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Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue(1945)

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teaser Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

"Even the lies about Gershwin were being distorted."
- Oscar Levant's comment on how far the film Rhapsody in Blue veeredfrom the truth about George Gershwin's life.

Hollywood had expressed interest in doing a biography of America's mostinfluential modern composer ever since his untimely death in 1937, but ittook eight years to finally get the story on the screen. Part of that timewas consumed in legal affairs, obtaining the rights to the Gershwin musicallibrary, but it was just as difficult coming up with a screenplay from alife that was notably devoid of conflict. If what they ended up with was afiction with the Gershwin name attached, at least Rhapsody in Blue (1945)featured 22 of his greatest songs and excerpts from five of his instrumental pieces,performed by such noted Gershwin interpreters as pianist Oscar Levant,singers Al Jolson and Anne Brown and conductor Paul Whiteman.

Various writers on the Warner Bros. lot labored over the story for years.When playwright Clifford Odets took over the project, he drove his fellowwriters crazy playing recordings of Gershwin's music all day to get in themood. The result was an 800-page screenplay about class struggle,featuring the young Gershwin's battle to rise from poverty to gaininternational acceptance as a composer. Most readers thought it was moreabout Odets than Gershwin, so Warners assigned another writer to theproject and used portions of Odets' screenplay a year later for anotherpicture with a musical background, Humoresque.

What stymied most of the writers was the lack of dramatic material inGershwin's life. It wasn't that his life was devoid of romance. He wasrumored to have had flings with everyone from Adele Astaire to Fay Wray.Friends noticed that he was always proposing to beautiful women, none ofwhom took him seriously. After his death, a gold-plated key to Frenchactress Simone Simon's Hollywood home was found among his possessions. Noneof that was considered screen-worthy, so writers Sonya Levien, Elliot Pauland Howard Koch created two fictional romances for the film, one with ayoung singer (Joan Leslie), the other with a society woman (Alexis Smith),both of whom leave the driven Gershwin rather than compete with hiscareer. With no major setbacks in his career, the writers magnified theimportance of "Blue Monday Blues," a one-act opera dropped from GeorgeWhite's Scandals in 1924, and used it as motivation for Gershwin'sfirst serious piece, "Rhapsody in Blue."

To make up for all the fiction in the screenplay, the studio spared noexpense on creating the trappings of authenticity. They borrowed severalof Gershwin's personal belongings -- including his worktable, a silentpiano keyboard he used when he traveled and even some of his paintings --from his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, who also served as a consultant onthe production. The art department re-created some of the most famoustheatres and concert venues in Gershwin's career, including Aeolian Hall,where "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered; the Los Angeles PhilharmonicAuditorium, the Comedie-Francaise and the Winter Garden, Music Box andApollo Theatres. For the Porgy and Bess sequence they built anexact reproduction of the opera's original stage setting. They also hiredseveral performers who had introduced Gershwin's music to the world,including Anne Brown, who had sung in both "Blue Monday Blues" and thepremiere of Porgy and Bess. Al Jolson, who had introducedGershwin's first hit, "Swanee," in the musical Sinbad, performed thenumber in the same costume he had worn in that 1917 show. When band leaderPaul Whiteman, who had commissioned and conducted the first performance of"Rhapsody in Blue," showed up for his scenes, the makeup department had toshave off his mustache to put on a fake one more like the style he wore in1924. Since he'd lost weight recently, the costume department addedpadding to his clothing so he would look more like himself.

The wisest choice Warners made in seeking authenticity was hiring longtimeGershwin friend Oscar Levant, who at the time was considered the premierinterpreter of his works. Not only did Levant record the performance of"Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F" used in the film, but also he playedhimself. Some critics even suggested that he had written his own lines.Certainly, his presence -- and his acerbic one-liners -- helped capture thesophistication of the era in which Gershwin reached the height of hisfame.

Rhapsody in Blue was one of Warner Brothers' biggest hits of 1945. Itdid so well, the studio followed much the same formula in filming their 1946Cole Porter biography, Night and Day (even down to casting a friendof the composer's, this time Monty Woolley, to provide comic relief). Italso provided a smashing screen debut for its star, Robert Alda, whodelivered a strong performance as Gershwin. Alda would go on to stillgreater fame as a Broadway musical star, particularly as the original SkyeMasterson in Guys and Dolls, before watching his son, Alan Alda,rise to even greater heights.

Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Howard Koch, Elliot Paul
Based on a story by Sonya Levien
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes, Anton Grot
Music: Ray Heindorf, Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Robert Alda (George Gershwin), Joan Leslie (Julie Adams),Alexis Smith (Christine Gilbert), Julie Bishop (Lee Gershwin), AlbertBassermann (Prof. Frank), Morris Carnovsky (Poppa Gershwin), Rosemary DeCamp(Momma Gershwin), Herbert Rudley (Ira Gershwin), Darryl Hickman (IraGershwin as a Boy), Oscar Levant, Al Jolson, Anne Brown, Paul Whiteman,George White, Hazel Scott (Themselves).
BW-142m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

"Even the lies about Gershwin were being distorted."
- Oscar Levant's comment on how far the film Rhapsody in Blue veeredfrom the truth about George Gershwin's life.

