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The bandleader biographical film had its heyday in the 1950s, with Jimmy Stewart playing Glenn Miller, Steve Allen playing Benny Goodman, and Sal Mineo playing Gene Krupa. In 1956, pianist and bandleader Eddy Duchin got the musical biopic treatment, in an elegant film that had more than the usual share of drama and tragedy. Duchin had been the darling of high society in the 1930s, playing at New York's Central Park Casino. He married a society beauty who died in childbirth, and Duchin himself died young, of leukemia.
Duchin's son, Peter, himself a pianist and bandleader, writes in his memoir, Ghost of a Chance that The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) was a "labor of friendship" by some Columbia executives who had known his father. Their first choice to write the screenplay was another friend of Duchin's, playwright Moss Hart. But Hart was too busy, and the job went to Samuel Taylor, author of Sabrina (1954). Peter Duchin also recalls that "three of Dad's best Hollywood friends -- Cary Grant, Van Johnson, Tyrone Power - had wanted to play the title role. The choice of Power, with his dark good looks and boyish charm, seemed perfect." Power, who was 41 when production began, told the New York Times, "The real tragedy of Duchin's life was his dying at such a young age, only forty-two. I knew Eddy quite well...I used to visit him over there [indicating the hospital across from where he was filming on location] when he was a patient, toward the end." (Sadly, Power himself would die just a few years later, at the age of 44.) Although pianist Carmen Cavallaro played the music in the film, Power spent weeks learning the fingering so that he could be photographed "playing" the piano. He learned 20 of Duchin's numbers for the film.
Columbia's blonde bombshell, Kim Novak seemed an unlikely choice to play socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, Duchin's first wife. Novak was a Polish girl from Chicago who had been "Miss Deep Freeze," demonstrating refrigerators, when she was signed by Columbia and groomed for stardom as a replacement for the fading Rita Hayworth. High-strung and insecure about her acting ability, Novak nevertheless projected sensuality, and by the mid-50s, she was a top box-office star. As one of the era's reigning sex symbols, Novak was the object of the lustful fantasies of many young men, including Peter Duchin, then a Yale student. While the film was on location in New York, young Duchin and some of his Yale buddies went down to New York and met Novak. Later, he took her to meet his mother's best friend Marie Harriman, who along with her husband, New York Governor Averell Harriman, had raised Peter. Novak avidly quizzed Harriman about Marjorie's mannerisms and personality. Then the young man and the movie star went out on the town. Duchin discreetly draws a veil over what transpired between them that night, noting only that "I got as close to Oedipal ecstasy as I'll ever know."
Novak and Power may have projected onscreen chemistry, but their working styles and personalities clashed. Power was the classy professional, a veteran of the studio system; Novak was a young bohemian, whose inexperience and shyness made her volatile. Power told the press exactly how he felt about his co-star. "Confusion between temperament and bad manners is unfortunate...She made my life hell. She was often late, inevitably rude and incredibly cold." Novak responded in kind: "When things are going wrong, it is a waste of time to be calm."
There were other problems during production. While on location in New York, film crews went on strike. So director George Sidney, cinematographer Harry Stradling and Stradling's son, Harry Junior, photographed some of the scenes themselves without a crew, including a romantic walk in the rain in Central Park. Stradling's lush cinematography, Jean Louis' stunning costumes, Novak's ethereal beauty, and the nostalgic music - especially Duchin's theme, based on Chopin's "Nocturne in E-Flat Major" - all contributed to the aura of glamour and romance that made The Eddy Duchin Story a huge hit. Never mind that jaded critics like Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review were puzzled by the film's appeal. "Can anyone - I mean anyone - believe that the life of this stricken man was so beautiful? Does anyone really want to believe it?" Apparently, the answer was yes. Audiences loved The Eddy Duchin Story, and it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including cinematography, music scoring, sound recording, and story. Although it won none of them, it remains one of the most fondly remembered film romances of the era.
Director: George Sidney
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Samuel Taylor, from a story by Leo Katcher
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Editor: Viola Lawrence, Jack W. Ogilvie
Costume Design: Jean Louis
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Duning
Principal Cast: Tyrone Power (Eddy Duchin), Kim Novak (Marjorie Oelrichs), Victoria Shaw (Chiquita), James Whitmore (Lou Sherwood), Rex Thompson (Peter Duchin as a boy), Shepperd Strudwick (Mr. Wadsworth), Frieda Inescourt (Mrs. Wadsworth).
by Margarita Landazuri