|Tyrone Power and Kim Novak in one of the first scenes of The Eddy Duchin Story, 1956. He looks like he's just out of college, right? Also, Tyrone Power had the most dramatically arched eyebrows this side of Sean Connery.|
|You can't tell from this sexy publicity still that Tyrone Power didn't like Kim Novak. Sadly, there's no scene like this in the movie.|
|Tyrone Power is flanked by his two wives in The Eddy Duchin Story. That's Victoria Shaw as Chiquita on the left, and Kim Novak as Marjorie on the right.|
|The impossibly handsome Tyrone Power as the pianist Eddy Duchin.|
|The real Eddy Duchin, who was quite handsome himself.|
In the 1950’s there were a number of biopics made about the lives of famous musicians. The Glenn Miller Story, starring Jimmy Stewart, kicked off the trend in 1954. The Benny Goodman Story and The Eddy Duchin Story followed in 1956, and 1959 saw the release of The Gene Krupa Story, with Sal Mineo as the jazz drummer. (Why didn’t someone make the Rudy Vallee Story?) I’m not sure why the genre of “bandleader biopics” suddenly became hot in the mid-1950’s. Perhaps it was nostalgia for the big band sounds that were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. By the time these movies were released even big stars like Duke Ellington and Count Basie were having trouble keeping their big bands on the road.
The Eddy Duchin Story, starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, was released in 1956 and was a big hit, becoming the 12th highest grossing movie of that year. Eddy Duchin was a pianist and bandleader who had a very successful career in the 1930’s and 1940’s before tragically dying of leukemia in 1951 at the age of 41. Duchin was kind of a straight Liberace, a talented pianist who made ladies swoon while playing showy versions of light classical and jazz pieces. The Eddy Duchin Story is a melodramatic film that is also quite entertaining. Much of the film’s success rests on the charm and charisma of leading man Tyrone Power, who delivers an excellent performance.
The movie begins with Duchin arriving in New York City in 1927 to play at the Central Park Casino. (The Central Park Casino was torn down in the 1930’s, and Tavern on the Green was used for filming.) Duchin is fresh off the bus from Boston, full of vigor and verve, until he discovers that the bandleader he thought had offered him a job was just being nice to him when he said, “If you’re ever in New York City, come say hi.” Oops. But all is not lost as society sweetheart Marjorie Oelrichs (Kim Novak) hears him playing and persuades the bandleader to hire Duchin. Of course, he becomes a big hit. Tyrone Power was really too old to play Duchin in these scenes, and he looks like the world’s oldest fraternity pledge. But Power makes up for it by projecting the youthful enthusiasm of a recent college graduate. Duchin and Marjorie soon fall in love and get married. Everything seems to be going great for Duchin. As we were watching the movie, my wife and I kept wondering what the conflict would be. Maybe her aunt and uncle won’t approve of her marriage to a piano player? Nope. Is he an alcoholic? Nope. Does he cheat on her? Nope. But then once they get married we learn Marjorie’s horrible secret: she’s afraid of the wind! Oh no! How can Eddy Duchin protect her from the wind? I’m not even joking about this, she’s afraid of the wind. It’s a good thing they don’t live in Chicago.
Marjorie gets pregnant, and then dies shortly after delivering a son, Peter. Bizarrely enough, the doctor specifically tells Eddy that her sudden, unexplained death has nothing to do with her childbirth. (The wind didn’t have anything to do with her death either.) The film is really weird about Marjorie and Eddy’s deaths. The film has both Marjorie and Eddy dying of weird unexplained illnesses. In real life Marjorie’s death was obviously connected to complications from her delivery, even though she didn’t die in childbirth. When Eddy suddenly gets ill at the end of the movie, doctors tell him that he will die soon, but it’s never stated that he has leukemia. The real-life Eddy Duchin knew he had leukemia. I don’t know why the film is so squeamish about this. But that’s getting ahead of the story. When Marjorie dies, Eddy doesn’t want anything to do with his son, letting Marjorie’s aunt and uncle bring him up.
Interesting side note: in real life Peter Duchin wasn’t raised by his great aunt and uncle, but by family friend W. Averell Harriman and his wife. W. Averell Harriman was just your average guy who was fabulously wealthy, was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union during World War II, served as Secretary of Commerce under Harry Truman, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for President in 1952 and 1956, and was Governor of New York for one term. You know, not someone who would be an interesting character to have in a movie. So why does the screenplay write Harriman out and change who raised Peter? My guess is that the studio didn’t want to be accused of playing politics by portraying a very active political figure as a character in a movie. At the time The Eddy Duchin Story was filmed in 1955, Harriman was Governor of New York, and about to run for President the next year. Including Harriman as a character in the movie would be a bit like making a movie now where Jeb Bush was a supporting character.
After serving in World War II, Eddy comes back to New York and starts to build his relationship with Peter. Peter is being raised by not-Averell Harriman and not-Averell Harriman’s wife and by family friend Chiquita. No, she’s not Carmen Miranda. Chiquita is a young woman in her 20’s who basically acts as Peter’s governess. Peter has developed a talent for playing the piano, and this becomes a bond between father and son. Eventually Eddy and the ridiculously named Chiquita marry, and then Eddy gets sick from his mystery illness and dies.
Tyrone Power spent 11 weeks learning how to make it look like he was actually playing the piano, and I was very impressed with his dedication. The movie doesn’t make use of trick shots where you only see someone’s hands on the keyboard. Power’s hard work paid off, as in almost all of the camera shots during the songs you see Power’s face, hands and the piano keyboard at the same time. Power was a friend of Eddy Duchin’s, and he said in an interview during filming, “The real tragedy of Duchin’s life was his dying at such a young age, only forty-two. I knew Eddy quite well. Working right here across from the hospital reminds me of how I used to visit him over there when he was a patient, toward the end.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, by Hector Arce, p.258) Sadly, Tyrone Power would also die young, of a heart attack at age 44. Because Tyrone Power was one of the most impossibly handsome leading men of Hollywood’s Golden Age, I think it’s a law that all reviews of his movies have to make some comment about his looks. Here is mine: Power looks as handsome as ever in The Eddy Duchin Story, whether he’s wearing a tuxedo or a snazzy sweater. Power uses all of his movie star charm and charisma playing Eddy Duchin, and he makes the movie fun to watch. I examined Power's career in more detail in a post from last year.
I’m on record as saying that Kim Novak is one of my favorite actresses, as well as one of the most beautiful and sexy women on the planet, but she doesn’t do much in The Eddy Duchin Story. I wonder if Novak pissed off the director of photography, because she doesn’t look as beautiful as usual. Her wardrobe is pretty drab and boring. Tyrone Power did not get along with Novak during filming. All he said about her was “Confusion between temperament and bad manners is unfortunate.” (Arce, p.259) Ouch.
The Eddy Duchin Story is an enjoyable example of a big budget studio movie from the 1950’s. It may seem a little dated now, but it’s still quite good. The film was expertly directed by George Sidney, who helmed many big musicals of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s like Anchors Aweigh, the first screen pairing of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Kiss Me, Kate, Pal Joey, Bye Bye Birdie, and Viva Las Vegas. The Eddy Duchin Story also features lots of gorgeous location shots around Central Park and New York City, which makes it a visual treat.
Eddy Duchin’s son Peter went on to become a successful pianist and bandleader of his own. He still performs in and around New York City.