The Great Caruso

Derek McGovern's picture
Submitted by Derek McGovern on Sun, 2006-01-15 02:19

To get the ball rolling, I'd like to discuss one of my favourite movies, the 1951 Mario Lanza classic The Great Caruso. This is a film that would never appear on any critic's list - its popularity alone would see to that! - and yet it remains one of the most influential of all musical movies. To be objective, though, it boasts neither a great screenplay nor a great director. Instead it makes its extraordinary impact on the basis of star power alone. It helps, of course, that this man happens to be a vocal genius!

Here's what I wrote about The Great Caruso on  

This movie can truly be called life-changing. It certainly changed my life; I was quite ignorant of opera before a chance viewing of the film on television introduced me to this greatest of all musical genres. As it turned out, I was in illustrious company! For the number of singers inspired by this movie includes many of the biggest operatic stars of the last 30 years: Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti, Nucci, Hvorostovsky, and Alagna - to name but a few.

It's easy to pinpoint the reason for The Great Caruso's lasting impact: Lanza. His vibrant personality overflows in practically every scene, and his singing is for the most part perfection itself. He is the film. This is, after all, a movie that is neither distinguished directorially nor in terms of its screenplay. Its scenario, in fact, bears little resemblance to the real Caruso's life, and the film is unashamedly corny in the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals. And yet none of this gets in the way of what Caruso's own son, Enrico Jr, called "vocally and musically [...] a thrilling motion picture." The success of the film, Enrico Jr, went on to declare, was due entirely to Lanza.

Essentially the film provides Mario with a solid framework against which to sing some of the greatest arias, duets and ensembles that have ever graced a single movie. He's assisted by an extraordinary who's who of operatic talent: mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, baritone Giuseppe Valdengo, bass Nicola Moscona, tenor Gilbert Russell, and sopranos Dorothy Kirsten, Marina Koshetz, Lucine Amara, and Olive May Beach. (Oddly, MGM failed to credit some of these singers, and at the same time deleted a fascinating rehearsal scene from Rigoletto with soprano Jarmila Novotna.)

Vocally and stylistically, Lanza is in brilliant form, producing easily the most ravishing singing of his three films to date. Solo highlights include a fine La Danza, a superb Vesti la Giubba, exciting snippets of Cielo e Mar and the second half of Che Gelida Manina, a moving Ave Maria, and the most rapturous of his four known renditions of Because. Among the duet and ensemble work the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, extracts from the Santuzza/Turiddu duet from Cavalleria Rusticana, the Quartet from Rigoletto, and the Finale from Martha (meltingly phrased by Lanza) stand out.

The distinguished Austrian character actor Ludwig Donath provides excellent acting support as Mario's manager, while Dorothy Kirsten and Ann Blyth are the nominal leading ladies. In her only film appearance, Miss Kirsten is wooden as an actress, but acquits herself well in the singing department. Ann Blyth is an endearing Dorothy Caruso. As an actor, Lanza does what he can with the vignette-like nature of the script, capturing - as Newsweek would later opine - the "personal mannerisms of the immortal Caruso". While some commentators have complained that Mario's Italian accent in the film seems to come and go; in fact, his sporadic adoption of a "foreign" accent makes sense, since he only employs it when he is speaking in English. At other times, when his character is supposedly speaking in Italian to his fellow countrymen, he drops the accent. Logical!

The Great Caruso loses none of its magic on repeat viewings. Pavarotti has said that he watches it "every year" - true testament indeed to the enduring genius of Lanza. As Enrico Caruso, Jr wrote some 20 years ago, "I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography."

Well said, Enrico Jnr, and viva il grande Lanza!


