – Lombard) EMI/Angel
Tosca (Nilsson, Fischer-Dieskau, Mariotti, De Palma – Maazel) London/Decca
Il Trovatore (Tucci, Merrill, Simionato, Mazzoli – Schippers) EMI/Angel
Turandot (Nilsson, Scotto, Giaiotti, De Palma – Molinari-Pradelli) EMI/Angel

Richard Tucker:
Aïda (Nelli, Gustavson, Valdengo, Scott – Toscanini) RCA Victor/BMG
La Bohème (Moffo, Costa, Merrill, Tozzi – Leinsdorf) RCA Victor/BMG
La Forza del Destino (Price, Verrett, Merrill, Tozzi, Flagello – Schippers) RCA Victor/BMG
La Juive: Highlights (Moffo, Arroyo, Giaiotti, Sabaté – López-Cobos) RCA Victor/BMG
Pagliacci (Amara, Valdengo, Harvuot, Hayward – Cleva) CBS/Columbia
Rigoletto (Capecchi, D’Angelo, Pirazzini, Sardi – Molinari-Pradelli) Philips/Columbia
La Traviata (Moffo, Merrill – Previtali) RCA Victor/BMG
Il Trovatore (Price, Elias, Warren, Tozzi – Basile) RCA Victor/BMG

 

A ‘James Bond’ for the New Millennium

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Daniel Craig as 007 (dailypop.wordpress.com)
Daniel Craig as 007 (dailypop.wordpress.com)

He rides around in an Aston-Martin automobile with optional seat ejector. He sports a fancy wristwatch with poisoned darts. He straps a flying jet pack to his shoulders to escape his foes. He carries a gas-spewing briefcase, which he uses to fight villains with steel teeth. He dodges bowler hats with deadly metal headbands.

Oh, and his name is Bond.

James Bond.

What is it about James Bond that attracts movie audiences so? Here we are, 50 years since the first feature-length Bond flick, Dr. No (1962), made cinematic history with then-unknown Scottish actor, Sean Connery, in the part that made him an international sensation.

As the dog days of summer drag on interminably into balmy autumn, we approach yet another in the long line of action-adventure fables featuring the intriguingly numbered 007.

The latest entry in the series — number 21, by the official count — is titled Skyfall, set for a November 2012 release. It stars British-born Daniel Craig, who, in 2005, was raked over the internet coals (not a bad torture device, eh, Mr. Bond?) by fans and protesters alike for the producers’ poor choice of candidate to reenact England’s ace of spies. Craig was not the first to be received in such an indelicate manner.

The dashing Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights, 1987; Licence to Kill, 1989), playing a more deadly serious Bond than audiences were willing to sit still for, lasted all of two pictures. He had a much better track record than Connery’s first replacement, former model George Lazenby. After completing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, Lazenby’s wooden performance, and zero-sum sex appeal, were rewarded with his being permanently dropped from the role.

In 1995, Eon Productions reverted to their original choice to go with Irishman Pierce Brosnan, of the hit TV series Remington Steele. Since his “hit” went off the air in the late 1980s, Brosnan had been floundering as a leading man in such clunkers as The Deceivers and The Lawnmower Man, and as the hapless boyfriend in the Robin Williams vehicle, Mrs. Doubtfire. He eventually got to play the role that many in the film industry felt should have been his all along, after the aging Roger Moore, Connery’s second and longest-lasting replacement, stepped down in 1986.

But after four successful sojourns in the part (GoldenEye, 1995; Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997; The World is Not Enough, 1999; Die Another Day, 2002), the owners of the Bond franchise decided Brosnan was getting a bit long in the tooth (he was in his early 50s) to be 007. Soon afterwards, Brosnan relinquished the role to the steely-eyed Craig, who went on to star in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, as well as in Quantum of Solace (2008).

Will the latest torchbearer for author Ian Fleming’s globetrotting, troubleshooting secret agent be the last of that distinguished line? Don’t bet on it! Fleming penned some fourteen or so Bond stories, in addition to other writers who contributed a number of features for other publications — presumably, enough works to keep the legend alive for additional screen showings.

But in all that time, what have we learned about the character Fleming created? What is it that we find so fascinating about James Bond that has kept up our interest in him for over five decades?

Is it his license to kill, the fact that he can kill with total impunity? Take a look at our own fascination with killers in general. The O.J. Simpson and Laci Peterson cases, for example, were proof enough of our voyeuristic tendencies to view killers, whether proven or otherwise, and their acts of aggression with an almost religious reverence. The one who can kill at will without fear of reprisal is indeed a person to be feared and, to some extent, respected.

But do we fear and respect Bond? Do we go to the movie theater out of fear and respect for this man? Considering the current cost of going to the local multiplex, it’s a pretty steep price to pay for fear and respect.

Perhaps what we feel is admiration for his control over his destiny and for his possession of the elusive secret of life and death. We seem to savor the times Bond has had to use that formidable arsenal of his against dastardly fiends, who seem intent upon either conquering the world or destroying it — their exact motives having been jumbled somewhat by the screenwriters.

Would we still admire him if he appeared in a New York City subway station and suddenly opened fire on an unsuspecting booth attendant, after standing on an interminable line to purchase a few random Metrocards? He has a license for that gun, you know. I wonder what we would think… Maybe we would break into applause.

Is it his way with women? Surely, Bond is a charming enough rogue in his own right without that license to kill. The fact that he has been permanently “neutered,” which prevents him from ever impregnating any of those long-legged lasses he’s so often taken to bed, appears to be a skill we might find fascinating.

George Lazenby & Diana Rigg
George Lazenby & Diana Rigg

But what kind of a role model is Bond for today’s young males? Looking at the filmed record of his sexual exploits, in only one movie has 007 ever gotten married (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and that marriage didn’t last the duration of the picture: his wife was killed in the end — a divorce would have proved far less dramatic. There was only one film in 20 that showed Bond in any kind of a relationship that even approached monogamy (The Living Daylights).

Is it normal, then, for our fantasy hero to sleep with every woman he meets, whether she’s a femme fatale or a simple snack between meals? Is it acceptable for us to acknowledge that since he can never father a child by any of his conquests, it will be “perfectly fine” for him to continue on his merry way; to flaunt responsibility for his actions to the winds, without regard to the social consequences?

This is definitely not a modernist viewpoint. Since he’s been so busy in the boudoir, how come Bond never sees an urologist? Surely, with all that nocturnal activity down there sooner or later the pipes are bound to get clogged up. Shouldn’t he take better care of the one part of his equipment that can’t be replaced by another actor? Do we even care if he does? I like to think we do.

Is it his macho swagger? In his first foray as Bond, Sean Connery displayed a bumper crop of machismo, along with other facets of the character’s personality — arrogance, cruelty, greed, lasciviousness, vanity — not always evident in later films. He also had the hairiest chest of any Bond actor around.

But then, isn’t Connery Scottish? Don’t Scottish men have less chest hair than, say, Italian men? What would an Italian Bond look like? Choose any nationality and ask whether we measure our fascination with this fellow by the number of curlicues we can draw on his right pectoral muscle? Could this have something to do with his appeal?

What about the other Bonds who were more bare-chested – Daniel Craig among them? Does not having chest hair decrease our fascination for him? If we had known that Ian Fleming originally conceived James Bond as a cross between songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and singer Frank Sinatra (with a scar running down his cheek, no less), would that have changed our view of his creation?

Would we shudder to learn that, of all people, Woody Allen once played Jimmy Bond, 007’s bumbling nephew, in 1967’s Casino Royale? I don’t think fans bothered to notice that Woody even had a chest, much less one with mattes of hair over it. (Move over, Austin Powers!)

How about those amazing gadgets? In almost every Bond flick we are treated to a dizzying display of technological toys and pre-Star Wars inventions, used as a leg up on his various nemeses – the majority of whom have clandestine ties to the mysterious “other side.”

That “other side” was once known as the Soviet Union. Indeed, Bond was a figment of the Cold War mentality; he was a British subject created by a British subject for the perpetuation and dissemination of the ideal democratic (read: British) way of life. Wasn’t there a fellow named Superman who did the same thing over here?

We citizens of the former British colonies needed all the help we could get in combating the Evil Empire. But now that the Evil Empire is no more, of what use are all those gadgets? Could they serve a more peaceful purpose? Do we know of any business executives who could use a gas-spewing briefcase? I could probably name a few politicians who’d be wise to carry one around when visiting their constituencies.

We do desire that Aston-Martin, though, and we all envy Bond’s ability to manipulate those inventions and do whatever he commands of them. By this, he gains dominance over his environment and continues to exude his control over it. Now that’s something to admire!!

Finally, are we fascinated by his dangerous adventures? In every one of his films Bond recklessly risks life and limb in a perilous pursuit of… what, exactly? Yes, we know he intends to stop Goldfinger from blowing up Fort Knox (Goldfinger, 1964); we know he has to demolish Blofeld’s secret volcano fortress before Blofeld blows up the globe (You Only Live Twice, 1967); and we know he has to put a dent in the drug trade by beating up those nasty old Harlem crime lords (Live And Let Die, 1973). But why does he do it?

Sean Connery (everythingaction.com)

If Bond was originally drawn to be so cruel as to treat his women as sex objects, while displaying a ravenous disdain for them; if he dispatches his enemies with a blink of his eyetooth, why should he care about the state of the world in general? Why should he save the U.S. from total annihilation or the British Isles, for that matter? All for Her Majesty’s sake?? Why should such an apparently unfeeling, uncaring man want to make a difference in this world? For all we know, he could blow up the Earth himself. Who could stop him? Who would dare to…?

Looking again at the filmed record, Bond has managed to sustain an enviable string of narrow escapes, near brushes with death, and split-second survivals to an astounding degree for a human being. We can really admire that!!!

James Bond has completely endeared himself to our psyche. He seems to represent man in all stages of life: crawling on all fours, walking on two legs, kicking his opponents in the groin, and running away from them. Man inventing his toys – nay, using them — to thwart his enemies, and then disposing them at will. Man acting like God.

Could Bond represent all that we dared to dream about in our youth, yet were never able to attain in our boring, humdrum lives? Could he be acting out those daydreams we had as children, dreams that were later shattered by the reality we had to face as grown-ups?

Could he be primal man — the guileless fool? The last pure innocent before the world became corrupted by sin? Adam before Eve — Adam with Eve, having the time of his life in Paradise, while carving up the Serpent for lunch… with a nuclear-powered carving knife, of course. It wouldn’t be Bond without it. ¤

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Central Station’ (‘Central do Brasil’) — A Country Searching for Its Innocence

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Vinicius de Oliveira & Fernanda Montenegro
Vinicius de Oliveira & Fernanda Montenegro

A dark-skinned boy dashes from a railroad station in Rio de Janeiro after having stolen a woman’s purse. The two bosses who “run” the station catch up to him along the train tracks, which the boy had used to make good his escape.

We see the trio in long shot, the voice of the thief heard faintly over the clamor of iron on rail, much as we would experience it in real life. We barely make out what he tells the two men, one of whom points a gun to the nervous thief’s head.

After a brief moment, we are able to discern the boy’s words as he begs for his life, but the two men are unmoved by his pleas. We next hear the muffled sound of a revolver and the body of the boy going limp over the tracks, where he is summarily executed for his pitiable act of desperation.

In another part of Rio, a beautiful middle-aged woman dives off a rock formation in the center of Guanabara Bay. As she nonchalantly swims away, the soundtrack blasts out a lilting bossa nova beat, while the sun rises slowly over the panoramic horizon in all its Technicolor glory.

Both of these scenes take place in the same controversial metropolis — Rio de Janeiro — and about the same time frame. But one would hardly know it from the two treatments given above.

As Charles Dickens once so pungently described the tense atmosphere surrounding pre-Revolutionary Paris, in his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, it is indeed the best of times and the worst of times for Rio de Janeiro, our modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, undergoing at the time just such a turbulent period of crime and violence amid the bountiful plenty. Only, this tale is of a city with two polarizing viewpoints.

The first scene depicted above comes early on in director Walter Salles Jr.’s masterly Central Station (known in Brazil as Central do Brasil, 1998), the winner of over 50 international movie awards. It’s a jolting one, to be sure, but we do not sense the wave of disgust we should feel towards it until much later, when the cumulative effect of other equally compelling images begin to build and unfold, one after the other, so that we are numbed by the many harsh actions brought to bear upon the wretched lives of Brazil’s neglected under-classes.

The second scene occurs early on as well, but it appears in Bruno Barreto’s overblown comedy Bossa Nova (1999), a movie that tries desperately to hold on to a highly fantasized picture of beachfront Rio, as seen through rose-colored lenses — which is probably the way most cariocas would like their favorite haunt to be viewed.

Both Brazilian films received wide circulation in the United States, and both generated an unusually large amount of critical commentary from reviewers and moviegoers. But considering the economic and social climate of Brazil in general — and of Rio de Janeiro in particular — it behooves us to revisit the award-winning Central Station in the harsh light of the country’s previous state of combativeness.

The Plot Thickens

The story of Central Station begins at a railroad station of the same name, that serves as a drop-off point for poor illiterates from the Northeast. They come to the overcrowded urban center in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. Many of these new arrivals go to retired schoolteacher Dora (played by legendary stage and screen actress, Fernanda Montenegro), whose little writing booth is located within the dingy bowels of the train station itself.

Dora is a surly older woman, her outward sarcasm and gruffness masking a lifetime of loneliness and loss. Her very name means “pain”, and she has plenty of it to spare; it can also mean “to adore” or “to love” — something Dora has certainly lacked in her life, but which she gains a full measure of towards the end.

She serves as the Northeasterners’ makeshift analyst and confessor, transcribing their thoughts, dreams, desires, and disappointments into elaborate handwritten letters, few of which ever get mailed.

Soia Lira & Vinicius de Oliveira
Soia Lira & Vinicius de Oliveira

On this particular day, a mother, Ana (Sôia Lira), and her nine-year-old son drop by the booth. Dora dutifully takes down the mother’s terse discourse, which is full of blistering rebuke for her philandering husband Jesus (!), who has abandoned her to take up with another woman.

The next day the mother returns with her boy, but this time her heart brims over with forgiveness and compassion for having offended her irresponsible spouse. She dictates another letter to Dora — a kinder and gentler one, for certain — which the schoolteacher then proceeds to write down, in between condescending looks at the pair.

Satisfied with the results, Ana pays her fee and leaves, only to be trampled to death moments later by a city bus while attempting to traverse a busy downtown street.

*          *          *

One of the more arresting aspects of this film is the way in which director Salles takes supposedly disconnected references from American and Brazilian cinema — in this instance, Susana Amaral’s A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star, 1985), based on the 1977 novel by the late émigré author Clarice Lispector — and repositions them subliminally, so as to link relevant thematic material in the eyes of the beholder.

Here, Salles reminds us of the shock we felt when, at the end of A Hora da Estrela, a naive Northeasterner named Macabéa (the wonderful Marcélia Cartaxo) is killed by a speeding car just as she, too, is crossing the street — at the exact moment that the purposelessness of her dull life in São Paulo is given some meaning.

It’s almost as if the plot line of the underrated Amaral piece is continued in that of Central Station, but with a totally different actress assuming the role of the doomed mother. This notion is doubly compounded in the not-inconsequential casting of Fernanda Montenegro, who, in A Hora da Estrela, played Macabéa’s caustic landlady.

