Cast & Crew
Damon Vincente, an Italian American with a beautiful operatic singing voice, leaves his job picking grapes at a California vineyard when he gets an audition at Lardelli's, a San Francisco opera restaurant where several great tenors have gotten their starts. One night, Charles Winthrop, a famous concert promoter, visits Lardelli's with Kendall Hale, a beautiful heiress whom Damon had met one day when she and prizefighter Marco Roselli were lost in the wine country. After the show, Winthrop invites Damon to join him and Kendall at the Mark Hopkins hotel for dinner, and when he arrives, she introduces him to Maestro Marcatello, a famous opera coach. Damon explains that as a child he received singing lessons only when the harvest was good, and that after his parents died, he worked making wine and had little time for artistic instruction. Marcatello asks Damon to sing, and the young man shows so much potential that the maestro offers to train him. As the group discusses Damon's talents, Roselli arrives and screams at Kendall for not having attended his championship fight that night, and storms out. After Kendall declares to the group that she never told Roselli that she loved him, she asks Damon to stay once the others have left. He declines, and in the cab on the way home, Winthrop tells him that Kendall is a dangerous woman. Later, at Lardelli's, Damon's cousin Tonio makes elaborate plans for the tenor, but Damon, who is falling in love with Kendall and fighting against it, is worried that his life is changing too quickly. Finally having given in to Kendall's seductions, Damon invites her and Winthrop to go on tour with him. In New York, however, he is forced to cancel a date with Kendall in order to rehearse for his debut at the Met, where he is to sing Othello. After the rehearsal, Damon finds Kendall with a young sculptor, Russell Hanson, who is sculpting a bust of the icy blonde, and grows jealous. While he sings the part of Othello on stage at the Met, Damon looks anxiously around the hall for Kendall, who never shows up. In the middle of a duet with a soprano, he shocks everyone by storming offstage. He rushes to Kendall's home and learns that she has left on a trip with Russell. Enraged, Damon leaves and heads for Mexico City, where he is scheduled to sing at the National Theatre. During a rehearsal, he loses his voice and breaks down. After the directors replace him, Damon goes to the small town of San Miguel de Allende, where, during a fiesta, he falls ill with a malaria-like disease. Juana Montes, a Mexican girl, tends to him and then brings him to recuperate at the Montes farm, where she lives with her aunt and uncle, Manuel and Rosa. Damon offers to work in the fields to pay back the money that Juana has spent on his hotel and doctor's fees. One day, Damon picks up a guitar and discovers that he still cannot sing. When Juana suggests that he return to singing after the harvest is over, Damon bitterly replies that his voice is gone for good. Juana insists that it is the fault of the "Americana," and that he must find his voice again. At a fiesta commemorating the death of Juana's father, a bullfighter who died in the ring, Juana dresses up as a toreador and reenacts the bullfight. Felipe, a young man who is in love with Juana and jealous of Damon, calls Juana's father a coward, prompting Juana to threaten him with her drawn sword. When Damon goes to comfort her, she explains to him that when her mother ran away with another man, her father lost his will to live and became easy prey to a charging bull. Juana goes to church to ask for forgiveness, and Damon follows her. When he hears her pray for him, he begins to sing "Ave Maria," and then cries tears of joy. Damon announces that he will return to the U.S. to sing in the opera and asks Juana to accompany him, but she refuses. As she drives him to the airport at Mazatlan, however, a storm breaks out and the pair is stranded in the mud. Juana tries to resist Damon's advances, but finally gives in and they kiss. Back in San Francisco, Damon shows up at Lardelli's with Juana as his bride. Later, after Damon is reunited with cousin Tonio, Winthrop arrives at the restaurant and offers Damon a chance to regain his celebrity by singing with the San Francisco Opera. Kendall attends the performance with the intent of winning Damon back, and a jealous Juana encourages Damon to take a job in New York, even though Kendall will be nearby. Kendall invites the couple to a cocktail party, and when they arrive, she takes Juana aside, ostensibly to show her the Mexican treasures she bought when she was looking for Damon south-of-the-border. When she gets Juana alone, she warns the girl that she will take Damon away from her and make him a big star. While still in the bedroom, Juana finds a bullfighter's sword and performs her toreador reenactment for the guests, brandishing the sword at Kendall's throat. After Damon calls Juana from her trance, she runs away, whereupon Damon tells Kendall with confidence that he no longer has feelings for her. Out in the street, Juana is hit by a bus, and when Damon finds her, she tells him that he must go to his performance and not worry about her. At the concert, Damon sings the song "Serenade" in dedication to his beloved, and begins to cry when Tonio tells him from backstage that Juana will recover.
