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Monday, October 12, 2015

When Columbia Had Dizzy Fingers

The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) A Crowd-Pleaser Still

Winchell Warns Chicago: Bring Tissue!
A tip to those spreading gospel of old movies: Try The Eddy Duchin Story. I've run it to groups and it clicks every time. Not all of classics do that. In fact, many won't, and never mind your own enthusiasm for them. I've tried to figure what's foolproof about Duchin. Maybe the music, or the heartthrob (very sad at times, but no bummer aftertaste). There's gloss too, like 40's romance re-cooked for a hi-fi 50's. Color, Cinemascope, and Manhattan locations turn back the clock like few vintage others (eighteen NYC sites utilized, including the Waldorf Astoria's Starlight Roof). This was lushest valentine so far posted to Gotham on a wide screen, as unlike 20th Fox with their second units sent for How To Marry A Millionaire and Woman's World, Columbia took principals to streets and parks. You can feel rain fall on Ty Power and Kim Novak under a dye-transfer umbrella (shot Eastman, but prints by Technicolor). Product warning, however: The Eddy Duchin Story must be seen wide, and preferably HD. Twilight Time has a Blu-Ray where picture gleams and sound dances off walls. Get that and give guests unexpected pleasure on your next antique pic night.

Kim Novak is the survivor cast member (there's also Rex Thompson --- what became of him?) and makes frequent landing at classic fests, but always with Vertigo, which is odd, because crowds would enjoy The Eddy Duchin Story a lot more. Vertigo continues to be respected, but is there pleasure in watching for a general audience? Hitchcock scholars have nulled what fun it had by dissecting the thing to parsley, with coup de grace of selection as All-Time #1 (how intimidating is that?). The Eddy Duchin Story would be ideal for a next TCM Festival. Or even better on their cruise. Everyone could get misty, cry outright, or hook up with others unattached on the boat. Part of why The Eddy Duchin Story works is gatekeepers not having found it, thus no academic burden and pollute that implies. I quote what one civilian viewer said after a Greenbriar screening: If all old movies are good as this, I should watch more of them.

Rediscovery is helped by digital rescue. For years, The Eddy Duchin Story looked rotten on TV crop/scan cycle. Then a laser disc parted curtains. DVD and now Blu-Ray did the rest. I agree that most bio-pics are hoke, or packs of lies, but somehow this one is different. To start, it stays with at least surface of fact (son Peter Duchin reveals fallacies in his book, but they're not severe, at least not in comparison with other music-men recounts). To casting, Tyrone Power is too old to be young Eddy, but ideal for a second half's mature Duchin. Since the pic covers a whole career, we can't have it both ways. This has to be Ty's most appealing late performance. He's earnest, dreamy in that way that brought fame since the 30's, and oh, what he does with those keys. Little of piano stuff is faked beyond Carmen Cavallaro supplying the actual track, Duchin's device being an essential same as when Al Jolson put voice to Larry Parks performance for The Jolson Story. So it's Tyrone Power's hands we see, the result, said publicity, of the actor training over three months of seven hours per day at the keyboard (would this not make at least a competent pianist of anyone?). There's a great gotcha moment where the camera lingers close on fingers, us thinking it's Cavallaro doubling, then the pull-back, and ... Tyrone Power. I'll bet that earned applause in a lot of first-run situations.

Query put to a 1956 public: Why Aren't There More Movies Like This? Columbia chief Harry Cohn signed a handout (above left) to launch a bulls-eye campaign rightly posing The Eddy Duchin Story as an old-fashioned Movie movie in best and most popular sense. Traditional ways of song were under siege from arriving storm of rock and roll --- might The Eddy Duchin Story push back that wave? You didn't have to be so old, after all, to remember Eddy Duchin (who died in 1951, was active almost to the end). How big a hit was The Eddy Duchin Story? Deservedly massive. Exhibs fairly fell down and wept (along with patronage) over a show that for once yanked customers away from their TV's. Check showman comments in '56 trades and feel the love. The Eddy Duchin Story took five million in domestic rentals, walloping every thing Columbia had that year except Picnic. It was like second coming of The Jolson Story. Cavallaro did a soundtrack LP. It differs from arrangements in the film which include George Duning scoring, but essential tunes are there, and a 2008 double-CD has the original Decca album plus a Duchin tribute follow-up Cavallaro got out a following year. There are experts who decry Cavallaro's approximation of Eddy Duchin, but as I don't fall into authority class where it comes to vintage bands (though certainly an enthusiast), I'll stand back of further comment. 'Nuff said that I listen to the CD's and enjoy them.