*          *          *

Dejected and alone, Ana’s surviving son, Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), goes back to the train station, the only real home he knows, in the blind hope of finding his long-departed father, who is rumored to be living somewhere in the Northeast — or so he’s been led to believe.

After several attempts to rid herself of the pestering lad, including selling him outright to a suspicious couple for the price of a new television set — a vicious indictment of Brazil’s consumptive consumerism, and a knowing poke at Judas’ own betrayal of the innocent Christ — the reluctant Dora is sufficiently prodded into taking Josué on an extended “road trip” through the arid backwater regions of the country, a journey that will change both of their lives forever.

This return of the Northeastern native to his place of origin, after having suffered a never-ending series of indignities, among them high unemployment, social injustice, humiliation, bias, discrimination, lack of educational opportunity, and economic stagnation in the South, has been borne out in the publication, dated June 2003 by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), or IBGE for short, of the year 2000 Census results.

The Census conclusively documented the changing migratory patterns of the impoverished nordestino (“Northeasterner”) as, not surprisingly, having departed the “progressive” Southeast for his allegedly backward, underdeveloped homeland.

According to the IBGE, more than 36 percent of the nearly 5.2 million Northeastern migrants that moved, in 1995, to Brazil’s Southernmost states had, by the end of 2000, actually left the area to return to their place of origin.

The movie’s illustration of this reverse exodus, shown as the search for individual identity as well as for one’s long-lost family connections, is a most perceptive and revealing one by the director, in view of these socioeconomic findings.

In Walter’s Words

Walter Salles Jr. (theeveningclass.blogspot.com)

Salles expressed it best himself in a 1998 interview for Sony Pictures, the American distributor for his multinational film project:

“The question of the search is really important in this film. We’re talking about the woman who searches for her lost feelings and a boy who searches for his father.

“Since the Greeks, we’ve always been concerned with the idea of getting back to the place where we come from — to try to understand who we are. This is the boy’s plight, but what the two of them discover is not only the family at the end of the film, but the importance of companionship, friendship and understanding.”

The director went on to note: “There are several themes I wanted to explore, but the main [one] was the desire that people have to communicate — to express their emotions and feelings — and sometimes their inability to do this.

“Dora has lost the capacity to communicate with everyone, including herself. She has lost her feelings and cannot respond to any desire anymore. She leads such a cynical, self-contained life that she is incapable of sharing with others — and that includes sharing [the] possibilities that life can bring you.

“When she is confronted with this nine-year-old boy that just lost his mother, she is obliged — [much] against her will — to give up the security of her egotistical confined existence. For the first time, at the age of 67, the boy brings to her the possibility of living life to its fullest. The film is about the ability to start all over again at that advanced age.”

As another Dickensian creation, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, once so eloquently embodied, we are never too old to change our desultory outlook on life. Indeed, just minutes before she meets her final fate, even Josué’s hard-pressed mother Ana is able to practice a rudimentary form of Christian charity towards her mischievous mate. Only the poor thief at the beginning of the film is deprived of any pardon for his sin — a rather cruel commentary by Salles on Brazil’s enduring “vigilante justice” mentality.

After having discovered his genuine Northeastern roots, the young Josué now finds that Dora has left him, and gone home to her Rio apartment for good. He runs down the empty street, in a vain attempt to head off his friend at the pass. It’s another cinematic moment, right out of George Stevens’ Western classic Shane — only there is no cry from the child for the title character to come back, just a fleeting look of despair that, more precisely, slowly gives way to one of hope fulfilled.

Similarly, as Dora boards the bus that will take her back to face her errant ways, the tears she sheds are not those of regret but for something more concrete and life-affirming: the rediscovery of her own lost purpose in life, and of her renewed capacity for love. She, too, has learned that there exists a spiritual core to her being, one that she carries deep within herself and that resides inside the human heart — the real locus and crux of Central Station.

Director Salles comments again: “The film expresses a desire to find another country, one that may be simpler and less glorious than previously announced, but aims to be more human and compassionate. A country where the possibility of a certain innocence still remains.”

The overpowering urge in all humans for an identity, a family, a home, and a permanent place in this trouble-ridden society, no matter how tiny or insignificant it may seem, is of paramount importance to our lives. We are all deserving of a break once in a while, of a second chance at bettering our own pitiable condition, so Salles seems to be saying.

And he has certainly proved it with this splendid, post-Cinema Novo masterpiece. No other Brazilian film-work of the past 30 years has earned as many impressive honors and notices as this landmark motion-picture achievement. The emotion this film has generated in viewers is both heartfelt and true.

A final thought from Salles: “This film is about a woman who learns the importance of sharing in life and the importance of having common experiences. That common experience is something that’s so precious and so unique. When people are moved by similar emotions, then it’s as if a small miracle has happened again and again and again.”

Central Station, which began life as a small miracle, has grown to become an essential part of the audiovisual library of understanding that catalogs the complex nature of all Brazilians. For film lovers, it not only encapsulates the sum total of their collectively shared movie experiences but, in the sometimes coarse language of Cinema Novo, continues to present modern audiences with the pathetic “true face of Brazil.”

About the Production

Upon its release, the film drew raves from the international press for its earnestly felt performances and exceptionally well-written screenplay by Salles and his two scriptwriters, João Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein.

Fernanda Montenegro
Fernanda Montenegro

It is extremely well acted by every member of the cast, most notably Ms. Montenegro, who has masterfully allowed us a look into the very soul of this seemingly heartless, embittered old woman. Her emotionally satisfying transformation at the end takes place organically and, as commented on by the late American actor Gregory Peck, is movingly achieved without undue sentiment.

Eleven-year-old Vinicius de Oliveira is Josué, and he’s a marvelous find. Although a non-professional at the time, he plays the part of the lost boy with total conviction, as well as perfectly capturing the frustration children have with adults who think they know better. He instinctively sees through Dora’s pretenses, and easily knocks down her defenses, with a carefully placed stare or a sharply worded reproof — an ironic duplication of his namesake’s breaking down of the impenetrable walls of Jericho.

Marilia Pêra (the prostitute in Hector Babenco’s harrowing Pixote) plays Dora’s best friend Irene, Othon Bastos is the born-again-Christian truck driver César, and Mattheus Nachtergaele and Caio Junquiera are Josué’s half-brothers, Isaías and Moisés.

The frequent biblical names that resonate throughout, once common to the older class of immigrants who first arrived in Brazil from Western Europe, serve the director’s aim of returning to an established set of moral guidelines, many of which were left behind (as Josué himself was) when the Northeasterners forsook their parched lands to go South.

Religious iconography is abundantly used as well, most memorably in the evocation of the inverted pietà figure, with Josué gently cradling the exhausted Dora in his arms; in the sequence of Dora’s delirium in the little church; and in the revelation by Josué with his siblings that their father Jesus will one day return home (“He’ll come back. He will come back.”)

The entire film is gorgeously photographed by Walter Carvalho, the director of cinematography; and the jazz-influenced, chamber-like film score, by composers Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum, provides the ultimate in musical minimalism: it’s spare and lean, much like the story itself, which, incidentally, is remarkably similar to the circumstances of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s early life in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco.

Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998)

Produced by Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Arthur Cohn, Donald Ranvaud; directed by Walter Salles; written by Salles, Joao Emanuel Carneiro, and Marcos Bernstein; music by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum; cinematography by Walter Carvalho; edited by Felipe Lacerda; starring Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira, Soia Lira, Marilia Pera, Othon Bastos, Otavio Augusto, Caio Junqueira, and Matheus  Nachtergaele; 106 min. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Europa Filmes (Brazil).

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ — A Testament to ‘Black Orpheus’ and the Partnership That Started It All (Part One)

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Why Walk When You Can Run?

Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)
Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)

After sitting in silence for nearly three quarters of an hour, an agitated audience member suddenly let loose with an unexpected outburst that completely filled the main hall.

“It’s an outrage, an outrage I tell you!” the man shouted. “See what they’ve done to my piece!”

In the middle of the film’s premier presentation in Laranjeiras, a well-to-do Rio de Janeiro suburb, the person who would be deemed most responsible for its worldwide success had just stood up from his seat. He was headed briskly for the nearest exit.

“No, wait! Don’t go!” cried the movie’s producers after him. “Tell us, what’s wrong? Let’s talk it over. Give us a chance to explain. Wait, wait… come back!”

But it was to no avail. They were unable to calm their irate guest down or prevent him from leaving the scene in that infuriated fashion. To make matters worse, the now seething citizen was suspected of having gone all the way home to his apartment complex in Rio, overlooking the gorgeous Guanabara Bay, and drowning his sorrows out by getting “comfortably numb” in his bath.

This highly speculative account, insofar as it possesses all the earmarks of a Hollywood scenarist’s private fantasy, fits in perfectly with the events as they were known to have occurred — give or take quite a few dramatic liberties, of course. But they did not, thankfully for us, occur to composer Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim, or to such an underwhelming Columbia Pictures project as Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (2000).

As a matter of record, Jobim, who was born in the Tijuca section of Rio on the 25th of January, 1927, could never have been given the red-carpet treatment there at the time Bossa Nova hit movie theaters: he had previously passed away of heart failure in New York City, at the age of 67, on December 8, 1994, a good five or more years before the film was even released.

Admittedly, not only could he not have left the showing in that uncharacteristic manner, he played absolutely no part in the Amy Irving/Antonio Fagundes co-starring vehicle. A weak celluloid homage to Cidade Maravilhosa, Bossa Nova was the brainchild of Amy’s director-husband Bruno, designed to show off Jobim’s Marvelous City through some of his most delectable song structures — “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Wave,” and other classics — even though his name appears prominently in the opening credits.

It’s hard for anyone to imagine the gifted but introverted Tom Jobim — a gentle enough “free spirit” who suffered terribly from a persistent stage fright and shyness of others — as managing so attention-grabbing a stunt as running out of a movie screening, never mind having to live down the next day’s news headlines because of it. It simply wasn’t in his nature.

One man, however, did have the nature inside him, a man who had taken part in many a motion-picture gathering, along with the late-night extravaganzas and five-star gala events that inextricably went with it — and who did, in fact, walk out of one of them. That man was Vinicius de Moraes.

Not just another urban dweller of that photogenic playground-by-the-sea we know as Rio (he was born there on October 19, 1913), former diplomat, journalist, movie critic, lyricist, poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Marcus Vinitius da Cruz Moraes was an obviously cultured sort, as well as Jobim’s senior by fourteen summers. Yet he died, almost Marat-like, in his trademark porcelain tub (so we are told) in his native city, on July 9, 1980, during the height of the region’s seasonal cold snap — and at almost the same expiration age (66) as his ex-creative partner.

It is there that any similarity between these popular-music icons would end. For while Jobim had labored valiantly to leave his admirers with the erroneous impression of coolness incarnate (he did adore the sophisticated sounds of North American cool-jazz players, though), the veteran Moraes was, for lack of a better term, the personification of volatility in the Brazilian male.

Not surprisingly, for two such hard-living talents as Vinicius and Tom had been while they were alive (their mutual fondness for strong drink and equally potent conversation was legendary among close friends and colleagues), the most lasting part of their 24-year association — their classic song output — was the one surviving aspect that could easily have been counted on to outlast them both.

Perhaps it was a sad commentary as well that the organ they most touched in others by their timeless tunes would, ironically for both of these fine artists, give out so early in their own lives: Ars longa, vita brevis, as the case may be.

But surely, if Heitor Villa-Lobos could be associated with the revered name of Johann Sebastian Bach; if another Antonio Carlos — opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes — could be hailed as the “successor” to the Italian master Verdi, then the songwriting unit of Jobim and Moraes was bound to be touted as Brazil’s answer to German Romanticism’s Robert Schumann, with the British variant of John Lennon and Paul McCartney following close behind.

No matter who they were compared to, we can be assured of one thing: make no mistake about it, they were, by common consent, the recognized “rock stars” of their generation — within certain limitations.

This brings up not a few interesting points to ponder, such as how this intemperate league of extraordinary Brazilian gentlemen reached such unattainable heights in so short a period of time; by what means did the popular pair — exposed, as it was, to the early stimulus of art, literature, poetry, language, music, theater, and film — generate so much excitement within the jazz-pop field; and lastly, what was the catalyst that enabled the team to ride the crest of the once fast-rising bossa nova tide?

These preliminary thoughts go to the very heart of the duo’s longstanding relationship with listeners. Yet there is so much available material to sift through on this vast topic alone that it would be foolish for any writer to attempt to cover it all in one sitting. It’s better to concentrate at first on a single facet of their epochal music-making career — the most logical spot being at the beginning of it.

The Power of Myth — The Orpheus Myth, That Is

Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)
Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)

By now it should be apparent the lone, dissenting voice crying out in the Tijuca forest wilderness belonged to that of Vinicius de Moraes, the country’s best-known, modern-day bard. And the work that had wreaked such havoc with his fiery temperament, if not his high blood pressure, was that of French director Marcel Camus’ Orphee Noir, or Black Orpheus, his own 1959 screen adaptation of Vinicius’ musical play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), from 1956.

Filmed on location in Rio between the years 1957 and 1958, and based on a modern re-working, set during the city’s renowned Carnival celebration, of the ancient Greek myth of poet-musician Orpheus — now transformed into a happy-go-lucky streetcar conductor — and his beloved Eurydice, the joint French, Italian, and Brazilian co-production soon took on mythic proportions of its own.

As a cross-cultural phenomenon, it proved an instantaneous hit with delighted movie audiences, not only grabbing the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but sweeping all others before it, including major entries by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, in the Best Foreign Picture category at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Though not a purely homespun product of Brazil by any means, Black Orpheus nonetheless helped focus the world’s eyes on the newly emerging Cinema Novo (or “New Wave”) movement about to take place there, which was a homespun product, and about as close to the French Nouvelle Vague as the talkies were to silent films, Vinicius’ other pet passion.

At any rate, it did help draw needed attention to such previously unknown talents as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues (more about his individual contributions later on), thus making straight the path to serious cinematic recognition via a barrage of influential reviewers and opinionates.

The film also caused real-life poet and musician Vinicius de Moraes no end of controversy, evidenced by his bringing down the wrath of Zeus onto the hapless Camus and his producer, Sacha Gordine (who had befriended Vinicius during the poet’s stay in Paris), for perpetrating such a travesty of his stage conception. The deadliest of verbal thunderbolts, however, were hurled at screenwriter Jacques Viot — so much so that the carioca poet insisted his name be taken off the credits.

In view of the topnotch qualities of the work itself, why would Moraes raise such a splendid ruckus over it, especially after viewing the end result in all its prize-winning glory? What did the film world’s most respected award committees see in Camus’ magnum opus that its originator found so offensive and untrue?

To better comprehend the rage behind Vinicius’ unforeseen departure in Rio we must look to how the idea for his play first came about — and who better to communicate the history behind it all than the Brazilian Renaissance man himself:

“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

In 1954, at the urging and insistence of his good friend, João Cabral de Mello Neto, who gave the work its title, Vinicius entered the finished draft in a contest commemorating the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the founding of the city of São Paulo; it won the top prize. Notwithstanding that fact, the poet’s representation of the Thracian minstrel Orpheus as an Afro-Brazilian of suitably “humble” origins (the direct result of his friendship with American writer and social critic, Waldo Frank, who encouraged Vinicius in his updating of the tale to contemporary times), along with Jobim’s shrewd depiction of favela (“slum”) life through the pulsating sounds of 1950s street samba, were not as novel a choice of material as might initially have been suggested by the above.

