Perhaps the most groundbreaking American composer of the early 20th Century, George Gershwin helped to usher in a new era of distinctly American music. While his contributions to the rapidly developing musical theater weren’t as prominent as those of Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers, Gershwin brought the worlds of popular music and high art in sync, creating significant, brilliant works of music that combined the ragged charm of Tin Pan Alley with classical composition and the burgeoning jazz sound with opera.
Warner’s 1945 Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue, made nearly a decade after the composer’s untimely death at 38, succeeds because of its willingness to put the music first. The film clocks in at two and half hours with an overture, but we’re not dealing with a padded-out running time here. The pace is surprisingly nimble, with the extended minutes given to Gershwin’s music, like nearly complete renditions of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and “Concerto in F.”
The film also features the original performers of many of Gershwin’s numbers playing themselves — Al Jolson shows up to sing “Swanee” and promise Gershwin he’s on his way to a promising career, Anne Brown croons a sadly truncated version of “Summertime” at the premiere of Porgy and Bess and Oscar Levant lends his fingers to both his and the fictional Gershwin’s piano playing.
As Gershwin, Robert Alda makes for a pleasant, if slightly bland protagonist, as we witness his ascension from Tin Pan Alley song plugger to one of the world’s most renowned contemporary composers, toasted equally in hometown New York and Paris, where he spent a great deal of time.
The film is at its weakest when trying to construct a typical biopic structure around Gershwin’s life. Romances with a fictional musical star (Joan Leslie) and a high society socialite (Alexis Smith) are unconvincing, and the conflict of career paths espoused by teacher Otto Franck (Albert Bassermann) and the more commercially minded employer Max Dreyfus (Charles Coburn) feels perfunctory. One also wonders why these elements are highlighted over the importance of Gershwin’s brother and songwriting partner Ira (Herbert Rudley), who’s really given short shrift here.
Fortunately though, director Irving Rapper doesn’t seem terribly concerned with ginning up artificial conflict, and the fantastic, uninterrupted performances of Gershwin’s outstanding music are allowed to dominate the film.
Warner Archive’s burn-on-demand DVD offers up a solid full frame transfer of the film, with strong black levels and decent image clarity. The quality drops out for a few seconds occasionally and white levels can look a little blown out, but it’s pretty nice overall. Even better is the crisp mono audio, which handles orchestral, solo piano and vocal performances of Gershwin’s works well. The disc also comes equipped with the film’s theatrical trailer.