Do I have your interest yet? Smiling Assuming that I do, you'll now want to know how to get hold of this movie. Finding it is not as easy as it should be - the video was discontinued at least two years ago, & an official DVD has yet to be produced - but amazon does offer the VHS for around $19 via one of its marketplace sellers:

Or you can take a chance with this newly released Hong Kong DVD version:

I'll leave you with this valentine to The Great Caruso from David Bertelsen. It originally appeared in David's article A Sense of Life: The Missing Link on SOLOHQ. Here, David eloquently captures the essence of the movie:

Dear Linz:

I watched The Great Caruso two nights ago and I was overcome by the realisation of just how significant art can be in our lives. I laughed, cried, let my lungs fill with air and my heart let out my joy in voice. I felt like I had been taken to another time, and I guess it was just that the "afterglow" of an age I never knew.

So thank you - you've added a new source of pleasure to my life that fits so beautifully with all my other most deep-felt values.

I think I mentioned on another thread - maybe Cresswell's wonderful piece on music, that I used to love listening, buying, collecting music. I still have a couple of 100 CDs sitting there - REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage etc., etc., and there was a time that I could listen to them end to end. But I reached a point several years ago when I simply stopped. They bored me at the best of the times and irritated me the rest. I realise now that I had simply outgrown them. I don't mean that in a sniffling, superior manner - just that I needed music that challenged me at a different level. Jungle beat rhythms are jungle beat rhythms, no matter whose name is on the CD cover.

I know you're going to ask, so let me tell you my three favorite scenes from The Great Caruso. I have only watched it once, so forgive me if my memory fails me on details.

Caruso meets his childhood friend in a bar, tells him he is now a flour merchant. His friend tells him he must sing, and that two men from the opera are in the bar. He swigs a red wine from the bottle to clear his throat of flour and SINGS. But he isn't just singing, he is passionately reclaiming his life, his values, and the whole bar celebrates the beauty of his music and his victory.

Caruso goes to apologise to the Met patron whom he offended. He is greeted by the patron's daughter. This scene is just beautiful. Lanza is infectious in his desire to teach the girl the beauty of music. Very powerful.

After Caruso's second, victorious performance at the Met (loved the way the ex-tenor turned public opinion Smiling ) Caruso is met with the dirty unwashed, those too poor to see the performance outside. Couldn't help thinking of "today's" dirty unwashed outside a rock venue and ponder the contrast. Lanza sang for them. With all the same power and passion as in front of the Met audience. Because it was the passion of song that ignited him.

Thank you,


( categories: )

New Mario Doco

Lindsay Perigo's picture

I've just seen the new BBC doco on Lanza at a friend's place in my temporary abode, Auckland. It's wonderful, albeit wanting for a longer contribution from his best biographer, Armando. There's a perspicacious comment right at the top of the programme - that trying to explain the glories of Mario to most people is like trying to describe a sunset to a blind person. And that's the way of it. Hardly anyone "gets it." Lesser hordes fawn over lesser lights; pretenders say they get it who can't concentrate for the duration of a song, let alone an aria. All of these mediocrities rule the world. Damned nuisance.


Derek, I have the Hong Kong

Titan's picture

Derek, I have the Hong Kong version. Both the sound and visual quality are excellent.


Derek McGovern's picture

Linz wrote:

"I believe the "official" release will coincide with the issue on DVD of the new BBC documentary?"

Apparently, yes. According to Mark Kidel, writer-producer of the new Lanza doco, Warners plans to put out a boxed set of Mario's films in conjunction with the DVD release of the documentary. That may still be a year or two away, though.

Erik: Is it the Hong Kong version you have on DVD, or the Brazilian one? As far as I can tell, both are simply video to DVD transfers. What's the quality like, visually and soundwise?

Linz, you can buy it at

Titan's picture

Linz, you can buy it at here in the States.

Good plug for a classic, Derek!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

I didn't realise the video was discontinued, but obviously sundry "unofficial" DVDs are available. I believe the "official" release will coincide with the issue on DVD of the new BBC documentary?

Excellent movie, Derek! I

Titan's picture

Excellent movie, Derek! I own it on DVD. Great post, thanks.

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