According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Three: The Nineteenth Century, it was clear the allegorical Greek figure was the subject of numerous stage treatments long before Moraes got hold of his mythical lyre:

“Orpheus was present… at the creation of opera. Several of the earliest ‘musical tales’ that adorned Northern Italian court festivities in the early seventeenth century were based on his myth.”

Taruskin then took this notion a step further, emphasizing his strongly-held belief that, “The Orpheus myth was a myth of music’s ethical power, the supreme article of faith for all serious musicians… whenever the need was seen to reassert high musical ideals against frivolous entertainment values.”

That might have worked for opera’s founding fathers, but how would it play with Rio’s common folk? Indeed, whatever “high musical ideals” our serious-minded Brazilian poet intended for his poor-bound Orfeu would have to wait, due to his participation in some of those same “frivolous entertainment values” Taruskin had just railed against.

In essence, what Vinicius had failed to recount for readers were the subliminal influences the work of another close companion would have on the final scope and scenario of his play.

Welles Raises Kane in Rio

Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)
Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)

Enter the American director, writer, producer, actor, and jack-of-all-media-trades, the inimitable Orson Welles, once known in theatrical circles as the “Wonder Boy of Acting”; that master showman — some would say shaman — and larger-than-life personality (at six-foot, four-inches tall and weighing close to two hundred and fifty pounds, he certainly was that), now thrust into the cultural cauldron that was Carnival-crazed Brazil.

The Wisconsin-born Wunderkind had carved out a fabulous niche for himself in movie-land with his self-aggrandizing maiden effort, the classic Citizen Kane (1941). But during the turbulent years of the middle thirties, before the time that Vinicius claimed he was inspired to put pen and paper to his carioca tragedy, Welles had experimented with a version, set in Haiti, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, staged in Harlem by him and his associate, John Houseman. With Welles at the helm, so to speak, drilling and coaching his non-professional cast for months on end, the all-black ensemble managed to traverse the tongue-tripping impediments of iambic pentameter, to the extent his so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth became one of the singular achievements of that racially divided period.

Of course, Vinicius could never have been privy to such an unconventional production in its prime, but he did get to make the acquaintance of the talented Mr. Welles in his. The chance to absorb from, and cavort with, the frenetic young “genius” up-close and personal — and in the poet’s backyard — was a rare opportunity indeed, one the dedicated film-lover and movie critic could ill afford to pass up. Fortunately, his cinematic credentials would help ease the transition into establishing the seismic connection.

It presented itself, in December 1941, through the Motion Picture Division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which, along with RKO Pictures, dispatched the twenty-five-year-old “boy wonder” to Brazil to film a cultural exchange project, in three parts, promoting friendly relations with Latin America — a job cartoonist Walt Disney had similarly been called upon to perform earlier that same year.

Uppermost on the division’s agenda was the use of this kind of innocuous programming ploy as an excuse to counter alleged militaristic tendencies within the Getúlio Vargas administration, in addition to shoring up needed support for the coming U.S. war effort. In line with this strategy, the Brazilian government was apparently unperturbed by the ruse. Quite the opposite: it was positively thrilled to have the much talked-about radio and film star visit its home shores, gauging his impending excursion “as a huge endorsement and a hope for the future; the native film industry perceived it as a step towards its emergence from obscurity.” These were both overly optimistic appraisals.

Delusions of pan-hemispheric unity aside, Vinicius witnessed firsthand the challenges Welles took on with regard to his mostly improvised semi-documentary It’s All True — in particular, the unfinished segment “Carnival,” in which the easily distracted director had poured his unflagging energy (and the studio’s monetary resources) into capturing Rio’s annual whirlwind procession circa February 1942.

What Welles hoped to achieve, as soon as a workable plan had come to mind, would be a spectacle “that would treat its black participants and black culture with respect and affection” — a view shared by his newfound friend Vinicius (then a worldly 29), who was more than willing to act as Orson’s tour guide through the country’s cultural labyrinth.

Quick study that he was, Welles had been tipped off beforehand as to Brazil’s geography, politics, customs, language, and cuisine. In fact, no sooner had he set foot in Rio than the welcoming throng greeted him as a conquering warrior: he was immediately referred to, appropriately enough, as o simpático garotão, or “the charming big boy.”

If that now meant he could samba the night away with some of Sugar Loaf’s loveliest ladies — and go off to shoot “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers” afterwards, in an honest to goodness favela — then more power to him; with the upshot being that RKO Pictures and the Office of Inter-American Affairs got more than they bargained for, what with their self-indulgent “big boy” out of control.

On top of all these troubles, there were the meddling Brazilian authorities and not-so charming press types to tangle with. They certainly had their own ideas about what impressions of Brazil their neighbors to the north needed to have come away with — and they did not include footage of dancing “jigaboos” and “no good half-breeds” running around Rio “as if it were another Harlem.” Not only that, but the accidental drowning death of Jacaré, one of the poor Northeastern fishermen to be featured in Welles’ proposed third segment, “Four Men on a Raft,” slammed the door shut on the doomed endeavor beyond all hope of reopening.

With a management change and reshuffle at the home studio, the rain soon fell on Orson’s Rio Carnival parade. Expecting something along the lines of a standard-day travelogue, a somewhat “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the head offices were rewarded instead with the director’s 16mm rough-cut of “poor people, particularly poor black people.”

In his review of the 1993 New York Film Festival presentation of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, movie critic Vincent Canby rightly observed: “[This] did not fit into any good neighbor policy that RKO or the U.S. State Department wanted to publicize,” with the result that the financial spigot was abruptly turned off on the aborted Brazil project. That did not stop Welles from carrying on with the assignment through his own makeshift means; but it did foil previous plans for him to finish the editing of his latest epic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which laid the groundwork for his eventual undoing and removal from Hollywood’s A-list of sought-after filmmakers.

What of the faithful Moraes? He would meet up with his incorrigible pal Welles once more in 1946, in Los Angeles, where the poet and playwright went to assume his latest diplomatic post as vice-consul for Itamaraty; and where, by his own admission, he picked up the story of Orpheus right where he had left it. Not that his official duties with the Brazilian Foreign Service ever got in the way of perfecting his art. But while Vinicius was on the West Coast he did learn all he needed to learn about the movie business, mostly by watching the quadruple-threat Orson in action making The Lady from Shanghai (1948), a dismal box-office failure upon its belated release, as well as the unmaking of his friend’s four-year marriage to screen siren Rita Hayworth.

After the late 1940s, the well-tempered boy wonder’s career had seen its best days, but the seemingly more mature Mr. Welles would gamely soldier on by continuing to work as an independent. Because of the notorious Brazilian escapade, however, highlighted by his freewheeling methods and chaotic approach to movie-making, the major studios could no longer trust Orson to do the needful with respect to their valuable film properties. Welles’ own disillusionment with the elite of Hollywood’s motion-picture establishment led to his voluntary exile in Europe for most of the remainder of his life.

Despite all his difficulties with It’s All True (many of them, quite frankly, of his own devising), as expected Orson did, in fact, leave his personal stamp on Brazil’s nascent film industry — in a manner of speaking. To quote from critic Canby: “‘Four Men on a Raft’… [has] the gloriously liquid look of the heavily filtered, black-and-white photography favored in the 1930s to ennoble peasants and other common folk. It’s corny and possibly condescending, but it still works. Glauber Rocha, a leading talent in Brazil’s own Cinema Novo movement, used the same style in his Barravento (1961), which is set in the fishing village of Bahia.”

Otherwise, it was a slow and steady slide from Welles’ brilliant but barely conclusive beginning with Citizen Kane to his all-but unemployable ending, the memory of which would linger in Vinicius’ mind long after their warm relationship had substantially cooled. But not long enough to have profited from the director’s unheeded lesson about compromising one’s artistic integrity in the face of social and political realities.

A Certain Mister Jobim

Tom jobim & Vinicius de Moraes
Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes

Upon the satisfactory completion, in France, of his Orfeu da Conceição, and after its having attained the formal status in Brazil of an award-winning play of extraordinary merit and substance, Vinicius made the determined decision to have his glorified text set to music. He went about the task of searching for a composer of equivalent stature, someone who could do his poetic Orphic tragedy the musical justice it so richly deserved.

We can spare curious readers the needless suspense, since, as any reasonably knowledgeable music fan will tell you, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim was the individual chosen to perform that estimable deed. How his future songwriting partner happened to pick Tom from among the wealth of available talent that samba-driven Rio had to offer is a familiar yet infrequently expanded-upon topic worth delving into at length.

All of the existing accounts either corroborate or confirm what we already know about how these two industry giants gradually came together at the Casa Villarino Bar, located in the old cultural center of Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro. Although the gist of their historic union resulted in the hesitant Tom’s halting commitment to write a score for Vinicius’ yet-to-be-produced masterpiece, there are enough differences in the details as to make those with inquisitive minds want to ask who-did-what-to-whom to bring this mighty encounter to life.

Take, for instance, the contributions of writer-composer Ronaldo Bôscoli, one of Vinicius’ closest journalistic companions and an early proponent of bossa nova (as well as his future brother-in-law). A behind-the-scenes radio commentator, music critic, and all-around authority on Brazilian popular culture, Bôscoli is often credited with being the first to mention Jobim by name as a possible candidate for the poet’s consideration.

Other sources hint at newspaperman Lúcio Rangel, a mutual friend, historian, and music buff, as the person most likely to have brought the two artists together. There was even a third party present, disc jockey Haroldo Barbosa, who was an eyewitness to the “earthshaking” event, as were many others, I’m sure, all of them steadfast in their recollection of what was said and done and why.

It would better serve us to know, with some clarity, the circumstances under which composer-musician Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to the forefront of one of the most respected and fruitful collaborations of recent times.

In the same year that Orfeu da Conceição received deserved distinction in São Paulo, the youthful Tom Jobim — a mere 29 at the time, and the same age as Moraes when the poet first met Orson Welles in Rio some twelve years earlier — had been eking out a passing existence as a copyist by day and part-time piano player by night. He even toyed with the idea of arranging and producing, along with being a sometime songwriter, primarily for the Continental Record Company.

Gravitating toward the larger Odeon label, where the novice Carmen Miranda made her mark a generation or so before, Jobim learned his craft from the ground up through the expert guidance of master arranger, producer, and composer Radamés Gnattali, who had a major influence on his style, as did Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Viana), Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy, among others.

The early sambas and sambas-canções (“samba-songs”) he whipped up during this formative period — though nowhere near the subtlety and harmonic invention of his lasting work with Moraes, Newton Mendonça, Chico Buarque, and other greats — were admired and recorded by some of the era’s finest singing stars, among them Bill Far, Nora Ney, Lúcio Alves, Dolores Duran, and the mellow-voiced Dick Farney (real name: Farnésio Dutra e Silva).

Naturally, such consistent exposure in the marketplace soon attracted the notice of the local pop mavens. It’s probable, too, that Vinicius and Tom may have unknowingly crossed paths with each other — as spectator and guest performer, respectively — during one of their frequent nocturnal sorties into Rio’s exuberant nightlife.

However it came about, and by whatever means, let’s say that by April 1956, Antonio Carlos Jobim was a known and welcome quantity to those who wandered into his artistic milieu, which basically assured his discovery at some point in his life.

“Is There Any Money In It?”

Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino
Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino

The spot where the formidable carioca pair would finally meet and be formally introduced turns out to have been a favorite hangout for Rio’s political, intellectual, and literary community, sort of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse of its day. As immortalized in Brazilian author Ruy Castro’s book, Bossa Nova (“Chega de Saudade”): The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, “It is almost unbelievable that the partnership of Vinicius and Tom Jobim could have been born in [a place such as] Casa Villarino,” only because no one took very seriously what came out of that easygoing establishment, knowing full well the detrimental effects that too much alcohol had on the proffered wisdom of the bar’s regulars.

But no matter: the fraternal gathering of music-loving and poetry-reading compatriots and cohorts would take place there on a late afternoon in the autumn of 1956. By that time, Jobim had a full-time day job to slave over, and a growing family of his own to concern with. He happened, quite by accident, to have been seated at a separate table inside Casa Villarino when his friend, Lúcio Rangel, called him over to speak to the notoriously opinionated bard.

Unbeknown to him at the time, however, was the fact that the veteran Vadico (Osvaldo Gogliano), a longtime collaborator with the tubercular Noel Rosa and an old hand at songwriting, had recently turned down Vinicius’ request (“for reasons of health”) to provide him with the music for his still scoreless play.

Not expecting much in the way of progress after the proposed tête-à-tête meeting with Vadico fell through, Vinicius, for his part, spent most of his getting-to-know-you session with Tom summarizing Orfeu’s plot and story line to the visibly incurious composer. Jobim, no doubt worried about his family’s finances, risked adding insult to injury by his justly famous remark, “Tem um dinheirinho nisso?” – “Is there any money in it?” (A slight variation of which is often translated as, “Is there any money associated with this story?”) Numbed at this tantalizing yet disingenuous line of questioning, Rangel stared blankly at his friend for a moment, then responded with a quotable line of his own: “But Tom, how can you bring money up to the poet at a time like this?” or something to that effect.

How could he, indeed, but that’s exactly what Jobim did — and he had a good laugh about it later, too, when recapping the incident for reporters. After a few more rounds of back-and-forth bargaining, to include copious amounts of liquid “persuasion,” an agreement was finally struck and a long-running partnership formed.

As these things tend to happen, Vinicius had a slightly different reading of the events of that particular day. “I was looking for some musicians,” he related in an interview for São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound. “Back then we used to hang out at… the Villarino; a lot of friends used to get together there around a large table in the late afternoon. It was there that, one evening, I was talking to Lúcio Rangel and Haroldo Barbosa, and Lúcio said: ‘Why don’t you try a young guy I know who I think is really talented?’ This guy played in some hellholes in Copacabana…”

“It was Lúcio who suggested Tom Jobim,” he went on, “though today there are two or three people who deny this, one of them his nephew. Tom was sitting at a table nearby, we asked him to join us, I made the proposal and he was vague about it, as usual. But we did decide to meet to talk about it later. I went to his apartment, gave him the play, he read it and liked it and said okay, he’d write the music for it. And so we began.”

The task of physically putting together a show and placing it onto the carioca stage had started in earnest. For the next several weeks, the newly cemented working outfit would barricade itself within Tom’s Ipanema apartment until the musical portion of their program was over, thanks largely to liberal helpings of native-Brazilian brew.

Gathering up his old friends and colleagues into one leftist-leaning basket, the “Little Poet,” as he was often called, enlisted the aid of architect Oscar Niemeyer, the man responsible for the country’s futuristic new capital, Brasília, as the principal set designer; painters Carlos Scliar, Djanira, Luis Ventura, and Raimundo Nogueira were hired as poster and scenic artists; Vinicius’ second wife, Lila Bôscoli de Moraes, was the costume designer; along with Argentine choreographer Lina de Luca, stage director Leo Jusi, and conductor Leo Peracchi in charge of the thirty-five-piece orchestra.

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25th, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country – but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”

The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia as Mira (Serafina in the French film version), singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.

