Following on from my look at the first two films in a new DVD set, released by Network Distributing, here are some thoughts on the other two. Where the earlier films are very British in their humour and their whole atmosphere, the two slightly later offerings on the second disc have a more international feeling. One is set in Venice, the other partially in Vienna. Another similarity between the two is that they both feature great operatic tenors in the lead roles – Joseph Schmidt in My Song Goes Round the World (1934) and Richard Tauber in Heart’s Desire (1934). All the films in this series are part of The British Film Collection.
I really enjoyed both, and for me the first of these is the stand-out film of the entire set. Having said that, Tauber’s voice in the second film is probably the musical high point. In both films, the greatest thrill comes in scenes where the star singer gives an impromptu performance, and those around them suddenly realise that they have great voices which belie their appearance (Schmidt’s height, Tauber’s peasant dress).
My Song Goes Round the World features beautiful footage of Venice over the opening titles, with grainy shots of Italians sitting in doorways or lingering on bridges. This is an English-language remake of a German hit film set in Italy, Ein Lied Geht um die Welt, which had the same director, Richard Oswald. Two of the main stars were also the same, Joseph Schmidt and Charlotte Ander, though British actors took over other lead parts.
Blending comedy, drama and above all music, the film is dominated throughout by the wonderful voice of Austro-Hungarian Jewish operatic tenor Schmidt. I lost count of how many performances he gives. His character, struggling Italian singer Ricardo, sadly can’t get work because of his small stature. (Schmidt himself, at just 4ft 11ins, had similar problems in real life.) However, when his voice is heard in its full glory, booking agents are forced to think again. Ricardo finds himself transformed into a recording artist and star of the airwaves, even if it’s hard for him to get parts on stage.
The great singer meets Nina (German actress Ander), a girl working at a record shop, and is instantly smitten. However, it becomes clear that his best friend, tall and handsome Rico (John Loder) is also secretly nursing a passion for Nina. Which man will she choose? Usually with love triangles in films it is only too obvious what will happen, but this one kept me guessing, and this is also a film where you have to sympathise with all three characters, as they struggle to do what is best. Both the men are in some sense underdogs – Ricardo because of his height, Rico because he is poor and struggling to stay true to his friend. Both let their inner turmoil be seen in scenes where they wear heavy make-up to play “musical clowns”. Nina is no coquette, but a warm character who genuinely enjoys the friendship of both men.
Comic actor Jack Barty takes the role of older friend and father figure Simoni, and provides many of the funniest moments, though his unmistakeably British humour at times makes it hard to remember we’re supposed to be in Italy! Although much of the film could be seen as musical escapism, it certainly recognises the reality of the Great Depression early on, and there is even a shot where the two friends jokingly consider whether they should jump from a bridge and end their struggles.
Here is a trailer for the German film (it does give some of the plot away, and doesn’t have English subtitles). It features Venetian sequences and musical scenes re-used in the English film, so it gives a flavour of what the English film is like. (I’d love to see the German version too).
Austrian director Paul L. Stein was at the helm for Heart’s Desire, which begins in his native city of Vienna – and makes it look seductively warm and welcoming. Upper-crust English opera producers Frances (Leonora Corbett) and Oliver (Carl Harbord) have travelled to the city to try to find a tenor for their forthcoming production. To start off with they see a rather boring tenor on stage, who turns them down – as someone with little knowledge of opera, at first I wrongly assumed this was Tauber.
But no – the star turns up in the role of Josef Steidler, a peasant singer at an outdoor cafe, singing while a hat is passed round for coins. It’s a wonderful moment when he first opens his mouth and that magical voice comes out. That first German-language song, Wien, Du Stadt Meiner Träume (Vienna, You City of My Dreams), was one of my favourites in the film.
The plot of this film is rather predictable, in the mould of H. G. Wells’ Kipps and many other books and films, as Frances and Oliver take Josef back to London, wrenching him away from his girlfriend, Anna (Kathleen Kelly) and his home, and teaching him to be dissatisfied with his life. Soon he is falling in love with Frances, but does she care about him as a man, or just as an investment? As well as the two women in Josef’s life in the story, Tauber’s real-life wife, Diana Napier, features as his partner on stage.
Even if the story is a bit thin at times, though, the wonderful music more than makes up for it, and so does Tauber’s personality. His warmth comes across endearing scenes like the one where Josef sneaks away from the first-class carriage in a train to join his friend, Florian (Paul Graetz) in third class. Just as he is about to share another passenger’s home-made picnic, including hard-boiled eggs and cakes, he is disappointed to be dragged away to a grand meal with his new friends.
These two films, plus the operatic excerpts in Facing the Music, have left me wanting to try more opera in future. And the whole set has left me keen to discover more vintage British musicals.
Thanks again to Network Distributing, who kindly provided a review copy of this DVD set
For further reading, here’s a link to a bio of Joseph Schmidt, who tragically died from a heart attack in 1942 after being interned in a refugee camp in Switzerland.
And here is a link to the Wikipedia page about Richard Tauber, who also died sadly young, of lung cancer.