Turning 60: This Thing Called Duchin
Done with adept casting and respectful celebration of their subject’s musical legacy, bandleader biographies enjoyed a certain vogue in the 1950s from Clifton Webb in the John Philip Sousa chronicle Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) to James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Steve Allen in the title role of The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Though each played around with the facts, they also benefitted from great selections from the American songbook and in the case of the latter two, best-selling soundtrack albums with Maestro Goodman playing his own clarinet parts in his “life story.” Because another such figure was so revered by people in New York and Hollywood social circles and his own story covered the beats of tragedy and triumph that could make a compelling movie, canny producer Jerry Wald and Columbia Pictures took a flyer on a romanticized, lavishly tuneful portrait of a keyboardist and bandleader who also added luster to the 1930s and 1940s music scene. Marking the 60th anniversary of its premiere today, The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) had glamorous stars, a marvelous period sheen in gorgeous Technicolor and Cinemascope, and likely got an unconscious boost from the popularity of another Duchin-like musical marvel who at the time was charming television viewers with class, flash and pianistic virtuosity, Liberace. Tyrone Power was a good friend of Duchin’s (reportedly Power, Cary Grant and Van Johnson were all interested in the part) and he gave the title role his all, devoting intensive weeks of rehearsal to master the “fingering” of some 20 Duchin standards so that he could convincingly put across the numbers actually played on the soundtrack by the accomplished, Duchin-inspired Carmen Cavallaro. Duchin’s life had elements ripe for dramatization: struggling early years, dazzling early success, a loving marriage curtailed by childbirth tragedy, World War II service, family fragmentation, career resurgence, tentative reconciliation, and life-curtailing terminal illness. The cheers and tears generated by the up- and downturns of the plot were cushioned by a soothing pop-melody cavalcade of 20+ standards in the vein of What Is This Thing Called Love?, Blue Moon, The Man I Love, Till We Meet Again, La Vie en Rose, Ain’t She Sweet, Shine on, Harvest Moon, Let’s Fall in Love, April Showers and Duchin’s owntheme adapted from Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major. Directed by the versatile George Sidney, and also starring Kim Novak and Victoria Shaw as Duchin’s first and second loves, James Whitmore, Shepperd Strudwick, Freida Inescort and Gloria Holden, the movie was Columbia’s top earner that year and the soundtrack album also scored huge sales. However true or false the dramatic details may be (and Duchin’s son Peter, who followed in his dad’s footsteps as a world renowned pianist/bandleader, expressed dismay at much of what ended up on screen), the melodies linger and the tears are well-earned 60 years later in The Eddy Duchin Story, lovingly preserved on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.