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.