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Music for Madame

Music for Madame(1937)

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teaser Music for Madame (1937)

1937 was the year Joan Fontaine's film career took off. Signed to a contract by RKO, she had made her film debut in MGM's No More Ladies (1935), billed as Joan Burfield. By the fall of 1936, she embarked on a string of productions, mostly at her home studio, at first in unbilled or supporting roles, but quickly in more important ones. Music for Madame was the fifth of six films in which she appeared in 1937, and she was by then a full-fledged leading lady.

In Music for Madame, the 19-year old Fontaine plays Jean, an aspiring operetta composer in Hollywood. She meets an Italian immigrant singer, Nino, played by Italian operatic tenor Nino Martini, who is an innocent pawn in a robbery by a pair of jewel thieves. Nino conceals his identity-and his singing voice-because he's afraid he'll be blamed for the robbery. All ends happily with Nino singing one of Jean's compositions at the Hollywood Bowl. The shenanigans are enlivened considerably by some of the era's most familiar and funniest character actors, including Billy Gilbert, Alan Hale as a detective, Alan Mowbray as a famous conductor (several critics noted that Mowbray was spoofing famed Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski), Erik Rhodes as a rival tenor, and Lee Patrick as Fontaine's roommate. There's also a hitchhiking scene that's a blatant, but charming, rip-off of It Happened One Night (1934), complete with a singing truck driver.

Fontaine is second-billed to Martini, who is really the star of the film. For Fontaine, it was another colorless "the girl" role, as was her next one, A Damsel in Distress, the difference being that in the latter she played opposite top RKO star Fred Astaire, and had a top director, George Stevens, and songs by George and Ira Gershwin. RKO did not renew her contract when it expired in 1939, but she finally became a major star when she played the second Mrs. DeWinter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca in 1940.

Martini had been discovered by producer and Paramount Pictures co-founder Jesse L. Lasky, who brought him to the U.S. to appear in musicals at the dawn of the sound era. Martini appeared in the revue picture Paramount on Parade and a few musical shorts in 1930, but when Lasky offered no appropriate roles, he devoted himself to an operatic and radio career. By the mid-1930s, there was a flurry of films starring opera stars, beginning with the success of Metropolitan Opera diva Grace Moore in One Night of Love (1934), which was hugely popular and earned Oscar® nominations for Moore and for the film as Best Picture. French coloratura Lily Pons also made a few films, and the films of both featured the sopranos singing pop songs. With their success, and that of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Lasky was ready to try again to make Martini a movie star. In a 1980 article about opera on film entitled "Golden Voices, Silver Screen," David L. Parker wrote, "Five years earlier, at the end of the opera film's first musical cycle, Lasky...had not renewed Martini's contract. Now he built three starring vehicles around him."

About Music for Madame, Parker writes that "Martini sang Rudolf Friml songs to Joan Fontaine, who portrayed an aspiring opera composer by walking around at parties holding a huge score sticking out in front of her...Martini told interviewers that, for the movies, 'I sing exactly as I do onstage or in my studio.' That, some reviewers felt, was precisely the problem: movies required something other than a regulation-opera-tenor approach. 'Martini is little more than a voice,' opined critic Otis Ferguson." Martini's thick Italian accent didn't help, and after Music for Madame he focused on opera and concerts. He made just one more film, the British-produced One Night with You (1948).

by Margarita Landazuri

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