Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

Despite being pedestrian, this fictionalized biography of the legendary American composer George Gershwin, who died in his late 30s, was extremely popular with audiences.

Initially, director Irving Rapper (better known for making Bette Davis melodramas) had wanted Tyrone Power to play Gershwin, but Power was still serving in the Marines, so he settled for second banana Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father).

Following the format of most Warner biopics of “great men,” Howard Koch and Elliot Paul’s scenario (from a story by Sonya Levien) traces Gershwin’s rise from a “song plugger” for a Manhattan music publishing company to the heights of international fame.

Gershwin’s first big,”Swanee,” is introduced on Broadway by Al Jolson (who plays himself, making his first film appearance in six years).

In collaboration with his lyricist-brother Ira (Herbert Rudley), George then goes on to write one hit after another in a series of plays and movies.

While the impresario (Charles Coburn) is pleased with his work, George’s old music teacher (Albert Basserman) wants his prize pupil to do something more ambitious and more artistic. Gershwin responds with “Rhapsody in Blue”, which debuts at Aeolian Hall in 1924 under the baton of bandleader Paul Whiteman (also playing himself).

As his career and fame grows, workaholic George has little time for romance.  In the film, he courts two (fictional) women, musical comedy star Joan Leslie and socialite Alexis Smith. Gershwin continues to compose such masterpieces as “An American in Paris,” “Cuban Overture”, “Concerto in F” and the 1935 folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Refusing to slow down or rest on his laurels, he ruthlessly pushes himself to outdo his previous accomplishments. Finally, the strain proves too great: George Gershwin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1937, at the age of 39.

Alan Alda is pleasantly bland if overenthusiastic and too earnest in his interpretation of Gershwin, though I am not sure that first-choice Tyrone Power would have been more convincing in the role.

Featured in the cast as themselves are Gershwin’s lifelong friend Oscar Levant, producer George White, and Broadway performers Tom Patricola and Hazel Scott.

Morris Carnovsky and Rosemary DeCamp play George’s parents, while Julie Bishop is cast as Ira’s wife Lee, who at one point tells her hubby: “Ira, promise me that you’ll never become a genius.”

Upbeat, sentimental and formulaic, “Rhapsody in Blue” makes no justice to the man and/or his work, but the film is enjoyable in an old-fashioned way, and the music is spectacular. Almost a whole reel is devoted to the title composition.

It’s probably a minor consolation to say that as a biopic of a musician, “Rhapsody in Blue” is not as bad as “Night and Day,” a travesty of a film about Cole Porter’s life, which never even hints that the genius was gay.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Scoring of a Musical Picture; Ray Heindorf and Max Steiner
Sound Recording: Nathan Levinson

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Scoring Oscar was Georgie Stoll for “Anchors Aweigh.”  “The Bells of St. Mary’s” received the Sound Oscar.

Cast

Robert Alda as George Gershwin
Joan Leslie as Julie Adams
Alexis Smith as Christine Gilbert
Charles Coburn as Max Dreyfus
Julie Bishop as Lee Gershwin
Oscar Levant as Himself
Albert Basserman as Prof. Frank
Morris Carnovsky as Papa Gershwin
Rosemary De Camp as Momma Gershwin
Al Jolson as Himself
George White as Himself Hazel Scott
Hazel Scott as Herself
Jamie Anne Brown as Bess
Herbert Rudley as Ira Gershwin
John B. Hughes as Commentator
Mickey Roth as George Gershwin as a boy
Darryl Hickman as Ira Gershwin as a Boy
Charles Halton as Mr. Kast
Andrew Tombes as Mr. Milton

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