Program Notes: The Great Caruso (1951)

The subject of The Great Caruso is, of course, the legendary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), whose vocal maturity coincided with the development of recorded sound.

But for today’s moviegoers, the real subject is Mario Lanza (1921-1959), the charismatic American singer who portrayed Caruso on film, who possessed one of the great voices of the 20th century, and whose rise and fall provide a textbook example of the pitfalls that await the unwary (or the overconfident) in the predatory world of Hollywood.

Watching this film more than 60 years after its creation, one is all too aware of the movie’s shortcomings – for example, hammy performances that sometimes seem like a Saturday Night Live spoof of movie Italians.

And living in an era that gave us Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, one might not expect much from a dramatically creaky old movie. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to great tenors.

Film Screening:
The Great Caruso (1951)
Saturday, Sep. 28 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But when Mario Lanza opens his mouth and sings, you immediately understand the mania that surrounded his Hollywood debut, the adulation, the money, and the huge box office enjoyed by The Great Caruso, which became the highest-grossing film worldwide in 1951.

The soprano Maria Callas described Lanza’s as “the greatest tenor voice I've ever heard." And just about every famous tenor of the last half-century has claimed Lanza as a major influence.

Born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, he was early on recognized as a rising talent and landed a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Changing his name to Mario Lanza, he wowed the Boston critics by singing in a student production, then moved on to a furious concert schedule.

Curiosly, Lanza didn’t have much of a career on the opera stage. Hollywood, radio, and the recording industry came calling so early in his development as to render unnecessary the usual slow-but-steady climb through the world’s great opera houses.

Lanza became a star virtually overnight. And perhaps it was that sudden success that led to his downfall.

For despite his obvious talent and fame, Lanza nursed a gnawing insecurity about not having paid his dues.

In 1947 he was given a seven-year film contract by M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer, who had heard him sing at the Hollywood Bowl. So instead of cutting his teeth on the opera stage, Lanza earned his chops in movies.

He was solid enough in his first two M-G-M outings, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans. But it was The Great Caruso that rocketed him into the stratosphere. Displaying both good looks and a powerful voice, Lanza was dubbed the “singing Clark Gable.”

Along with movie fame came triumphs as a recording artist. Lanza was a rarity among opera stars in that he enjoyed and excelled at non-operatic material. In fact, his album of Christmas songs is a perennial seasonal best-seller more than a half-century after his death.

Lanza’s decline came about almost as quickly as his rise. He was dismissed by MGM from his followup film, The Student Prince, reportedly after a dispute with the movie’s director. Some have accused Lanza of exhibiting diva-ish behavior. Some have claimed his fluctuating weight was an issue.

Ironically, when the film was released another actor lip-synced to the songs already pre-recoded by Lanza.

With his M-G-M contract dissolved, Lanza sought refuge in isolation and alcohol. On top of that, he faced bankruptcy over $250,000 owed to the IRS.

He made one more American film – Serenade – for Warner Bros. in 1956, but it wasn’t particularly successful.

Lanza decided to start over in Europe, making the film Seven Hills of Rome in Italy and giving concerts throughout the Continent.

But his health declined – reportedly he turned violent when drinking and suffered from hallucinations – and in 1959 he suffered a minor heart attack. Entering a clinic in Rome to undergo an intensive weight-loss regiment, he died suddenly at age 38. No autopsy was performed, but most informed medical authorities believe he suffered a fatal blood clot in the lung.

As if this weren’t tragedy enough, his widow died just five months later, leaving their four children orphaned.

Other films in the series “Cinematic Intermezzo”

September is Classical Music Month. This film series offers title that explore the other long-haired music.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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