Opera Meets Film: Soprano Against Soprano In Albert E. Sutherland’s ‘Champagne Waltz’

By John Vandevert

Albert Edward Sutherland’s film “Champagne Waltz” (1937) is many things. A film where jazz coolness and Viennese waltz culture combine in a forceful yet graceful dance of push and pull, punctuated by a story about a romance born from rivalry as two cultures butt heads before ultimately capitulating to the other. Starring soprano Gladys Swarthout, whose singing in the film was unenthusiastic and borderline indifferent, at odds with her operatic fervor, the film premiered in 24 countries around the world, but seemed to be forgotten as quickly as it came. The film nevertheless exemplified the style of American Hollywood cinema at the time, when crossover artistry was convention and nothing more than another day in the office. While the film pales in comparison to other opera films, such as the 1956 film “Beautiful but Dangerous” about the life of Italian soprano and jewel in the eye of the Russian aristocracy Natalina ‘Lina’ Cavalieri, Sutherland’s film deserves to be remembered as an artistic experiment in something laudable and creatively groundbreaking, if only in its ambition and vision.

A Story and Its Roots

The film was conceptualized three years prior to the film’s premiere in the form of a song entitled “The Champagne Waltz.” It was written by Con Conrad and Ben Oakland, the former being responsible for other major hits such as “Singin’ the Blues” (1920) and “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” (1928), the latter being colleagues with the likes of Oscar Hammerstein II  and famed author and clarinetist Artie Shaw. The song that inspired the film was a hit of its time. It was recorded by the likes of jazz saxophonist Glen Grey, big band vocalist Kenny Sargent, and even the composer and innovator of the easy listening genre George Melachrino. “The Champagne Waltz” was further immortalized when it was used to score a moment in the seminal cartoon “Popeye the Sailor,” created in 1933. In the “Dance Contest” short (1934), the song provides the diegetic background for Popeye and Olive’s enjoyment at the dancehall. So popular was this short and the song that in 1937, British film director Albert Sutherland, at the time having directed over 20 films since 1925, took up the theme for a film. 

While the film was generally eclipsed by another film that year, “Every Day’s A Holiday” starring famous temptress Mae West as her last Paramount picture, what made the film an inspirational project was its awareness of cinematic trends at the time. Opera films, especially within the Hollywood scene, were not rare but in fact far more ubiquitous than opera-film crossovers and opera-popular culture crossovers are today. Before we had seminal moments and musical duos like Luciano Pavarotti and Aretha Franklin, Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé in concert, and Kristin Chenoweth’s shift into musical theater from a precocious start in opera, and even popular opera groups like the “Three Tenors” (1990-2003), there were several decades where opera singers pursued a Hollywood career while still performing as professional opera performers. Much of the cinematic output of the early 20th century, including William A. Wellman’s “Stingaree” (1934), Ryszard Bolesławski’s compilation film “Metropolitan” (1935), and, most famously, “Casta Diva” (1935) featuring internationally acclaimed Hungarian coloratura Marta Eggerth who famously retired at the age of 99, were star-studded with operatic and cinematic talents from across the world. 

To make a film really sell in the eyes of a spoiled and discriminating audience, it had to have exceptional talent, effective drama, and captivating music. Having entered an unhappy marriage to the “mother” of the flapper movement, actress Louise Brooks, only two years earlier, and being a film director during one of the most economically depressed periods in US history, both Sutherland and Paramount Pictures were in strange times. The studio had a lot riding on its film, they needed it to make money and fast. So precarious was the situation for the studio that in 1935 they had been forced to file for bankruptcy. They had soon come under new management, however, and restarted thanks to the popularity of cartoons like “Popeye” (see any connections yet?), and stars such as Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. All this to say, Paramount had lots of change on their horizon.

Some Thunder Worth Stealing

Sutherland’s desire to have a Metropolitan Opera star as the headliner to the film was not a flippant choice but a highly deliberate one that took into consideration the prevailing trends of the time. It is well-known that many high-profile singers during the first half of the 20th century (and well into the second half) were coaxed into screen careers. Singers like Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the 1951 MGM film “The Great Caruso,” American tenor Mario Lanza in the 1959 film “For The First Time,” American soprano Patrice Munsel in the 1953 fictionalized biopic “Melba,” Italian baritone Tito Gobbi and Italian soprano Elena Rizzieri in the 1949 film “The Glass Mountain,” Italian soprano Natalina Cavalieri in the 1955 film “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” and the operatic singers in the 1935 film “A Night At The Opera,” all go to show that the trend of operatic crossovers were not rare but increasingly normalized. Even now, you’ll find stars like Renee Fleming in movies like “The Adventures of Tintin.”

The divide between the cinematic world and the operatic world remains just as obscured today, thanks to film projects that bring operatic dramaturgy to audiences in new and exciting ways. This time, however, it is on opera’s terms, rather than the other way around. From the “opera music video” to operatic cinema experiences, and including opera composers finding their feet in Hollywood such as Erich Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg, the opera world has never been really estranged from the commercial world of entertainment. The two are, rather, in a constant dialogue. However, Sutherland’s capitalization on the opera fad at the time was not entirely innocent, but rather a calculated business decision informed by the cinematic-operatic successes of lyric soprano Grace Moore, best known for her work bringing opera into vogue in popular culture thanks to her participation in films such as Victor Schertzinger’s “One Night Love” (1934). The consciously-drawn parallels between Moore and Swarthout appear to have been obvious to more than just the production companies. According to an article written in the January 1937 issue of TIME magazine,

The perennial and expensive effort to make a Grace Moore out of Gladys Swarthout seemed to have more logic some time ago when Miss Moore was a more important box-office draw. 

The detectable chagrin and stout disregard for Paramount’s ostensible exploitation of Grace Moore’s cinematic fame in the form of their championing of Swarthout is, although justified to some degree given Moore’s bigger success in film, also misguided. Although not equal to Moore’s success on screen, Swarthout did manage to create a strong career of popularizing opera for the masses. A clear example of her public outreach work was her extensive touring career during the 1930s and 1940s, raising national morale during the Second World War. Analogously, Moore also aided the war effort by singing for the French Allied troops at the Paris Opera House in a gala called “Pacifique 45” in July of 1945. The whole theme of the gala was to remind family and troops that the war was not yet finished and thus, Swarthout’s role was a seminal one in raising moral and war-fatigued spirit.

Objectively, it is clear that Paramount did want to capture the success Grace Moore had and which MGM had cashed in on. Unlike Moore, whose operatic successes were of equal proportion with her cinematic career, for Swarthout, her operatic career was larger and far more successful than her cinematic career. She only starred in five films, the last film “Ambush” (1939) being the same year of Moore’s last film, “Louise,” which is the eponymous name of Gustave Charpientier’s Francophile verismo opera and Moore’s personal favorite, and mine as well. 

Paramount’s attempt at becoming the next home for operatic talent looking to make it big on screen was noble but ultimately did not work, despite relying upon a model established by previous movie houses and opera stars-turned actors and actresses. But the problem did not lie in either Swarthout or Moore. Ultimately, these two singers/actresses brought different types of energy to the screen. For Swarthout, her work ethic, steadfast tenacity, and vigorous attention to quality helped her master five languages, while for Moore, her charm, devotion to dramaturgy, and allure made her one of the most important cinematic figures of the American 1930s—so much so that she rivaled the status of male actors like Maurice Chevalier. While Moore was given the “Légion d’honneur,” among other awards, Swarthout was the only woman to have sung for the entire US Congress. Both women were committed to their craft in more ways than one, each living out their purpose with vigor, artfulness, and tact.



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