Label: Twilight Time
Released: May, 2014
Genre: Biography / Drama / Romance
Synopsis: Very Hollywood version of Eddy Duchin, a popular pianist who died young from leukemia.
Special Features: Isolated stereo music and effects track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment.
When pianist Eddy Duchin died from leukemia at the terribly young age of 41, he’d built up a striking career as a bandleader and performer, playing soft-styled orchestral jazz versions of contemporary songs and classical pieces for nightclubs, ballrooms, and live radio shows. His elegant style featured long, gliding swathes of notes and snappy counterpoint which reportedly influenced Carmen Cavallaro (himself hired to perform the music in the film) and later Liberace (minus the big coats and gaudy props).
The big question with this Jerry Wald-produced biopic is how much of the film is fact, since Duchin’s son Peter, himself an accomplished pianist, wrote an autobiography in 1996 (Ghost of a Chance) to clarify true facts versus the highly manipulative events in this glossy production that was a box office success in 1956.
Screenwriter Samuel Taylor (Sabrina, Vertigo) filtered and shaped events in Duchin’s life to suit the tried & true formula of a classic Hollywood weepie, and director George Sidney (Bye Bye Birdie) was no stranger to the MGM template of music + melodrama + schmaltz, but in spite of the sometimes crazily (and clichéd) structure of Duchin’s fast arrival and success in New York City with Leo Reisman’s orchestra at the long-gone Central Park Casino, once his romance begins with socialite / model Marjorie Oelrichs, the film starts to glide into a plush romantic interlude, and Sidney just milks the beauty of pretty NYC at dawn, daytime, and dusk, letting his pretty actors stroll through beautifully shot locations.
Known for his gorgeous studio work, cinematographer Harry Stradling (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Auntie Mame) went for a mix of gloss and realism, with most of the film’s exteriors shot in NYC. Even when the lighting may not be ideal due to cloudy skies, there’s a coziness to the shots of stars Tyrone Power and Kim Novak bonding in rain-soaked, empty sections of Central Park. Alongside the musical numbers, these are the film’s strongest sections, but after Oelrich’s dies from some unnamed issue (it’s presumed it’s from complications from giving birth to son Peter, but never clarified), the film switches to the difficult relationship between Duchin, back from a distinguished tour during WWII, and his son who treats him like a polite guest who happens to live in the same house.
Duchin’s absence fostered an initial disliking between father & son – a situation further aggravated by the unsubtle attitude from presumed nanny Chiquita Wynn (British actress Victoria Shaw) – but through the magic of music (and a common love and skill with the piano), relations between dad and Peter warm up, and Duchin learns to stop blaming his son for the death of Oelrichs. Of course, just as life starts to improve – a heady career, a renewed relationship with hi son, and Duchin’s preposterous attraction to very British Chiquita – that’s when Duchin’s barely referenced illness – leukemia – starts to take root, first with cramping hands that prevent playing, then indecisive doctor assessments, and finally a proper diagnosis that’s starkly terminal.
Screenwriter Taylor (and perhaps due to the influence of Sidney and producer Wald) treats death in a very strange way: Oelrich’s illness is never detailed, but there’s a hammy correlation between her fear of wind (it’s an omen, get it?), and Novak plays Oelrich’s wedding night like the couple’s one true moment of bliss. Peter also suffers (quite ludicrously) from a fear of wind (a problem easily solved by shutting the offending gaping windows on stormy nights), and when Duchin has a sit-down in the park with his son about his terminal illness, Power also addresses the audience like a father explaining Why People Just Sometimes Die. It’s well handled by Power, but the filmmakers never provide any clarity for the adults in the film, and cinemas.
Near the finale, Duchin’s admission to secretly loving Chiquita is forced, if not oblique, and gets silly really fast when Duchin leaves the house embarrassed, and Chiquita follows him into the street, up a raised pathway, and to the edge of the river in spite of having left a full dinner simmering on the stove. The waterfront scene is well-staged, but there’s a clumsiness to the acting because Taylor’s dialogue is trying to wrap up the sudden romantic sub-plot + Duchin’s emotional struggle + Chiquita’s desire to stay and look after Peter + Duchin trying to describe what’s ailing him in one speech. (Signs the dialogue was never perfected is evident in Power’s hasty overdubbing that’s supposed to identify Duchin’s illness.
Director Sidney managed to pull off the ending without much melodrama, and it’s quite clever: father and son reassert their friendship by playing a duet of Duchin’s signature tune, and after a sudden hand cramp and George Duning’s music stab, the performance switches to a solo rendition, just in time for the End Credits.
Although Wald had primarily produced glossy films at Fox, this rare outing for rival studio Columbia features the same high-caliber assets typical of his Fox productions – beautiful CinemaScope cinematography, striking locations, an attractive cast, heavy melodrama – plus star former Fox contract star Power (The Mark of Zorro, Captain from Castile, The Pony Soldier), who delivers a highly underrated performance, and transcends the film’s most treacly material. Power’s natural exuberance also pulls off the tough job of convincing audiences he’s can play Duchin as an energetic, go-getting kid straight off the bus to NYC. As the film progresses to the tragic finale, Power modulates his performance, lowering his voice to a smooth, resonant quality typical of a mature adult, and one already experienced with the highs and lows of life from wartime service, personal tragedy, and hungrily working to support his aging parents.
Sidney also sets up many shots to reinforce Power’s actually playing the piano – or at least miming the keys – through sweeping camera movements. A lesser actor may have had trouble with the film’s (melo)dramatic arc, and Power deals with the odd moments of maudlin drama within this otherwise slick and effective biopic.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a lovely HD transfer that should please fans of fifties NYC – most of the exteriors seem to have been shot on location – and Stradling’s lighting is slick yet never stagy, with the ballroon sequence of Power performing “Bazil” a major highlight.
The stereo sound mix is clean and well-balanced, and extras include an isolated music & effects track. (Duning’s score apparently no longer survives as a separate music stem.)
Julie Kirgo’s essay contextualizes the film with other fifties band leaders and musicians (these biopics are easily identifiable through their inclusion of “Story” in their long titles) who tackled their own respective tragedies, but her words are also a celebration of the high caliber of talent in front and behind the CinemaScope lens which makes The Eddy Duchin Story such a beautiful production; she’s quite right in describing the portrait of New York City as a pre-Woody Allen ode that’s also believable; where characters can stroll through empty parks and streets in clouds of romance, free from unwanted interruptions.
Kirgo is also spot-on in her assessments of the film’s stars and supporting actors, including ‘starchy’ Victoria Shaw. The Columbia contract star only made a handful of feature films – The Crimson Kimono (1959), Edge of Eternity (1959), Because They’re Young (1960), I Aim at the Stars (1960) – before slipping into the occasional TV show and apparently retiring in the late seventies. She’s perhaps best known for playing the medieval queen in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973).
Tyrone Power would make three more films – Seven Waves Away, The Sun Also Rises, and Witness for the Prosecution (all 1957) – before fatally succumbing to a heart attack at the equally young age of 44 during the making of Solomon and Sheba (completed and released in 1959 with Yul Brynner taking over the male lead).
© 2014 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review