Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)

Stephen King gave an interview once when he was foolishly challenged with a question about literary history. I don’t know why, but journalists always think they can embarrass a popular author by proving them ignorant of literature — this one asked King if he had “read the classics.” Moments such as this are reminiscent of when some poor unfortunate tries to heckle a professional comic. King, like every other best-selling author out there, not only knows his business (the guy was an English teacher, for Pete’s sake) but is invariably smarter than the person asking the questions. I liked his glibly appropriate response, and it has more or less stuck with me. He said something like, “I don’t know from Faulkner, but I've read everything Dean Koontz ever wrote.”

I had a similarly delightful moment not too long ago, when chatting on a popular film-related message board and someone unknown to me was trying to discredit me as a “film person” for not being a David Lynch fan. The person shared that, “If you knew anything about surrealism you might begin to understand and appreciate Lynch’s films.” Instead of taking the easy way out, as King could have done, and sharing that in real life I’m in charge of a university department of art and art history, I borrowed from the author and responded, “I may not know from surrealism, but I’ve seen every picture Tyrone Power ever made.”

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 afine 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 his star — and if Power is somehow faking Duchin’s virtuosity then he deserved some sort of award for it. All of the musical scenes are well done, and any inclination that a viewer might have to hit the fast-forward button during the musical bits (Can anyone say Funny Lady?) is lost here. The film as a whole 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 in great abundance as the film approaches the two hour mark. There’s one moment in particular, albeit 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, sounds good, is entertaining, What’s not to like?

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
Grade: B
Directed by George Sidney
Released by Columbia Pictures
Starring Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, and James Whitmore
Running time: 121 minutes
Availability: DVD, Netflix

2 comments:

  1. I have fond memories of this exceptional film, not only for the beauty of Kim Novak but for the wonderful soundtrack.

    Many of the personal participating in the making of this biography had their own first-hand knowledge of Eddie.

    Tyrone Power was a personal friend and visited Eddie at New York's Memorial Hospital shortly before he passed away. That great pianist, Carmen Cavallaro who was chosen to perform the score of the film was also a close friend, as was the producer, Jerry Wald and the director, George Sidney.

    The soundtrack has provided myself and my family with many hours of pure pleasure over many years.

    Mention should also be made of the beautiful Victoria Shaw who played the role of Eddie's second wife.

    This was the era of fine film-making; perhaps "The Eddie Duchin Story" is not a "classic film" in the true sense but it is certainly a film to remember and enjoy again and again.

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  2. The Eddie Duchin Story is my favorite movie. I am now almost 68 years old and just saw the movie again on Turner Classic Movies on March 20, 2013. I am doing a bit of post-watching research, since the script is not supposed to be true to the real life of Eddie Duchin. So far, I think the movie is faithful to Duchin's real life story, but maybe further research will reveal why anyone in their right mind would attack this film from that particular angle. My father died suddenly when I was 11 years old, of a heart attack. One of the reasons I love this movie is that not one, but two adults die tragically, Duchin's first wife and Duchin himself. How death is handled by humans is a lesson for everyone on earth to learn, and this movie teaches this lesson very well. No child ever gets over the death of a loving parent or a loving wife or husband. Secondly, a major part of the story revolves around a very difficult relationship between a father and his son, destroyed by the death of the mother and reborn after some growing of the child, of Eddie Duchin and his son Peter. I had two older brothers who got most of the attention from my father. My Dad had trouble communicating with any male under ten years old, but less trouble with high school kids and beyond. Thus, whether true or not, I admire how Mr. Duchin reconnects with Peter. When it happens, Peter is still much younger than I was when my Father died, ending forever my chance to get to know him. It is no surprise to me that Peter Duchin became more famous than his father, in the same profession! Thirdly, I took piano lessons for four years as a child and finally discovered that I did not have sufficient native talent to become a professional pianist. At that point I deliberately stopped taking lessons. I still love the piano and have a constant craving to sit down and tap away in private. It is certainly true, as the movie demonstrates in many ways, that native talent at piano playing is a great gift, like a superb memory for human given names and faces. All the scenes of piano playing in the movie are fantastic, in my view, better than in any piano movie I have ever seen, and I think I have seen them all. Lastly, all the actors play their roles very well. The age difference between Tyrone Power and Kim Novak had and has no significance to me, because I am not a movie critic who has to say something negative to get paid. All the supporting cast are excellent as well.

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