In a radio interview at the time of Interrupted Melody’s 1955 release, star Eleanor Parker noted, “Marjorie Lawrence [is] one of the great opera singers of our generation and probably one of the most courageous women who ever lived.”
Today, few remember the Australian Lawrence or are even aware of her popularity at the time. Musical screen biographies The Jolson Story, Love Me or Leave Me (Ruth Etting), With a Song in My Heart (Jane Froman), and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) are still revered because their central, more mainstream subjects, ones that still captivate music lovers today. Marjorie Lawrence has not been so lucky. Yet, in her prime, in the mid-‘30s to early 1940s, she was regarded by many as a leading soprano in the opera world.
Her fight to regain her health was chronicled in her 1949 memoir and was brought beautifully to the screen by MGM at no small cost. “Not since Columbia’s One Night of Love made its appearance on the Music Hall screen, about 20 years ago, has there been such a completely satisfying blend of grand opera with a tender love story in film as MGM’s production of Interrupted Melody,” said the New York Daily News in their review. The movie still packs an emotional wallop. The Oscar-winning screenplay, by William Ludwig and Sonya Levien (the team responsible for The Great Caruso and The Student Prince, among others), brilliantly weaves the opera sequences into the drama of the singer’s battle with polio at the height of her career.
Marjorie Lawrence was born in Victoria, Australia, on February 17, 1907, the daughter of farmer William Lawrence and Elizabeth Smith. Her vocalizing started early, and against the wishes of her father (her mother died when she was two), Marjorie ran away from home to pursue singing lessons in Melbourne.
Her professional debut occurred in Monte Carlo playing “Elizabeth” in Tannhäuser. She was an instant success. Afterwards, she appeared at the Paris Opera from 1933-38, and critics began hailing her as one of the great sopranos. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1935 and was famous for riding her horse into the flames on stage in the finale of the opera Götterdämmerung.
As a dramatic soprano and opera presence, Marjorie Lawrence had few equals, which the New York Times readily agreed, adding in 1935, “Her voice is a fine organ of great range and mettle.”
With her popularity at its peak in 1941, she suffered a devastating blow to her personal and professional lives when she was stricken with polio just three months after her marriage to Dr. Thomas King. Lawrence managed to make a comeback, with the help of her husband, in 1942, singing at a concert at Town Hall. Although she made occasional singing engagements, however, Lawrence was never fully able to continue with a full-time opera schedule. But she carried on in great style. During World War II, she made a valiant tour for the troops, traveling 50,000 miles in the South Pacific, as well as entertaining in Europe – in her wheelchair.
The 1960s onward saw her turning to teaching at various colleges, penning a book of poems (High on a Hilltop), hosting TV and radio shows, as well as participating in opera workshops near her home in Arkansas, which is where she passed away on January 13, 1979.
The actress given the challenging role of Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody was the extremely versatile Eleanor Parker. She was born on June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio, and, like Lawrence, her interest in acting was planted at a young age.
Eleanor was put under contract to Warner Bros. in 1941, and gradually became a star in The Very Thought of You (1944) and Pride of the Marines (1945). She proved her versatility and dedication to her craft in a variety of roles for Warners, in such films as Of Human Bondage (1946), The Voice of the Turtle (1947) and Caged (1950). She found her way to MGM in 1952, and while other actresses were finding it hard to obtain suitable roles in the ‘50s, Eleanor had no trouble acquiring major parts because of her flexibility as an actress. Besides Interrupted Melody, Eleanor did other fine work for both MGM and other studios on loan-out: Scaramouche (1952), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Lizzie (1957).
She was nominated for the Oscar three times: Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951) and for her part here in Interrupted Melody (1955). Later roles were geared more toward foreign and television productions. Parker remained active on TV and the stage until her retirement after Dead on the Money (1991), a cable film.
One of the very best opera singers in recent recall, Eileen Farrell was called on to voice double Eleanor Parker, not even requesting screen credit for her very important contribution to the film.