Orfeu packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30, after which it moved on to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long run. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to neighboring São Paulo collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.

The Brazilian Play’s the Thing!

Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)
Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)

Nostalgia and the fog of remembrance often blind us to the reality of what life was like for the poor of the poet’s time. So let’s not mince words: it was exceedingly rough. The unrelieved harshness of their hand-to-mouth existence, so near in proximity to the city’s Mount Olympus-like natural wonders, compelled many of Rio’s neediest to huddle for shelter alongside her vast, hilltop expanse.

Finding comfort as well as misery in each other’s company, they were sandwiched in like sardines in makeshift corrugated shacks. The horrendous living conditions the populace had to endure frequently mimicked the horrendous behavior of the favela’s resident malefactors, which included the local constabulary charged with providing for their betterment. Poverty and hunger, rampant corruption and out-of-control crime, child abuse, disease, drugs, prostitution, broken homes, and juvenile delinquency — problems we still deal with on a daily basis whether they’re found on the streets of Philadelphia or in the slums of Mumbai — were the unfortunate outgrowth of this dysfunction and neglect.

Vinicius was not unmindful of such matters, as we well know, nor was he at all ignorant of the turbulence endemic to the warlike ethos of Orpheus’ time. With a firm nod in the direction of Euripides, he transposed many of the starkest elements of Greek drama whole-scale into his Tragédia carioca em três atos, while re-positioning them against everyday Brazilian slum life.

This is an important distinction, as elaborated on by Thais Flores Nogueira Diniz of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in her transcendent essay, “O Mito como tradução, em Vinicius de Moraes” (“Myth as Translation in Vinicius de Moraes”). The play, she notes, is a celebration of Rio de Janeiro’s culture, not Greece’s; and Orfeu, a uniquely Brazilian individual with so-called “special qualities,” is both an un-god-like hero and a quasi-immortal with his own tragic destiny to fulfill.

Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes with her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic capital city — by filling its “vast empty space” with “sensuous white curves in glass and concrete” — were the visible manifestation of what Jobim and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.

Orfeu da Conceição is dedicated to Vinicius’ daughter, Susana de Moraes, and prefaced by two literary quotations referencing the mythological poet-minstrel and his lyre: the first from John Dryden’s “Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day,” and the second from “La Crema” by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

There next comes a series of directives, the most informative of which stress that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.” Film director Carlos Diegues later took Vinicius’ injunction to update his story “to fit these new conditions” literally, and to its ultimate extreme.

A recapitulation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, excerpted from The Golden Legend of Gods and Heroes by Mario Meunier — apparently, the inspirational source for the poet’s imagination — follows a listing of the play’s dramatis personae. Orpheus represents the duality present in all artists and their art. A serious figure, as well as a bold adventurer and inveterate toga-chaser — that is, until he meets up with the lovely tree-nymph Eurydice — he is a musician and a poet of surpassing skill and grace whose melodic musings caused the very birds of the air to give pause before taking wing.

Musician and poet Vinicius de Moraes knew the type only too well. He telegraphed those qualities he found within himself by expressing (as Caetano Veloso, in a brush with purple prose, once wisely put it) his soul’s “sweetly tragic aspects through music” and verse. Nine times married, as opposed to his songwriting partner’s lowly two, and a sensualist right down to the marrow in his bones, he made the successful transition to the stage via an extraordinary leap of faith in the untested Tom Jobim, who through a thin veneer of self-confidence at his disposal had the wherewithal to make it all happen.

Orfeu da Conceição (sebodomessias.com,br)

While it’s tempting to equate an artist’s past or present circumstances with any of his finished handiwork, or to read too much into them, it is perfectly reasonable to make the extra effort in this regard. There are many instances in Vinicius’ “Carioca Tragedy in Three Acts” where one gets the uneasy feeling the actual events of his sybaritic existence were being staged for our gratification and enjoyment — an uncomfortable reenactment of the poet-musician’s life as a voluptuary, or “a person given over to luxury and the pursuit of sensual appetites.” You be the judge.

Hot-blooded Latin temperaments vie with Aegean passion and lust in the play’s lengthy first act, which takes place in a hillside slum. After the opening speech by the leader of the chorus — “Many are the dangers of this life for he who possesses passion,” goes the exculpatory first line — and an expository sequence between Clio and Apolo, Orfeu’s poverty stricken parents, the title character wanders in with Eurídice’s name in his thoughts and in his words. There’s a scene for mother and son, in which Clio begs him to forget about marriage (“Why tie yourself down when you can have any girl?”), along with a passage wherein she warns Orfeu not to provoke the jealousy of other women — advice unheeded by our hero.

The object of his affection soon arrives, but not before Orfeu launches into his first solo, “Um nome de mulher” (“The Name of a Woman”). The lovers trade terms of endearment, while Eurídice half-jokingly confides that she will die from love of Orfeu (prophetic phrases, indeed). He in turn calls her the “beauty of life,” among other amorous declarations, in the famous monologue that follows. With its gorgeous guitar and flute accompaniment, “Mulher mais adorada” (“Most Beloved Woman)” is the closest thing in the play to an aria.

His poetic ruminations (the wonderful ballad, “Se todos fossem iguais a você”) soon provoke the ire of Mira de Tal, his jealous ex-girlfriend. In their angry exchange, Orfeu reveals heretofore-untapped levels of macho posturing: he’s notorious, among other things, for his abusive mistreatment of women.

In addition to the above incidents, there are numerous references to the plight of the impoverished (“Poor folk don’t marry,” his mother informs him, “they just live together”); Eurídice’s premeditated stabbing death by the envious Aristeu (soon after Orfeu’s deflowering of her maidenhood); preceded by Orfeu’s song, “Mulher, sempre mulher” (“Always a Woman”), and the infernal ravings of Dama Negra, a terrifying harbinger of death, who at the curtain claims Eurídice’s lifeless form with her huge cloak.

Act II occurs in the seamy underside of the city, here depicted as a combination dance palace and single’s bar known as Os Maiorais do Inferno, or “The Big Shots from Hell,” where the biggest shots of all, Plutão (“Pluto”) and his obese queen Proserpina (“Persephone”), preside over an all-out Bacchanalian orgy of wine, women, and samba. The act is primarily taken up with Orfeu’s crashing of the Carnival revelers’ party, his drowning of his own sorrows, and his pathetic cries of “Eurídice, I want my Eurídice,” first evidenced in Act I and now duly mocked (“I am Eurídice”) by the taunting denizens of the club.

Act III is in two scenes. In the first, which is reminiscent of the communal outpouring of grief in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, we are back at the slum. Orfeu’s parents and friends are in mourning for the dead Eurídice. Individual voices recite an irreverent form of the Roman Catholic Creed (a hint of Orfeu’s “divine” origins), with the distraught hero curiously at its center. One by one, the slum dwellers relive the couple’s tale of woe.

Several of the townspeople take the inconsolable Clio away to a waiting ambulance, the operators of which stubbornly refuse to take up the hill for fear of their lives. The delirious Clio blames Eurídice for all the trouble she has brought to her son and their once “happy” community. A group of boys, playing on homemade percussion instruments, now enter and chant a samba, “Eu e o meu amor” (“My Love and I”), repeating the verses as they cross the stage and disappear into the background.

The scene now shifts outside to a house of ill repute on the outskirts of town. Mira is seen drinking and picking a fight with one of the girls. A bewildered Orfeu appears. He walks around in a perpetual daze while speaking to his departed Eurídice as if she were still with him (“Lamento no morro” – “Lament on the Hill”). His forlorn attitude and dejected behavior rekindle the drunken Mira’s wrath, as she and the other enraged women fall upon their hapless prey. They attack with all the fury of females scorned, slicing and dicing him up with their knives and switchblades.

Relief comes in the ghostly apparition of Dama Negra, who entices Orfeu to join her in death by imitating Eurídice’s love call. Orfeu resigns himself to his fate, as the women pounce upon him one last time. Emerging from the bloodletting with the hero’s guitar (his manhood?) in hand, Mira flings it over the cement wall. There is an enormous crash as the instrument lands, which frightens some of the women away.

The violence comes to an end in the same manner as before, with Dama Negra claiming Orfeu’s corpse with her cape amid the soft sounds of his guitar, mysteriously playing on its own in the background. The curtain falls on the chorus’ spoken apotheosis.

It’s All Just a Myth-Understanding

For most hardworking individuals, success is not just a two-syllable word meaning a “favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors” — in this case, the sufficiently favorable run of not only Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ fully-orchestrated musical concept, Orfeu da Conceição; but also its much anticipated screen adaptation, Black Orpheus (known inside Brazil by its alternate title, Orfeu do Carnaval), which arrived on the scene a few years later.

No, success is more often a two-way street, implying that, with a good deal of time (and a little bit of leeway) between them, all enterprising new ventures begin to acquire a complex mythology all their own; what nowadays is described as “excess baggage” — usually one separate and distinct from their original purpose or intent. This was evidently so of the all-Brazilian Orfeu and the French-made Black Orpheus.

Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)
Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)

One of these myths circulated around the soundtrack to Marcel Camus’ acclaimed co-production. Contrary to popular belief, it did not incorporate any of the original show tunes created by Vinicius and Tom for their contemporary stage version of the story, the most memorable of which, the beautiful ballad “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), called, under its better-known English title, “Someone to Light Up My Life,” became a standard with entertainers of the time. The other numbers on the list, “Um nome de mulher,” “Monólogo de Orfeu,” “Mulher, sempre mulher,” “Eu e o meu amor,” and “Lamento no morro,” all met the same fate and, ergo, were not part of the film; neither was any of the incidental music Jobim had so carefully labored over (“Overture,” “Tema de Eurídice,” “Modinha,” “A Dama Negra,” and “Macumba”).

The reason for their omission was, as a matter of financial expediency, a purely practical one — from the French vantage point, that is: the producers did not want to be encumbered by future royalty payments or copyright infringement issues. Touché! Whatever new music did come out of the arrangement would, by contractual obligation, become the exclusive property of the studio, thereby placing it under its strict control — a win-win proposition for the French that left the playwright and composer out of the revenue stream.

Another related aspect concerned the quality and quantity of the vocal numbers. As one of the first foreign productions to introduce street-style samba, samba de morro (“samba from the hills”), and the wonderful “new beat” of bossa nova to the international movie-viewing public, Black Orpheus has been lavishly praised and idolized — beyond all recognition — as a wall-to-wall musical montage, a non-stop Carnival pageant, and (worst of all) a fantastic party-hearty banquet for the senses from beginning to end, much as Brazil’s own pre-Lenten festival was reputed to be.

This is patently untrue, and a fabulous trick of the mind played on the part of loyal movie followers with famously short memories. It happens that the score for the stage version, in keeping to the prevailing trend, was much closer in style to samba-canção, or “slower samba,” than anything that came after.

Although in the film real-live street sambas were recorded on the spot, then re-edited for use, by Camus, into the Rio Carnival sequence, the much-ballyhooed bossa nova sound — which, technically speaking, did not reach its maximum potential as a fully-formed pop genre until after the close of the decade — barely managed to make its debut in Black Orpheus. It was imperceptible in the play, however, which was comprised of more rudimentary material.

Regardless, the music that was ultimately used lasted no more than several minutes of screen time, if that; nor did it take up every second of every film frame, either, as some critics have ascertained. As it was, the relatively few numbers overall were spaced out somewhat evenly, if not always seamlessly, over the film’s one-hundred-and-three-minute running time (the Criterion Collection DVD features an additional four minutes of previously unseen footage) — hardly the super-duper sound fest most fans seem to recall from the Black Orpheus of their youth.

But the most common misconception of all, which may or may not have been an unintended distortion of Vinicius’ integral idea for his work, was the conviction that Jobim and Moraes were the sole perpetrators of the movie’s songs and music. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharing co-equal billing status with fellow carioca Tom Jobim was a friend of singer Dick Farney: composer and performer Luiz Bonfá, who from the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra pit had plucked away on Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos in the original Rio stage setting.

On their own, and away from the movie house, Bonfá’s additions — the plaintive mournfulness of “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Morning of Carnival,” better known as “A Day in the Life of a Fool”), followed by the raw jubilation of his rhythmically buoyant “Samba de Orfeu,” which ends the urban tragedy on a hopeful note — came to symbolize, for most foreign viewers, what the “reel” Black Orpheus was all about.

In the beautifully flowing strophes of Bahia’s own native poet-minstrel, the singer-songwriter (and former movie critic) Caetano Veloso, both Vinicius’ play and Camus’ subsequent film version succeeded in unveiling Brazil to the world “as an Orphean country, a country that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music.”

Almost by definition, Bonfá’s two unforgettable melodic “expressions,” written in tandem with his lyricist Antonio Maria, became the heart and soul of Black Orpheus, and, quite fittingly, its most widely disseminated (and listened to) showpieces — more so even than Jobim-Moraes’ opening number, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”), or the team’s other able efforts, “Frevo de Orfeu” and “O nosso amor” (“Our Love”).

Without diminishing the market value of Tom and Vinicius’ songwriting abilities, the universal hoopla that quickly followed in the wake of the movie’s built-in mass appeal caught most Brazilians off guard and completely by surprise.

Let the facts speak for themselves: the entire enterprise came, coincidentally enough, at a rare cosmic convergence in the country’s history — when Brazil was basking in the sunlight of a potential resurgence — with the national team winning its first World Cup Soccer Championship in Sweden; with the U.S. State Department sponsoring a trip to Brazil that would bring the American jazz-pop community into closer contact with bossa nova; and with Brazil being strategically placed to join the front ranks of First World nations in the inauguration of its modernistic new capital city, Brasília.

Hats off to the visionary developmentalist responsible for that incredible coup: Brazil’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, whose quasi-governmental entity Tupan Filmes helped put up part of the financing for French director Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus project in the first place. Talk about hedging one’s bets!

Beware of Greeks and Gauls Bearing Gifts

We now come full circle, to return to the point in our drama where Vinicius de Moraes met the Eastmancolor® widescreen — and the widescreen won. Every indication we’ve seen so far should have prepared the film’s producers for the defiant stand the inflamed carioca poet took with respect to the premiere of Black Orpheus at the presidential palace in Laranjeiras. (It did not.)

Some of the more insightful commentaries regarding Vinicius’ willful behavior there range from his “ideological” opposition to, rather than the aesthetically “visual” and/or “narrative” aspects of, the story, in Professor of Art History, Dr. Stephen Wright’s more studied interpretation; to singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso’s personal take on the matter, framed by his own extensive movie-going experience, wherein he criticizes director Camus’ cinematic view of his countrymen as “inauthentic,” “unreal” and “outrageously fanciful,” even by Brazilian standards.

“To say that the film was received without enthusiasm in Brazil is an understatement,” wrote Veloso in The New York Times. “The contrast between the fascination that Black Orpheus generated abroad and the contempt with which it was treated by Brazilians, who saw themselves depicted as exotics, invites thoughts on the loneliness of Brazil,” to say nothing of the loneliness of the long distance-running Vinicius in his late-night getaway from the movie’s gala preview to his more modest surroundings in Gávea.

So what got the poet’s goat? Why did Vinicius so precipitously “bail out” of Black Orpheus on opening night? The nearest one can arrive at a logical explanation would, by necessity, have to be built on the prima facie evidence at hand, and from a deeper understanding of the poet’s personality and character: a posteriori, it had plenty to do with his undisguised displeasure at how his poetic creation was disfigured by the French in the transition from stage to screen.

