Program Notes: Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

Rhapsody in Blue, the 1945 biopic on the life of composer George Gershwin, is lightweight drama.

But when it comes to Gershwin’s music, this Warner Bros. production is very serious indeed.

You’ll recognize that right off the bat when the first 10 minutes of the film are devoted to a blank screen and an overture made up of Gershwin hits like “Swanee,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

And by the time halfway through – when the film re-creates the premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (with baton-wielding bandleader Paul Whiteman portraying himself) – you realize that the movie, whatever its shortcomings, is a superb celebration of musical genius.

Gershwin (1898-1937) was not just a talented writer of popular and Broadway songs (I won’t list his most familiar tunes, since it would take forever). He was also a “serious” composer who melded the elements of classical music with the sound of the Jazz Age in works like “Rhapsody...,” “Concerto in F,” “An American in Paris” (all of which are performed in the film in their entirety) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess with its blues-steeped score and all-black cast.

Film Screening:
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Saturday, Sep. 21 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

With Gershwin’s vast and varied catalogue, this film is music heavy ... a good thing since dramatically it’s mostly Hollywood hokum.

Made only five years after Gershwin’s death from brain cancer, Rhapsody in Blue ran up against the composer’s estate, which had veto power over the screenplay (it controlled the music, and without the music there would be no movie) and insisted on avoiding anything controversial.

That may be why the movie Gershwin seems so bland. Robert Alda (who at the time had a 10-year-old son named Alan...yes, the future Hawkeye Pierce) either didn’t have much onscreen pizzazz or believed he needed to tone down his performance lest it ruffle feathers.

Director Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager, The Corn is Green, The Glass Menagerie) didn’t much like his leading man. He had been angling for the brilliant John Garfield, but was shot down by studio chief Jack Warner, who pushed Alda.

The result is a film that puts the music front and center, but often seems to be retreating from its central character.

There is, for example, the question of Gershwin’s sexuality. While the film faithfully lays out the broad arc of its subject’s life and career – from Tin Pan Alley song seller to penner of popular tunes to world-travelling serious composer – it relies heavily on two totally fictional romantic relationships.

One of these is with a singer (Joan Leslie) who befriends Gershwin early in his career and performs his tunes on the Broadway and nightclub stages. She loves him.

Then there’s the socialite (Alexis Smith) he meets in Paris and who turns his head.

In real life, Gershwin seems to have been married to his work. Indeed, historians have wondered for years if he was gay. Though many of his associates assumed this was the case, no one has been able to confirm any sort of same-sex relationship.

As one of his confidants asserted, “You know, George is bedding all those women because he’s trying to prove he’s a man.”

To which Gershwin’s friend, pianist Oscar Levant, responded: “What a wonderful way to prove it.”

If Gershwin’s romantic relationships in the film feel phony, his familial ones ring true. Here he’s a good Jewish boy absolutely devoted to his doting mama (Rosemary DeCamp) and eccentric papa (Morris Carnovsky), who evaluates the importance of his son’s compositions based on the time it takes to play them. And then there’s brother Ira (Herbert Rudley), who provided the lyrics for many of George’s greatest songs.

One of the cooler aspects of Rhapsody in Blue are the appearances of Whiteman, Levant (who also dubbed Alda’s piano playing), Al Jolson, and singer Hazel Scott (a major interpreter of the Gershwin songbook) as themselves.

But the real attraction here is the music. Which is great.

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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