Eileen was born on February 13, 1920, in Willimantic, Connecticut. After high school, this fine soprano went to New York and tried out for Major Bowes’ amateur show, and failed; but, as one critic later noted, this was “perhaps because she could never be an amateur.” She bounced back and landed her first radio program in 1940 and her own show in 1942. She followed that with appearances on such shows as the popular The Prudential Family Hour. Singer Jack Smith, who also performed on this music show, marveled, “Eileen could sing ‘I Got a Right to Sing the Blues’ as well as she could sing a German round.” Her vocal diversity was well known: She recorded Irish songs, Broadway tunes, and pop songs, in addition to her opera repertoire.
Concert singing started late for Miss Farrell, making her debut in 1947. She didn’t sing in an actual opera house until 1956, and she made her long overdue debut at The Met in 1960. Described by The New Yorker as “The finest dramatic soprano before the public,” the New York Times went on to enthuse, “She can float long-breathed phrases of matchless quality, and she can vary her tone from fine-hued softness to a sumptuous fullness,” which could well speak for her work in Interrupted Melody.
Eileen recorded for Columbia records, doing both opera selections and pop standards. She continued to sing into the ‘90s on the Audiophile label, being one of the select opera singers to record jazz. Farrell happily retired in the late 1990s and wrote her autobiography (Can’t Help Singing). She passed away on March 23, 2002, at the age of 82.
Metro-Goldywn-Mayer bought the screen rights to Marjorie Lawrence’s book in 1952 and planned to star an unlikely Lana Turner. Greer Garson was then approached for the lead, and when that deal fell through, it was reported that singer Kathryn Grayson was in the running. In a later interview, Grayson explained that she did not get the role because Lawrence herself thought Grayson “too pretty,” which seems ludicrous. Although Grayson was a good singer and a presentable actress, she was never in the same league as Eileen Farrell or Eleanor Parker.
Eleanor Parker was given the lead when she confronted producer Jack Cummings in his office. Cummings, according to columnist Sheilah Graham in Photoplay (August 1955), “was stuck for a leading lady, but he just couldn’t see Eleanor in the part of a prima donna because off-screen, Eleanor is quiet, conservative, and a devoted wife and mother to her three youngsters. But Cummings didn’t reckon with the determination of a woman who was after something she wanted – and Eleanor wanted to play Marj on the screen.
“Cummings was sitting behind his studio desk, slowly going over the list of possible candidates for the role when his door burst open, and in rushed a flamed-haired bunch of fury. He had to look twice before he even recognized Eleanor. She took the offensive and accused him of disliking her, said if she played the Lawrence role she would do thus and thus and then proceeded to show him. She exploded into a dramatic firecracker that would have done justice to Bernhardt. Infuriated by Ellie’s attack, Cummings replied that if she played the part she would do as he told her. Then he suddenly realized she had deliberately tricked him into seeing how temperamental she really could be when she set her mind to it.”
It’s highly doubtful this scenario actually place, but it made excellent copy. However she got the part, Eleanor was in for a grueling study period to prepare for the role. The part was much more than just learning dialogue. She had to learn the musical arias, which were in different languages. “I had to be letter-perfect because while I didn’t actually sing the songs … the movement of my lips in forming the words had to ‘sync’ exactly with those of the great soprano’s as they came off the soundtrack. I learned three operas in three languages during two weeks.”
Eleanor talked about how she accomplished the learning of the opera arias in another fan magazine interview: “I don’t have an opera voice, and I don’t speak all those foreign languages – what a challenge. I secluded myself in a mountain cabin at Lake Arrowhead [California] for ten days and listened to records day and night, learning 22 arias. For good measure, I had six lessons from MGM’s voice coach to help me with my lip synchronization.”
For Photoplay, Eleanor revealed the off-camera motivation the role provoked: “I drove to work in the morning with the score propped up on the steering wheel of my car, and I woke up at night to find I’d been repeating the songs in my sleep.”
Such dedication finally took its toll when she collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital suffering from exhaustion. Her faithfulness to her role paid off, with one reviewer raving, “She has mastered the mannerisms of her operatic roles so meticulously that it always seems that she is doing the singing.” Higher praise came from the singer herself, Eileen Farrell, who told me in 1998, “I remember the first time I saw the movie; I was out at MGM and they played it in a small studio for me. It never dawned on me once that it was me singing. Never once!”