Marpessa Dawn & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)
Marpessa Dawn (Euridice) & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)

From the caring individual he first envisaged, a person intimately involved in and aware of the problems of his poor favela neighborhood, yet still capable of expressing outgoing concern for family and friends (whole sections of which were virtually eliminated from the screenplay); to one more than a little “obsessed,” shall we say, with the charms of a country bumpkin-style Eurídice (played by Pennsylvania-born dancer Marpessa Dawn), the filmic interpolation of soccer star Breno Mello as Orfeu emerged as altogether unrecognizable to the socially conscious playwright.

If that were the only consideration, he might just as easily have withstood the onslaught a bit better than he inopportunely did. But there was more to it than that. Part of the problem stemmed from his over-familiarity with the deplorable state of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes, many of who had wrestled with government inaction in attending to their needs for as long as he could remember — with none of it, lamentably, finding its way either into the script or onto the big screen.

This was hard enough for Vinicius to swallow, but what could have tipped him even further over the edge was the supplanting of the play’s lofty oratory with one that robbed his characters of their sublime elegance and charm, hence the hasty decision to distance himself from any affiliation with Camus’ work.

Coming to the French filmmaker’s aid, Dr. Wright appears willing to weigh in with a slightly different take on the issue: “Camus was less worried with the social realities of the favela and more interested in creating a classic retelling of the [Orpheus] myth with an emphasis on the tragedy through a complex iconography that symbolically merges myth and reality, albeit from a foreign [emphasis added] perspective.” That would certainly help to explain, but not to justify, Vinicius’ protestations about it all, in that he may well have blown the whole thing out of proportion, in addition to taking what was done artistically to his play far too seriously (and too personally).

“It was one of the greatest disappointments I have ever had in my life,” he complained soon after the film appeared. “I had not seen the rushes, and I was in Montevideo when I was told that the movie had won the Palme d’Or. So I went wild and celebrated and thought they had really gotten it right. Then, when I came back [to Brazil], Juscelino invited me for the first screening at the presidential palace, together with his family and two or three people from the production. I got such a shock as I watched the movie that I simply slipped out and went home. I felt I just wouldn’t be able to face those Frenchies when the lights came on. I might even have come to blows with them.”

While all this was bubbling over, where was the poet’s composing partner and what did he think of his hotheaded friend’s frustration with the flick? He may have said something along the lines of, “Meu chapa, deixa isso pra lá,” loosely translated as “Let it go, my man,” which would have been sound advice if the bard had actually heard it. That neither Tom nor Vinicius thought very highly of Camus and Gordine’s extravagances is thoroughly documented in their correspondence.

Even with Vinicius’ nonconformist attitude toward his and other people’s lifestyles, he simply could not tolerate the inexplicable racial stereotypes that were prevalent throughout the film, some of them rather perplexing. A good example is the comic spat between Eurídice’s cousin, Serafina (Léa Garcia), and her sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldetar de Souza), two characters created especially for the feature. After waiting months for shore leave, the passion-starved marinheiro literally throws himself onto the girl at first sight, only to be stalled by a snoot-full of watermelon. He then proceeds to devour the treat as compensation for his failed lovemaking efforts — how droll.

There were other penny-dreadful situations as well, many involving the overly jealous Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu’s intended bride and a major holdover from the play, who carries on like a “bitch in heat” every time she catches her fiancé diverting his gaze from her buxom form. In fairness, there exists a valid basis for her frantic disposition, most likely derived from the actions of the Maenads, or Bacchantes (after the god Bacchus), of Greek mythology, as handed down to us by the Roman poet Virgil and reinterpreted by Camus in this updated context.

As irresponsible a personage as he was frequently portrayed in the media, and in life, Vinicius was nothing if not true to his inner self. He lived by his words — and what beautifully expressive ones they were, too, in particular his heartfelt paean to Brazil’s black population, quoted earlier in this essay and written on the eve of Orfeu da Conceição’s debut.

Isn’t it ironic that what was shown up there on the silver screen, for all the world to see, in the Cidade Maravilhosa of 1959 was essentially the same old, Carnivalesque view of the city (remember those dancing “jigaboos,” “no good half-breeds,” and “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers”) which the path-breaking Orson Welles once tried to capture — and paid a dear price for — in his tarnished It’s All True epic, back in the “good neighbor” days of 1942.

The poet was well versed as to the details of what happened to “this great Brazilian,” that young filmmaking genius, who, in a spirited homage Vinicius paid to him at the time, “has felt Brazil and the Brazilian people in a deeper, richer way than the vast majority of foreigners who have lived among us,” Camus later included. He remembered, quite vividly, the struggles Welles went through to get his more truthful vision of Rio off the ground, and the resounding failure he experienced at his inability to see it through to fruition.

The difference now was that, in the interval between the making of these two features, a new feeling — call it a nationalistic fervor — had taken root in the administration of then-President Juscelino Kubitschek and in the Brazilian nation as a whole; whereby the image to be imparted to would-be travelers was that of a happy, friendly, carefree people with wide-open, welcoming arms… why, just like that of the country’s emblematic Christ the Redeemer-figure. (Fancy that!)

Brazil had basically done the talk; it was time now to get down to business and do the walk (more like a leisurely beach stroll). Not that this meant anything to Vinicius, but the message he received from the film — perhaps through his more politically-oriented mode of thinking — was this: “Forget about slums and poverty, folks, come along and party with us.” That was some revised “good neighbor” policy that was put into effect! Whichever way one looks at it, the authorities in both the northern and southern climes, and on both continents, got what they deserved in inadvertently realizing their dream for a “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the poet’s ability to see through the farce notwithstanding.

And being a poet, of course, Vinicius knew precisely what the differences between reality and myth entailed. What he ultimately objected to was the mockery of slum life the producers had made out of his carioca tragedy. If a foreigner (and good friend) such as Welles, after all the time, money, and energy he spent in Brazil learning how to samba in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub, could get it right from the start and still remain faithful to the material — warts and all — as well as respectful of its sources, then why couldn’t Camus, in his eyes, do the same?

Artists are such temperamental creatures by nature. That being the case, Vinicius’ flight from Black Orpheus should be construed as no less of an aggrieved artistic statement than, say, avant-garde playwright and theater director Gerald Thomas’ highly-publicized butt-baring episode at the Teatro Municipal — in the same city and in our own time — after his controversial 2003 staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde premiered there.

Keeping the above incident in mind, Vinicius de Moraes was, as we have witnessed, profoundly incapable of taking such abuse of his work in stiff-upper-lip fashion (“tolerance” was not a virtue in his vocabulary). He may have been asking a lot from Monsieur Camus, but who’s to say how much is too much where the original author was concerned?

The real carioca tragedy, then, for us outsiders, and especially for the noted Brazilian poet, was the bruising of his artist’s ego as well as the un-just neglect of his compassionate, respectful edition of Orfeu in favor of the gussied-up, prettified, less faithful rendering of the movie version. Still, for all its inherent flaws, including a patchwork delineation of street Carnival and a truly bizarre macumba sequence towards the end — comparable to the one in Bruno Barreto’s 1978 sex comedy, Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), but for the opposite purpose — the award-winning Black Orpheus managed to come along at exactly the right moment.

It fit this ideal, picture-postcard view of Marvelous City to a “T,” and, as such, should be taken on its own terms, i.e., the marvelous costumes, the superb cinematography, its closer adherence to the Greek myth, and the fine musical score. Whether the production was of Gallic origin or a strictly Brazilian affair all the way was of little consequence to viewers. All the same, no amount of boycotting from its official co-creator could have prevented the Black Orpheus juggernaut from fulfilling its entertainment mission at any cost.

To be sure, the film was an absolute goldmine to the travel and hospitality industry, which would have had to make due without Vinicius’ backing in promoting it. (It did.) How many uncommitted foreigners turned into fervent expatriates after dining on a steady course of the eye candy our all-too astute Frenchman, Marcel Camus — like any good French chef — had so elaborately prepared for them? One can easily lose count.

Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)
Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)

The only other element to have come out of this unscathed — and one well supported by the facts — was the soft “new sound” of Brazilian bossa nova, a breezy sonic enhancement most pop-music fanatics had no reason to suspect would become the next biggest thing to hit the record stands since Bill Haley and His Comets convinced us to “Rock Around the Clock.”

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Ten Commandments’ — American Society in the Fifties: A Commentary on Cecil B. DeMille’s Religious Epic

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Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (Paramount Pictures)
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (Paramount Pictures)

Staffs that transform into snakes. A sea that opens up to allow people to pass through, and then collapses to swallow an entire army. Flames that shoot up from the ground, which thrust themselves into the side of a mountain so as to trace the outline of two stone tablets — tablets that miraculously become the manifestation of God’s law.

Is this some punch-drunk producer’s vision for a potential pop star’s debut, or an archival clip from the Iraq War? No, not exactly. This is the story of Old Testament prophet Moses, the flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. And what a marvelous kitsch classic Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epic is! No other film of the fifties has come close to capturing its size, scope, gaudiness, and spectacle — or been such a perennial favorite on network television — as The Ten Commandments. Indeed, only a handful of religious films have been treated with such a heady mixture of familiarity and contempt as this picture has.

For a work purportedly based on the “Holy Scriptures and other ancient and modern writings,” there are enough over-the-top performances in it to place The Ten Commandments at the foot of the altar of all-time campiest movie ever made — with a much bigger budget, of course. Considering its weighty subject, there’s a seriousness of purpose and execution few epics of the period could match. It stands as a worthy monument to all that was good and bad in Hollywood around the year 1956. Not only does it accurately portray American society as it was, during the postwar era, but it also suggests what that society would become in the turbulent years that lay ahead.

In view of this, it’s a film firmly rooted in fifties popular culture and the prevailing political trends, when America’s morals and values were being put to the test as the result of tremendous internal and external upheaval. The impact this work has had on movie audiences of the time can be measured in its visual interpretation of various aspects of 1950s life, balanced against how those same aspects are viewed today.

Conflicts and Hostilities

Among the many external forces at play were the recently concluded Korean conflict and the resultant tensions it brought on. This situation helped put the Cold War mentality into place, which became an integral part of American life, and made abundantly evident, as The Ten Commandments was being readied for production.

Major events of 1956, such as the presence of Russian tanks in Hungary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s program of de-Stalinization and his enthusiastic support of nuclear proliferation and competition with the West, all helped to define the ethos of that era. In the Middle East, Arab-Israeli tensions had reached their height in July of that year, as Egypt closed off access to the Suez Canal. Then, in October, Israel invaded Egypt, the land of its former oppressors, thus ending years of passive resistance to Arab hostilities and forming an ironic coda to the movie’s message of freedom from servitude.

At home, Dwight D. Eisenhower easily won re-election as president, with America maintaining its status as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth — not unlike ancient Egypt in its day. But all was not as it seemed. The country had just undergone a particularly prickly period of political instability and cultural uncertainty, what with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, the McCarthy-Army Communist witch hunts, and the seemingly innocuous introduction of rock-n-roll to the nation’s teens.

These issues would manifest themselves, both subtly and overtly, in the on-screen clashes between the hapless Hebrew slaves and their abusive Egyptian taskmasters — and be brought to vivid life as part of the movie’s main talking points.

Controversial Productions

Hollywood was by no means immune to these concerns, as it continued to exploit the mass market for movies to its fullest. New and controversial productions were being pushed to the front of the cinematic assembly lines, many with startlingly adult subject matter for the time.

Some of the more out-of-the-way items introduced themes associated with out-and-out racism (Giant, The Searchers), corporate ladder-climbing (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), Freudian psychology (Forbidden Planet), suburban conformity and loss of identity (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), deterioration of the family unit (The Man Who Knew Too Much), virgin child-bride seduction (Baby Doll), latent homosexuality (Tea and Sympathy), manic depression and self-mutilation (Lust For Life), cowardice and connivance during battle (Attack!), and impotence, promiscuity, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy (Written on the Wind).

These and many other films represented an extreme departure from the usual Saturday afternoon escapist fare. Fostered by postwar anxiety, years of pent-up frustrations, and lack of suitable outlets for those same feelings, they were the studios’ biggest arsenal in the continuing battle being waged for prime-time viewer attention — a battle being won by television. Audiences en masse preferred to sit it out on the sidelines rather than leave the comfort and control of their cozy abode.

The movie capital addressed this malaise with bigger and wider — though not necessarily better — screen fodder. In the process, it created or perfected such innovative techniques as Cinerama, stereophonic sound, CinemaScope, 3-D, Todd-AO, and VistaVision. In sum, it was striving mightily to bring to the neighborhood cinema something the average viewer couldn’t get by reclining in his Lay-Z-Boy.

For a religious film to hope to compete with the pulse of the pictures captioned above, it would have to be in the vein of something extraordinary.

Master Showman

Cecil B. DeMille (webarchitectdesign.blogspot.com)

Enter Cecil Blount DeMille, Paramount Pictures’ cinematic savior of the moment. As one of Hollywood’s greatest living showmen, DeMille was widely regarded as a motion-picture founding father. The son of an Episcopal lay minister and amateur playwright, with close ties to famed Broadway impresario David Belasco — and a reputable stage actor, to boot — DeMille was known for his wide canon of religious and historical epics.

His films were fairly elaborate affairs, all sharing a central theme or idea, i.e., that of the fallen man or woman redeemed by the power of love, a long dormant patriotic fervor, or a newfound spiritual conversion. They were moralistic, preachy, simplistic, and, perforce, unsubtle works.

They were also huge money-makers for the home studio, mostly by skirting the boundaries of decency due to their surprisingly open portrayal of sexuality and sadism, a conscious influence from DeMille’s theater background and repressed Victorian upbringing. He was fond of saying to his screenwriters that “you can’t show the wages of sin without showing the sin.”

Some of his earliest explorations into the religious realm include the first film about the Maid of Orleans, Joan the Woman (1915), with American soprano Geraldine Ferrar as Joan; the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923); the independently produced The King of Kings (1927); the Romans vs. Christians saga, The Sign of the Cross (1932); and the starchy Richard the Lion Heart spectacular, The Crusades (1935).

DeMille had previously brought to the screen his lavish production of Cleopatra (1934), with Claudette Colbert as the comely seductress and the young Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony. After the critical failure of The Crusades, however, he abandoned outright religious depictions for a time in favor of more accessible historical fare. By 1954, after having churned out two back-to-back blockbusters for Paramount — the first, Samson and Delilah (1949), was a pseudo-serious study of the biblical strongman from the Book of Judges; and the second, The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), a big-top extravaganza which won the Oscar for Best Picture — DeMille found his former popularity on the wane.

For years, audiences had flooded him with queries as to when, if ever, he would remake his silent classic, The Ten Commandments. At 73, the veteran director knew his kind of cornball, crowd-pleasing pictures were going out of style. Consequently, he desperately yearned to please his public one last time by capping his long career off with a spectacle that was second to none. It would have to rival the very best that Hollywood had to offer. Toward that end, he spent the then-princely sum of $13 million dollars — the first time he had ever gone over-budget on a project — on his widescreen, Technicolor rehash of the story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus.

Obsession with Authenticity

Although most of the new picture’s interiors would be shot on the sound stages of Hollywood and Paris, many of the big outdoor scenes were filmed “on location in Egypt, in the surrounding desert country of Shur and Zin, and on the very slopes of Mount Sinai” itself.