Romance Push to Drive-Ins
Columbia threw the declining radio medium a lifeline with The Eddy Duchin Story. Showmen and ad/pub staffers throughout a 50's industry had eased off airwaves in favor of quick-emerging television as promotion adjunct, the tube having proved itself a better bet for getting movie word out. Free listening wanted back in the sales game, so went all out on behalf of The Eddy Duchin Story, theirs an opportunity to prove that radio could still get results. CBS with its 206 affiliates bedded down with Columbia to feature Duchin on all of programming where tunes could wedge in. Even daily soaps worked ED tunes as background. The idea was to crest awareness and interest in Duchin well before The Eddy Duchin Story came to towns, further tie-in with record companies (six participating) making sure there'd be no shortage of "tribute" albums for the departed band-man in addition to Cavallaro discs. Scent of cash from two-years earlier The Glenn Miller Story was still in the air, that one having spun gold off oldies and demonstrated that even youth could be lured by sounds their parents liked.

Eddy Duchin and Orchestra Make a 1938 Theatre Appearance

Eddy Duchin had been gone five years when The Eddy Duchin Story came out. He was known as a "society" bandleader of "sweet," as opposed to swing, sounds, and reached a wide audience thanks to radio he commanded from the 30's, plus theatre appearances where his band preceded first-run movies. Duchin had looks plus sophistication and moneyed connections. He was, in fact, like Tyrone Power in many respects. There's a fun trailer for The Eddy Duchin Story hosted by Power where he speaks of having been a "close personal friend" of Duchin's. In addition, Eddy had once-upon-time taught piano to the film's director, George Sidney, and producer Jerry Wald (who still hasn't gotten due for many excellent pics he guided) was a Duchin booster from early days in New York, where Wald got his scribe start. There's illuminating glimpse of Eddy in a WB short from 1933 as part of a six-disc Big Band, Jazz, and Swing DVD set from Warner Archives. Duchin's also sighted in a couple or three features, none of which appear to be available, so this Vitaphone one-reeler may be an only opportunity to measure the real thing against Tyrone Power's impersonation, latter so imbedded as to render Duchin himself invisible.


Blogger Dave K said...

THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY was the second coming of THE JOLSON STORY... The Three Stooges recycled the same joke in their shorts, just switching out the movie title: "I can't die! I haven't seen THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY yet!"

9:57 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Beat me to it. The short is SPACE SHIP SAPPY 1957. Joe says, "I don`t want to die! I can`t die! I haven`t seen THE EDDIE DUCHIN STORY yet!"

10:31 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

That was the thought going through my head during the Northridge earthquake: I can't die! I haven't seen 'The Eddy Duchin Story' yet!

Now I'm afraid if I ever watch 'The Eddy Duchin Story', I'll croak.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Darn! And I thought I'd be the first to mention that Stooges joke! (Being a Jolson fan even when I was young, however, the Duchin reference meant nothing to me.)

8:44 PM  
Blogger Dr. Mark said...

Thanks for this coverage of THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY. Have never watched B4, but will ASAP! It's been on GET-TV recently. You mention a soundtrack and tie-in albums. As a record collector and current picker in the thrift store record bins, I'd like to note- there are indeed probably a half dozen or maybe even more, low budget vinyl "tribute" albums of piano music, with PICTURES of Kim Novak and Tyrone Power from the movie on their covers. How closely the actual contents are related to the movie is debatable. But they are among the most prolifically spotted discs I've seen in my years of collecting! I should have gathered them all by now.

1:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As a matter of fact, Dr. Mark, I scanned the banner photo from one of those albums that I picked up for one dollar at a flea market. These (many) LP's usually featured a nice color image of the stars on the jacket.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

The Twilight Time DVD is for sale at AMAZON, but $60.00??? Not me.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Was this Tyrone Power's last film before Solomon and Sheba (which Yul Brenner jumped into after TP's fatal heart attack? I have a friend, who along with me, can't believe how young TP was at the time of his death. How'd he make so many pictures and die so young? The studio system, I guess...

3:09 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

When I saw photos of the real Marjorie Oerlichs, I wondered how close to the truth Kim Novak's helpless, frightened version of her was. She looks like a pretty confident person in the pictures. I think Power had a congenital Heart defect that he inherited from his Father(But his offspring seem to have been around a good, long time, like Romina Power who is a famous singer in Italy).

4:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon got Eddy Duchin on Blu-Ray when the getting was good (before prices went up), and shares his impressions:

John, as always you surprise me by focusing on a very nice movie which has not weathered the years retaining the apparent hubbub that surrounded it at its debut. Lord, wouldn't it be interesting if we had that mythical crystal ball and would not have to attempt to predict, but actually SEE, the real fate of today's lulus?

I was intrigued by "...Duchin" via a lingering lp of the music which was still being marketed, I think by Decca (?), as late as the late '60s, by which time I assure you the name of the pianist was meaningless to 'kids'. But I remember that his son Peter, also a 'society pianist' (something I struggled with understanding), was sometimes in the Mark Goodson / Bill Todman shows of the '60s like "What's My Line?", and even at least one TV commercial in which I think he was the beneficiary of a really close, comfortable shave courtesy of some miracle shaving cream or razor or combo. One of those fringe personalities you decided was a big deal in NYC...period!

