Rhapsody in Blue (1945)


(director: Irving Rapper; screenwriters: Howard Koch/Elliot Paul/based on a story by Sonya Levien; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: Folmar Blangsted; music: Ray Heindorf/Max Steiner; cast: Robert Alda (George Gershwin), Joan Leslie (Julie Adams), Alexis Smith (Christine Gilbert), Julie Bishop (Lee Gershwin), Albert Bassermann (Prof. Franck), Charles Coburn (Max Dreyfus), Morris Carnovsky (Poppa Gershwin), Rosemary DeCamp (Momma Gershwin), Herbert Rudley (Ira Gershwin), Darryl Hickman (Ira Gershwin as a Boy), Charles Halton (Mr. Kast), Oscar Levant (Himself), Al Jolson (Himself), Anne Brown (Herself), Paul Whiteman (Himself), George White (Himself), Hazel Scott (Herself); Runtime: 139; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jesse L. Lasky; Warner Bros.; 1945)

“It’s the usual inaccurate Hollywood biopic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Oscar Levant’s sardonic comment “Even the lies about Gershwin were being distorted,” tells you all you want to know how far Rhapsody in Blue strayed from the truth about George Gershwin’s life. It’s the usual inaccurate Hollywood biopic, but it at least has Gershwin’s jazz music to get you by all the dry spells. Newcomer Robert Alda, Alan’s daddy, makes his film debut playing George as a slick enthusiastic song man who rises from the slums of the Lower East Side to international fame and riches as a composer.

Director Irving Rapper’s (“The Adventures of Mark Twain”/”Now Voyager”/”Shining Victory”) workmanlike direction gives workaholic George two fictionalized romances, one with young singer Julie Adams (Joan Leslie) and another with wealthy painter socialite Christine Gilbert (Alexis Smith), but tells us he remains a bachelor because his work comes first. Rapper at least fills the glum biopic with pleasing songs such as “Delishious,” “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Bidin’ My Time,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Mine,” “Love Walked In,” “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Liza,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” It’s based on a story by Sonya Levien and written by Howard Koch and Elliot Paul.

The film tracks music-loving Bronx kids, the younger George and Ira Gershwin, growing up in humble circumstances as children of a grocer, as their mom (Rosemary DeCamp) buys them a second-hand piano to take lessons with Professor Franck (Albert Bassermann). George (Robert Alda) becomes a skilled pianist and finds work in a vaudeville theater and then in a music store, but his dream is to become a composer. When he insists on playing his own tunes, his unappreciative music store boss (Charles Halton) fires him. It leads to the persistent George’s meteoric rise to international fame as a composer, in collaboration with his lyricist brother Ira (Herbert Rudley). It starts with Gershwin’s first big hit “Swanee,” introduced on Broadway’s Winter Garden theater by Al Jolson (played by Jolson in blackface). Cigar smoking music publisher Max Dreyfus (Charles Coburn), who signed George to a contract, is happy to get George’s music on the stage, as a slew of hits follow after his success with composing the songs for George White’s Scandals of 1921. When Professor Franck wants his star pupil to do more serious compositions, George responds with “Rhapsody in Blue,” which debuts at Aeolian Hall in 1924 with bandleader Paul Whiteman (himself) conducting. This is the film’s centerpiece and is is done in almost its entirety, making the film at last come to life. After writing the score for the black opera Porgy and Bess, Oscar in New York plays George’s “Concerto in F” while George is in Los Angeles playing that tune until he succumbs to a brain tumor at the young age of 36. The grief stricken Levant, in the film’s only genuine moment of sadness, plays in his friend’s honor “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Oscar Levant provides the humor with his sly vulgarian one-liners as George’s closest friend, Morris Carnovsky is pleasing as the father of the musical genius who will move on to own a Turkish bath, and Julie Bishop plays the wife of Ira Gerswin. For me, the film’s highlight was the lively all-black number of ‘Blue Monday Blues’.