Lorenzo Da Ponte
Ernesto De Curtis
Hugo Von Hofmannsthal
Louis La Cava
Robert B. Lee
J. Peverell Marley
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Raphael J. Sevilla
The novel revolved around a singer named Johnny who has an affair with another man - a conductor named Winston Hawes. After feeling smothered by his lover, Johnny goes to Mexico where he meets a Mexican prostitute who turns him straight and who later kills his male lover. Serenade renames Johnny as Damon Vincenti (named after Lanza's son at his insistence), a vineyard worker with an astounding voice, who is discovered by a wealthy society woman (played by Fontaine) who becomes his patron and his lover. She builds him up into a star, but when Fontaine dumps him, Lanza gives up singing and goes to Mexico, where he meets the lovely Sarita Montiel, no longer a prostitute but a sweet young girl who is the daughter of a bullfighter. She nurses him back to health and they marry but Fontaine is still on the scene. The gay lover of the novel is now split between Fontaine's character and Vincent Price's impresario. Also in the cast was opera star Licia Albanese, who became good friends with Lanza during filming, often spending time with the tenor and his family, a young Vince Edwards, who was cast at Lanza's request, and Edward Platt, best known for playing "The Chief" on Get Smart.
As early as 1940, actress Lupe Velez had expressed interest in filming Serenade, as gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported, but the Breen office (the official Hollywood censors) would not allow it without massive changes. Warner Bros., who had owned the film rights to Cain's novel since its release, had fought off bids from MGM and RKO, but seemed unable to come up with a script that would pass. Each version that was presented to the censors was always returned with a note saying that the producers had to "establish that there is no homosexuality." John Twist was hired to write an adaptation for John Garfield to star, but that fell through. In 1945, Warners announced that Dennis Morgan and Ann Sheridan would star in the film, but that, too, hit a dead end in August, 1946. Director Michael Curtiz was said to be directing Jane Wyman in the film, but he couldn't find the right leading man and the project sat on the back burner until Howard Hughes became interested.
American tenor Mario Lanza had had a meteoric rise to stardom but by the mid-50s, the meteor had cooled and in 1956, Lanza had been off the screen for four years. His weight, brought on by eating and drinking binges, ballooned to nearly 300 pounds. He had a wife and four children to support and he couldn't get a studio to back him for a film until Hughes, who was a fan of Lanza's, had lawyer Greg Bautzer try to buy the rights from Warner Bros., who wanted an astronomical $250,000. Eventually, negotiations broke down and Warners decided to make the film themselves, with Lanza in the title role.
Anthony Mann was hired to direct and during the production, he fell in love with 27-year-old Sarita Montiel. Mann would later end his 25-year marriage and was married to Montiel until 1961. The love affair caused a slight problem on the set, because Lanza had become infatuated with Montiel, who was involved with another man before her affair with the director. When Mann and Montiel's relationship became known, Lanza accused the director of trying to favor his girlfriend in their scenes together. Despite this, Anthony Mann remembered Lanza as "a nice guy with a world of charm."
Lanza pre-recorded his vocals in the studio in June 1955 and filming began on July 7, at the Warner Bros. studios. Joan Fontaine was said to have been scared of Lanza, who had a reputation for being difficult. It is reported that before their scenes together, Lanza would chew garlic because he thought she was trying to upstage him. Vincent Price, however, found working with Lanza very easy, saying, "He happens to own one of the greatest voices of our time. For him to pretend that he is unaware of this would be foolish and unbelievable. There's a big difference between being aware of your talent and being an egotist, believe me!"
Between filming on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, the crew went on location to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for five weeks of location shooting, including at the church of Templo de San Felipe Neri and a 200-year-old hacienda that belonged to the bullfighter Pepe Ortiz. During the crew's stay in San Miguel de Allende, Lanza sang for the locals at the La Parroquia church, the largest in San Miguel, where he was met with a warm reception.
The critics were mostly positive about Serenade when it was released in March 1956, although everyone noticed Lanza's weight gain. The film did not make a profit for Warner Bros., which is not surprising since many of Lanza's die-hard fans had moved on and rock-and-roll was the new, hot music. Opera wasn't the box office draw it had been just a few years before. Lanza was also running out of time; he would make only two more films before dying of a heart attack at the age of 38.
