“Deep in My Heart”–Stanley Donen and Sigmund Romberg

Some years ago, I was at a memorial for a friend who had appeared at the Compass in Chicago. I saw a man standing to the side looking a bit perturbed. Elaine May was attending the memorial and, putting two and two together, I realized who he must be and took a stab at why he might be perturbed. So I went over and said, “I enjoyed the interview with you on TCM, Mr. Donen.” He gave me a look that I interpreted as “Finally!” The folks in the room were largely from the world of improv and, though I assume most of them would have recognized his name, his wasn’t a face that a lot of people would know.

Anyway, I told him (truthfully) that he had made some of my favorite films (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, Bedazzled, Two for the Road), and he allowed as how this gratified him.

I can’t say that Deep in My Heart (1954) would be on my list, but doing a little reading about him I’m guessing it was pretty far down on his list, too.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects that I enjoyed, particularly a series of musical numbers with guest stars.

Gene Kelly and his brother Fred do a razz-ma-tazz song called “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen” which makes no sense, but is notable because it’s the only footage we have of them dancing together. The two of them were big deals in dance circles as kids in Pittsburgh, and then Gene’s career took off. Fred chose not to follow his brother to Hollywood (though Gene would sometimes consult him when he choreographed) but mostly worked behind the scenes in nightclubs and television and coached young hopefuls (including a kid named John Travolta). Fred also was once spirited into Buckingham Palace where he taught princesses Elizabeth and Margaret a routine with which they surprised their family. According to his New York Times obit, when there was a royal screening of An American in Paris, the thing that most excited Elizabeth when she met Gene was that he was Fred’s brother.

Anne Miller has a flashy number (of course she does) and Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell dance a sinuous duet to the music from The Desert Song. The choreography for the film’s numbers are credited to Eugene Loring, who also choreographed Billy the Kid, a ballet for which Aaron Copland wrote a memorable score.

The music in Deep in My Heart is pretty far from Copland – Sigmund Romberg. The film is ostensibly a biography of Romberg, though Jose Ferrer doesn’t look much like photos I’ve seen of the operetta composer. One hopes that Romberg was unlike Ferrer in other respects because Ferrer plays him as someone who is almost relentlessly obnoxious. (The script by Leonard Spigelgass is no help.) Ferrer gets to sing and dance a little, and he’s not bad. His best number is a duet with Rosemary Clooney (to whom he was married at the time) called “Mr. and Mrs.”  Perhaps the most horrifying thing in the film is an extended number in which Romberg is auditioning a musical he’s writing for Al Jolson which includes a song called “Fat Fat Fatima” and features a depiction of Arabs which has him slapping mud on his face à la Jolson in blackface. At one point, Romberg stops the routine and quickly does a summary of the story so far, a bit which strongly resembles “Betrayed,” the number Mel Brooks wrote for Max Bialystock in The Producers.  (Not that I would dream of suggesting that Brooks ever borrows from anyone else.)

I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen a film biography (as opposed to a documentary) of a composer–popular or classical–which wasn’t wildly inaccurate and utter hooey. Any suggestions, anybody?

There’s a short scene toward the end of the film featuring a young couple who get no billing in the credits. They are played by Russ Tamblyn and Susan Luckey. Tamblyn would have a breakthrough a few years later in Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Luckey would have her big gig as Zaneeta (“Ye Gods!”) Shinn in the film version of The Music Man.

OK, that checks off another Donen movie from the to-watch list. I can’t imagine watching it again.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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