Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Song O' My Heart (Frank Borzage, 1930)

Gary Giddins has reminded me of yet another reason why American Pop: An Audio History From Minstrel To Mojo on Record, 1893-1946 remains my all-time favorite box set - there's no John McCormack on it! By contrast, Song O' My Heart features wall-to-wall McCormack which accounts for why it's THE worst Borzage film I've seen so far. Aptly described by Richard Barrios in A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film as "a McCormack concert plopped into a rickety story" (and a visually flat concert, at that), Song O' My Heart requires a love for the famed Irish tenor in order to make it through with no tension headaches. It trumps a love for film, a love for Borzage, maybe even a love for the musical, assuming that one of the things you love about the genre is, you know, music.

Wall-to-wall Jolson I can handle because the songs in, say, the winningly grotesque ego showcase The Singing Fool, which Barrios despises, are firmly in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, a pop tradition. McCormack's enormous popularity, especially in the teens when his "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary" became the biggest hit of 1915, stems from his position at the intersection between classical and popular music. His sold out concerts placed Verdi next to Berlin, conferring a modicum of prestige upon audiences unwilling to restrict their pleasures to opera and other highfalutin forms (indeed, Song O' My Heart opened at Broadway's prestigious 44th Street Theatre). But at this historical remove, he blankets the ear as a beast of classical music, largely because, as William Ruhlmann notes, "his 'popular' repertoire of sentimental ballads, operetta, and art songs, drifted into the classical repertoire over time."

So whether he's essaying Strauss, some moon-June-spoon, or a reverie designed to elicit waterworks from the Irish diaspora, McCormack's tenor smothers every song o' his heart in operatic bombast with little give to it. And the voice just pins Borzage back, rendering him powerless to do much beyond merely preserving it on film. The only time Borzage indulges in his characteristic juicy romanticism is during a death scene in front of a window with leaves falling from a tree as the final moment approaches.
McCormack's the auteur here and, unlike The Singing Fool, we're all the worse for it.

Oh and avoid the music and effects version which an IMDb user claims is demonstrably better than the full sound version. Don't you believe him.

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