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For the First Time (DVD Review)

23 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD-R
Not rated.
Stars Mario Lanza, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Johanna von Koczian.

Had Mario Lanza not died of a heart attack at 38 two months after the release of what then became his swan song, I wouldn’t be giving it space here. But he did, and the nature of this very influential tenor’s premature death informs the picture — unless, of course, the unlikely rumors turn out to be true that he was really killed by the Mafia for stiffing them on an agreement to deliver a private concert. Lanza looks mighty puffy here, with makeup working overtime to soothe his appearance — though, on the other hand, he is in very good voice, which is why his fans rate this picture near the top of his admittedly small big-screen pool.

I can remember an elderly acquaintance at the time who talked of just having seen For the First Time at a neighborhood second-run theater following Lanza’s death — and almost despairing the loss as she shook her head. My cousin also had the film’s soundtrack LP on RCA Victor’s classical Red Label, which included a minor hit of the day — "Come Prima" — that was also recorded by Dean Martin and, of all possibilities, The Platters (though I have no memory of this one, damn). My fellow 12-year-old wag buddies goofed around with the lyrics some, changing them to “Come Prima/Louis Prima/Figaro.”

I think 1959 must have had the greatest run of show biz deaths in history, and a shocked entertainment press ran a lot of articles on this at the time. Cecil B. DeMille and The Little Rascals’ Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer died on the same day in January, and less than two weeks later came the instantly immortal plane crash that took Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. Lou Costello and Raymond Chandler came next, but it was the second half of the year that was really incredible, starting with the mid-June shooting of George (Superman) Reeves to launch my summer vacation. The soon-to-follow spate involved not just veterans like Ethel Barrymore and Victor McLaglen but before-their-time personalities like Lanza, Preston Sturges (60), Kay Kendall (age 33), Wayne Morris (45), Errol Flynn (50), Paul Douglas (52), Max Baer, Sr. (52) and Gerard Philippe (36). I’m sure there were more, but these are the ones I vividly remember.

Of these, Lanza’s death was among the most shocking, though the singer’s problems with booze, weight gain and crash dieting had been so well chronicled in the ’50s that even then, it shouldn’t have been a total surprise. Oddly — and this is what gives Time the smidgen of fascination it carries — the temperamental singer Lanza plays here is famed for missing scheduled concerts and getting in public scrapes; there’s even an offhand reference to alcohol. But because this is MGM in the ’50s, we know he’s going to be redeemed — and at this point, Time comes pretty close to being the movie that (years later) Donald Sutherland’s title filmmaker in Alex in Wonderland, during a pitch meeting, said he would under no circumstances direct. You can almost guess it: Lanza’s “Tonio Costa” character meets a young deaf woman (Johanna von Koczian) who eventually has one of those operations termed as experimental and unlikely to work – though in movies like this, they always do.

Along for the ride is Zsa Zsa Gabor — who by virtue of showing up here, could always claim that she worked with Ferlin Husky (Country Music Holiday) and Lanza in consecutive years. Zsa (as her friends probably don’t call her) is cast as a contessa who wears a lot of jewels she’s probably obtained in barter for her own treasures; there is at least one obligatory but trademark bit of dialogue where the actress says, “Dah-ling” — and, of course, she says, “I sink” for “I think.” The film’s music selections embrace not just the operatic (Othello and Aida) but also a not-quite-rocker (but getting-there) confection called “Pineapple Picker.” Performed in a restaurant bar with a pineapple placed in Lanza’s hand, it would have made a great two-sided RCA Victor hit with Perry Como’s earlier “Papaya Mama.”

The director is Rudolph Mate, whose career once again begs the question (as Ernest Dickerson’s does) why so many great cinematographers choose to quit that line to become the director of movies beneath their original talents. This said, Mate did shoot The Passion of Joan of Arc and part of Cover Girl, while the credited cinematographer here is Aldo Tonti (Nights of Cabiria, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents and Reflections in a Golden Eye). Had some restoration been done on this print, the Capri-and-more locales would have probably made this one of the best-looking MGM movies of its era available a home format because Time was shot in Technirama — which also means Technicolor and not the day’s standard but inferior Metrocolor. So as it stands in this rendering, nature’s vistas are visually subordinate to a lot of young and comely European women who, from appearances, must have spent a lot of time listening to the previous year’s monster hit by The Royal Teens: “Short Shorts.”

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