28 October 2016 | TheLittleSongbird
"The Swedish Nightingale" portrayed on film
Although no recordings exist of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind's, nicknamed "The Swedish Nightingale", voice, making it impossible to critique her for ourselves, she did a life interesting enough to dramatise and lend itself well to film.
Lind was somewhat of a controversial artist, earning admiration from several composers such as Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Mendelssohn ('Elijah' was written with her in mind) while critics admired some aspects of her singing but found faults with others. She also suffered a vocal crisis early on due to singing heavy roles while still very young and with an untrained technique.
It was interesting seeing her portrayed on film, but while the portrayal of the lady herself is difficult to find fault with apart from Barnum's involvement in boosting her career and mention of the vocal crisis (though in different circumstances) the biographical aspects are almost entirely fictionalised. 'A Lady's Morals' underwhelms as a biopic, and is uneven as a film too if not completely deserving of its initial maligning.
The best things about it are the music and Grace Moore. The songs written for the film are wonderful and very tuneful, and even more so are the operatic excerpts expertly interwoven when it makes dramatic sense for their use, especially "Casta Diva" from 'Norma'. Moore charms and beguiles, while it was 'One Night of Love' that made her a star this is a very winning film debut and she sounds fabulous in songs and arias well suited to her (yes even a killer like "Casta Diva").
'A Lady's Morals' looks great too, beautifully photographed with some lovely visual touches and elegant costumes and decor. Jobyna Howland is splendid too, Paul Porcasi has fun as the manager and Wallace Beery (a take or leave actor for me) makes a powerhouse brief appearance in an early role that doesn't resort to ham like some of his later performances.
Couple of aspects are uneven. Sidney Franklin's direction is the main one, succeeding more visually than dramatically. There are some imaginative touches here, especially the touch the audience looking over fire flames to the snow flakes falling viewed from a window. Some of his direction is very intelligently done and he stages the songs and arias beautifully. In others, he does struggle with making the comedy believable, is too careful which makes the film lose momentum and there are scenes that are trite and belong more in a typical and overwrought early film romance, such as the scene in the meadow.
Moore's leading man Reginald Denny plays some of his scenes with a debonair and charming air, but does have a tendency to go over-the-top and too often he is over-eager to the point of being somewhat creepy. The chemistry between him and Moore is sometimes sweet but at other times too overwrought.
Where 'A Lady's Morals' particularly falls down is in the story, which is pure hokum and contrivance (not just by today's standards, this was even for 1930, and even for that year it felt very out of date, when you compare it to other films from that year), Lind's life was actually far more interesting than what was portrayed here, lacks momentum in the non-song/aria scenes and seems to not be sure what it wants to be. It tries to be comedy, romance and tragic drama, and only succeeds properly in the songs and operatic arias.
The comedy isn't sharp enough and doesn't really belong here, the romance is hampered by Moore and Denny's chemistry not being consistently believable and painfully mundane dialogue and the tragic drama elements are just too melodramatic, over-the-top and drag the pace. The sound can be very muffled, particularly bad in the dialogue where it is not always easy at all to hear what's been said. Not that the dialogue is much to write home about in the first place.
Overall, it is interesting to see Lind and her life portrayed on film, but while it is a good representation of Lind herself the film really doesn't do her story justice, just feeling too much of a story for an average at best early film made before 1930. 5/10 Bethany Cox