29 August 2009 | robert-temple-1
Amusing Comedy Drama of Singers in 1930s Budapest
This film is a pastiche. But then so are most operas and all operettas. Think of this as a kind of cineretta. The characters are trying to outwit each other and seduce each other and get ahead whilst singing at the same time. Duets are used to show both seduction and battle-by-personality, or voice-duels. It's a lot of fun, and not intended as a serious drama. John Barrymore manages to restrain himself from his most annoying mannerisms most of the time because he is in an ensemble situation, which meant that he could not be as mawkish and arch as when he was cast as a leading man opposite a lone actress, where no woman was safe from his roaming hands or his over-acting (and which was usually worse?), or his whiskied breath. Barrymore does not sing, which must be why no one passed out on the set. The singing is left to the others, as Barrymore is an impresario who makes or breaks them. All the gals want him to give them a contract, and he wants all the gals to do more than just sign here. The American singer born in Texas, John Boles, plays an egotistical, preening, successful Hungarian singer named Kovach. He does it very amusingly, avoiding going too far over the top, and he sings well. Gladys Swarthout, a Missouri-born opera singer who had left the Metropolitan Opera to make movies, and who was famous on the radio in the 1940s before being forced to retire through bad health in the 1950s, here charmingly plays a young singer who wishes to advance herself. Kovach (Boles) has handed her a first prize medal at her graduation from conservatory, and casually said he would like to hear her sing again and to look him up. He didn't mean it, but she takes him literally, so she goes and stands by the stage door and he doesn't notice her, she tries his house and can't get in, and eventually gets a job as his maid. By this means, having infiltrated his abode, she keeps trying to draw attention to her voice by singing, and he remains obtuse and does not notice. Events transpire in her favour, however, and he ends up appreciating her, then later falling for her. Barrymore gives her a contract, under the false impression that she is a Persian princess, and creates a huge publicity campaign about his new discovery, a Middle Eastern singing sensation (who just happens to speak Hungarian, and if you believe that you can believe anything, but anyway it's a Hollywood movie). Well, events ensue, and the ending must remain wrapped in satin, although the discerning might well imagine it. It's good fun if you are not too critical, and there is a lot of music, although much of it is rather low brow for people with genuine operatic tastes. The film is based on a play called 'The Yellow Nightingale' by the Austrian Hermann Bahr, and was filmed again in 1944 as 'Das Lied der Nachtigall' ('The Song of the Nightingale') in Bavaria during the War, presumably to lift German spirits as defeat loomed.