The Great Caruso was MGM’s biggest hit of 1951 and that means nothing 70 years later. Enrico Caruso was a big singing star of the early 20th Century who died young. So, why not have the next Caruso star as The Great Caruso. What’s sad is that MGM didn’t know Mario Lanza would die young too. Is there a curse attached to this movie? Seeing as how I’m not a pop culture YouTuber requiring you to wait until the video…the answer is No.
When making a biopic, a certain degree of cinematic bullshit is expected. The Great Caruso took a bath in some outright lies that played better to early 1950s audiences. Enrico Caruso is portrayed as this guy who had to struggle and then broke big. The real Caruso was a smash hit from the moment he hit the Public Eye. They got the cause of his death wrong and seemed to imply an injury that never happened. Plus, the film’s timeline suggests he married his wife when she was 10.
That’s some Coal Miner’s Daughter style math and acting, but what are you going to do? It was a different time and MGM knew that people wanted to see The Great Caruso and not facts. Mario Lanza for this kind of music was a huge star at the time that appealed across a lot of demographics. A few years after The Great Caruso, Lanza would be singing for royalty. I know that distance makes it hard to understand niche celebrities of yesteryear, but this was such a big deal at the time.
Enrico Caruso being portrayed by Mario Lanza was still an odd pairing. You had a guy that was as much of an actor as he was a singer playing a music prodigy. While I talked about how The Great Caruso went out of its way to humanize Caruso, it feels kinda fake. American culture has never outright valued intelligence. Much like other intangibles, the American experience doesn’t reward things that the average person can’t touch.
In understanding that idea, you have to understand the American mythos of the mid 20th Century. The Depression wasn’t that long ago in the hearts and minds of 1951 audiences. Things were getting back to normal and they wanted to see tales about people rising out of the muck to greatness. That isn’t Caruso, but what can you do? If you think that biopic fudging has improved in 2021, I beg to differ. Now, they just go out of their way to dig up hot takes to besmirch talent now.
Mario Lanza only made 10 films and would be dead of a pulmonary embolism by the age of 38. While watching The Great Caruso, it’s easy to see that Lanza would’ve been a major star for years beyond the 1950s. He has presence and plays well with everyone he acts against. However, there is something that he still needed to work on in The Great Caruso. He had that plucky eager to please demeanor that seemed more suited for a younger actor.
It’s a minor nitpick, but it stuck out at awkward times. Given the sheer volume of singer to acting missteps we’ve seen in other movies, it feels silly to call it out. However, it’s distracting enough to nag at your brain while viewing.
Warner Archive brings The Great Caruso with a handful of special features. You get a documentary and trailer as the supplemental material and it helps. I’m not really sure if a commentary would’ve worked here, so kudos to Warner Archive there. Past that, you get stunning A/V Quality bringing a forgotten 1951 hit gem to Blu-ray. Stunning work all around on some gorgeous physical media from Warner Archive.