12 May 2011 | blanche-2
Lanza stars in film adaptation of James Cain novel
Mario Lanza, at the age of 34, was a complete mess - bloated from drinking, overweight, and making a film comeback of sorts. Though his voice had been heard in "The Student Prince," he hadn't appeared in a film in four years. "Serenade," based on the novel by James Cain, minus the gay love affair, was the vehicle to return him to the screen. Cain was a great lover of opera and incorporated it into this novel and also into the novel Mildred Pierce.
Lanza plays Damon, a vineyard worker with a golden voice who is discovered by a socialite, Kendall Hale (Joan Fontaine) who sets him up with a major voice teacher. With the help of Kendall and those around her, Damon is given a star buildup. The only problem is, Kendall is someone who encourages artists and then dumps them. Damon is in love with her, and on the night of his debut (we assume at the Met) singing Otello (a good choice for the story, but he never would have sung it until he was in his fifties at a minimum, if at all), she doesn't show up. He is so obsessed with her that right before he strangles Desdemona, he walks off stage, removes his costume and makeup, and goes to Kendall's place. What an idiot. His career in tatters, he goes to Mexico City and gets a job as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. But he's having a nervous breakdown. (No wonder - the role is completely wrong for him.)
Damon winds up ill and is brought back to health by a family which includes Juana (Sarita Monteil). With her help, Damon gradually feels strong enough to try singing again. But can he?
Lanza had a beautiful natural voice. Technique wasn't his strong suit -he scooped a lot and tended to oversing - but he brought opera to the common man. Before him, opera singers in films had been divas and divos - Jeanette MacDonald, Grace Moore et al. - but Lanza always played the truck driver with the beautiful voice. There were comments here on this site that his voice had darkened - frankly, at 34, that shouldn't have happened yet. As a person ages (we're talking 40s and 50s here) the vocal cords thicken and often, the middle voice warms up and becomes stronger, and some of the top goes.
Joan Fontaine, at nearly 40, was a stunning woman with a beautiful, slim figure. At this point in her career, she was playing the society woman, often in roles too young for her, as in "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." But the sweet, naive girl of Rebecca had turned into the rich woman with an educated speaking voice and cool looks. Unlike other actresses of her age, Fontaine managed to eek out more years in good films than some of her counterparts because of this change in image. She does a great job as the cold Kendall. As Juana, Sarita Monteil is beautiful and her passion and intensity are a great contrast to Fontaine. The gowns in the film were gorgeous for both women.
Mario Lanza was a tragic figure, possessed of a beautiful voice and a natural tendency toward stockiness. Due to the pressure on him to lose weight, his crash dieting and drinking eventually affected his heart. In fact, there was nothing wrong with his appearance or his very likable, relaxed screen presence. But, as with Judy Garland, Louis B couldn't leave it alone. Lanza was a problematic individual, difficult to work with and someone who sexually harassed his female costars. He was his own worst enemy, but what a legacy.