The other night we watched Rhapsody in Blue (dir. Irving Rapper, 1945). It was really quite good.
It was a special treat to see Oscar Levant playing himself. He must have written many of his own lines: "I've got a date with my insomnia [trans.: it's time to go to bed]" "If it wasn't for Gershwin I could've been a pretty good mediocre composer." And then there is:
Oscar: If I had your talent, I'd be a pretty obnoxious fella. What do you call yourself?Levant's style of humor is unique. Generally, it's the sort of thing that is usually called "self-deprecating," but with a difference. Usually one deprecates one's own intelligence and virtue. In his case, it is mainly his own happiness and health that he deprecates. His trademark is the wry comment on his multitudinous neuroses.
George: George Gershwin. It's my real name.
Oscar: Mine's Oscar Levant. I'm thinking of changing it.
A few years ago I purchased a copy of his autobiographical A Smattering of Ignorance. Maybe I'll read it now!
The musical numbers were beautifully done. As you can see in the above clip, they perform "Rhapsody in Blue" whole! I can't think of another studio-era Hollywood movie that depicts an entire performance of a symphonic movement. True, they seem to have cut some of it (this version is three minutes longer) but even Bernstein sometimes did this piece with cuts, so I am still impressed.
The storyline was less impressive, even though the great Howard Koch, author of my favorite movie ever, was involved. But I can't blame the writers that much. Gershwin was this workaholic who wrote a lot of memorable music, had a decade-long romantic relationship with a female composer whom he never married, and died suddenly at 38 of a brain tumor. Not a lot of a story there. Worse yet, he had a happy childhood and was a nice person who didn't quarrel with people. To get some kind of a story going, they invent a mentor for him, a wise old composer who dies during the Rapsody concert, and two fictional women, both of whom he loves. That, plus worries about whether he will offend both the critics and the public by combining jazz with classical music, and painful symptoms presaging his early death, are about all the dramatic conflict we get.
Robert Alda's performance as Gershwin is sincere and affecting. But what makes is all worth watching is the music -- and the lovably crotchety Oscar.