Two years before filming began, DeMille sent legions of researchers off to scour the world’s libraries and museums for relevant data concerning arms, weapons, costumes, makeup, and other paraphernalia used by the people of that epoch. It had been a regular routine of his to prepare for each facet of production prior to actual shooting. And this film was no exception. No doubt the tremendous potential for worldwide receipts fanned DeMille’s normally obsessive pursuit of authenticity to even greater heights, with the added knowledge that an audience familiar with the subject of Moses and the Exodus would be looking even closer for any inherent flaws in this well-told tale.

To counter any prospective arguments that would seriously hamper the profitability of his greatest achievement — and as a nod to the keepers of the morality flames — DeMille had clergymen from the major Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths critique the film for accuracy, among other concessions. These steps were all in keeping with his grandiose scheme for making his latest version of The Ten Commandments as reverent and respectable a work as possible, as well as a box-office bonanza.

Tyrant and Patriot

In a rare, on-screen appearance before the movie proper, DeMille steps out from behind the curtain to announce the principal theme of his work: “Should men be ruled by God’s law or be ordered about by the whims of a dictator? Are they the property of the state or free souls under God?”

C.B. DeMille (tvtropes.org)

These were mighty sentiments back then (more so, in today’s troubled times). Coming as they did from a man viewed by many as a hard-driving, humorless taskmaster, they were even more disturbing. Critics compared DeMille’s tightfisted style behind the camera to the dictatorial whims of fellow Austrians Erich von Stroheim and Fritz Lang, both famous for their iron-gripped authority and exaggerated demands upon cast and crew. That the aristocratic DeMille loved to work in jodhpurs, riding boots, and riding crop at his side — and kept several lackeys employed just to fetch his chair and megaphone — did nothing to dispel that image nor endear him to his minions.

Despite his formidable reputation, however, DeMille could be tolerant toward his troops, especially around the holidays. But tyrant or not, the director’s movie message was made abundantly clear: the land of liberty had no place for rigid rulers with militaristic ideals, even if Hollywood’s own moguls failed the test.

DeMille’s staunch anti-New Deal Republicanism was evident throughout much of the Depression and intervening war years, a time when a growing number of Americans denounced President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a fascist. Along with directors Frank Capra, George Stevens, and John Ford, DeMille had done his bid to promote U.S. wartime propaganda by producing the long-winded Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), a stodgy, patriotic ode espousing courage and honor in the face of a growing oriental threat. No one could provide movie patriotism better than DeMille, when he put his mind to it.

With the Cold War having frozen relations with our former Russian allies, DeMille felt The Ten Commandments could resurrect the idea of our going back to an earlier, simpler time, when the world could be made safe again from opposing (read: Communist) viewpoints, if only we put our faith in God (read: country) and practice His (read: America’s) laws. “A noble task,” as Rameses would say.

DeMille’s magnum opus would re-create that ideal, orderly, God-fearing society he once knew, despite the magnitude of the changes already taking place within that society. He would provide the narration for his epic film, thus keeping up a running commentary on the action in a combination Christian-Greek chorus. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” was DeMille’s opening salvo. His obvious love for his subject, as well as his professed Protestant fervor — not to mention his rabid anti-Communism — were on full display in the seriousness and care with which he vested his pet project, a view that many involved in its presentation equally shared.

Clash of Acting Styles

In spite of the reverence and religiosity present throughout, the finished product laid claim to a wonderful clash of divergent acting styles.

To start, Charlton Heston played Moses as a tough and tender, sincere and long-suffering heroic type. Heston was no method actor, but steeped in the previous generation’s tradition of upright movie role models: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Randolph Scott, and Henry Fonda — men who were unafraid to foist their beliefs on others, while at the same time upholding the rigid standards set for them by the dictates of the studio system.

Heston brought to his part the same attention to detail and meticulous preparation DeMille had lavished on the whole widescreen venture. That he succeeded in conveying the prophet’s sincerity, given the most stilted of dialogue imaginable, is a testament to his professionalism and humility in the face of such a long and challenging assignment.

He committed whole sections of the Bible to memory, and would often wander off alone into the desert, ruminating to himself on the deeper meaning of the man behind the beard. He would repeat take after take until both he and DeMille were satisfied with the results. The actor has even acknowledged the importance this part played in his subsequent movie career; and certainly, most moviegoers remember him principally for his Moses and his star turn in Ben-Hur (1959), another religious period piece.

Heston, Brynner & Hardwicke (Paramount Pictures)
Heston, Brynner & Hardwicke (Paramount Pictures)

In opposition to this was the oriental-looking Yul Brynner, as Rameses II, the arrogant, jealous, vindictive, and abundantly charming main villain of the piece. The Russian-born Brynner — whose real name may have been Tadjie Khan — led a nomadic early life, as the publicity stories spun about him hinted. He was a circus aerialist who sustained life-threatening injuries from a freak fall, a guitar-strumming minstrel, a silver tongued orator and poet, a gypsy, a linguist, a singer, and a gifted stage actor.

But whatever Brynner was, he certainly wasn’t American. He was a “stranger” in a strange land, and, therefore, alien (or “evil”) in the fifties worldview — the perfect foil for Heston’s pure Americanness. Likewise, Brynner’s flamboyant personality was tailor-made for the part, though one half-expected him to insert a few lines of “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth” into the movie’s three-hour-and-thirty-nine-minute running time. The closest the screenplay came to this is to have him, and several other cast members, repeat ad nauseam, “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

Taking the phrase to its ultimate conclusion, the film closes with a striking shot of the stone tablets, lighted in a perfect Hallmark greeting-card moment, bearing the inscription: “So it was written, so it was done.”

The traditional Hollywood postscript would prove too mundane for DeMille’s lofty purpose.

The Baldness Factor

Another factor that fueled the Brynner mystique was his obvious baldness. He began to shave his head around 1950, for the role that would be most closely associated with him throughout his life: that of King Mongkut in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Interestingly, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev were bald, as was DeMille. It’s fascinating to note that the U.S. has had only two bald leaders in the past sixty years, “Ike” and Gerald Ford — and Ford wasn’t even a freely-elected president at that. But totally bald principal actors? They were certainly not the norm.

Although many of Hollywood’s best-known male stars (including Wayne, Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Ray Milland, Edward G. Robinson, and others) wore professionally constructed hairpieces, for a major film actor to assume his “natural” state on the screen, in 1956, was a bold and terribly independent move. This fifties aspect of grandfatherly respectability was not at all present among any of the macho icons of the period. That Brynner had the “head” for it, and became a bankable box-office draw for years to come, was a tribute to his intelligence and durability, in addition to his own innate marketing skills. He knew a good thing when he saw (and shaved) it.

In that same year, Brynner starred in three different productions: DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, the aforementioned King and I, and the screen adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s play, Anastasia. Each showcased him as a completely shaven lead. He rarely thereafter sported a full mop of hair, even in such Western dramas as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Westworld (1973). No doubt his sexy, clean-cut appearance helped contribute to his popular appeal, especially among the ladies.

And, should moviegoers not grasp the obvious implication, Brynner, as the absolute ruler of his land, can be viewed as a stand-in for the cue-balled Soviet leader Khrushchev, a rather dubious casting coup on DeMille’s part. The much hairier Heston, on the other hand, remained so throughout the bulk of his movie life, wearing a variety of mustaches, beards, side whiskers, and wigs in many of his most famous parts.

When you consider the latest resurgence of baldness on the large and small screens, via the likes of Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious, XXX), Patrick Stewart (the X-Men series, Star Trek: Nemesis), Bruce Willis (12 Monkeys, Unbreakable), and Michael Chiklis (The Shield, The Fantastic Four), there’s still a good deal of audience fascination with male actors whose sparse pates make up a large portion of their personae.

Looks are Deceiving

DeMille always maintained, and Heston often corroborated, that the decision to cast the then-untested performer in the longest and most expensive motion-picture production in Paramount history was based on the rugged star’s uncanny resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in the Roman Church of Saint Peter in Chains. In their respective autobiographies, both director and actor cite not only the astonishing physical appearance, but also the mystical look on Moses’ face, when compared to Heston’s own handsomely chiseled features.

Ever a stickler for detail, DeMille undertook a personal inspection of the statue to verify reports that it resembled his male star — right down to the broken cartilage in his nose. He even had an artist hand paint the actor in flowing robes and wispy white beard to document his confirmation of Heston as the right choice. At least, that’s what the publicity department led moviegoers to believe.

Recent research has revealed, however, that DeMille had another actor in mind for the grueling part: former Hopalong Cassidy and prematurely silver-haired cowpoke William Boyd, an early silent-screen stalwart and DeMille protege. The director-producer had to be “persuaded” to cast Heston as the lead in his mammoth epic.

Almost a decade later, Heston went on to film The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), the story of Michelangelo’s struggle with Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome — a perfect example of life imitating art, and art imitating life.

Men and Politics

It has often been suggested that Heston’s political education may have been formulated by his constant contact with the conservative-minded DeMille. Heston had already been exposed to him when he was personally handpicked to appear in The Greatest Show on Earth, only his second film feature. The director’s right-wing viewpoints may have possibly swayed the young actor into becoming a veritable poster boy for the National Rifle Association in his later years, or so it was believed.

Certainly, Heston’s participation in a number of family-oriented specials, his recordings of portions of the King James Bible, and the various videos produced with him in the Holy Land — in addition to his penchant for playing religious and historical personages — have fueled the controversy of whether or not his political outlook was shaped by the wily director/father figure.

For his part, Heston claimed not to have spent much time around DeMille. What would the director have thought of his star’s eager participation as a 1960s Civil Rights activist? Or his stint as president of the Screen Actors Guild, or his involvement with the National Endowment for the Arts? The argument does not hold up under scrutiny.

Edward G. Robinson as Dathan
Edward G. Robinson as Dathan

Unlike the American-born Heston, Edward G. Robinson (né Emmanuel Goldenberg) was a Jewish refugee from the East European country of Romania. In the film, Robinson plays Dathan, the chief Hebrew overseer and a traitor to his people. Ironically, HUAC had accused Robinson of being a Communist, even though some of his wartime activities included propaganda broadcasts for the Voice of America program.

At the time, however, his casting was perceived as a risky undertaking, in view of the turbulent political climate. Considering his ethnic origin, it was most disconcerting to see the quintessential movie tough guy playing a tattle-telling, finger-pointing Jewish overseer. Nevertheless, DeMille overcame the negative reaction, and his own loathing of anything remotely Red-tinged, by taking a chance on the dependable stage and screen star.

Miraculously, the role was credited with revitalizing Robinson’s stagnant acting career. He even spouted some colorful (if odd-sounding) repartee with the other cast members at key moments in the story, which added immeasurably to the liveliness of the goings-on. Still, it’s hard to shake off the persistent feeling that Robinson’s acceptance of this role was part-and-parcel to his coming to terms with previous accusations of his having been a Red rabble-rouser, despite being cleared of all charges.

It’s Raining Men

With his fey voice and seemingly mild temperament, the future king of horror flicks, Vincent Price, embodied the lascivious Baka the Master Builder. In reality, Price was an avid art collector, painter, and prolific writer on the subject. He went on to star in many of director Roger Corman’s film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and was highly influential in the work of Tim Burton, who gave the actor one of his best late-career screen roles ever as the creator of Edward Scissorhands (1990).

John Derek played the beefy stone cutter Joshua. Derek was just another hunk on the Hollywood backlot, before gaining a semblance of notoriety as a latter-day Svengali of sorts, by guiding — some would say misguiding — the respective acting careers of Ursula Andress (Dr. No), Dynasty co-star Linda Evans, and the lovely Bo Derek (10).

Veteran character actor John Carradine (the one with the cavernous voice, and father to Keith and David Carradine), is Aaron, Moses’ Hebrew brother; perennial shyster lawyer Douglass Dumbrille played Jannes the High Priest; associate producer and frequent DeMille collaborator, Henry Wilcoxon, is Pentaur, Commander of the Egyptian Host; and British stage and screen veteran, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, portrays Rameses’ father, Sethi.

Also in the large cast were several members who were to gain prominence in the film and television industries, among them former football star Woody Strode (Spartacus, Sergeant Rutledge, Once Upon a Time in the West), Clint Walker (Cheyenne, The Dirty Dozen), Michael Ansara (married to I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden), and future Mannix star Mike “Touch” Connors. Heston’s infant son, Fraser, plays baby Moses, and H.B. Warner, DeMille’s Jesus in the original The King of Kings, makes a sentimental (albeit emaciated) appearance as Amminadab.

There are guest shots galore by a veritable laundry list of Hollywood has-beens, also-rans, wannabes, and would-never-becomes, including Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Henry Brandon (Barnaby in March of the Wooden Soldiers, Chief Scar in The Searchers), Kenneth MacDonald, Luis Alberni, Ian Keith, Onslow Stevens, future Man from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn, Donald Curtis, Lawrence Dobkin, Eduard Franz, John Miljan, trumpeter Herb Alpert as a drummer (!), and Walter Woolf King (A Night at the Opera) as the Herald. Frank Wilcox, Frank De Kova (Wild Eagle on TV’s F Troop), Francis J. McDonald, and Frankie Darro round out the male contingent of supporting players — and share first names.

Main Squeezes

On the distaff side, Anne Baxter is the temperamental Nefretiri, the beautiful Princess of Egypt, and what a sight she is to behold! She’s a woman who’ll stop at nothing to get her man, and is not the least bit intimidated by the conceited Prince Rameses. She even commits murder for her beau, which makes Nefretiri out to be a character straight out of the film noir school of sexually liberated, headstrong, and possessive female types, obsessed with wielding their sexual power over their men, while using it to achieve whatever devious goals they have in mind (“Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”).

In this, she shares a close kinship to such screen sirens as Joan Crawford (Humoresque, Mildred Pierce), Bette Davis (The Little Foxes, The Letter), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Gene Tierney (Laura), and Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) — all of them strong, forthright, and uncompromising females worthy of the name femme fatale.

By contrast, Moses’ Bedouin wife Sephora, languidly played by Yvonne De Carlo, is simple, plain, dull, obedient, and most definitely not your party animal. Not surprisingly, both Baxter and De Carlo were the antithesis of their respective screen roles.

Anne Baxter as Nefretiri
Anne Baxter as Nefretiri

Baxter was American born, and could be coy, charming, shy or minxish in her parts. She appeared as Tim Holt’s girlfriend in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), won a supporting actress Oscar as the dipsomaniac in The Razor’s Edge (1946), and went on to do wonderful work as the backstabbing Eve Harrington in All About Eve (1950), in addition to starring in Applause, the belated Broadway version of the film.

De Carlo was Canadian by birth, and physically much less the demure type. She was a dancer at an early age and appeared in a number of Arabian Nights capers throughout the forties and fifties, before working with DeMille. Late in her career she co-starred as Lily, in the mid-sixties TV series The Munsters. In the show, De Carlo was the epitome of homey, drab domesticity, albeit in green makeup.

Following in De Carlo’s footsteps was Debra Paget, in the part of Lilia, the water carrier. She made several film forays for Twentieth Century-Fox, most notably in Broken Arrow (1950) with Jimmy Stewart, and Love Me Tender (1956) with Elvis Presley, his feature film debut. Paget had her share of flowery costume programmers, including a major role in 1954’s Demetrius and the Gladiators, before fading from view after the early sixties.

