By C. DAVIS REMIGNANTI
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
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
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
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
A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Mr.
Remignanti writes on theatre, design, and the decorative arts
The Johnny Mercer Centenary: Lyrical
Book Review: Fade to Black