Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's musical gift could give America laryngitis.
"Remember, I have the longest lifeline you ever saw."
In a melodramatic biopic, that's not a good sign. George Gershwin (who started life as Jacob Gershowitz, according to his Last.fm biography) didn't make it to forty, in real or reel life. The American composer's tragic death was recent history in 1945, when Rhapsody in Blue arrived in theaters. Today, Gershwin's life story isn't so familiar, but his music is far from the end of its lifeline.
Facts of the Case
Young George and Ira Gershwin see a secondhand piano being hoisted into their family's Bronx apartment. Mom thinks Ira needs lessons, something he's not in agreement on, until she hears George showing off what he's learned on his own with a pay piano. Leap ahead a few years, and George (Robert Alda, in his first movie role) now has a stint as a song plugger for a music company, which only yields one success: meeting singer Julie Adams (Joan Leslie, This is the Army), who will be a part of his life until the very end. Soon, he's churning out hits, but his mentor, Professor Franck (Albert Bassermann, The Red Shoes), thinks he can be more: "George, you can give America a voice." He soon will be, revealing his gift in "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris," and Porgy & Bess. However, Gershwin is a young man who's moving fast, upset that his failed musical Half Past Eight wasted six months of his life. Life's too short—or, at least, Gershwin's turns out to be.
The DVD presentation of Rhapsody in Blue opens with an overture, without picture, featuring a medley of George Gershwin's music. It had a relaxing effect; his music is simply beautiful. It kind of made me wish they had pianists at the multiplex, although I must admit that a musician racing from theater to theater wouldn't quite create the same ambience. It's 10 minutes just for the ears, which is fair, since the eyes get 141 minutes.
I'd guess that Gershwin never lay awake with "gotta make time" running through his mind as the wheels of a train chugged ominously, as one montage depicts. Rhapsody in Blue is very much a tearjerker, with the constant theme of time running out. That's not just on the music he might have written, but on his love for the singer Julie. George almost marries another woman (Alexis Smith, The Horn Blows at Midnight) he meets while in Paris, and his associates will never let him forget that. "Why don't you relax and just become a human being again?" is a typical line. Eventually, Gershwin comes to the conclusion that, "Maybe way down deep, I'm just a family man—without a family." He heads down to Miami to see Julie, and perhaps change that, only to have her pretend to be engaged to another. Somewhere in there, the idea that married life could interfere with creativity keeps cropping up. Anyway, Gershwin died a bachelor. Is Rhapsody in Blue suggesting that his marital status, or lack thereof, was more important than his music? Probably, but he wasn't that long in the grave back in 1945, so the shortsightedness is just a little bit amusing.
Rhapsody in Blue does feature "Rhapsody in Blue," of course. It's done by a full orchestra, recreating its debut performance, and it feels something like a concert video, with plenty of shots showcasing the orchestra members as they play. Much of the music is sung—very well—by Joan Leslie as Julie. There are a few performances by people who played parts in Gershwin's real life, though. Al Jolson's blackface performance of "Swanee," while apparently based in history, will hit a sour note. However, Rhapsody in Blue also features African-American singers Hazel Scott (whose songs include "Fascinating Rhythm") and Anne Brown (who sings "Summertime" from Porgy & Bess, recreating her Broadway performance).
Rhapsody in Blue sounds good, even in mono. However, my copy of the made-to-demand DVD froze up twice and pixelated once around the halfway mark. There are the usual flecks and lines, but they don't present a problem.
An original trailer, emphasizing Gershwin's music and the many cameos, is featured.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With the emphasis on George's romances (or lack thereof) and doomed life, there's not much room for his collaboration with brother Ira, who put lyrics to some of that music. For that matter, George Gershwin is seen less as a composer than as a tragic figure. Sadly, this is a barebones release, with no commentary or other features to fill in the gaps between the reality of George's life and Rhapsody in Blue.
Rhapsody in Blue turns a important life into a tearjerker, but I must admit I felt my eyes watering by the end. Robert Alda and Joan Leslie do a good job of making viewers care about the melodramatic sadness underlying their characters. More importantly, George Gershwin's short life was long on great music, and there's a lot of it here. It may be corny at times, but Rhapsody in Blue will pique the interest of music lovers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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