I'm grateful you've featured images of the real Eddy Duchin! I have to tell you this is the first time I've ever seen what he looked like. And you know, it's not such a huge stretch, having Tyrone Power play him. Nobody was quite as handsome as Power, who was almost a male beauty in his prime (and he was already beyond that a bit at this point); but there's something of his look in the real guy.

When Twilight Time put out a Blu-ray of the film, it was so well-received by the ever-helpful Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver that I thought I'd take a plunk. Now I'm glad I did when I read that it's apparently only available at the moment for resale, and at $60 to boot! And the reason is because it is indeed a very traditional, very enjoyable bio film (maybe an unfortunate choice of words! I use products from a company which stress that they're effective because they totally remove 'biofilm', the icky-sticky 'ick' on things that captures bacteria!) with all the trimmings. I think the fact that it was so much filmed on location, as you stress, helps impart a nice dimension of credibility. I myself have walked by the famous Tavern On the Green in Central Park, which figures largely in the early scenes. There's one scene, I know you know the one, where Eddy and his new sweetheart played by Novak are sitting together in seats near a band shell also in, presumably, Central Park, which is wonderfully composed and intimate via a long shot. It's handsome presentation on a wonderfully moody, drizzly day manages to sum up a feeling about romance that was still quite potent in the '50s, far removed from the apelike antics of the late '60s, and almost impossible to equal or at least recapture to the same degree in today's mode of filmmaking nor indeed in our pop culture which just doesn't go there, anymore. It was so striking an image that the excellent art direction people who work for Twilight Time put it on the artwork for the cover of the Blu-ray. I'd never seen the movie before getting the Blu-ray, as I say, and I thought the ending was beautifully handled, as it manages to avoid wallowing in bathos over the known fatal disease that's overwhelming Duchin, instead going out on a marvelous and immensely poignant high, as he plays a piano duet together with his son. It's hard not to associate his fate, dying young, with the great Ty Power, who unbeknownst to anyone had only a few more years to go himself. When we think of someone we've loved who's gone, we don't think of them as ill and diminished, defeated; we usually think of them as we want to: as they were at their best. Eddy Duchin goes out in this film at his best.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Randy A. Riddle said...

Well, this is strange.

Just the other day, after reading your review, I ordered "The Eddy Duchin Story" on blu-ray directly from the Screen Archives Entertainment website. It's $29.95 and, apparently, they haven't sold out the 3,000 copy limited edition. I got a shipment confirmation and it's on the way.

I'd heard about the movie for years, running into references to it on lp records and popular media, but hadn't really thought about watching it. Based on how you describe it, it sounds right up my alley - I'm a sucker for lush, big-screen 50s Cinemascope pictures.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I ordered mine. $29.95 plus shipping and tax.

2:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the real-life Eddy Duchin as compared with screen counterpart Tyrone Power:

There is always something poignant when someone dies too young. At my age, the idea of someone dying when he was only 41, as Eddie Duchin was at the time of his death from leukemia in 1951, seems an almost unbearable waste of life. It is relative, of course. Duchin had been in show business for nearly 23 years by then and been a star for 20 of those years. For many of his fans, it may have been not so much that he died too young as that he had died at all, this man who had become so familiar to them.

In his book, "The Big Bands," the jazz critic George T. Simon described Duchin as an extraordinarily handsome, well-mannered man with a captivating personality that mesmerized most of the women who watched him. He took an emotional approach to music, with flowery phrasing and virtuosic runs, tilting his head this way and that, smiling graciously and insinuating that Duchin personality into every corner of the theater or dance hall. "I close my eyes," he said, "hum to myself, and then play what I happen to feel inside of me." It was something new, Simon said at the time he became the country's top piano-playing maestro, "playing what he feels rather than what he sees."

I agree with you, Tyrone Power was almost the perfect choice to play Eddie Duchin, with his intelligence and gentlemanly ways, still a dazzlingly handsome man even as he entered his middle years. He was also an extraordinarily sensitive actor who played so well off his fellow players or, especially, a leading lady. In "The Eddie Duchin Story," he has two of them in Kim Novak and Victoria Shaw, and he's marvelous with both of these very different types of actresses--Novak quite intuitive, a shuddering breath of emotion, while Shaw is more reserved, more thoughtful in her effects--just as he had been in other films with the likes of Linda Darnell, Maureen O'Hara, and Susan Hayward. Another picture he was in, "This Above All," has much to commend it, but especially his performance opposite Joan Fontaine, each so perfectly attuned to the other that they may as well have been playing a Schubert sonata for violin and piano.

As you say, there's "no bummer aftertaste" to this movie, the CinemaScope screen at the end filled with the keyboards of Duchin, father and son, but when the father is stricken and his hands draw back from the keys, the music never stops but goes on and on. It is one of those moments of transcendence rare in such a melodrama as this, but one which lifts it in a moment to the realm of art.

In the Simon book, there is photograph of Duchin in concert, his face in profile, impossibly handsome, lips parted in a delighted smile, no doubt carried away with the moment, while the great audience is caught in splashes of light and darkness, their eyes drawn inevitably to this man of music.

7:56 PM  

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