Made in 1954 but not released on DVD until 2011, this underrated classic is subtler and more intelligent than your typical Operetta film like the Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy series. Based on the biggest Broadway hit of Sigmund Romberg’s career, it was already dealing with a plot more bittersweet and grounded in reality than the average operetta of the period.
It concerns an uptight Prince who, after being rejected by his betrothed princess for lacking any social graces beyond his military training, is sent to Heidelberg University, more for a social education than an academic one. There, he quickly loosens up and learns how to enjoy himself, and falls in love with a pretty young barmaid named Kathy. But when his grandfather the King dies, he cannot escape his responsibilities and has to say a heartbreaking farewell to his happy youth and the woman he loves.
The score is full of images of spring and bittersweet odes to youth, with titles like “Golden Days” and “Thoughts Will Come To Me Of Days That Are No More”, and the overall message of the show is that the happy days of our youth are bound to come to an end, but that the memories they leave behind can help sustain us in the days after.
What the movie did was take this already unusually mature story for an operetta and drew it out into a far more relaxed and natural pace. Many have found the movie too slow-moving for this reason, but this unhurried pacing gives it what no operetta had yet had at the time…a believable naturalism of character. In the stage version, for all its improvements on the usual operetta formula, the lovers are still singing the rhapsodic “Deep In My Heart, Dear” almost as soon as they’ve met each other. In the movie, the Prince has time to gradually loosen up from an arrogant, uptight jackass to a nice, fun-loving young man, and he and Kathy have time to believably fall in love as they would in a higher grade of literary work.
Granted, the Prince’s behavior toward Kathy early on may seem a bit excessively clingy by modern standards of courtship, but if you’re going to demand that every movie made in past decades perfectly conform to modern relationship parameters, you’re probably never going to be able to watch a romantic film from any earlier than 1980. The comedy is hit or miss, as in most operettas, with a couple of comedy relief scenes that are almost wince-inducing, but the script is consistently literate and has its share of passably witty repartee.
This movie offers ample rewards for those patient enough to sit through its gradual process of character development, and that’s having not even mentioned the music. Nearly every major number from Romberg’s score made it into the movie, including the still-famous standards “Serenade”, “Deep In My Heart, Dear”, “Golden Days”, “Drink, Drink, Drink”, and “Come Boys, Let’s All Be Gay Boys” (the latter of which might provoke some snickers from more juvenile audiences, especially as it features the chorusmen dancing arm-in-arm as they sing it, but it’s still a wonderful piece of music). Three wonderful new songs were also written for the film, one of which, the soaring hymn “I’ll Walk With God”, has become an enduring standard and is still regularly recorded by standards-singers with sufficiently high tenor voices.
Originally, the great Mario Lanza was the play the Prince, but while there are conflicting account as to exactly why, he ended up leaving the project. However, his vocal tracks were retained, and are used to glorious effect in the finished film. The actual actor who plays the lead, Edmund Purdom, is a bit stiff and wooden, but he’s serviceable enough, and Lanza’s vocals do a lot to compensate for Purdom’s lack of emotional range.
Fortunately, movie musical stalwart Ann Blyth is both a wonderful singer and a winning actress as Cathy. The rest of the cast give generally understated performances that suit the tone of the film, although there is a stereotypical Yiddish comedian playing an innkeeper who seems quite out of place in these surroundings, and is responsible for several of the weakest comic set pieces. This film isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than it’s generally given credit for, and in many ways has actually held up better than several more famous operetta films.