Brandon Hernández 1 p.m., March 28
DVD Rentals: Liberace in Sincerely Yours
Any film that posits two women vying for Liberace’s romantic affection is not fit to include the word “sincerely” in its title. It was the ‘50’s, people were stupid, and every matronly naif who owned a TV set wanted their daughter or granddaughter to grow up and marry the soft-spoken, handsome, and oh-so available Liberace.
Sincerely Yours was made in an era when Liberace, Milton Berle, and Bishop Fulton Sheen defined television. Granted, there were the only three stars on the tube when TV was in its infancy, but Li’s popularity was such that Warner Bros. offered him a two picture deal.
The second picture never saw the light of day. Lukewarm box office and scalding reviews forever cemented Liberace’s fate at the Odeon. The studio paid him off and as far as Liberace and movies were concerned, Vegas was calling. He appeared in only two more features: as himself, singing the delirious Aruba Liberace in When the Boys Meet the Girls, and as a distinctly buttoned-down funeral director in The Loved One.
Sincerely Yours offered more than just top billing for the flamboyant pianist; it was a vanity project for the Liberace cartel. In addition to starring, Li cribbed an etude by Chopin for the title tune. The score was provided by the ivory tinkler’s brother, George, while Lib’s personal manager, Seymour Heller, took co-executive producer credit. In the finished film, the part of Sam Dunne, Liberace’s handler, is played by Preston Sturges stalwart and future nursemaid to My Three Sons, Bill Demarest.
This would mark the fourth time playwright Jules Eckert Goodman’s warhorse, The Silent Voice, had been brought to the screen. The first adaptation hit the screen in 1914. The film was remade in 1922 as The Man Who Played God. Bette Davis got her first big break in the 1933 sound adaptation starring George Arliss in the role later made infamous by Li.
In Goodman’s original, “the man who played God” is chafed over his recent hearing loss. From the safety of his rooftop, our lip-reading yente uses binoculars to spy on locals in the neighborhood park. Touched by the stories he overhears, our well-off hero begins to anonymously answer their prayers. How could Li miss with a time-tested framework such as this?
Not much happens during the first third of the picture, with piano solos arriving at a clip that rivals the number of climaxes in an Indiana Jones sequel. It’s basically the television show presented on a big screen in Eastman Color by Pathe. The love interests -- Marion Moore (Joanne Dru), his secretary of 4 years, and the instantly-smitten, Linda Curtis (Dorothy Malone) -- are introduced, along with agent Dunne. What kind of personal manager discourages a client from playing Carnegie Hall? Tony Warrin’s (Liberace), that’s who.
What is it that he’s got that makes Warrin so hot with the ladies? Marion can barely contain herself whenever the boss enters the room. A heart-to-heart with Dunne confirms her feelings, but alas, Tony is in love with his work and as such has no room in his repertoire for icky girls. That is until a chance encounter at the home of Tony’s mentor has Linda convinced that he is the great Zwolinsky. She falls for the Polish prince faster than a left-hook, accepting his proposal of marriage on their first date.
The part helped to prepare Malone for future roles. Two years later she’d play the mother of a deaf child in Man of a Thousand Faces. She would also go on to star as Rock Hudson’s beard in Written on the Wind and The Last Sunset.
Feel free to skip through the opening two reels, but throw away the remote once you reach the 44 minute mark. How do we know that Tony is undergoing a mid-recital loss of hearing? Check out the torrential flopsweat and arbitrary muffling of the soundtrack.
A handsome soldier (Alex Nicol) occupies the seat next to Linda during one of Tony’s performances. The two instantly hit it off without Linda once mentioning her engagement. It’s best that way. Without his hearing, Tony feels that he no longer has anything to offer Linda and her character is given a two-reel vacation.
At first they blame Tony’s sudden disappearance from the concert scene on a hand injury, much the same way Seymour Heller tried to explain away Liberace’s AIDS by initially telling the press that his client succumbed to a “watermelon diet.”
Borrowing a page from The Hitler Youth Handbook -- the Krauts hired deaf mutes to lip read the dinner conversations of American diplomats -- Tony gets his hands on a pair of high-powered field glasses and takes to the roof. The character in the play lived in a two-story house where the chances of his eavesdropping on conversations across the street were much more believable. Tony lives in a Manhattan penthouse. Even with a top-of-the-line pair of binocs all he would see is the tops of heads. (Insert your own joke here.)
Let’s examine director Gordon Douglas’ screen direction. Here is a shot looking out from Tony’s balcony:
Tony looking down on humanity:
Instead of scalps, we’re suddenly treated to a Google street view of an old man and his "crippled" grandson:
In addition to paying for the operation needed to get the young lad on the football team, Tony unites a lower class mother with her jet-setting daughter, also viewed from a curbside vantage point.
One more miracle before Tony recovers his hearing and everybody lives sappily ever after. How does Tony discover that he and Linda are officially kaput? There are a million stories in the Naked City, and all of them take place in the park opposite Tony's skyscraper.
Goodman's play was only a springboard. His Godlike positioning makes him the Babe Ruth of the Baldwin, curing sick kids almost as easily as he once played Chopin's Polonaise in A flat major. Sincerely Yours also borrows liberally from Capra's Lady for a Day and Rear Window which was released one year earlier.
Only once did I have the privilege of seeing the film projected on a screen before a packed house. It was a midnight screening at Northwestern University's Norris Center. The print was pink and the heckles blue once the audience had time to digest such expository pearls as "He respects the classics, but from a sitting position, not on his knees" and "I don't have my art and you ask why I brood?"
I have yet to watch Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra -- it's on tonight's screening list -- but I can't imagine it being more any more satisfying than this nightmare of kitsch.
Sincerely Yours is available through the Warner Archive.
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- Go tell it on the mountain: a pictorial history of the Paramount logo — May 6, 2013
- Ephemeral Groucho — Feb. 28, 2013