Serenade the novel vs. Serenade the film

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Derek McGovern

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Sep 21, 2011, 11:41:31 PM9/21/11
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Derek McGovern 
Aug 23, 2011 
I've been re-reading James M. Cain's Serenade, as I'm planning to write an 
article on the book *and* the film version for an academic journal. 

Has anybody else here---apart from Armando, who discusses it on pages 
198-199 of his book---actually read the novel? If so, I'd love to know your 
opinion of it. 

Reading it again after a thirty-year break, I could certainly understand why 
it would have appealed to Lanza---especially if he was encountering it for 
the first time in 1954. First, there's the slangy first-person 
narrative---similar in a way to the style of Damon Runyan, one of his 
favourite authors. Then there's the all-pervasive subject of  opera. But most 
of all, there are the eerie parallels in the novel to his own life: 

For instance, its protagonist (baritone John Howard Sharp) is an opera 
singer who goes to Hollywood, unexpectedly becomes a star after his first 
movie, has creative differences with his Hollywood bosses, feels he's 
cheapening his talent by appearing in tacky musicals, and then walks out on 
the studio! The only difference is that he breaks his contract in order to 
sing at the Met. But imagine how that would have resonated with Lanza, who 
by 1954 was painfully aware that establishing himself on the world's great 
opera stage was crucial to his sense of self-worth. The novel even begins 
with the singer at his most down and out---another point in common with the 
Lanza of 1954. 

So what do I think of the novel? Hmmn, definitely a mixed bag. It certainly 
has some memorable moments, but it's almost-self-consciously streetwise 
first-person narrator is difficult to like, and he never really rings true. 
For one thing, he's too much Sam Spade to convince me that he's the serious 
and sensitive operatic artist he's supposed to be. While it's hard to know 
whether it's Cain's own prejudices---or merely his narrator's---that come 
through loud and clear in the constant comments about Mexicans, "wops" and 
"fags," the putdowns and sneers do get a little tiring as well. Somewhat 
gratuitously (for such a short novel), Cain even has his narrator complain 
about Puccini in several places! I also found Cain's handling and 
understanding of the homosexual theme pretty dubious, though, again, it's 
hard to say whether the novel reflects Cain's views or simply his conflicted 
narrator's. 

I have plenty more to say on Serenade the book versus the film, but in the 
meantime I'd love to hear others' views! 

Cheers 
Derek 

___________________________________________________________________________

Tony Partington 
Aug 24 
Hi Derek:  What a fascinating topic!  Yes indeed I have read 
"Serenade" and my initial impressions / feelings are virtually the 
same as yours.  It is most definitely a period piece - as you point 
out so very well.  It also, in my opinion, is not Mr. Cain's strongest 
work.  It cannot, for example, compare to "The Postman Always Rings 
Twice."  Your metaphor with Damon Runyon is a good one and, if 
Hollywood in 1956 hadn't had to slice and dice the "Serenade" story so 
drastically, almost beyond recognition, it would have made a good film 
noir.  As several folks on the forum have pointed out, perhaps the 
weakest facet of "Serenade" the film is the screenplay.  IMO it most 
cetainly is.  Artistically, it comes nowhere near the musical score 
that Lanza gave over to the work.  I know I am preaching to the choir 
here but I think there is little doubt that of all his films, 
"Serenade" is the finest musically both in artistic content and vocal 
worth in terms of what Mario both possessed and was capable of.  It 
remains a true and haunting glimpse of what might have been. 

Ciao ~ Tony 

___________________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
 Aug 24 
Hi Tony: Many thanks for your comments. 

I'll take your word for it that Serenade isn't Cain's best work! (The New 
Yorker
recently described it as "under-appreciated.") I haven't read 
anything else by him; in fact, I've always steered clear of the 
"hard-boiled" school of American fiction of the 1930s and 1940s---though I 
do enjoy some of the film versions of novels like Chandler's The Big Sleep. 
(Speaking of Chandler, his screenplays of other novelists' work, 
including Cain's, was often excellent--- the Hitchcock-directed Strangers 
on a Train, for example.) 

Incidentally, there's an insightful essay on Cain's intriguingly up and 
(more often) down career here. 

I also enjoyed this take on Serenade the movie (scroll down to "Super Mario" to find it). 