By Lorraine LoBianco
SOURCES: Barrios, Richard Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall Basinger, Jeanine Anthony Mann Bessett, Ronald L. Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile Cesari, Armando Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy Mannering, Derek Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods Price, Victoria Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography Vogel, Michelle Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire"
According to the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Breen Office spent nearly twenty years working with different studios to arrive at an acceptable adaptation of James M. Cain's novel. In the novel, a washed-up opera singer named Sharp wanders down to Mexico, where he meets and falls in love with a prostitute named Juana. Returning to Los Angeles with Juana and strengthened by her love, he becomes a famous singing star. Later, he goes to New York to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House and has a homosexual love affair with an opera impressario named Warfield. In the novel's climactic scene, Juana murders Warfield by dressing up as a toreador and performing a mock bullfight. According to an inter-office memo, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to many aspects of the first screen treatment of Cain's story, which he received in December 1937, including the unacceptable depiction of "illicit sex," prostitution, and homosexuality. He also wrote that the treatment of Mexicans "will probably be found objectionable to the authorities of that country."
Correspondence from early 1944 indicates that RKO was interested in turning the novel into a film, as was M-G-M. Between June and November 1944, the Breen Office and M-G-M worked out solutions to the problematic content of Cain's original story. The homosexual was changed to a rich, powerful older woman, whom the main character marries, Juana would no longer be a prostitute, and a sex scene in a church was eliminated. Also, the "squalor, poverty, etc," of Juana and the main character's life together was not to be shown. Finally, according to Al Block of M-G-M, "what would emerge, then,...seems...to be a good honest story, with no trace of the homosexuality which figured in the book, or indeed anything objectionable, that I can see." The file on the film contains no other correspondence regarding the M-G-M production of Serenade, however, and it appears that the project was dropped at this stage.
Warner Bros. was the next studio to take an interest in the project, as evidenced by a January 22, 1945 letter from studio executive James. J. Geller to the Breen Office. Geller asked for Breen's opinion on a five-page treatment written by Jerry Wald. Although Geller asserted that the studio's decision as to whether it would buy the rights to Cain's novel would depend on Breen's opinion, Breen responded that the treatment is too "general and nebulous" to warrant a definite statement. Wald's treatment eliminated the homosexuality and suggested making the main character a doctor. Wald insisted that the most important point about the character Juana is that she is "Indian-a simple, beautiful girl with direct emotion." According to Wald, the theme of the film-a "conflict between a cheap, somewhat degrading love and a deep simple one"-would resemble the theme of Somerset Maughan's Of Human Bondage.
The studio and the Breen Office continued to argue about the film's content, especially about what the Breen Office termed an "inescapable flavor of sexual perversion suggested by the present relationship of Warfield and Sharp." Throughout the project, the Breen Office expressed concern that the Mexicans in the film be represented in the most favorable light possible. In particular, Breen requested that all "pidgin English" spoken by the Mexican characters be eliminated. This planned production of Serenade, which according to a press release was to co-star Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan, was shelved in August 1946. It was picked up again in May 1948. The revised project was to star Jane Wyman and be directed by Michael Curtiz. In a March 10, 1949 news item, however, Curtiz remarked on the difficulty he had been experiencing casting the film, and by 1951, according to a December 22, 1954 Daily Variety item, Robert Sisk was set as the director. In August 1955, after years of discussion and rewriting, the script finally was deemed acceptable by the PCA.
The film was shot on location in San Miguel d'Allende and includes scenes shot at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: "Palace of Fine Arts Photographed Through Courtesy of the National Art Institute, Mexico." Although actor Harry Bellaver's character was listed as "Monte" in the Call Bureau Cast Service and Variety review, he was called "Tonio" onscreen. According to a May 3, 1956 Los Angeles Examiner review, Mario Lanza had not performed for three years prior to appearing in Serenade. The Hollywood Reporter review noted that a pudgy Lanza had thinned down for the role of the tormented Damon Vicente. In 1958, Jakob Gimbel filed suit against Warner Bros. and RCA Victor, claiming that he agreed to act as the film's musical adviser and offscreen pianist on the strict proviso that his name would not be listed in connection with the picture. Although Gimbel did not receive credit onscreen or in reviews, his name did appear on the soundtrack album. The final disposition of the suit is not known.
Released in United States Spring April 1956
Released in United States Spring April 1956