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MGM created the perfect match of actor and role when it cast Mario Lanza, the singing truck driver from Philadelphia, as legendary tenor Enrico Caruso in this 1951 musical biography. Not only had Caruso been Lanza's boyhood idol (he first learned to sing listening to Caruso's records), but like Lanza, the great opera star had risen from childhood poverty to international stardom while plagued with weight problems.
Lanza had been turned down for the movies on his first try when Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., deemed him too heavy for screen stardom. A few years later, a slimmed down Lanza scored a triumph at the Hollywood Bowl, with MGM head Louis B. Mayer in attendance. That led to an MGM contract and his film debut starring in That Midnight Kiss (1949). From the start, Lanza campaigned to get MGM to put him into Caruso's life story. After two more hit films, the studio bought the rights from Caruso's widow, Dorothy, and got to work on the picture that would always be associated with their new singing star - The Great Caruso (1951).
The script, from Hollywood veterans Sonia Levien and William Ludwig, changed a lot of history, conveniently forgetting that Caruso was married twice and already had grown children when he met second wife Dorothy. But they also offered opportunities for scenes from seven operas, a feat that helped musical director Johnny Green and conductor Peter Herman Adler win an Oscar® nomination. Here, too, however, they played with the truth, focusing on better-known pieces and overlooking Caruso's two favorite operas, La Juive and The Peal Fishers.
As if playing an operatic legend on-screen weren't enough, off-screen Lanza displayed enough temperament for a season-full of Met stars. His weight yo-yoed throughout the production. Costumes that fit properly on Friday, had to be rebuilt on Monday to accommodate weekend-long binges. He quarreled with everyone and refused to sing the film's one original song, "The Loveliest Night of the Year." Co-star Ann Blyth got to sing it instead. But when it became a hit, Lanza finally agreed to record it.
The Great Caruso was the hit of Lanza's film career, but it would also prove to be his last MGM film. He was scheduled to star in The Student Prince, but his weight and temperament led the studio to fire him after the soundtrack had been recorded. In his place they hired the non-singing but decidedly thinner and more accommodating Edmund Purdom, who lip-synched the songs to Lanza's vocals. Lanza would make only one more Hollywood film and two in Europe before his weight problems led to his death from heart trouble at the early age of 38.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, William Ludwig
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Costume Design: Helen Rose, Gile Steele
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Original Music: Johnny Green
Cast: Mario Lanza (Enrico Caruso), Ann Blyth (Dorothy Benjamin), Dorothy Kirsten (Louise Heggar), Jarmila Novotna (Maria Selka), Richard Hageman (Carlo Santi)
C-110m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller