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GREAT CARUSO, THE (director: Richard Thorpe; screenwriters: Sonya Levien/William Ludwig/based on the novel “Enrico Caruso his Life and his Death” by Dorothy Caruso; cinematographer: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Johnny Green; cast: Mario Lanza (Enrico Caruso), Ann Blyth (Dorothy Benjamin), Dorothy Kirsten (Louise Heggar), Jarmila Novotna (Maria Selka), Richard Hageman (Carlo Santi), Carl Benton Reid (Park Benjamin), Eduard Franz (Guilio Gatti-Casazza), Peter Edward Price (Caruso as a boy), Shepard Menken (Fucito), Ludwig Donath (Alfredo Brazzi,), Nestor Paiva (Egisto Barretto), Vincent Renno (Tullio), Alan Napier (Jean de Reszke), Carl Milletaire (Gino), Paul Javor (Antonio Scotti), Angela Clarke (Mama Caruso), Yvette Duguay (Musetta Barretto); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joe Pasternak; MGM; 1951)
“Hits a few high notes over the music but hits too many low notes after fudging the biography with too much fictionalization.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Musical biopic helmed by Richard Thorpe (“Ivanhoe”/”The Student Prince”/”A Date with Judy”) hits a few high notes over the music but hits too many low notes after fudging the biography with too much fictionalization (conveniently forgetting that Caruso was previously married and had grown children when he met his socialite second wife Dorothy). The dramatically uninteresting biopic is written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, who were inspired by Caruso’s second wife Dorothy Caruso’s book “Enrico Caruso his Life and his Death.”

Mario Lanza, the singing truck driver from Philadelphia, plays his childhood idol the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso, and similarly rose from childhood poverty to be an international opera star. He also sings the role of the late Caruso, offering some fifteen solo renderings of operatic and semi-classical songs (the film had some 27 musical numbers and all were finely performed). Ann Blyth was forced to sing the film’s one original song after the temperamental Lanza refused to sing “The Loveliest Night of the Year.” Amateur singer Blyth did a good job delicately singing it and it proved to be a popular song, which got Lanza to change his mind and record it afterwards.

Lanza had a big problem keeping his weight under control, which plagued him until he died at 38 from alcoholism and binge eating. The Great Caruso proved to be the biggest hit of Lanza’s film career, as four years later he was out of the movie business because of his uncooperative volatile nature and continued girth. This film was also his last MGM film.

The film hurriedly rushes through Enrico Caruso’s birth in 1873, in Naples, Italy, his joining the church choir, his beloved humble mother’s death, and as a young adult singing for spare change at a restaurant where he’s discovered by the great tenor Alfredo Brazzi (Ludwig Donath)—who is so impressed with Enrico’s singing that he places him in the chorus for a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.

Soon Enrico is heading the bill at the La Scala performance of La Giaconda. When he returns to his hometown he wows his friends with his success and fine clothes, and moves on when he learns the local girl he loved, Musetta Barretto (Yvette Duguay), has married. Enrico asks his homeboys to accompany him to his debut in London’s Covent Garden and there his stardom is born as he sings in Rigoletto. Impresario Park Benjamin (Carl Benton Reid) arranges for his Metropolitan Opera debut, and the tenor marries his socialite daughter Dorothy (Ann Blyth) despite her father’s disapproval. The marriage is a happy one, but Caruso’s health goes bad and he dies in 1921 at the age of 47.

The film looks good in Technicolor, it’s richly staged, the singing is glorious, and Mario Lanza has a great presence; but the film itself is superficial and the biopic is too inaccurate to be worth much. There was drama in Caruso’s life, but you would never know it from this film. It works best as a recorded program of excerpts from a string of popular operas, otherwise the filmmaker did an injustice to the great tenor by trying to keep him squeaky clean by keeping anything controversial and sad out of the mix.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”