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Director Stanley Donen never much cared for Deep in My Heart (1954). "It wasn't up my alley," he once said. "I would have run from that picture like crazy except for Roger [Edens], who wanted me to direct. Roger had been my biggest promoter. While Arthur [Freed] let me do On the Town  with Gene [Kelly], it was Roger who really thought that I had some talent and who must have been in Arthur's ear about it. Even back on Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, choreographed by Donen)."
Edens had served for many years as famed producer Arthur Freed's right-hand man, writing lyrics and music, arranging songs and supervising productions as needed. He had even won three Oscars® along the way. Deep in My Heart was Edens's first shot at producing a film alone and was to be another in a then-popular musical subgenre: the composer biopic. The subject was Sigmund Romberg, one of the biggest forces in American musical theater from the 1920s on.
Born in Hungary, Romberg migrated to America in 1909 at age 20. He steadily went from playing piano in restaurants to leading small orchestras to writing for vaudeville to composing hit shows of his own, which were sentimental, schmaltzy and hugely successful. Maytime, for instance, was so popular that for the only time in Broadway history two theater companies put the show on simultaneously - an event captured in the movie. In all, Romberg wrote some 2000 songs and composed 80 musical comedies, revues and operettas, the most famous of which are Maytime, The Student Prince, The Desert Song, New Moon, and Up in Central Park. All of those, incidentally, were made into movies themselves, some more than once. Romberg died in 1951.
Romberg's life got the movie treatment because other composer biographies had lately performed well - films like Till the Clouds Roll By (1946 - Jerome Kern), Night and Day (1946 - Cole Porter), Words and Music (1948 - Rodgers and Hart), and Three Little Words (1950 - Kalmar and Ruby). The problem was that they tended to be little more than revues of hit songs strung together by the most threadbare of plots - not exactly enticing material for a filmmaker. Donen said that even Edens wasn't too thrilled with the project: "Had the choice been his, I don't think Roger would have selected the life of Romberg. But he felt that as a first-time producer, he should do something that would be a success."
Helping matters greatly was an all-star lineup of guest "specialty" performers including Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Martin. The main cast was equally impressive: Jose Ferrer as Romberg, with support from Merle Oberon, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Henreid and famed American opera star Helen Traubel. Deep in My Heart marked Jose Ferrer's only singing role. Donen said, "Jose was my choice. He loved doing it. He studied singing all his life."
In structuring the movie, Donen recalled, "We didn't mind changing the songs' original contexts. We weren't trying to make a documentary; we wouldn't have known how. As Arthur Loew, Jr. said back during the '50s: 'Here at Metro, they think a documentary's a picture with only two musical numbers.'" Deep in My Heart has plenty, with highlights including "Lover Come Back to Me," "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," "Serenade," "It" (with a spectacular Ann Miller dance), "One Alone" (with Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell in a sensual ballet), and "Mr. and Mrs.," in which Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney perform a duet. (The two had recently married in real life.) Another impressive number is "Jazzado," in which Ferrer frantically runs through an entire show he is composing in six minutes, playing all the parts. The musical collage features amazing arranging work by Edens.
The most notable sequence, however, involves Gene Kelly and his brother Fred in Fred's only screen appearance. Fred Kelly was actually considered the dancer of the family as a teenager, and the most likely to make a living from dancing. While that prediction obviously turned out to be false, Fred was certainly talented, as this number reveals. It's called "I Love to Go Swimmin' with Women" and was written by Romberg for his 1921 Love Birds, though it was ultimately cut from that show. (The movie mis-identifies it as being from the 1914 show Dancing Around). The Kelly brothers play a fictional vaudeville team named the O'Brien Brothers, and as film historian Jeanine Basinger has written (in Gene Kelly), "they leap and twist and clown and hoof up a storm. Watching them is almost as close as a modern viewer can get to seeing and hearing what a real vaudeville show might have been like."
Basinger also notes that in "looking at Kelly's brother, one begins to understand what movie star charisma is all about. Fred is handsome, talented, and can dance. But his face has an ordinary quality, while his brother (who looks much like him) has that extra added something that marks the star - the added definition of on-camera character."
The Legion of Decency declared Deep in My Heart "Morally Objectionable In Part For All" - unheard-of for a musical - due to its suggestive costuming and dancing. That didn't stop it from becoming a big Christmas-time hit.
Producer: Roger Edens
Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Elliott Arnold (book), Leonard Spigelgass
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Sigmund Romberg
Cast: Jose Ferrer (Sigmund Romberg), Merle Oberon (Dorothy Donnelly), Helen Traubel (Anna Mueller), Doe Avedon (Lillian Romberg), Walter Pidgeon (J. J. Shubert), Paul Henreid (Florenz Ziegfeld).
C-132m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold