Since the early days of film, it has been one of the most effective ways of truly capturing the spirit of the past. Sure, audiences love a good fictional tale that takes them on an unexpected journey, but there is something very appealing about dramatizing experiences that people know to be true. One of the most popular forms that this can take is with a musical biography; while audiences have made films such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Walk the Line and Ray box office behemoths in the past few decades, they are far from the first examples of blockbuster success in the genre. Opera singers may not hold the sprawling cultural cache as they once did, but back in 1951 audiences were primed to lose themselves in the story of one of the greatest voices the world has ever known. Enrico Caruso dominated the early 20th century with his flawless performances that moved masses on an unfathomable scale. When accomplished actor and tenor Mario Lanza inhabited the famed vocalist in The Great Caruso, audiences treated this as the second coming of Caruso – easily making this MGM’s biggest hit of the year. Even if you do not know of Caruso, you would be hard-pressed to not be moved by the power of this performance.
With musical biopics, there is often some level of fiction interspersed to either streamline the story, heighten the drama, avoid some unpleasantness or various other reasons, justifiable or not. By all accounts, The Great Caruso takes more liberties than some tales as it includes a very messy, inaccurate timeline, invented scenarios and a complete excision of a relationship that spawned two children. Those with a deep knowledge of Enrico Caruso will probably be shaking their heads at some of the factual discrepancies, but the average person, especially these days, will likely be blissfully ignorant of what the film gets wrong. The good news is that the film sails along very smoothly and in a very entertaining manner for these people, but you might want to take to the internet if you want the real scoop after it ends.
The film takes you on a propulsive journey through the life of Caruso from his very earliest days in Naples to his burgeoning success in Europe and beyond. Caruso is a very fascinating figure, as he is presented with having a large spark for life despite experiencing much in the way of darkness, including the passing of his beloved mother at a young age. Life was not easy for Caruso, who barely made enough money to get by until his unexpected discovery as a cafe singer. His initial rise is swift, with the tenor performing in Milan, London and other European hotspots, but New York provided him with some bigger obstacles. He has difficulty winning over a very important patron, Park Benjamin (Carl Benton Reid, In A Lonely Place), after a series of faux pas, which is especially vexing considering he has fallen in love with his daughter, Dorothy (Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce). It is very heartening to watch Caruso come into his own as a singer for the people, even as he eventually wins over the high class society members who initially looked down upon him. While he may have never earned the admiration of his future father-in-law, his relationship with Dorothy is nonetheless touching.
The Great Caruso is a very straightforward crowd pleaser that dares not to go into anything that is too dark. The greatest sin that Caruso commits is being someone who is too committed to performing – leaving it all on the table for his audience. If the real life Caruso had any darker demons worth tackling, you will not learn about them here. Yet, it is okay to be content with this, especially with such strong performances anchoring the film. Mario Lanza is downright otherworldly in his portrayal of Caruso. Rare is the person who would have the vocal talents to compare with Caruso, but the fact that Lanza is also a capable actor is a coup for cinema. Ann Blyth is not given enough to do as Dorothy, but she is a welcome calming presence to Caruso’s constant exuberance. Most probably come to the film for the music, and those people will not be disappointed. The performances come fast and furious, and they are delivered with such force that it will feel like a ton of bricks just knocked into you. There are more than a few red flags with the film concerning the accuracy of the picture to real life, but for sheer entertainment spectacle this one is hard to beat.
Warner Archive presents The Great Caruso with an eye-popping new 1080p master transfer in 1.37:1 sourced from a 4K scan of the original Technicolor negatives. Having Warner Archive work with Technicolor films is like a dream come true for Blu-Ray enthusiasts. The level of minute detail and clarity is stunning with a lovely amount of natural film grain intact. The film features some splendid colors within the costumes and settings that pop off the screen with a great vibrancy. The film is practically pristine with no noticeable instances of damage or dirt detected here. The black levels are incredibly deep with a pleasing stability throughout. Compression artifacts, banding and other such issues do not pop up as an issue in this transfer. This presentation is another instance of Warner Archive showing why they are one of the best labels around.
Warner Archive has served up a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio presentation that is a show stopper. Music is the lifeblood of this picture, and this track handles it beautifully with nothing ever sounding blown out or unstable. Lanza’s voice has never sounded better than on this disc. Dialogue comes through clearly from beginning to end without ever being overshadowed by competing elements. Every element seems to present with a nice fidelity, as all sounds are clearly defined and in balance. This is a track that thankfully does not exhibit any glaring signs of age-related wear-and-tear. Warner Archive has knocked it out of the park. The disc comes with optional English (SDH) subtitles.
- Mario Lanza – Singing to the Gods (2006): A very entertaining 59-minute vintage special from TCM that gives you a well-rounded look at the famous tenor with interviews from both those who knew him as well as film historians. Even those who are already familiar with the actor and singer will probably learn a lot of new information from this piece.
- Theatrical Trailer: A three-minute trailer that plays up the grand scale of Caruso’s life while showing most of the beats of his story. This reveals a bit too much, in my opinion, but it gives you many of the highlights.
The Great Caruso is a true crowd pleaser that gives a surface level overview of the life of an incredible talent backed by a transcendent performance from Mario Lanza. The film is bursting with music that will leave you feeling greatly moved from the emotion that is permeating each performance. The movie is not exactly an accurate portrayal of Caruso’s life at all times, but as a narrative it is hard to deny its entertainment value. Warner Archive has delivered a new Blu-Ray with a glorious A/V presentation and a substantial documentary special that makes this a must-own disc for fans. Recommended
The Great Caruso can be purchased directly through Warner Archive or various other online retailers. The Blu-Ray will be available to purchase on March 9, 2021.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Archive has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.