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'Deep in My Heart' Is An Overlooked Musical Delight

The captivating life of an operettist, as told via Al Jolson, Gene Kelly, and a "Leg of Mutton".

Deep in My Heart

Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Jose Ferrer, Merle Oberon
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1954
Release date: 2015-11-10

Deep in My Heart is a musical biopic and song revue devoted to operettist Sigmund Romberg, played by Jose Ferrer. If that sounds dull, as it so easily could be, let me assure you this picture from director Stanley Donen is just about as good as anything he has ever made, and I say that advisedly.

In often elegant long takes, Donen presents one lushly produced number after another with a galaxy of stars. Most of the songs are performed by buxom opera star Helen Traubel as a friend and cafe owner, including the rousing "Stout Hearted Men" (best known in Nelson Eddy's rendition) and an obscure yet joyous ragtime piece called "Leg of Mutton".

In fact, that last number was a dance piece in the style known as a turkey trot, and producer Roger Edens invented new lyrics for it. This indicates the canny approach taken by Donen and Edens, for they realized that it would be death to have one semi-operatic number after another, even if that's what Romberg is most famous for. They scoured his catalog for fresh, grabby numbers they could do something with.

They also understood, from many previous examples, that this kind of plotless, more or less conflict-free stringing together of musical performances risks being the hit-or-miss affair that defines so many of MGM's composer biopics, and they wanted to have as many energetic high points as possible with a few ballads in between for breathing room.

Ferrer, the illustrious star of Cyrano de Bergerac and Moulin Rouge, has a serious dramatic reputation that would lead you to expect he'd prove awkward in a splashy musical. One of the movie's surprises is the proof that he's just as great an actor while dancing and doing schtick. His highlight is a show-stopping scene where, with breathless precision, he enacts an entire absurd Al Jolson show called "Jazza-doo". It's a stunt that seems designed to show off his carefully rehearsed brilliance, and it works. At every step, the movie demonstrates that its basic material is much livelier than you'd expect from its description. Alas, most audiences didn't give it a chance.

Curiously, as an actress, longtime "friend", and lyrical collaborator of the composer, no songs are performed by Merle Oberon. Are we supposed to conclude then that they were discreetly involved? The movie doesn't say so, while the classy Doe Avedon suddenly shows up as the woman he marries. These characters provide the necessary disposable drama intended to convince us that Romberg had a life in between shows, and it's lucky the script by Leonard Spigelglass doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time on them. It's best to perceive them as part of the sumptuous decor, so that the "glue" in between songs remains eye-catching.

Jim Backus is wasted in a supporting role, while Walter Pidgeon and Paul Henreid are window dressing as bigtime Broadway producers J.J. Schubert and Flo Ziegfeld, respectively. I never knew Ziegfeld sounded French. They're really here to help the movie be star-studded while filling space between the songs.

Back to those songs. Another highlight is the appearance of Gene Kelly, who was probably Donen's most important musical collaborator in Hollywood. For the only time on screen, Gene Kelly dances with Fred Kelly, the brother most of you didn't know he had, in a campy, high-jumping duet called "I Love to Go Swimmin' with Wimmen".

On "One Alone", Cyd Charisse is stunning (but when wasn't she?) and her partner James Mitchell is too darn hot; her singing is dubbed but nobody's ever cared about her warbling. Speaking of Ann Miller, she's fabulous too on a piece called "It". Also present are Rosemary Clooney (Ferrer's wife, as they sing "Mr. and Mrs."), Howard Keel (rolling out the sentimental stirrer "Your Land and My Land"), Vic Damone (a weak link, both alone and in duet with Jane Powell), and a few others like ballerina Tamara Toumanova (also dubbed by a professional singer).

Previously issued as a regular DVD with outtakes and bonus shorts: the Tex Avery cartoon Farm of Tomorrow, a string of absurd visual puns; an Oscar-nominated musical short, The Strauss Fantasy, as politely dull as the feature isn't; and, most surprisingly, a few musical outtakes (one audio-only) saved from the cutting-room floor. Somebody must like this movie and realize it's stood the test of time, since the whole package now receives a Blu-ray upgrade.


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