Schmidt in A Star Fell From Heaven

Author: 
John Steane

Schmidt in A Star Fell From Heaven

  • Louise

From a film critic’s point of view, A Star Fell from Heaven (‘Ein Stern fallt vom Himmel’ in the original German) belongs to the same category as Ave Maria and Mad about Opera (see page 101). It has, however, a little more style about it, is directed with a livelier sense of pace, and develops its inane plot with a lighter touch. In Joseph Schmidt it has a tenor-hero who takes more readily than Gigli to the camera. This is so in spite of his small stature, which is tactfully managed so as to be hardly noticeable.
The story tells of two tenors presently in Vienna, one the world-famous Douglas Lincoln, the other a student, Joseph Reiner, who sings at Heuringer’s; and they have the same voice. The celebrity is stricken with some vocal affliction while filming, so the student is induced to lend his voice to the production, a dubbing exercise that must, of course, remain a secret. Discovery, crisis, scandal and eventual conciliation ensue, and all ends with a reprise of ‘Ich singe dir ein Liebeslied’, which at least is better than the wretched title-song.
Like the Gigli films, this one also exists under sufferance, with certain moments providing something for the memory-box. Here it is a trill, a remarkable one on the upper F, interpolated in the cadenza of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. There is also a genuinely funny passage in which the student decides to beard the film directors in their den, opens a door and starts to sing Caruso’s comic song, ‘Tarantella sincera’. Mildly astonished, they enjoy the performance and prepare to sign him on; unfortunately, they are the directors of an insurance company. Schmidt’s voice is well recorded, and, with thoughts of his tragic fate in the war, it is moving to see him so very much alive and rich in talent even in the context of this indifferent film.
The Louise should have been at least something one could take seriously. The opera is not an unsuitable one for filming, and the cast is distinguished. I was about to say that it doesn’t survive, but it didn’t survive by the standards of cinema critics even in its own time. Graham Greene, writing in The Spectator, reviewed it in June 1939 along with Goodbye, Mr Chips. He found it ‘one of the funniest films to be seen in London’: ‘Oh, the tiptoings of Miss Moore, the sedate coquetry, the little trills and carollings, and the great stony teeth.’ Both she and Thill sing well (though not excellently), but his appearance and the acting of both ill suit the medium. Yet, once again, the film earns itself a kind of local gratitude – for the performance, both vocal and dramatic, of Andre Pernet as the Father. This is a noble piece of work and shows that opera singers of that time were not necessarily unsuited to the screen. Some imagination is at work, too, in the crowd scenes. Even so, at best it is a half-and-half affair, with spoken dialogue replacing much of the score. Graham Greene said it was ‘undoubtedly a film to be seen’ – alas, not for the right reasons.'

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