Super Mario

Familiar to me mainly by reputation and from his appearance as a clay character in Peter Jackson’s HEAVENLY CREATURES, Mario Lanza made a late attempt at a comeback for Anthony Mann with SERENADE, loosely based on a novel by James M Cain. It’s quite an odd piece of work.

The early, rags-to-riches stuff lacks pep, and Lanza at this stage makes an unconvincing boyish youth. He plays an aspiring opera singer taken under the wing of society vampire Joan Fontaine (always satisfying in wicked mode). We meet her as she’s dumping a prizefighter, and she duly walks out on poor Mario as he makes his debut in Otello — rather than inspiring him to greater heights of conviction in the role, her absence causes him to wobble out of the theatre altogether, mid-performance. Finding her apartment empty, Mario learns she’s absconded with an up-and-coming sculptor, and claws her face off

(About two minutes in.)

When it comes to playing fraught human wreckage, Mario is unexpectedly adept, and we can forget his age now as he convincingly gives us a singer who has lost his voice, his self-belief and his reason to live. Resuscitated down Mexico way by the love of beautiful Sarita Montiel, he attempts to climb back to the top, but Fontaine is waiting for him.

The small crowd of screenwriters employed on this seem to have pulled off miracles of bowdlerisation, transforming Fontaine’s character from a gay man to a predatory society dame, and Montiel’s from a prostitute to a matador’s daughter. Montiel’s characterisation of Fontaine as “degenerate” seems like a hangover from the source book.

Homosexuality, ejected from the servant’s entrance, crashes through every window and floods down the chimney. Vincent Price plays Fontaine’s campy pal with sneering relish (but he’s actually kind of nice, underneath it all), and he gets absolutely all the good lines. The heroine who straightens Mario out (a touch inconclusively, as in the book) likes to drag up in her dead dad’s toreador duds, and assumes bullfighter stance to threaten her rival with a sword at a swank New York cocktail party (I never seem to get invited to parties like that). The silliness is augmented by other melodramatic contrivances — it seemed capricious of God to send a thunderbolt to make Mario and Sara stay together, only to send a bus to knock her down a few days later…

Cigar-smoking Sara Montiel likes to claim she was the love of Lanza’s life, though she was married to Mann… Rather than firming up A.M.’s rep for heterosexuality, this union may undermine it: “If he were Spanish, marrying Sara Montiel would be like marrying Judy Garland,” observes David Wingrove, Shadowplay informant.

Mann seems much more excited by the psychological mayhem and tense confrontations of the second half, although his enthusiasm comes and goes. Lanza fans will appreciate the large quantity of loud singing laid on for our enjoyment, and I appreciated it too whenever it synched with a valid plot motivation, which admittedly was about 75% of the time. With its two-part structure, use of San Francisco as a major location, broken-down hero, and hispanic influence, the movie seems at times like a faint pre-echo of VERTIGO, a film still waiting to be born at this point.

16 Responses to “Super Mario”

  1. Never even heard of this film until today. I must say it sounds like one of those fake movies written in post-modernist fiction. But then this feeling of the uncanny is common when one steps away from the canon and into the brambles of completion.

    Joan Fontaine went from the heights of glamour in the 40s to really seedy roles in the 50s. There’s her turn in Lang’s ”Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” as a socialite who sends Dana Andrews to the chair when she has an advantageous marriage on a platter.

    Sarita Montiel is okay in Fuller’s ”Run of the Arrow”(dubbed by Angie Dickinson).

  2. I think she’s good in this. Seems to be her own voice this time (although Angie Dickinson would be a good match, minus the accent). Fontaine is interesting because she did nice shy girls and wicked manipulators with equal conviction. But we all like to think the bad girl is closer to the real Joan!

    Mann took on a few unlikely projects in the 50s. I mean, one can see the appeal of The Glenn Miller Story in many ways, but it doesn’t seem to play to his obvious strengths. You can really see the moments he’s interested in with Serenade (strong conflict, music), and really feel those he’s sleepwalking through (most everything else).

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Montiel is Diva-Worshipped in Almodovar’s BAD EDUCATION. She is adored in Spain, even today.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Best of Fontaine’s simpering monsters: Christabelle in Nick Ray’s BORN TO BE BAD.

  5. That’s a good one, but she’s even more wicked in IVY.

  6. Montiel is teriffic in Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow.

    Would love to see Serenade remade in a version in line with the James M Cain original.

    Alas Werner Schroeter is no long with us. He would be perfect to direct.

    But there’s always Patrice Chereau.

  7. I always thought it perfectly reasonable that, if you’re not gonna have the evil queer conductor figure of Cain’s book, you split this character into two: evil female seductress (Fontaine) and bitchy male conductor (Price).

    It’s been many a year since I’ve read the Cain book, but I do remember chuckling over the way the Montiel character moaned over how the queer conductor “took the toro out of [our hero’s] voice.”

    For what it’s worth, the main writing team here (Ben Roberts & Ivan Goff) were writers for “White Heat” and “Band of Angels” and “Come Fill The Cup.” John Twist, the third name, also worked on “Band of Angels,” as “Colorado Territory.”

  8. Another adaptation of Serenade sounds like a smart idea, and Chereau seems like a good choice. Or else the guys who made Tilda’s The Deep End, who have past form in gaying up noirs? Not that the Mann film could really be called a noir, but it ought to have been.

  9. david wingrove Says:

    In a recent radio interview, Stephen Sondheim said he and Arthur Laurents were planning a stage musical based on SERENADE but dropped the idea once the film came out. With two such talents involved, one imagine the stage show would have been at least as gay as the book…possibly more so?

    As Almodovar’s film suggests, Sara Montiel remains the defining gay icon of the Spanish-speaking world. But when I showed the film on a Spanish film course, I had to work hard to convince students that Saritisima (as she’s affectionately known) is a real person. They all thought Almodovar had invened her!

    OK, Pedro has a flamboyant imagination, but not even he could dream up Sara in her prime. If anyone doesn’t believe me, see LA VIOLETERA or LA BELLA LOLA or (campiest of all) VARIETES. You’ll never be the same!

  10. The musical idea sounds like a natural — Sondheim should revisit the idea solo. The world is finally ready!

    I’m quite keen to see some more Saritisima!

  11. Here’s a very nicely-shot number from LA BELLA LOLA called “Porompompero.” Spanish is not my language, alas, so I can only rely and the look and sound of it all.

    There’s also a number on YouTube called “Las Camereras,” from VARIETES, which seemed a bit CAGE AUX FOLLES-ish to me. But perhaps I’m not the best judge …

  12. Sweet Jesus! The Camereras number is the very living end!

    But I think Porompompero is very nice indeed, stylish and atmospheric.

  13. david wingrove Says:

    Believe it or not, ‘Camareras’ isn’t even the campest number in VARIETES. That particular honour goes to ‘La bien paga’ (which translates as ‘She Who Is Well Paid’). A wildly melodramatic torch song about prostitution, with Sara lolling about in black lace lingerie in an Art Nouveau whorehouse. Classic!

    On a more sombre note, Ive just found out that Zsa Zsa Gabor is dying. Am utterly traumatised and using your blog to air my grief!

  14. As both a Mario Lanza admirer and an enthusiast of Mann’s Serenade, I found this a very entertaining take on the movie. In fact, I found myself agreeing with you more often than not.

    You may be interested in this forum discussion comparing the movie with the Cain novel:

    http://groups.google.com/d/msg/mariolanza/lwYPgr_IIa8/kkZmMe31TxkJ

  15. Thanks! I recently read Serenade at last — excellent book, and quite crazy. The changes made to the screenplay were perhaps inevitable in some cases, but in every case regrettable. Starting Lanza off as an ingenue was certainly a blunder, and an unnecessary one.

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