The talented Dutch-born actress Nina Foch played Moses’ surrogate mother Bithia. Foch did mostly supporting work early in her career, but gradually expanded into more prominent parts (An American in Paris, 1951; Scaramouche, 1952) before earning an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress for her turn in Executive Suite (1954).

Martha Scott is Yochabel, Moses’ natural mother. Scott was only nine years older than Heston, but was destined to play his mom again in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Olive Deering, who had the small role of Miriam in Samson and Delilah, plays Moses’ sister (also called Miriam). The Australian-born Dame Judith Anderson is Memnet, the minor manipulator of the drama, and Julia Faye is Elisheba. Faye was featured in many of DeMille’s silent epics and early talkies, and was once rumored to have been his mistress. She can be spotted in the Passover Sequence.

Sleeping with the Enemy

The prophet’s early life is all but unknown to most historians and scholars. This did not prevent DeMille from having his screenwriters invent one for him, much as they had done for the mighty Samson. One of these inventions involved an apparently far-fetched (but perfectly acceptable) love affair between him and Nefretiri, the future wife of Pharaoh. The other, although never outwardly mentioned, hinted at the possibility of an interracial relationship with Ethiopia’s Princess Tharbis.

Early on in the film, Moses is seen as a conqueror, but a just and honorable one. He returns home victorious from his siege against Ethiopia, with its King (Woody Strode) and sister Tharbis (Esther Brown) in tow — not as vanquished foes but as loyal allies. Later, Strode re-emerges as one of Bithia’s slave retainers, a poor reward for his allegiance. Tharbis has but one scene, and is the only one of the two with any dialogue. Her words to Moses are, “For he is kind as well as wise.” She presents him with a valuable jewel from her homeland, all the while exchanging knowing glances at him. Their looks are picked up by Nefretiri, who voices a half-concealed, half-jealous aside to Sethi.

It was unthinkable to audiences at the time to even speculate that Moses would have had a sexual tryst with this gorgeous African-American captive. Yet it is not above historical fact — and a guilty pleasure for anyone with an overactive imagination to envision such a prospect. Their dalliance would have made a novel and more believable subplot, with corresponding parallels to Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (more on that subject below), than the ludicrous Moses-Nefretiri-Rameses love triangle foisted upon the viewer. The subject went curiously unexplored in the film.

What is dwelt upon at length is the subjugation of the Hebrew slaves by the all-powerful Egyptian Empire, indisputably the essential conflict in the drama. It is significant for the time to stress this theme, considering that in Montgomery, Alabama, the boycott against the city’s segregated bus system was gaining momentum from Rosa Parks’ brave act of defiance only a year or so prior.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (i12bent.tmblr.com)

Civil Rights for Southern blacks were slowly coming to the forefront of national concern, and making steady headway, as the movie came to theaters. For his film project, DeMille chose to focus instead on Moses’ inner struggle and public turmoil over being both Egyptian and Jew, both master and slave, and the inevitable de facto Deliverer of his people. After the unprecedented success of the Montgomery bus boycott brought him to national attention, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went on to become the modern Deliverer of his people.

The real unspoken issue of the picture, then, is racism, which echoes the true feelings the Egyptian rulers had toward their Hebrew workers. And racism was at the very heart of the disturbances in the segregated South during the mid-1950s, which led to the overdue signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a modern handing down of the Commandments, of sorts.

Sexual Advances

The fifties was a time of simultaneous sexual repression and re-awakening, as witnessed by the publication of the Kinsey Reports (in 1948 and 1953, respectively) and their “shocking” survey of human sexuality among middle-class white America.

In the movie, many of the characters practice a rudimentary form of sexual promiscuity, as they go from person to person and back again. This cycle prefigures the “Swinging Sixties” lifestyle, what with the spirit of free love and wife-swapping espoused in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969); and the liberated seventies, with its pattern of aggressive male behavior to be found in such works as Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Shampoo (1975).

Indeed, there was a cloyingly fake wholesomeness to many of the TV programs of the period, most notably in the shows I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bonanza. They were television’s foursquare way of combating the very real — and more true to the times — feelings of alienation and angst, despondency and despair, loneliness and rebellion found among the nation’s youth, widely felt in such classic screen depictions as The Wild One (1954), East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Marty, and The Blackboard Jungle (all from 1955).

In the example of Lilia, the film’s youthful figure of charm, innocence, and naivete, she is both beautiful and desirable, but in a completely anti-Eisenhower Era way. Except for Joshua, the men in her life seldom see beyond her beauty, merely regarding her for the sexual pleasure they can derive from her. Both Baka and Dathan are in the enviable position to have any woman, but they choose her, a lowly Hebrew slave, instead. Undoubtedly, one of the downsides to hauling water is to fend off your master’s thirst for unsafe sex. Through her own free will, Lilia stays with Dathan (after Moses has disposed of the pesky Baka) in order to protect her true love, Joshua, from certain death in the copper mines of Sinai.

Baxter & Brynner (xoxoxoe.blogspot.com)

In keeping to the same basic plot device, Nefretiri loves Prince Moses, but loses him to the desert. She then marries the despised Prince Rameses, bears him a son, and eventually throws herself at the born-again Moses’ feet upon his return to Pharaoh’s court. But the now divinely-inspired prophet rejects her persistent — and hopelessly embarrassing — sexual advances.

True to his own character’s debauched nature, Prince Rameses in turn demonstrates an absolute disdain for Nefretiri, while displaying a cavalier disregard for her feelings concerning sex. At one point, he brags to her that she will be treated no differently than his other prized possessions, only he will love her more and trust her less.

Moses, too, is not above making a sexual choice of his own. Midway through the story, he is given the diverting task of selecting as wife one of the seven daughters of Jethro, the Sheik of Midian. He at first chooses none, even after they dance so enticingly for him. Subsequently, he sets his sights on the oldest daughter, Sephora, a real “looker,” in 1950s parlance.

Historically, he could have had them all. Since Jethro seems to be a most accommodating sort, he would not have objected to his future son-in-law’s bedding down of all seven of his female progeny. Multiple wives were fairly common among men of means in the Bedouin culture (cf. Sheik Ilderim from Ben-Hur). Naturally, a certain sense of gratitude would have been uppermost in Jethro’s mind for the profitable job Moses had done with his flock of sheep. His daughters appear willing enough. They all-but throw themselves at Moses’ feet in a vain attempt to pique his interest in them.

Music Soothes the Savage Director

As previously noted, DeMille’s picture bears striking similarities to Italian composer Verdi’s 1872 opera Aida, which was originally conceived to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Many of the film’s main characters have close corollaries to individuals in the opera: the jealous Nefretiri can be viewed as a possible Amneris type; the King of Ethiopia is a stand-in for Amonasro, Aida’s father; Moses is Radames, the victorious Egyptian general and Aida’s secret lover; Sethi (or Rameses) is, of course, the King of Egypt; Jannes, the High Priest, is Ramfis, the High Priest; Sephora (or Ethiopia’s sister, Tharbis) is a composite of the title character; and so on.

Truth be told, the association is entirely unintentional. Yet anyone familiar with the opera will detect many such coincidences in the plot of both works: the locale, the costumes, the jealous princess, the war between Egypt and Ethiopia, the political back-stabbing among members of the royal court, Moses and Radames’ dual allegiance, the betrayal for love, the judgment scene, etc., all of which lend further credence to this view.

The melodramatic situations in the movie, in addition to the flavorful, theatrical acting style provided by Baxter, Brynner, Price, Robinson & Company, can be euphemistically described as “operatic”, while the two dance sequences in the film form an interesting counterpoint to the two ballets performed in Acts I and II of the opera.

Elmer Bernstein (elmerbernstein.com)

But the main element supporting the operatic argument is the complex orchestral score created by novice movie composer Elmer Bernstein.

The favored musical idiom for many mid-fifties productions was jazz and pop, as evidenced by the scores of Leonard Rosenman for East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955), Elmer Bernstein’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Alex North’s Unchained (1955), Dimitri Tiomkin’s Friendly Persuasion (1956), and Victor Young’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Several hit songs emerged from these and other films, thus adding to the studios’ box-office grosses and setting a precedent for the simultaneous release of movies with their accompanying soundtracks.

For his film, DeMille insisted on the use of a traditional symphonic score straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Closely following the director’s advice, Bernstein based much of his material for The Ten Commandments on themes associated with the characters and events in the drama, a process not unlike that favored by German composer Richard Wagner, or, as DeMille suggested, what Giacomo Puccini had done with Japanese and American themes in his setting of Madama Butterfly, a work derived from one of Belasco’s stage plays.

It was fate that pointed to Bernstein as composer of choice for this gargantuan assignment. DeMille’s longtime film-scorer of the time, Victor Young, passed away suddenly after completing exhausting work for producer Mike Todd’s elaborate adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Suitably referred to, and hired by, director DeMille, Bernstein set about writing a most powerful and moving composition for a relative newcomer. It remains a favorite of movie-soundtrack collectors, having been reissued dozens of times on the Dot, Paramount, and United Artists labels.

Building Boom and Urban Flight

There is an enormous amount of building, hauling, lugging, moving, pulling, and tugging all through the picture, as there were in all of DeMille’s main set pieces. His cast of thousands (no exaggeration) seems to participate in never-ending toil and drudgery — or, at the least, in some form of mass movement. It was DeMille’s unparalleled ability to handle crowd scenes, among his other gifts, that brought him widespread fame and recognition in the film industry; and this was nowhere more in abundance than in The Ten Commandments, the ultimate crowd-pleasing picture.

This, again, is reflective of American society as a whole, which boasted the start of the federal and interstate highway systems, along with the building of the model community of Levittown, Long Island, in New York State. Incidentally, the historical Rameses II was one of the ancient world’s greatest builders. For the Hebrew slaves, however, it was more of an American-style dream in reverse, which proved to be a never-ending nightmare for them.

Characteristically, DeMille believed in the Protestant work ethic, which is, if one worked hard in this world one would attain material wealth and prosperity in the next as a reward for one’s labors. But no matter how hard the Hebrews worked, Pharaoh consistently thwarted their hopes for liberation. Sethi’s mad obsession with his Treasure City, his initial appointment of Prince Moses to build it, and Rameses’ subsequent undertaking of the huge building project, resulted in more bitterness and grumbling on the slaves’ part over their forced bondage and increased workload.

This reached a peak in Rameses’ order that bricks be made without straw, as punishment for Moses’ demands that the slaves be set free. This meant they had to glean straw from the fields by themselves prior to making their bricks, yet deliver the same tally (!) of bricks. As much as Pharaoh wanted to show the Hebrews who the boss really was behind the bricks, this was not a very intelligent (or even profitable) use of slave labor on his part, as Prince Moses so adroitly points out when he gave the slaves one day in seven to rest: “Blood makes poor mortar. The weak make few. The dead make none.”

Sethi’s Treasure City (accpaleo.wordpress.com)

Throughout the post-World War II boom years, America was on an unprecedented building binge. In New York alone, hundreds of construction projects were simultaneously underway that included new city playgrounds, new parkways, new expressways, new public-housing projects, all kinds of bridges and tunnels, and two enormously successful World Fairs.

One can only imagine New York’s master builder, Robert Moses (cf.), being told by one of Gotham’s mayors to build the city’s structures without gravel for concrete, or bolts for steel girders, as punishment for some silly infraction or other. New York City would be a far soggier place without them, and not the Mecca for tourism and finance it was fated to become.

Urban flight was another phenomenon represented by the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. During the 1940s and ’50s, the mass migration of blacks from the poverty, racism, misery, and despair of the rural South, to the perceived greener pastures of the industrialized North and Northeast, resulted in big-city budget woes and increased urban turmoil in such places as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Like the wandering Jews of the Middle East, poor city blacks and other racial minorities were faced with increasing challenges to their daily survival in a location and situation completely foreign to them. Their “manna from heaven” would take the unlikely form of bloated state welfare rolls, depressed public housing projects, inadequate health care, menial lowpaying jobs, demeaning labor, and unequal education — all major and worrisome issues that would come to a head in the decades to come.

Love Affair with the Automobile

What we know as the car culture was born in the fabulous fifties. It reached its apex in everyday life at about this same time. Being able to select an individually tailored conveyance from a vast array of makes, models, and types was what drove the American consumer market forward.

Even more than the object of this uniquely American love affair was the notion of being able to possess such a powerful, sleek, and chrome-covered vehicle as your very own pleasure wagon. Such personal freedom of choice, however, did not exist in the ancient time depicted in The Ten Commandments.

Be that as it may, Prince Rameses’ own love for his chariot epitomizes this obsession with the automobile; in his case, and at the very least, it established the chariot as the principal mode of transportation among the highborn Egyptian elite.

Rameses in his chariot
Rameses in his chariot

In his initial appearances in the film, the future Pharaoh is seen posing in front of his war wagon, much as any red-blooded American teenager would have done before his ’57 Chevy. Moses’ own entry into the drama is on board his chariot, as he leads his triumphal procession right under Nefretiri’s window.

With all the work being done on the federal and interstate highways throughout the postwar era, America’s factories needed to change over from a strictly wartime footing to a manufacturing one, in order to satisfy the insatiable appetites of car-hungry consumers. These newly minted autos were now ready to run on those very same highways, born of necessity, and, let’s face it, rampant, unchecked consumerism.

More than anything else, Egypt’s ceaseless building mania were buoyed by Pharaoh’s own vanity and pride in his accomplishments. His massive mobile army units, maneuvered by way of those same chariots, were poised to attack the fleeing Hebrews by the very same means. For Pharaoh, chariots represented a convenient way to combat those forces opposed to his autocratic rule. They became, for the arrogant Egyptian Empire, its ultimate weapon of mass destruction. As Rameses so sagely put it: “Slaves draw stone and brick. My horses draw the next Pharaoh.”

So let it be done.

Science vs. Religion

The popularity of the scientific method as a panacea for all life’s ills is put to the test in the film’s juxtaposition of radical views between Moses (now prophet) and Rameses (now ruler) regarding the plagues let loose on the once-fertile Egyptian soil.

Pharaoh and Moses
Pharaoh and Moses, with Jannes the High Priest

Rameses has a rational explanation for every manifestation that appears: the plagues are but scientifically explainable phenomena of natural occurrences found elsewhere in the world. “What gods?” he asks. “You prophets and priests made the gods that you may prey upon the fears of men.”

In contrast, Moses champions a more metaphysical outlook to those same phenomena, ergo faith produces miracles. His own transformation from man to mystic, for example, is an act of religious faith. And if God says there shall be plagues upon the land of Egypt, so let there be plagues.

In DreamWorks Studio’s animated version of the story, The Prince of Egypt, from 1998, Moses’ sister Miriam and his wife, Tzipporah, have a musical number in which they chant in unison, “There can be miracles when you believe.” This song added a Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston diva-esque sensibility to the mix, while at the same time displacing scientific analysis for feel-good gospel vibes.

According to Scripture, Pharaoh was moved by Moses’ pleas to free his people and finally let them depart from Egypt. But the Lord hardened his heart in order that Pharaoh might know that God was God, and serve as witness to the His coming miracles. In the movie, Nefretiri is shown as the main catalyst in this hardening process. After her firstborn son dies from the last of those nasty plagues, she decides to blame not Moses but Rameses (!) for his weakness in allowing the Hebrews safe passage across the sea, thus forcing him to wreak vengeance on the slaves by cutting them off at the pass.