I think the basic plot line of Serenade had the potential for a terrific 
and grandly melodramatic film (think Douglas Sirk and his Magnificent 
Obsession
& All That Heaven Allows) --- even in the 1950s. It was 
actually Cain who suggested years before the book was ever adapted for the 
screen that the then-unfilmable issue of a homosexual love affair could 
easily be resolved by turning the gay antagonist in the story into a femme 
fatale. The only real problem, as I see it (other than dramatically toning 
down the novel's seedy eroticism) was how to come up with a satisfactory 
ending to the story, since there was no way that a Hollywood musical in the 
mid-1950s was going to end in despair! (Perhaps Serenade should have been 
filmed---with Lanza, of course---in Italy, where happy endings, even in the 
1950s, were not a requirement. Come to think of it, what a great way it 
would have been for Lanza to have made his cinematic debut in Italy compared 
with the pretty dire Seven Hills!) 

Problematic ending aside, I think Serenade had the potential to be a far 
better film than the book it was based on. From my own perspective, 
everything that grates with me about the novel---the tiresomely macho 
narrator, the homophobia and racism, Cain's intrusive attempts to pass 
himself off as a musical expert, etc---would have ceased to be an issue. 

Did you realize, by the way, that we almost had Serenade the (non-movie) 
musical? Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim worked on a stage musical 
adaptation of the novel in the mid-1950s that, by the sound of things, 
wasn't going to hold back on the controversial elements. But then Leonard 
Bernstein & co distracted the pair with their plans for West Side Story. 
I'm surprised, though, that a contemporary composer hasn't turned it into an 
opera. 

It's not a habit of mine to post other people's Amazon reviews on this 
forum, but I think this pseudonymous writer hits the nail bang on the head 
about the flaws and merits of the novel:   

"Compared to his earlier and much better The Postman Always Rings Twice, 
which tells a story as taut and inevitable as a Greek tragedy, James M. 
Cain's Serenade offers a plot as giddily rococo and improbable as the 
grandest of operas. I suppose that's appropriate, as this is the only 
hard-boiled novel I know of that features an opera singer hero/narrator; he 
may sing Rossini, but he talks like the sort of tough guy Bogart and Mitchum 
used to play. The settings have an operatic range as well, running the gamut 
from a verismo account of Depression-era Mexico to a phantasmagorically 
high-camp vision of New York's 1930s gay bohemia. 

"Unfortunately, I'm afraid I'm making this book sound like more fun than it 
is. The last third of this relatively short novel explores an intense, 
unusual (and, I suppose, daring for its time) sexual triangle leading to a 
crime and its ultimate punishment. The first two-thirds, however, are 
slow-going, as we follow John Howard Sharp, a down-and-out opera singer in 
Mexico, as he falls in love with Juana, an Aztec princess variant on the 
prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold theme. After a brief romantic idyll in an 
empty church on the way to Acapulco, during which Sharp displays the sort of 
wilderness survival skills not seen since the heyday of James Fenimore 
Cooper (and at the same time regains his singing voice), the pair flee north 
to Los Angeles, where Sharp becomes the overnight star of Nelson Eddy-esque 
Hollywood musicals. 

"Then the story gets good. Dissatisfied with his success in movies, Sharp 
comes to New York to sing at the Met (Juana comes along to take night school 
classes in English) and reencounters his old mentor/tormentor Winston Hawes, 
a fabulously wealthy composer, conductor and apostle of the love that dared 
not speak its name (at least back in 1937). While the plot from here is 
riveting without being particularly surprising, I don't want to give 
anything away. 

"If the whole novel were as good as this last section, it would merit at 
least another star. However, if you are easily offended by outmoded social 
attitudes toward Mexicans and gays (in other words, if you don't read 
anything that borders on the racist or homophobic), please deduct a star or 
avoid this book altogether. For my part, I certainly think Serenade deserves 
to be in print, although I'd say anyone new to Cain would do well to read 
Postman and Double Indemnity first." 

Cheers 
Derek 
______________________________________________________________________

Armando 
 Aug 25 

Ciao Derek: I hadn’t read Serenade in years, so when you told me that you 
were thinking of writing an article on the book and the film I started to 
read it again, but I only managed to get to about the halfway point. I found 
it pretty hard going this time around. In fact, quite tedious and the John 
Howard Sharp character not very likable. 

In view of the current discussion taking place, I’ll attempt to finish 
reading it.   

______________________________________________________________________

  
Leeann 
 Aug 29, 2011 
Well, this is no small topic! 

Since the pseudonymous Amazon writer gave such a nice overview of the 
plotline--including its operatic dimensions--well, skipping forward. But 
with a disclaimer. I really don't like the book and the characters, and I 
intensely dislike Cain's treatment of sexuality and ethnicity. It's 
difficult to separate a personal response from a critical look at a work in 
the context of the author and his times. And Serenade is certainly 
reflective of attitudes and beliefs of the time in which Cain wrote, and 
even though it's not considered his best work, reflective of his literary 
voice as well. 

Cain biographer David Madden believes 
that Cain's characters, themes, and situations throughout his short stories 
and novels are "so simple and exaggerated that we must simply exercise a 
willing suspension of disbelief for aesthetic remuneration." 

Well, the concept of an opera star who talks and acts like a hard-boiled 
pulp fiction character required too much suspension of disbelief for me, 
whether you look at him as a sort of universal, elemental man or as the 
individual, John Sharp. I think he's Cain's archtypical tough-guy 
protagonist, but the artificial musical discussions and the fact that 
Sharp's relationship to music is never really about the music--it's about 
his pummeling it into submission to his own macho persona--create too much 
of a disconnect. It's all about self-perception, ego, and conquest.  Cain's 
unembellished, bullet-fast writing pulled me along, though, and I couldn't 
put down the book, even though the disconnects kept smacking me in the 
eyeballs. Perhaps the opera star was a very self-conscious choice of 
character that gave Cain a shot at integrating his own musical background, 
aspirations, and opinions into his writing. 

I'd argue there's no romance in John Sharp. There's need. There's 
desperation borne out of the total smackdown of his affair with Winston 
Hawes. The affair struck at the very heart of his tough-guy persona, 
shattered his concept of his own manhood, if you will. And it terrified him. 

That seems one of many points of divergence with the movie. Even with all 
the faults of the screenplay, I wonder if Lanza's character doesn't just 
make more sense. I'd say he was a bundle of vulnerability and yes, romantic. 
Can you actually be an opera singer without those sensibilities? 

So many character, chronological, and narrative changes happened on the way 
from novel to movie script. So many scenes and threads picked up and plopped 
down differently; yet it's clear there was an overall intent to stay true to 
the most fundamental points of the novel. 

What remained as Serenade into film? I suppose there's a basic 
storyline built around themes of the self-destruction accompanying forbidden 
and obsessive love, then redemption and resurrection.  It's as if an echo 
comes back to you garbled, in a different rhythm or sounding like a 
different language. 

I agree this had all the makings of a more prototypical film noir, and 
it's too bad that for whatever reasons, Anthony Mann didn't treat it as he 
had his earlier films. 

Certainly his film Border Incident (1949) worked 
themes and attitudes about Mexico-US that run somewhat in the same veins as 
some of the attitudes Cain explores--among the many, Mexicans as primitive, 
yet with an elemental wisdom. And Mann was already known for films whose 
characters were grappling with personal moral and ethical dilemmas. 

And both he and Cain share an affinity with the noir genre; Cain's 
biographers classify him as the [literary] "father of noir."

Well, there's a lot to be said on this topic and it's going to be exciting, 
Derek, to hear how you're thinking about this paper and to hear more about 
how others think about the book and the movie.  Best, Lee Ann 

_________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 

Aug 30, 2011 

Great post, Lee Ann. 

I think you make a very valid point about Lanza's character in the film 
version making more sense than John Howard Sharp in the novel. Damon 
Vincenti may not be very well fleshed out in the screenplay, and his 
dialogue is mostly dull, but in terms of what happens to him, it's a heck of 
a lot more believable in the film that a sensitive and basically simple 
man would lose the will to sing---even to live---than the novel's tough guy 
Sharp. As you pointed out, there isn't a hint of romance in Sharp---and that 
extends even to his supposed great love of opera. (Which reminds me: it's as 
difficult to visualize Sharp singing opera as it is to imagine Humphrey 
Bogart in his Sam Spade persona performing the great arias!) 

But, of course, the problem with the film is that it doesn't spend nearly 
enough time on the Kendall Hale/Damon Vincenti relationship, thus creating 
its own credibility problem when Lanza's character is supposed to be 
distraught over Fontaine's abandonment of him. Another couple of minutes of 
screentime---say, even a Casablanca-style montage showing their 
relationship developing---would have made all the difference, plus, of 
course, a better ending and superior direction during the last ten minutes 
of the film. 


It's interesting, as one recent commentator has pointed out, that the film 
carries over the novel's implication that Damon/Sharp never entirely gets 
Kendall/Hawes out of his system. Mario's character may say to Kendall, 
"[Juana] didn't have to kill you---you're dead," but there's really nothing 
to suggest in the movie that she really is "dead" to him. (And, 
incidentally, I've always felt that the line should have been "You're  
already dead." Sounds much better.) We've seen him sobbing in his hands 
after the Lamento scene---clearly still struggling with his feelings toward 
Kendall---and then all he does is sing "Nessun Dorma," presumably to 
indicate that he will conquer his feelings for her, although few in the 
audience would have understood the implications of the Italian lyrics. Even 
when Damon proposes to Juana, it's not passion that seems to motivate him 
(although we get that in the subsequent storm scene), but gratitude: "I owe 
you so much." 

As for having to suspend disbelief when it comes to Cain's characters and 
their actions, at least one of his biographers---Roy Hoopes---has suggested 
in the case of Serenade that maybe the old grouch (my description, not 
Hoope's!) was pulling our legs the whole time. Hoopes writes that when 
critics argue that Serenade and several other Cain novels verge on 
burlesque at times and are "always in danger of becoming unintentionally 
funny," it's worth questioning whether "Cain's predilection for comedy, 
burlesque, and humor" actually was unintended in these books. After all, 
"Cain really began as a satirist and humorist." 

Incidentally, Serenade the novel never convinces me that Cain

was as musically knowledgeable as he imagined himself to be. He 
throws in musical terms here and there to show off, but none of it rings 
true to me. Let's not forget either that this is the same man who claimed in 
an interview that he "suspected" Lanza's singing in Serenade of lacking "the intricate 
cadenzas" --- a statement that makes little sense --- and/or being the 
result of studio trickery. (Talk about trying to have it both ways!!) All 
this from a man, who, according to Hoope, only ever watched "fifteen 
minutes" of the film version. 

Cheers 
Derek 

_______________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
September 3, 2011 

Armando recently sent me some extracts from a very interesting book 
entitled A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera, by 
Australian-born Peter Conrad, a lecturer at Oxford University. Conrad 
devotes two pages to Serenade (the novel), and has some insightful things 
to say about Cain's macho posturing: 

"Cain . . . adored [opera], but had guilty misgivings about his weakness 
for it. . . . In America, opera connoted effeminacy, and this is the reason 
for the hard-boiled Cain's fear of it. If tough guys don't dance, they 
shouldn't sing opera either, or be so knowledgeable about the trills and 
shakes and portamenti of the fat ladies who do. Cain saves the situation for 
himself by identifying the voice with virility." 

Couldn't agree more! 

Conrad also sees the novel as a version of Carmen, told from the point of 
view of the baritone Escamillo. In Cain's treatment, Conrad writes, Juana is 
Carmen and Winston Hawes Don José, and "Carmen kills Don José to keep him 
from erotically tempting Escamillo."   

Again, spot on!   
 _______________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
September 6, 2011 

I've just stumbled on the original trailer for Serenade at tcm.com: 

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/377169/Serenade-Original-Trailer-.html

I'd never seen it in its entirety before, and at 3:26 it's the longest Lanza 
film trailer I'm aware of (appropriate, I guess, for the longest Lanza 
movie). It's quite well done, actually, with a great opening (the "O 
Paradiso" scene, in which Mario looks and sounds magnificent), and some 
clever editing, eg., cutting from the last note of "La Danza" to a thrilling 
moment in the *Otello* duet ("Giura e ti danna!"), and later from Joan 
Fontaine's "Do you think that would free him" to gunshots in San Miguel. The 
colour's a little different here too (sometimes better). I think they were 
unwise, though, to opt for so many loud examples of Lanza's singing in the 
film--especially the overdose of the title song!! 

But definitely worth a look. 

______________________________________________________________________

Steff 
Sep 6, 2011 

Hello everyone, 

Here's a photo which I spotted yesterday just by accident on a website.  It 
shows the front of the Majestic Theatre in Rhode Island (Providence), and I 
pressume it was taken in the mid 1950s. As you can see the film that was 
shown there was "Serenade." Read the neon signs announcing "The Thrill of a 
Great Voice."  The original source of this picture is quite amazing. I 
understand it was taken by someone from the Providence Police Department, at 
least it comes from their archives. I am sure the photographer didn't want 
to focus on the movie but rather on the policeman regulating the traffic at 
the crossways.... Anyway, our eyes focus on Mario Lanza.... 

Steff 
______________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
Sep 6, 2011 

Well done, Steff! A very nice piece of history. 

I'm sure that photo was taken in 1956, when the film was on its original 
run. Looking at the marquee, with the film described so proudly, it does 
make me feel a little sad that the movie wasn't the box-office success that 
Lanza had hoped for (and needed). Imagine, though, if it had been a hit: 
there would almost certainly have been a second film for Warner Bros, and, 
if so, the move to Italy would have been delayed---or possibly not have 
happened at all. 

Cheers 
Derek 
______________________________________________________________________

Joseph Fagan 
Sep 7, 2011 

What a great clip! ( the only thing missing was a few notes from his 
stunning Ave Maria). This trailer would induce anyone to go and see the 
movie!)...Joe 
______________________________________________________________________

Steff 
Sep 7, 2011 

Hi Derek, 

Well, being European I am happy that Mario moved to Europe .... And proud 
that he gave one of his few German concerts in Stuttgart, which is only 
about 85 miles from my hometown Freiburg. 

Incidentally, I just noticed that regarding the German motion picture rating 
system (age restriction) children being younger than 6 years were not 
admitted to see "Toast of New Orleans" and "That Midnight Kiss", whereas for 
"Serenade" and other Mario Lanza films children at least had to be 12 of age 
to watch the film in the cinemas (and children between 7 and 11 when 
accompanied by parents). No special treatment for "Serenade."   

Steff 
______________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
Sep 8, 2011 

Hi Steff: Oh, I'm pleased that Mario moved to Europe; in fact, I think it 
would have been much better for his psyche if he'd gone there four to five 
years earlier---after the cancellation of his MGM contract. He was never 
happy again in the US, I feel, and as Armando discovered while interviewing 
so many of Lanza's friends and associates in Italy, the Italians understood 
him
. They understood his artistic temperament, passion, and sensitivity. 
Let's face it: the conservative USA of the 1950s was not the place for 
someone as unconventional as Lanza. 

That Stuttgart concert in late January 1958 was by all accounts one of the 
highlights of his final tour! 

I'm surprised that children younger than six were not allowed to see either 
of Lanza's first two films. Were the German censors concerned about the 
effect of Kathryn's high notes on young ears? :) 

Cheers 
Derek 
______________________________________________________________________

Tony Partington 
 Sep 9, 2011 

Hi All:  What wonderful posts, pictures and trailers.  I still say what a 
shame that Cain's book wasn't better and the screenplay for Mario wasn't 
better too.  As I believe I said before, there is no question that the score 
of SERENADE far outdoes the story.  Still, what a wonderful piece of musical 
history we are left with.  This, in my opinion, was the operatic score Lanza 
probably longed for with THE GREAT CARUSO.  As wonderful as that film is, 
the purity of the music comes through in SERENADE far more clearly than in 
THE GREAT CARUSO. 

Ciao ~ Tony 

______________________________________________________________________

Derek McGovern 
Sep 9, 2011 

Hi Tony: Thanks for posting those pics. The HMV version of the Serenade album 
was the one I grew up with, so I've always had a soft spot for it. (In fact, 
it was years before I even knew that the RCA cover in the USA was 
different.) Mario's a pretty big boy in the photo, though, and the synopsis 
of the movie on the back cover made the film sound even more melodramatic 
than it actually was :) 

I certainly agree with you that, musically speaking, Serenade is superior 
to The Great Caruso. Lanza's in terrific voice in Caruso, but when it 
comes to his actual singing, Serenade is the more impressive of the two 
for my money. 

What are the musical highlights of The Great Caruso? Of the numbers Mario 
sings *complete*, I'd say: "Vesti la Giubba," "Because," "Celeste Aida," and 
the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria." Then there are some glorious snippets of 
things, e.g., the endings to "Cielo e Mar" and "Che Gelida Manina" and the 
Martha Finale. 

Serenade, on the other hand, ventures (musically) where no Pasternak had 
been before, and gives us superb *complete *versions of "Torna a Surriento," 
"Amor Ti Vieta," the Otello Monologue, "O Paradiso" and the Schubert "Ave 
Maria," plus virtually complete renditions of "Di Rigori Armato" and the 
Lamento di Federico, and a good "La Danza" that's a notch above The Great 
Caruso
one. No frustratingly brief snippets of just the high notes, as one 
might find in *The Great Caruso*. As Armando writes in his book,

it's a musical programme for opera connoisseurs! 

For me, Serenade's only musical fault is that retakes weren't made of a 
few of the operatic selections, i.e., "Nessun Dorma," "O Soave Fanciulla" 
and "Di Quella Pira." Perhaps if The Great Caruso's Peter Herman Adler had 
been on board as conductor, that might have happened too. Unlike Serenade's 
Ray Heindorf, Adler insisted on multiple takes in many instances, and it's 
just as well he did, as two of the most celebrated vocal moments in The 
Great Caruso---"Che Gelida Manina" and "Cielo e Mar"----are not nearly as 
impressive in the surviving outtakes for the movie. So while some 
(erroneously) point to the pinched high C ending of Serenade's "Di Quella 
Pira" as "proof" that Lanza's high register wasn't *quite *what it once was, 
an earlier take of "Cielo e Mar" for The Great Caruso features even less 
impressive high notes---and they're mere B-flats that Mario disappoints on. 

It just goes to show the value of a retake (or a remake, on a day when the 
voice is responding better)!   

I'll leave you with a few quirky Serenade posters (all of them designed 
for Spanish-speaking audiences). 

Cheers 
Derek 


 
 
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leeann

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Apr 23, 2012, 2:16:26 PM4/23/12
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Is there more to say about Serenade?  Well, taking some liberties with an old children's song, "This is the [thread] that never ends. It just goes on and on my friends..."

We've talked so much about problems in the script, both on its own and in comparison to other movies based on Cain's novels, I've wanted to know more about the arguments behind its content over time.  An American Tragedy gives chronological highlights (page 198) starting with the first script treatment in 1937.

It turns out that the American Film Institute Catalog offers a quick fix drawn from the Motion Picture Association/Production Code Administration (PCA) files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Hollywood censorship was particularly fierce during the film industry's early and middle ages, and in the 1930s at least, all film scripts went first to the PCA who ruled on their appropriateness. Joseph Breen, the organization's conservative Catholic head, objected to that 1937 Serenade treatment because of "the unacceptable depiction of 'illicit sex, prostitution, and homosexuality.' " He wrote, too--and this really surprised me--that "the treatment of Mexicans will probably be found objectionable to the authorities of that country."

Fast forwarding to 1944, Breen and MGM again began to hammer out changes to the Cain novel to meet Hollywood Production Code demands. As we know, they eliminated issues of sexuality that were considered controversial (and met with extraordinary bigotry and ignorance) at that time. These 1944 changes created Joan Fontaine's role and changed the character of Juana from the gypsy-like prostitute she is in the book to the highly respectable, chaste woman she is in the movie. Breen maintained the film was not to portray Mexican life as one of "squalor or poverty." And during the next several years of negotiations, he continued to insist that Mexicans in the film be represented in the "most favorable light possible," including "no pidgin English."

(That latter statement is interesting, considering, for example, that films consistently presented Italians and other nationalities speaking English with intense accents!
)

In 1945, Warner Brothers picked up an interest in the script, and writer Jerry Wald authored a preliminary treatment of the movie, he insisted that the most important point about Juana is that she is "Indian--a simple, beautiful girl with direct emotion." And the theme of the film was to be "conflict between a cheap, somewhat degrading love and a deep simple one" to resemble Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.

This account then pretty much returns to the chronology of who picked up options on the film, simply stating that in 1955, "after years of discussion and rewriting, the script finally was deemed acceptable by the Production Code Administration."