Hollywood had expressed interest in doing a biography of America's mostinfluential modern composer ever since his untimely death in 1937, but ittook eight years to finally get the story on the screen. Part of that timewas consumed in legal affairs, obtaining the rights to the Gershwin musicallibrary, but it was just as difficult coming up with a screenplay from alife that was notably devoid of conflict. If what they ended up with was afiction with the Gershwin name attached, at least Rhapsody in Blue (1945)featured 22 of his greatest songs and excerpts from five of his instrumental pieces,performed by such noted Gershwin interpreters as pianist Oscar Levant,singers Al Jolson and Anne Brown and conductor Paul Whiteman.

Various writers on the Warner Bros. lot labored over the story for years.When playwright Clifford Odets took over the project, he drove his fellowwriters crazy playing recordings of Gershwin's music all day to get in themood. The result was an 800-page screenplay about class struggle,featuring the young Gershwin's battle to rise from poverty to gaininternational acceptance as a composer. Most readers thought it was moreabout Odets than Gershwin, so Warners assigned another writer to theproject and used portions of Odets' screenplay a year later for anotherpicture with a musical background, Humoresque.

What stymied most of the writers was the lack of dramatic material inGershwin's life. It wasn't that his life was devoid of romance. He wasrumored to have had flings with everyone from Adele Astaire to Fay Wray.Friends noticed that he was always proposing to beautiful women, none ofwhom took him seriously. After his death, a gold-plated key to Frenchactress Simone Simon's Hollywood home was found among his possessions. Noneof that was considered screen-worthy, so writers Sonya Levien, Elliot Pauland Howard Koch created two fictional romances for the film, one with ayoung singer (Joan Leslie), the other with a society woman (Alexis Smith),both of whom leave the driven Gershwin rather than compete with hiscareer. With no major setbacks in his career, the writers magnified theimportance of "Blue Monday Blues," a one-act opera dropped from GeorgeWhite's Scandals in 1924, and used it as motivation for Gershwin'sfirst serious piece, "Rhapsody in Blue."

To make up for all the fiction in the screenplay, the studio spared noexpense on creating the trappings of authenticity. They borrowed severalof Gershwin's personal belongings -- including his worktable, a silentpiano keyboard he used when he traveled and even some of his paintings --from his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, who also served as a consultant onthe production. The art department re-created some of the most famoustheatres and concert venues in Gershwin's career, including Aeolian Hall,where "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered; the Los Angeles PhilharmonicAuditorium, the Comedie-Francaise and the Winter Garden, Music Box andApollo Theatres. For the Porgy and Bess sequence they built anexact reproduction of the opera's original stage setting. They also hiredseveral performers who had introduced Gershwin's music to the world,including Anne Brown, who had sung in both "Blue Monday Blues" and thepremiere of Porgy and Bess. Al Jolson, who had introducedGershwin's first hit, "Swanee," in the musical Sinbad, performed thenumber in the same costume he had worn in that 1917 show. When band leaderPaul Whiteman, who had commissioned and conducted the first performance of"Rhapsody in Blue," showed up for his scenes, the makeup department had toshave off his mustache to put on a fake one more like the style he wore in1924. Since he'd lost weight recently, the costume department addedpadding to his clothing so he would look more like himself.

The wisest choice Warners made in seeking authenticity was hiring longtimeGershwin friend Oscar Levant, who at the time was considered the premierinterpreter of his works. Not only did Levant record the performance of"Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F" used in the film, but also he playedhimself. Some critics even suggested that he had written his own lines.Certainly, his presence -- and his acerbic one-liners -- helped capture thesophistication of the era in which Gershwin reached the height of hisfame.

Rhapsody in Blue was one of Warner Brothers' biggest hits of 1945. Itdid so well, the studio followed much the same formula in filming their 1946Cole Porter biography, Night and Day (even down to casting a friendof the composer's, this time Monty Woolley, to provide comic relief). Italso provided a smashing screen debut for its star, Robert Alda, whodelivered a strong performance as Gershwin. Alda would go on to stillgreater fame as a Broadway musical star, particularly as the original SkyeMasterson in Guys and Dolls, before watching his son, Alan Alda,rise to even greater heights.

Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Howard Koch, Elliot Paul
Based on a story by Sonya Levien
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes, Anton Grot
Music: Ray Heindorf, Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Robert Alda (George Gershwin), Joan Leslie (Julie Adams),Alexis Smith (Christine Gilbert), Julie Bishop (Lee Gershwin), AlbertBassermann (Prof. Frank), Morris Carnovsky (Poppa Gershwin), Rosemary DeCamp(Momma Gershwin), Herbert Rudley (Ira Gershwin), Darryl Hickman (IraGershwin as a Boy), Oscar Levant, Al Jolson, Anne Brown, Paul Whiteman,George White, Hazel Scott (Themselves).
BW-142m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

back to top