Mario Lanza’s last two films are freshly available from Warner Archives. They’re perfect examples of the vacation movie, the kind of thing where the American public substituted a movie ticket for an airplane ticket that brought them to Rome and other fabulous European locales in widescreen Technirama and sparkling color. The stories aren’t important and are barely there, demonstrating that Hollywood films pretend to be about telling a story when they’re often about other things. The plots are mild excuses for Lanza periodically to burst into tenor performances of remarkable clarity and power, modulated as necessary for lighter pop songs or heavier operatic extracts.
The title Seven Hills of Rome fairly describes the travelogue plot, which even spends time in a helicopter showing all the tourist attractions. Lanza’s visiting American recording artist, who apparently travels without money or checks (which would have solved all the movie’s pseudo-problems instantly), moves in with his cousin (Italian comic Renato Rascel, who can be seen giving a tour-de-force performance in the 1949 version of The Overcoat, now on DVD from RaroVideo) and some waif-ette (Marisa Allasio) who never gets kissed until literally the last minute.
At one point Lanza gives a knockout impression of Perry Como, followed by Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, and a bad Louis Armstrong. This scene doesn’t quite follow logically from the set-up of a bunch of Italian hipsters doing the twist on a rooftop to a rock beat. They go from praising rock and roll to burbling over Como? Crazy, man, crazy. For the recond, the print obviously needs restoration on the color and the removal of dirt and other visual impedimenta, especially at the beginning.
In better shape is For the First Time, which follows a stronger if more far-fetched plot in which touring divo Lanza falls for a charming deaf girl (Johanna von Koczian) and stages concerts while she gets a delicate operation so she can get a proper earful of him, although you’d think Lanza could sing loud enough even for her. Not only is she one of those Hollywood deafsters with an absolutely astonishing talent for lip-reading but she even pronounces her English fluently and perfectly despite being deaf since childhood, and never mind that she’s an Austrian living in Italy.
None of this gets in the way of the movie’s jaw-dropping scenery of Capri, or indeed with Lanza’s own jaw-dropping. His intense, eye-rolling performance style makes you think his head’s about to explode. If we judge by Lanza’s songs, this is probably the better movie, with grandiosely if briefly staged opera tidbits, although judged by common sense, it’s a bit harder to take.