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Serenade (1956), directed by Anthony Mann and starring Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine and Vincent Price, was a film that took nearly twenty years to make. Very loosely based on James M. Cain's 1937 novel, the film of Serenade bore very little resemblance to the original after Hollywood and the censors got through with it.
The novel revolved around a singer named Johnny who has an affair with another man - a conductor named Winston Hawes. After feeling smothered by his lover, Johnny goes to Mexico where he meets a Mexican prostitute who turns him straight and who later kills his male lover. Serenade renames Johnny as Damon Vincenti (named after Lanza's son at his insistence), a vineyard worker with an astounding voice, who is discovered by a wealthy society woman (played by Fontaine) who becomes his patron and his lover. She builds him up into a star, but when Fontaine dumps him, Lanza gives up singing and goes to Mexico, where he meets the lovely Sarita Montiel, no longer a prostitute but a sweet young girl who is the daughter of a bullfighter. She nurses him back to health and they marry but Fontaine is still on the scene. The gay lover of the novel is now split between Fontaine's character and Vincent Price's impresario. Also in the cast was opera star Licia Albanese, who became good friends with Lanza during filming, often spending time with the tenor and his family, a young Vince Edwards, who was cast at Lanza's request, and Edward Platt, best known for playing "The Chief" on Get Smart.
As early as 1940, actress Lupe Velez had expressed interest in filming Serenade, as gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported, but the Breen office (the official Hollywood censors) would not allow it without massive changes. Warner Bros., who had owned the film rights to Cain's novel since its release, had fought off bids from MGM and RKO, but seemed unable to come up with a script that would pass. Each version that was presented to the censors was always returned with a note saying that the producers had to "establish that there is no homosexuality." John Twist was hired to write an adaptation for John Garfield to star, but that fell through. In 1945, Warners announced that Dennis Morgan and Ann Sheridan would star in the film, but that, too, hit a dead end in August, 1946. Director Michael Curtiz was said to be directing Jane Wyman in the film, but he couldn't find the right leading man and the project sat on the back burner until Howard Hughes became interested.
American tenor Mario Lanza had had a meteoric rise to stardom but by the mid-50s, the meteor had cooled and in 1956, Lanza had been off the screen for four years. His weight, brought on by eating and drinking binges, ballooned to nearly 300 pounds. He had a wife and four children to support and he couldn't get a studio to back him for a film until Hughes, who was a fan of Lanza's, had lawyer Greg Bautzer try to buy the rights from Warner Bros., who wanted an astronomical $250,000. Eventually, negotiations broke down and Warners decided to make the film themselves, with Lanza in the title role.
Anthony Mann was hired to direct and during the production, he fell in love with 27-year-old Sarita Montiel. Mann would later end his 25-year marriage and was married to Montiel until 1961. The love affair caused a slight problem on the set, because Lanza had become infatuated with Montiel, who was involved with another man before her affair with the director. When Mann and Montiel's relationship became known, Lanza accused the director of trying to favor his girlfriend in their scenes together. Despite this, Anthony Mann remembered Lanza as "a nice guy with a world of charm."
Lanza pre-recorded his vocals in the studio in June 1955 and filming began on July 7, at the Warner Bros. studios. Joan Fontaine was said to have been scared of Lanza, who had a reputation for being difficult. It is reported that before their scenes together, Lanza would chew garlic because he thought she was trying to upstage him. Vincent Price, however, found working with Lanza very easy, saying, "He happens to own one of the greatest voices of our time. For him to pretend that he is unaware of this would be foolish and unbelievable. There's a big difference between being aware of your talent and being an egotist, believe me!"
Between filming on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, the crew went on location to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for five weeks of location shooting, including at the church of Templo de San Felipe Neri and a 200-year-old hacienda that belonged to the bullfighter Pepe Ortiz. During the crew's stay in San Miguel de Allende, Lanza sang for the locals at the La Parroquia church, the largest in San Miguel, where he was met with a warm reception.
The critics were mostly positive about Serenade when it was released in March 1956, although everyone noticed Lanza's weight gain. The film did not make a profit for Warner Bros., which is not surprising since many of Lanza's die-hard fans had moved on and rock-and-roll was the new, hot music. Opera wasn't the box office draw it had been just a few years before. Lanza was also running out of time; he would make only two more films before dying of a heart attack at the age of 38.
By Lorraine LoBianco
SOURCES: Barrios, Richard Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall Basinger, Jeanine Anthony Mann Bessett, Ronald L. Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile Cesari, Armando Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy Mannering, Derek Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods Price, Victoria Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography Vogel, Michelle Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire"