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Deep in My Heart (Blu-ray Review)

16 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive       
$21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Jose Ferrer, Merle Oberon, Helen Traubel.

A last-ditch effort to rekindle its ’40s commercial successes with all-star composer biopics, this year-end holiday release from MGM was, after Paramount’s White Christmas from the immediately preceding October-November, only the second full-scale musical I ever saw in theaters (that is, not counting comedy vehicles that happened to feature musical interludes). Thus, I approach it with twinges of nostalgia that most can’t be expected to have.

Nonetheless, the timing was fatally off for a Sigmund Romberg cavalcade, and what had worked at the box office (despite critical drubs) with Metro’s Till the Clouds Roll By (Jerome Kern) and Words and Music (Rodgers & Hart) failed, at least as a whole, to ignite. As it turned out, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” were only half-a-year away in jukeboxes, though no one realized the ramifications at the time. To say nothing of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” which would, ironically, energize the opening credits for MGM’s Blackboard Jungle in just three months’ time.

This is no knock on Romberg operettas: If “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” was supreme-o enough to be recorded by Artie Shaw, Art Pepper, John Coltrane and the Modern Jazz Quartet, it’s more than good enough for me (and the same goes with “Lover Come Back to Me” and Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, and, well, you get the picture). But the Romberg project had kicked around since the late ’40s when the composer was still alive, and there was stiff competition on Christmas 1954 marquees: The Country Girl (at least in New York and L.A.), There’s No Business Like Show Business, 3 Ring Circus, Vera Cruz and especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which went way beyond the normal giant-squid demographic to become one of Disney’s biggest hits. Even so — and even though it ultimately led to red ink in the studio ledgers — Heart did manage to get held over for a second week at the most posh of my hometown’s 2,800-seaters, so there must have been at least little life left in “Siggy” (his affectionate nickname in the movie) yet. At least in the hinterlands.

Designed in part to showcase the versatility of lead Jose Ferrer, Heart came out a few months after the actor had scored nicely as military lawyer Barney Greenwald in the popular movie of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny opposite Humphrey Bogart, a name supporting cast and those steel balls. Ferrer tap-dances here and even engages in some modified hot-cha with portly soprano Helen Traubel (who’d continue to exhibit a good-sport sense of humor opposite Jerry Lewis in 1961’s The Ladies Man). There’s even the Mrs. and Mrs. number with Ferrer and his then-wife Rosemary Clooney — a blast-from-the-past screen remembrance of a matrimonially rocky real-life couple that almost matches seeing Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds together in RKO’s Bundle of Joy from a couple years later. Photos of Romberg suggest a guy with something of Traubel’s girth, so you do wonder about the degree to which (if any) tap was a part of his life.

The Traubel and Clooney pairings with Ferrer are two of this 132-minute feature’s high points, but it has to be said that a lot (or even most) of the script never overcomes a lot of moldy strudel. The story follows an episodic rags-to-riches trajectory that even then was a very worn template, and it didn’t help that MGM cost-cutting had scrapped Technicolor for dribbly Eastman Color (the Metrocolor moniker hadn’t yet taken effect). Even on this generally handsome Blu-ray, Traubel’s opening scene looks unpromisingly washed-out — though a lot of what follows looks good or (see Ann Miller’s “It” number) even grand. Visually, some of the “It” bit looks something like one portion of the extended "Broadway Rhythm" number from Singin’ in the Rain. The effect is semi-identifies Heart as a Stanley Donen movie, though I don’t think many would make a case for the movie qualifying as anyone’s auteur work.

Interestingly, producer Roger Edens and director Donen would, before long, reunite for Funny Face, which was inspired by fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s romance with future wife Doe Avedon (though they’d eventually divorce, which throws a bit of a pall over Face’s sublimely romantic finale). Interestingly, it is Doe herself who plays Ferrer/Romberg’s real-life (and life-long) Mrs. in what turned out to be a brief screen career — beginning with the strong debut impression she’d made as the flight attendant in The High and the Mighty a few months earlier. It doesn’t hurt things here to have a love angle introduced maybe an hour in, but the courtship subplot sets up the movie’s low point: a gruelingly prolonged scene in which Ferrer acts out the entirety of his coming play for his intended and her mother — which then ends up with him in blackface. Again, Fats and Chuck were waiting in the wings.

Keeping it positive — because this is a movie that asks a lot of any viewer who want to savor the jewels — an added high point is the number that made the strongest impression on me as a kid: Gene Kelly and brother Fred (they helped run the family dance studio in Pittsburgh pre-Gene stardom) in “I Love To Go Swimmin’ with Wimmin’” — which, for want of a better term, can be described as a stylized “beach frolic.” Its message offered my 7-year-old self a solid role model for future behavior — and its rowdiness is in stark contrast to the movie’s unusual and even poignant wrap-up: Ferrer sitting down on stage, and Avedon unexpectedly resting her supportive head on his shoulder as the symphonic orchestra in back of them performs Romberg’s wonderful “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” It’s almost as if they sense that the MGM musical has only limited time before it’s grows too old to breathe.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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