But in the end, then, maybe it's remarkable that vestiges of the original novel remain in the basic themes of the movie, and that we recognize the novel at all in the film itself!  Best, Lee Ann










Joseph Fagan

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Apr 23, 2012, 3:35:26 PM4/23/12
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Hi Leeann!...Was the script Mario read for the movie the exact one used for the film?.....Joe

leeann

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Apr 23, 2012, 5:17:53 PM4/23/12
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Hi, Joe, The script under discussion here in this post an in other threads on the forum is marked "Serenade-Final (8/14/1955)," But that's a copy from an archive, and since there were differences between the "final" script and the movie I wouldn't know how to guess which of or whether those changes occurred during filming or editing or with written edits we don't have access to. I wonder if there are personal notes, notebooks, or some kind of daily filming diary. I don't know enough;  Derek's the expert!  Best, LeeAnn

leeann

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Apr 23, 2012, 5:20:35 PM4/23/12
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Sorry--that's August 19, 1955 and just for further information, this Warner Brothers file copy is annotated as the 5th Rev FINAL. Leeann

Derek McGovern

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Apr 23, 2012, 9:28:49 PM4/23/12
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Hi Lee Ann: Breen's sensitivity about offending the Mexican people certainly came as a surprise, as was his concern about characters speaking pidgin English! (As you say, where was Breen when half of the movies in Hollywood at the time featuring, say, Chinese or Italian characters had them speaking to each other in the most infantile broken English?)

Hi Joe: The post that Lee Ann linked to and also this one cover the main differences between the final version of the screenplay and what was actually filmed.

Here's a section from an article I wrote on Serenade (comparison between the novel and the film) for an academic publication.  

The most controversial of Cain's filmed novels is arguably the 1937 noir thriller Serenade, the off-beat and often torrid tale of a sexually conflicted male opera singer—and a book described upon its release as “one of the least filmable novels ever written” (Barrios 239).

Indeed, the executives of Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., which purchased the screen rights to Serenade in 1944, were keenly aware of the monumental difficulties inherent in adapting Cain’s novel for the cinema. This was, after all, a time when the rules of the then-recently renamed Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) (formerly the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or MPPDA) the self-regulating film censorship body responsible for the Production Code Administration (PCA), were strictly observed.  Among other things, the Production Code, or Hays Code as it was popularly known,[1] specifically prohibited the on-screen depiction of sexual passion, homosexuality (or its suggestion), the mockery of religion, prostitution, nudity, swearing, or explicit violence (Zeisler 29). Serenade included all of these ingredients and more.

Presumably emboldened, however, by the critical and popular acclaim that had greeted Paramount Pictures’ heavily laundered screen adaptation of Cain’s 1935 novella Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) earlier that year, and anticipating the box office success of its own similarly bowdlerized Cain adaptation—of the 1941 novel Mildred Pierce in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film of the same name—Warner Bros. quickly assigned screenwriter John Twist[2] to create a workable script from Serenade.

It was a formidable task. As Richard Barrios observes, “Always, when [screenplay adaptations of Serenade] were submitted, the MPAA’s reply came back the same: ‘It will have to be affirmatively established that there is no homosexuality’” (239). Yet the novel’s homosexual theme was only one of many difficulties that Twist faced in adapting the work. The novel’s most notorious scene—the rape of prostitute Juana Montes by the novel’s narrator, John Howard Sharp inside a Mexican church—presented a daunting challenge, one that was matched only by the grisly murder later in the novel of Sharp’s lover/nemesis Winston Hawes, whom Montes stabs with an espada. By August 1946, Warner Bros. had quietly deferred the project. Michael Curtiz, then under contract to the company, expressed interest in filming the project in 1947, and a revised screenplay was submitted to the MPAA the following year, but casting (and presumably scripting) difficulties reportedly contributed to the cancellation of the project (Cesari 197).

An apparent breakthrough occurred in June 1950, when it was announced in the New York Times that Breen had tentatively approved a new screenplay by Zachary Gold (1918–1953), best known for co-writing (with Clifford Odets) the screenplay to Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946). According to Warner Bros. producer Jerry Wald, Gold’s screenplay was “a thorough dry cleaning of the novel, although nine-tenths of the story remains intact” (Brady 77). No film adaptation emerged at the time, however. Then in 1954, the American operatic tenor and film star Mario Lanza (1921–1959) read Serenade, and expressed interest in appearing in a screen version of the novel. Apprised of this news, Lanza’s billionaire admirer Howard Hughes, then Head of RKO Pictures, approached Warner Bros. with an offer for the screen rights. Negotiations ultimately broke down, however, after Warner Bros. demanded $250,000 for the rights, a substantial sum in 1954 and more than seven times the price paid to Cain for the novel a mere decade earlier (Biesen 212). At that point, Warner Bros. Head Jack Warner decided that his studio would film Serenade itself, with Lanza playing the role of Sharp, and the project was announced in December 1954 (Cesari 198).

