That Midnight Kiss
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MGM brought culture to the masses with the 1949 musical, That Midnight Kiss, and created a new star in the process. In a burst of creative casting, young Mario Lanza, an Army veteran and former truck driver turned classical singer, made his film debut as an Army veteran and former truck driver who turns to classical singing.
Lanza had grown up listening to Enrico Caruso's operatic recordings. He was studying voice when World War II broke out, and he kept singing as a member of the all-military ensemble touring the nation in Winged Victory. When the show hit Los Angeles, actress Irene Manning spotted him and recommended him for a contract at Warner Bros., but studio head Jack Warner couldn't see past Lanza's 250 pound weight and passed on the tenor. Instead, he made his movie debut as an unbilled chorus member in the Winged Victory 1944 film adaptation. After the war, Lanza landed a recording contract and a wife, children and a new exercise/diet routine soon followed. The latter helped him catch MGM head Louis B. Mayer's eye at a Hollywood Bowl concert. Mayer signed him to a $750 a week contract and set out to find the right vehicle for his screen debut.
There was never any choice as to who would produce Lanza's films. Joseph Pasternak had come to MGM in 1942 after a string of hits with child soprano Deanna Durbin. Initially he was brought on to help develop MGM's own junior-league soprano, Kathryn Grayson. At her urging, he used their films together to popularize the classics. Although he never hit the artistic heights of MGM's top musical producer, Arthur Freed, Pasternak created a pastiche style that was immensely popular, mixing lighter and more recognizable classical numbers with popular music, including guest appearances by the era's top big bands, radio stars and recording artists.
For Lanza's screen debut, Pasternak created a romanticized version of the singer's own early career. Grayson plays an aspiring singer who discovers the musical truck driver, falls for him and gets him a job with the opera company funded by her grandmother (Ethel Barrymore). When the company's star tenor walks out in a huff, it's little surprise that Lanza is the only one who can take his place and scores a triumph singing opposite the woman he loves. The paper-thin plot provided an excuse for a collection of classical favorites, including arias from Rigoletto, Cavelleria Rusticana, Aida and L'Elisir D'Amore. For those who weren't interested in classical singing, the film also marked the last MGM outing for classical pianist Jose Iturbi, who plays himself as the opera company's conductor and takes time out to solo on Liszt's Piano Concerto and join his sister Amparo for Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.
Adding to the film's cultural appeal was Barrymore's presence as Grayson's grandmother. Mayer had signed the stage legend a year earlier, hoping that her presence would lend prestige to the studio's films. He even featured her prominently at the studio's many charity events. That Midnight Kiss was only her second film under contract. After playing a Russian countess in the period drama The Great Sinner (1949), she finally got the full MGM glamour treatment, complete with lacquered hair, a Helen Rose wardrobe and glorious Technicolor. The role even bore a passing resemblance to her own life. Just as her character had dreamed of being an opera singer in her youth, Barrymore had originally hoped to become a concert pianist before being drawn into the family business. Ironically, she had shot to stardom in the 1901 Broadway production of Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, playing an opera singer.
That Midnight Kiss and Lanza scored a huge hit with audiences. The studio rewarded him with a $10,000 bonus and more tailor-made vehicles, all of them produced by Pasternak. He rewarded them with temperamental outbursts, weight problems and continued box office success. Although his career was cut short by his early death, he did more than any other singer to popularize opera. His recordings continue to be in demand, with more than 50 million records sold to date.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Bruce Manning, Tamara Hovey.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames
Music: Charles Previn
Cast: Kathryn Grayson (Prudence Budell), Jose Iturbi (Himself), Ethel Barrymore (Abigail Budell), Mario Lanza (Johnny Donnetti), Keenan Wynn (Artie Glenson), J. Carrol Naish (Papa Donnetti), Jules Munshin (Michael Pemberton), Thomas Gomez (Guido Bertelli), Marjorie Reynolds (Mary), Arthur Treacher (Hutchins), Amparo Iturbi (Herself).
C-98m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller