That was almost true — I had somehow missed this one; which you can file neatly in the forgotten gems category. Like most other musical biopics, Columbia’s 1956 film The Eddie Duchin Story relates the life events of yet another mid-century musical personality. Aside from a relatively early Kim Novak performance there’s little about the film that would really pull in contemporary audiences, which is a shame. After all, Duchin’s name is all but forgotten these days — as he wasn’t a composer or lyricist none of his tunes became standards, and his untimely death in 1951 didn’t contribute to his longevity. The Eddie Duchin Story isn’t an MGM picture either — coming instead from Harry Cohn and major-minor Columbia, not a studio well known for musicals that didn’t feature Rita Hayworth. Still though, stars and studios aside Duchin’s story is great film fodder; and the resulting movie is a fine romance and a tear-jerker of the first order.
Tyrone Power and Kim Novak are a strange match — a generation apart, Power exists in the mind as a primarily a black and white film actor while Novak is pure Technicolor. He on the tail end of a robust career and she at the beginning of one too short. Opinions differ concerning Novak’s strengths and weaknesses, but who doesn’t wish she made more films? This one cleverly handles the delicate issue of the billing: Power above Novak, same size type on the printed materials; but Novak first in the film’s titles, with Power getting a special “Starring Tyrone Power as Eddie Duchin” screen to himself just after director George Sidney’s. Although Power was nearly twenty years Novak’s senior, her character was actually supposed to be a little older than his. The film tries to split the difference, clumsily hiding Power’s age in the early scenes, and making Kim look a bit dowdier than necessary.
Power was 41 when this was made, so it seems a bit strange that he would be cast in the first place, however all concerns evaporate when he sits down at the piano. Duchin’s trademark as a pianist was the speed and complexity of his fingering, and Power is certainly up to the challenge. Sidney and cameraman Harry Stradling (he of 14 Oscar nominations, Eddy Duchin included — and 2 wins) go out of their way to ensure the viewer knows that the hands on the keyboard belong to the star — and if Power is somehow faking Duchin’s virtuosity then he deserved an award for it. All of the musical scenes are well done, and any inclination viewers might want to hit the fast-forward button during the musical bits (Can anyone say Funny Lady?) is lost here. The film is beautifully photographed and makes New York City look stunning. A pseudo-montage that takes place when Power and Novak are courting is particularly beautiful, and takes full advantage of Novak’s spectacular rapport with the camera.
Surprisingly, Novak’s part is short given her billing; and there’s a great deal more to the story than has been mentioned here. As I wrote earlier this is both a romantic film and a tear-jerker, with the emotional scenes coming on heavy as the film approaches the two hour mark. There’s one moment in particular — a small one — where a uniformed Power happens upon a burnt up piano in a wrecked bar on Mindanao. It’s a brief but important scene, and certain to bring a smile to your face — for me it made the picture. In the end, this is a movie about more than just those loved and lost. It’s concerned greatly with familial relationships and the ties that bind fathers to their sons. It looks good, it sounds good, and it entertains. What’s not to like?
The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
Released by Columbia Pictures
Starring Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, and James Whitmore
Running time: 121 minutes
Availability: DVD, Netflix