Eddy Duchin Story, The (Blu-ray Review)17 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, Victoria Shaw, Rex Thompson.
Although Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa were bigger household names and presumably more presold at the box office in the 1954-60 movie era, society pianist Eddy Duchin rated the best biopic of the bunch during that period — one perhaps second only to 1955’s Ruth Etting saga Love Me or Leave Me, if you want to figure femme show biz performers and non-bandleaders into the equation.
As Andrew Sarris noted in The American Cinema, director George Sidney had an ability at times to rebound from catastrophic screen disasters, which he occasionally peppered into his filmography along with movies of indisputable merit like The Harvey Girls and Scaramouche. So just as he later followed the red-ink tsunami of Pepe with the hit movie version of Bye Bye Birdie, this weeper-with-music for Columbia Pictures came right after Jupiter’s Darling and its parade of color-coordinated elephants did what it could to sink the MGM musical. I’m guessing that not many expected Story to come off as well as it did at the time — that is, as a movie that I can remember being held over for a second week at one of my downtown movie palaces when only the most popular audience magnets did. And it seems over the years to have garnered some critical respect (Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted on the back of the jacket here, and no one would ever accuse him of being in the tank for glossy Hollywood fare).
Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. does pour on the gloss here, and it’s good thing, too, because the picture captures upper-scale New York City (no Village bohemians in this movie) about as well as any other screen portrayal did at the time. Though Duchin came from humble roots, he played for society’s well-washed, and his first wife (played by Kim Novak here) was super-tight with the wife of statesman, diplomat and eventual governor of New York Averell Harriman back when powers-that-were more polished than, say, Canada’s Rob Ford. This is a lovely look at the midtown Manhattan that only the relatively privileged could afford, the kind that once engendered a Mel Torme concept LP bout what the city can be like when the temperature and humidity are moderate. Giving the story its depth, though, is the tragedy that befell Duchin, whose mid/late ’30s recordings for Victor and Brunswick and early ‘40s work for Columbia Records are welcomely ubiquitous on my Ipod audio archives.
Novak was getting the big post-Picnic push from honcho Harry Cohn at her home studio — and in some unusual opening credits for their day, she manages to get her name on the CinemaScope screen before lead Tyrone Power’s when the actor is, after all, playing Eddy Duchin in a picture about Eddy Duchin. More unexpectedly, though it’s true to the facts, Novak vanishes from the picture at about the halfway mark because her real-life character (society beauty Marjorie Oelrichs) died days after giving birth to son Peter Duchin, who, of course, eventually became a popular pianist himself. This family tragedy, followed by Duchin Sr.’s self-imposed estrangement from Peter during the latter’s youth, casts something of a pall over the movie’s second half, though this potential body blow is overcome by the potent staging of a couple key musical numbers and the strength of the performers — and not just Power. Matching him is young Rex Thompson, who soon thereafter would play one of the kids in All Mine to Give, a beloved-by-some family drama from RKO’s waning days that jerks the tears of those easily jerked during its frequent Christmas season TV revivals.
During his long tenure at 20th Century Fox, Power didn’t have much use for the movies he made that were not named Nightmare Alley — and given the four good-or-better non-Fox titles that he got to make shortly before his death (The Long Gray Line, this, Abandon Ship! and Witness for the Prosecution), it’s compelling to speculate where his career might have gone had he lived past 44. Knowledge of the actor’s premature passing from a coronary while filming 1959’s Solomon and Sheba can’t help but dovetail with our reaction here to Duchin Sr.’s own death at 41 from leukemia — more evidence that this is a more somber musical biopic than usual.
As for the piano production numbers, two of the liveliest come late in the movie when the story needs them: some musical fooling-around between father and son during rehearsal that turns out to be a great bonding experience plus the brilliant Scope-comfy staging of "Brazil" — which is not only the movie’s high point but one of the screen’s most dazzling pop extravaganzas of the ’50s. Carmen Cavallero re-recorded all of the Duchin tunes here so that both the picture and the Decca soundtrack album could boast high fidelity up to what were then industry standards. Heavily influenced by Duchin in the first place, Cavallero, like his predecessor, sometimes played in a flourish-heavy style that drives some people crazy — though neither really got out of hand (check out Roger Williams’ summer-of-’55 hit of “Autumn Leaves,” for one who’s playing sometimes did). I grew up with the Story soundtrack LP, which sold big-time in its day, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s never been out of print.
The movie itself boasts Technicolor photography from a time not too long before Columbia moved over to a brown-ish Eastman/Pathe process that made much of its color library from the period look like a promotion for Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps album. My recollection is that for all of Stradling’s artistry in the framing, the picture’s color never looked as knock-your-socks-off stunning as with other era Columbia releases that come to mind — which is why this Blu-ray looks decent enough without matching, say, Criterion’s release last year of Delmer Daves’ Jubal, which the studio originally put out not quite three months earlier in ‘56. But for an actor who’s playing an occasional hard-ass here — which, by the way, is good for credibility — Power’s infectious smile is of Technicolor intensity all the way (3-strip equivalent, in fact). You can really see here why he was such a big star despite all the movies he made that were beneath him.