Once more, the humanizing impetus and psychological motivation for this act — however wrongheaded it may be — can only be justified from the scenarists’ point of view. The original biblical narrative is much more dramatic, and gripping, than the flimsy movie excuse provided for us here.

The Rise of Televangelism

As stated in the film’s opening credits, DeMille firmly believed that those who saw his picture would one day be moved to make a pilgrimage over the same hallowed ground that Moses once walked. He understood the unique power of the film medium to move viewers to action. He also had great respect for his audience’s feelings regarding religious representations on the screen.

This view coincided with the revival of Evangelical Christianity in North America and the rise of religious programming on network television. There were regularly televised homilies by the likes of Episcopal Minister Norman Vincent Peale, famous for his self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking, and Roman Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, with his program Life Is Worth Living, seen by millions across the land.

Rev. Dr. Billy Graham (revbrentwhite.com)

And then, there was the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham, who broadcast his first televised Evangelical crusades during this same period, as did another golden-throated orator, the Protestant minister Oral Roberts.

Both Graham and Roberts began their careers as itinerant missionaries in the late forties and early fifties. They hit upon a winning formula of faith balanced with a passionate, born-again Christian following. Graham’s own Hour of Decision program started on radio, then moved on to television between the years 1951 and 1954.

Billy Graham (a dead-ringer for Charlton Heston in his youth) continued to televise highlights of his popular crusades for years thereafter, earning considerable favor with viewers with each subsequent showing. Certainly, he and his revivalist contemporaries intuitively sensed they could use the medium of television to further the spreading of God’s word to the needy masses of believers waiting to be saved.

TV audiences could be freed of their guilt, their sins, their troubles — and, yes, their hard-earned cash — by tuning in each week for their steady dosage of ready-made religion, just as they would for any pay-per-view, on-demand comedy, drama, action-adventure series, musical variety show, or sporting event.

Religion on the Big Screen

The televangelists in their television pulpits were only emulating on the small screen what moviegoers had been witnessing on the big one. In fact, a regular display of religious pageants — some good, some bad — began their decade-long dominance with DeMille’s own 1949 Technicolor spectacular Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, and the young Angela Lansbury. One could say, then, that the director got the heavenly ball rolling with this over-baked spiritual barnstormer.

This was followed, in 1951, by MGM’s sound remake of Quo Vadis?, which boasted a cast of Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Finlay Currie, and Peter Ustinov as a mincing Emperor Nero; and by Twentieth Century–Fox’s more sedate biblical offering, David and Bathsheba, with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Raymond Massey, Kieron Moore and Jayne Meadows.

The success of these films, along with the vast inroads made by television in luring away large numbers of movie audiences, forced the Fox Studios to prepare the next entry in the religious race: The Robe in 1953, starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Michael Rennie, and Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius. This story of Christ’s mantle earned considerable exposure as the first motion picture released in the new widescreen process called CinemaScope. It was a huge hit for Fox, and six months later bolstered the release of a sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), with Mature again, and co-starring Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, and William Marshall.

Not to be left out in the lurch, RKO cobbled together a version of George Bernard Shaw’s wordy religious drama Androcles and the Lion (1953), with Mature, Jean Simmons, and Alan Young; Columbia Pictures released Salome (1953), with Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger, and Charles Laughton as Herod, in which the heroine dances to save (!) the life of John the Baptist (British actor Alan Badel); while MGM bounced back with The Prodigal (1955), an outdated relic starring Lana Turner, Louis Calhern, and Edmund Purdom. All three were critical and box office failures.

Warner Brothers, too, assembled an all-star lineup, headed by George Sanders, Rex Harrison as Saladin, Virginia Mayo, and Laurence Harvey, for King Richard and the Crusaders (1954). It also introduced movie audiences to the young Paul Newman, in the infamously wooden The Silver Chalice (1954), based on the best-selling book by Thomas R. Costain.

Jack Hawkins in Land of the Pharaohs
Jack Hawkins in Land of the Pharaohs

The same studio released Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a more intellectually diverting desert precursor to DeMille’s own Egyptian foray of the following year. Directed by Howard Hawks, it featured leggy Joan Collins goading Pharaoh Jack Hawkins on to ignoble deeds. It was a valiant but doomed effort, despite a literate screenplay by William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz, and Harold Jack Bloom.

The routine, assembly-line aspect of these celluloid soap operas eventually led to their downfall, and peaked with two major productions from 1959: MGM’s Ben-Hur, a multi-Academy Award winner starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, one of the longest and best of the religious epics; and United Artists’ Solomon and Sheba, originally intended as a prestige picture for Tyrone Power, co-starring sexy Gina Lollobrigida opposite the villainous George Sanders.

With Power’s untimely death of a heart attack during mid-production, an uncomfortably bewigged Yul Brynner was entrusted to take over the part of the wise Hebrew king. The movie was directed by King Vidor and filmed on location in Spain, but neither the exotic locale nor the lush production values helped much at the gate. It was a passionless effort that paled next to the best of C.B. DeMille.

Toward the end of the decade, there was a precipitous decline in the number and quality of these flicks due to over-saturation of the market, competition from simultaneously released works jostling for audience attention, and stratospheric budget demands. One of these, Twentieth Century-Fox’s deluxe remake of Cleopatra (1963), with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, and Roddy McDowall, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, nearly bankrupted the studio.

The handwriting was clearly on the studio wall, and signaled the beginning of the end for the religious epic.

Family Ties and Knots

That was the least of Hollywood’s problems, as the basic family unit was being held up to ridicule at every turn, which may have been one reason for the decline in modern religious pictures.

Like the stoic Queen Mum of Great Britain, Egyptian Pharaoh Sethi patiently tolerates the misbehavior of his dysfunctional family group — possibly to gauge the temperament and fortitude of the future ruler of his domain — as he pits his adopted son, Prince Moses, against the offspring of his body, Prince Rameses, in a constant tug-of-war as to who will win the right for Nefretiri’s hand.

But who is this Nefretiri anyway, to whom is she related, and how did she become the object of the two brothers’ most obsessive pursuit, i.e., the sacred throne of Egypt?

The inherent problem with portraying the Egyptian royal family on the screen involves the ancient practice of marrying close relations in order to keep the royal bloodlines pure. Since they considered themselves gods incarnate, Egyptian kings and queens could only mate with other gods — and who better to mate with than your own kin? It was generally accepted that brother would mate with sister, and vice versa.

It’s never mentioned outright who Bithia’s true husband is, only that she is a widow and a sister to Sethi; nor do we know who Sethi’s spouse is, either. Therefore, it can be conjectured that they could, at some earlier time, have been betrothed to one another; and that Nefretiri may have been the by-product of their union. That would make Princess Nefretiri a blood relative of, if not half-sister to, the insufferable Prince Rameses — a reasonable enough assumption, given the circumstances outlined above.

This could not possibly have been mentioned at the time of the film’s release, for those kinds of incestuous relationships would not have stood up to the censors of the period, nor to DeMille’s pristine vision of a revivalist, Bible-spouting America. It is, however, the only reasonable explanation for her constant presence and influence at court.

Baxter & Heston
Baxter & Heston, going at it again

In contrast, the Moses bunch is comprised of more standard, working-class family fare, among them his brother Aaron, his sister Miriam, his natural mother Yochabel, his wife Sephora, his son Gershom, his father-in-law Jethro, and his six sisters-in-law. Still, Sephora and her siblings do not take part in the Passover. They are Bedouin sheepherders, and, ergo, more Gentile than Jew. Their ways are not Moses’ ways, yet they have a mutual understanding of his needs — and tend to get out of his way whenever he’s seen preaching about.

During the Passover Seder, the Hebrews huddle together to keep Death from delivering its fatal blow. With this, the Moses family has extended itself beyond the normally accepted boundaries to include his Egyptian stepmother Bithia, her Ethiopian slave retainers, and several Hebrew worshipers (i.e., Elisheba, Hur Ben Caleb, Mered, and Eleazar among them), who share the prophet’s vision for a better tomorrow.

Upon discovering his Jewish heritage, and after having lived and suffered with his people to learn the true nature of his ethnicity, Moses is banished to the desert for having killed the bullying Baka, the Egyptian mentioned in the Old Testament, who whipped poor Joshua into bloody submission after disrupting his liaison with Lilia. “I once killed so that he might live,” claims Moses.

The closely intertwined lives of these various characters, as established by the film’s imaginative screenwriters, are what keep this extended Moses family together through the many trials and tribulations placed in their path. This is strongly contrasted with the visible disintegration of the royal family, commencing with Sethi’s drawn out death scene, the deterioration of Rameses’ marriage to Nefretiri, her grasping at an unattainable “lost love” for prophet Moses, and the final demise of her only son and future heir to the throne.

Old Age Slowly Creeping

The passage of time is what, for most viewers, remains the film’s most irreconcilable defect. While Moses and the other Hebrews age noticeably from scene to scene, particularly after the prophet has seen his God, neither Rameses nor Nefretiri, nor any of the other Egyptians at court, age at all; nor, for that matter, do Dathan and his brother Abiram — they are more Egyptian than Hebrew anyway. And as far as ancient Egyptians go, one could say they were already “mummified” before they even died.

But the film doesn’t even live by its own rules, in that it only allows Moses to physically age through the unconvincing growth of longer (and whiter) facial hair and beard. There are no chicken necks, no crow’s feet, no crinkly skin visible anywhere, to give evidence to the aging process.

Moses & the Tablets
Moses & the Tablets

The prophet is as lean in senility as he was in his youth — and just as talkative, too, which is inconsistent with the biblical narrative that ascribes a stammer and slowness to his speech. His mental and physical acuity, however, remain unchanged: “His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.”

Life expectancy at birth in the 1950s was shown to be around 68 years of age for males, and slightly higher for females. Due to advances in preventative medicine and better quality health care, as well as free mandatory vaccinations for all Americans, life expectancy rates since the fifties have risen dramatically over the past 60 or more years to its present level of approximately 76 years of age for men, and 81 years for women.

There are no reliable statistics available from biblical times to substantiate any of the claims in it of male or female longevity. Not until the last scene of the film do we even realize that Moses is to be put out to pasture — probably due to his possessing the longest and whitest beard of any of the other male protagonists This dichotomy in the script has never been satisfactorily explained, but merely points up the picture’s old-fashioned quaintness in preserving for posterity the ideals of beauty, slimness, and desirability among its staple of fifties movie icons, permanently enshrined on celluloid as the glorious screen figures they were intended to be.

The mummification theory set forth above, then, is apparently not as farfetched as it may have seemed.

When the Cat’s Away…

After the plagues of Egypt have done their darnedest, and the parting of the Red Sea has saved the Hebrews from total annihilation, the actual handing down of the Commandments is pretty much a fait accompli or, more precisely, an anti-climax.

It is here, however, that producer-director DeMille happily comes into his own. He lets his cast of thousands loose on the set to cavort in all sorts of tempting ways, all to convince the greedy spectator of the mass degradation of the wayward Hebrews during Moses’ prolonged absence.

The scene is marvelously choreographed in a raunchy, Bacchanalian-style blitz of activity, with a bevy of beautiful chorus girls basking in the glowing spotlight, amid a bold profusion of gaudy (and eye-popping) Technicolor decor emerging from every frame: from purple, pink, lavender, and rose, to shimmering shades of red, yellow, and blue. Too, there is plenty of dancing and writhing to go around in orgiastic abandon about the Golden Calf, the very symbol of pagan decadence and idolatry. “They sank from evil to evil, and were viler than the earth,” DeMille solemnly informs us in voiceover.

At the climax, Moses appears on the summit, looking with thunderous scorn at this impressive array of sinners: “It is the sound of song and revelry.” Upon his descent from the mountaintop, he gives the children of Israel an apocryphal choice of life and good, and death and evil: “Those who do not live by the Law shall die by the Law.”

Ah, but there’s decidedly more fun in following the Golden Calf than in seeking forgiveness from a bunch of stone tablets, which Dathan opportunely hints at: it may have been carved by Old Man Mose himself — a likely proposition to his disloyal band of supporters, and an eerie reminder to audiences everywhere that even mature adults are wont to act like spoiled children when their fun has been interrupted.

God’s laws are basically blueprints for his flock to follow, a how-to guide to a fuller and happier life. In the Christian faith, we know that Moses was a harbinger of Christ’s coming. His tale of suffering and sacrifice predated that of Jesus’ own woes by several hundred years, and their inspiring stories share similar themes and events.

We are also taught that the Old and New Testament prophets were symbolic of what will surely come to pass for us all: that is, our own death and resurrection, which represent the longed-for hope for better things to come — if not in this world, then certainly in the next.

The End in Sight

Parting of the Red Sea (Paramount Pictures)
Parting of the Red Sea (Paramount Pictures)

So, too, was the hope of postwar America in the mid-1950s. God’s awesome power, as He parts the waters for the Hebrew slaves to safely pass through, becomes, by necessity, a doomsday weapon of its own, to combat Pharaoh’s formidable forces of chariots and spears.

Dark storm-clouds gather and threaten, in the now familiar and unmistakable form of a billowing mushroom cloud (in reverse), that leave us with the final, uneasy image of America’s nuclear arsenal, poised at the ready should any of our meddlesome foes dare to intervene in our worldly affairs — especially in our never-ending pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness: “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,” cries Moses. “Behold, His mighty hands. Who shall withstand the power of God?”

Who indeed?

Freedom has its own permanent and immutable reward. There can be no better, nor more consistent — nor more fifties — movie message than this. The price for it is eternal vigilance. ◙

Sources & Recommended Reading:

  • Eames, John Douglas. The Paramount Story, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1985.
  • Essoe, Gabe and Lee, Raymond. DeMille: The Man and His Pictures, Castle Books, New York, 1970.
  • Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Harper Perennial, division of Harper Collins, New York, 1994.
  • Kaledin, Eugenia. Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: “The 1950s: The Postwar Years and the Atomic Age,” Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 2000.
  • MacDonald, Laurence E. The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, Ardsley House Publishers, Inc., New York, 1998.
  • Munn, Mike. The Stories Behind the Scenes of the Great Film Epics, Illustrated Publications Company Ltd., Argus Books Ltd., Watford, Herts, England, 1982.
  • Nadel, Alan. “God’s Law and the Wide Screen: The Ten Commandments as Cold War ‘Epic’,” PMLA, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Volume 108, Number 3, pp. 415-430, May 1993.
  • Nichols, Peter M. “When DeMille Was More Auteur Than Showman,” The New York Times Publishers, New York, June 22, 1997.
  • Orrison, Katherine. Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments, Lanham: Vestal Press, 1998.
  • Raymond, Emilie. From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics, University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
  • Rovin, Jeff. The Films of Charlton Heston, Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977.
  • Segal, Alan F.The Ten Commandments,” Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Mark C. Carnes, ed., Henry Holt & Company, an Owl Book, New York, 1995.
  • Steinfels, Peter. “Looking Away From DeMille to Find Moses,” The New York Times Publishers, New York, April 7, 1996.
  • “The Movie Epic,” The Perfect Vision Magazine, Volume 6, Issue Number 22, July 1994.

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes (revised July 2016) All rights reserved