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the great caruso, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

The Great Caruso (1951) 

It is the film that launched a thousand tenors, among them Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. Filmed in glorious Technicolor and featuring excerpts from such operas as Aida, Tosca, Rigoletto, La bohème and Pagliacci, this depiction of Enrico Caruso’s life is a feast for both eyes and ears. Amidst all this opulence, the film’s chief drawcard is Mario Lanza, whose charming performance and magnificent voice more than make up for the film’s many contrivances. 

“Tears help the singing” Caruso’s mother tells her son before promptly dying. Fast forward to the adult Caruso singing for pennies in front of his girlfriend and her disapproving father. Forced to choose between his voice or his sweetheart, Caruso opts for the girl... but not for long. Soon the tenor abandons the flour mill and is on his way to conquer the world of opera. A disappointing debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is overcome when Caruso decides to ignore the high paying patrons and sing to the galleries. After returning from a triumphant worldwide tour, Caruso swiftly proposes marriage to a socialite, but her father disapproves. His reaction is one of the few smatterings of truth in this highly fictionalised film.

Nevertheless, The Great Caruso remains a genuine crowd pleaser. Depicting the tenor as a common man whose English is not so good, the film pits Caruso against snooty prima donnas, unappreciative critics and high society. In contrast, Caruso judges each man as he finds him, adding to his entourage with alarming ease and regularity. His amiable nature also results in the singer missing important personal milestones to lend his voice to charitable events, leading Caruso to lament that “the man does not have the voice, the voice has the man”.


This was especially true on Lanza’s subsequent film The Student Prince. Following a disagreement with the director, Lanza’s voice was kept but the man himself was replaced with Edmund Purdom. Within a few years Lanza was dead at the age of 38.

enrico caruso, mario lanza
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Caruso’s mother died when he was 15 years old, later than what he appears in the film.

Unlike the film, Caruso’s American debut at the Metropolitan Opera was a success.

Caruso’s relationship with Italian soprano Ada Giachetti, which lasted more than ten years and produced four sons, is not mentioned in the film.

The credit titles on The Great Caruso at no time said that it was based on the life of Caruso. The exact wording, after the writing credit is “Suggested by Dorothy Caruso's biography of her husband”. The credit was specifically worded in this way since we at no time held out to an audience that this was a documentary study with pedantic attention to statistical and actual fact. This was essentially the story of a voice. It was our intention to remain true to the mood, character and emotional content of Enrico Caruso’s life and still present a dramatic and entertaining picture.

William Ludwig (screenwriter)

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