It seems weird to think of opera singers as Hollywood celebrities. Although operatic musical conventions are frequently still borrowed on Broadway – Rent, Spring Awakening, American Idiot – and at the movies – Evita, Moulin Rouge, Repo! A Genetic Opera. Staged opera in popular perception is thought to be entertainment for the affluent, the culturally elite, public television viewers, and the age 60+. Some artists crossover – Sarah Brightman, Il Divo, Andrea Bocelli, even Josh Groban – but even they are not, well, rock stars. In mid-20th century Hollywood film there was a call for talented operatic singers who happened also to be young and sexy. The golden age of Broadway musicals occurred roughly between 1940 and 1970. There was a market in Hollywood not just for musicals turned into movies, but to provide an additional product, adapted in form and content from traditional opera, the movie operetta. An operetta is a light opera. It has more acting than an opera and more singing than a musical. The stars of this era were usually better singers and worse actors.
The Desert Song (1953)
In Desert Song, Gordon McCrea’s acting performance is characteristically frigid and Kathryn Grayson’s singing is, I think, tremulous. But she is gorgeous. In the story McCrea lives a double life as a docile anthropologist and as the secret leader of a rebellious Arab tribe. Kathryn Grayson is a French general’s overindulged daughter who finds herself an unwitting pawn in the local Arab war. Intended to capture vast Saharan mystery and danger, the scope of the musical looks and feels small compared to similarly set epics of the period. Yet, I have to admit that there is an almost inexplicable charm. Part of it is the sophisticated musical score (with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein). The other part is that the cast seems to take their participation in a ridiculous story quite seriously. I want to believe.
That Midnight Kiss (1949)
Less ambitious is That Midnight Kiss. An aspiring opera singer seeks theatrical greatness for herself and her talented, truck-driving boyfriend. What’s lacking in scope is made up for in singing. The singing does seem like the central entertainment purpose. This was the first film role for the great tenor Mario Lanza. His voice is magnificent and his acting is convincing, if a bit too enthusiastic. Kathryn Grayson stars in this one to, and she’s less affected.
These aren’t great films overall, but I enjoy the format. Outside of revisiting movies from this era, it’s a type of movie experience that is gone forever.