Warner’s first thought was to adapt the Gold screenplay into a musical version of the novel,[3] but by late January 1955 Twist had been rehired with the goal of simplifying the storyline and improving the characterization, while also working with Lanza, musical director Ray Heindorf and composer Nicholas Brodszky on the “music plot” (Trilling 1). Although the extent of Twist’s contribution is unclear, he presumably made substantial changes to Gold’s script, and is one of three writers officially credited for the movie’s screenplay. The other two credited writers, Ivan Goff (1910–1999) and Ben Roberts (1916–1984)[4] subsequently adapted Twist’s script, and it was their “final” version of August 1955 that was employed when shooting began on the film in Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende shortly afterwards.



[1]  After MPPDA president Will H. Hays (1879–1954), its head from 1922–1945.

[2]  Twist (1898–1976) was arguably best known for his work on two Garson Kanin-directed films for RKO, The Great Man Votes and Next Time I Marry (both made in 1938). In a 1986 interview, Kanin describes Twist as “an adorable hack” who never took “his writing seriously” (McGilligan 98).

[3] It was not the first projected musical version, however.  In 1954, writer Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein briefly worked on a stage musical adaptation. The project was abandoned when the producers learned that Warners’ film musical version was in pre-production (Bryer and Davison 192).

[4] Goff and Roberts were regular writing partners, and collaborated on the screenplays of nineteen films from 1949 to 1981, including the noir thriller White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (Raoul Walsh, 1951), and Man of a Thousand Faces (Joseph Pevney, 1957).

leeann

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Apr 24, 2012, 12:19:17 AM4/24/12
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Dear Derek,

Thank you for taking the time to post excerpts from your academic work! It's a thrill to read.

It appears that the sensitivity to negative portrayals of Mexicans in films had quite a history in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s alone--the latter time, of course, intersecting with initial exploration into Serenade. In fact, it began in 1922 and throughout the interwar period when film exports supplied over one third of Hollywood's gross revenues. As one article states, "company directors soon learned, offense to any substantial section of it's foreign market could result in lost profits through the 'mutilation' or banning of films."

Mexico did just that when, annoyed by portrayals of Mexicans--particularly in Westerns--the government simply embargoed all films from selected studios in 1922.  Alarmed, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America sent a mission to Mexico to negotiate market access and drew up an agreement to "do everything possible to prevent the production of any new motion picture films which present the Mexican character in a derogatory or objectionable manner."

Obviously, the agreement didn't solve everything--but it did raise certain sensitivities during the next couple of decades to which Hollywood--and presumably, Joe Breen, paid attention--although certainly within parameters that seem stilted and limited according to today's standards.

And interestingly, one of the films that caused conflict and whose studio was, in fact, banned in Mexico was the 1923 silent production of the silent movie of Belasco's Girl of the Golden West!

From cursory reading, it would seem that the market and bottom lines might be among the less visible forces that shaped the Serenade script. Best, Lee Ann

Derek McGovern

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Apr 2, 2013, 1:07:11 AM4/2/13
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As I recently mentioned in another thread, I'll be regularly reprising earlier forum discussions that I feel are well worth re-visiting (or reading for the first time) by bumping them up to the top of the view list.
 
This thread is a particular favourite of mine---and of Lee Ann too. I hope you enjoy (re)reading it!  

Derek McGovern

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Apr 2, 2013, 2:37:45 AM4/2/13
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A P.S. to the above: In my post dated August 24, 2011, I provide a link to a blog article about Serenade titled "Super Mario." Since I've just realized that that link no longer works, here's a new url for it:
 
 
It's an entertaining read, and I thought these two observations about the film were particularly interesting:
 
When it comes to playing fraught human wreckage, Mario is unexpectedly adept, and we can forget his age now as he convincingly gives us a singer who has lost his voice, his self-belief and his reason to live.
 
And:
 

Mann seems much more excited by the psychological mayhem and tense confrontations of the second half, although his enthusiasm comes and goes. Lanza fans will appreciate the large quantity of loud singing laid on for our enjoyment, and I appreciated it too whenever it synched with a valid plot motivation, which admittedly was about 75% of the time. With its two-part structure, use of San Francisco as a major location, broken-down hero, and hispanic influence, the movie seems at times like a faint pre-echo of VERTIGO, a film still waiting to be born at this point.

 
 
Cheers
Derek
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