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LOS ANGELES, 4 SEPTEMBER 2013 — During the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, there were any number of notable figures who parlayed early success outside the film industry into curious careers as movie stars. Sonja Henie comes to mind. Carmen Miranda. Johnny Weissmuller, Esther Williams and others. All names we're familiar with. They all made (and often starred in) numerous movies; few of them ever appeared in a film.

Among that peculiar group one will also find Alfredo Cocozza, who would later take the professional name Mario Lanza. Blessed with a remarkably clean and bright tenor voice, Lanza found early success in performances at Tanglewood, earned glowing notices in The New York Times and in all likelihood was headed for a noteworthy career in opera when World War II and a chance meeting with Louis B. Mayer altered his life's trajectory.

More's the pity. In 1949, the two possible paths of Lanza's career were made plain when his first commercial recordings for RCA Victor were released almost simultaneously with his first MGM musical, That Midnight Kiss. Those lovely recordings capture for posterity the opera star that might have been, while the movie captures...well...the movie star Lanza was to become, sadly (but mercifully) briefly.

In conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, Sony Masterworks has just released a 2 CD set called Mario Lanza: The Toast of Hollywood. It includes 30 tracks, half comprised of songs and arias made famous during Lanza's years in Hollywood, the other half being archive recordings from his short-lived radio show.

What Lanza did well he did very well. Among the straightforward arias are lovely versions of "La donna e mobile," "E lucevan le stelle" and others. A fine version of "Che gelida manina" from the soundtrack of his 1951 film The Great Caruso is not quite as transcendent as his 1949 recording. And snicker if you must, but I can think of no other performer who could have brought "Be My Love" to the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Lanza's voice was particularly well suited to the scenery-chewing sentimentality that distinguishes operetta from opera, and that talent is on display in such tracks Romberg's "Serenade," Kern's "Make Believe" and even Rodgers' "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Where Lanza was not quite so adept was knowing when to dial it down a little. His fans probably expected it, and his abbreviated musical training didn't dissuade him from relying on it — but not every song needs to have the big note, the loud and emotion-filled B or C designed to make the musically impressionable say "Wow, will ya listen to that? That guy can sing!"

So, like myriad operatic artists before and since, his attempts at popular song are pretty spotty. For the same reason I don't want to hear Frank Sinatra attempt "Libiamo, ne'lieti calici," I'd rather not have to listen to Lanza interpret "Day In, Day Out," "What Is This Thing Called Love" or "My Romance." (Though to be fair, he almost pulled that last one off, getting nearly to the end before - you guessed it — the big note.)

As a result, the CD set is something of a mixed bag, but is recommended for many splendid tracks representing a variety of musical genres.

To celebrate the CD release, on September 18th Turner Classic Movies will be presenting what they are calling an All-Night Marathon of Lanza Classics, though I can imagine it was hard for them to resist putting that last word in italics. The celebration kicks off at 8pm ET with the nearly unwatchable The Seven Hills of Rome (1958), hits a highlight at midnight with Lanza's best-received effort, The Great Caruso (1951), then scrapes the absolute bottom of the barrel with The Student Prince (1954), the film from which Lanza was fired mid-production and in which he doesn't even appear, except as the dubbed singing voice of Edmund Purdom as the titular royal. 

Mario Lanza: The Toast of Hollywood
Sony Masterworks : 2 CDs

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Mr. Remignanti writes on theatre, design, and the decorative arts for Culturekiosque.

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