Farrell remembered the first time she met Eleanor. “She was making Many Rivers to Cross  at the time I was doing the soundtrack. Every once in awhile she would appear in the control room, and she’d watch me and then she would have to leave because she’d have to go back to the other set. Later, she told me she almost had a nervous breakdown learning the whole damn thing because she had to learn the songs by playing my records. They put everything on records for her; when it was time for her to breathe, there would be a beep on the record so she knew that’s when she could breathe. But, she had to learn all those words, and she can’t sing a note. She was so damn smart. I think she’s a marvelous actress and a wonderful person. She worked very, very hard, but she learned every one of those [arias].”
Initially, Marjorie Lawrence wanted to record the songs for the movie herself, but physically she was unable to do so at that point. “Jack [Cummings] had told me that Marjorie Lawrence wanted to do the singing, so they did one whole recording of the whole movie, and he said it was terrible,” Farrell revealed. “She said she wanted to do it with another conductor, so they did another whole recording. He said it was just as bad.”
Screenwriter William Ludwig explained to author Doug McClelland in 1988 the behind-the-scenes vocal dubbing drama: “Marjorie Lawrence was supposed to do the singing … but the abdominal muscles were gone, and the repertoire too grueling. MGM approached Eileen Farrell, who was married to a New York City policeman and had refused to join the Met because she didn’t want to leave her husband and children. She agreed to do the singing for Eleanor Parker as Marjorie Lawrence on the condition that she get no publicity, because Lawrence was planning some concert tours and Eileen didn’t want to hurt Lawrence’s business by letting it be known that she wasn’t able to sing for her own life story. It was one of the most unselfish things I’ve ever seen in this business. Later, Lawrence herself spilled the beans when she sued MGM over not being allowed to sing in the film.”
Lawrence was indignant and refused to believe she was incapable of doing the movie. Continued Farrell, “They told her that she couldn’t do the soundtrack, and she got very annoyed and very mad. At this point in her life she was into Jesus, and she told them, ‘If you do this without me, God will punish you!’ It was not [written] down in the contract that she had to do the soundtrack, so that’s why Jack [Cummings] waited for me. Jack had asked me to do [the movie] a long time before, but I was having my second child, and I couldn’t do it [then].” (Eileen was personal friends with Cummings’ wife and observed that the producer “was a lovely man, very quiet; a very gentlemanly-like person.”)
Recalling the recording session of the soundtrack, Eileen remembered, “I was supposed to be [at MGM] for three weeks, but I did the whole thing in one week. There were things that I knew, and when you know them, you know them. Out there at MGM they were used to splicing the tapes, putting them together for the voices, but they didn’t have to do that for me. So. I got through very early.” The recordings were supervised and conducted by Walter Du Cloux. Eileen recalls: “I’d known him a long time because I worked with him before. He was originally a ballet conductor, and we were good friends.”
The songs featured in the movie were diverse, to say the least. In addition to “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” (from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah), “Musetta’s Waltz” (from La bohème), “One Fine Day” (from Madame Butterfly), the “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” (from Bizet’s Carmen), and “The Finale to Act I” (from Verdi’s Il trovatore), Farrell gets to show her vocal mettle and diversity by doing “Annie Laurie,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “Anchors Aweigh,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” For sheer variety, Eileen Farrell gives one of the greatest vocal performances in film musical history. It is a shame that it has been overlooked by film historians as such. It is also regretful that Interrupted Melody is Farrell’s only film.
“I don’t believe [Marjorie Lawrence] sang all those roles [in her career],” remarked Farrell. “Anyone in their right mind would not sing Carmen, would not sing Wagner, La bohème. Those are all different kinds of voices. She was a dramatic soprano, and here she’s singing La bohème, which is for a lyric soprano. I don’t believe she sang all those, but who am I to know? Just because I can do it!” she added with a wry laugh.
What also makes Interrupted Melody one of the great movie musicals is Eleanor Parker and her central performance as Marjorie Lawrence. The Daily News hit it right on target: “[She] has been given a challenging role that has brought out the best of her acting talents. She steps with confidence into the character of the singer and makes her a living, vibrant woman.”
Eleanor’s range of emotions is phenomenal, as she goes from unsure young aspiring singer to opera diva. Her relationship with her husband (the superb Glenn Ford, in a role first thought for James Stewart) is one of love and dedication and especially moving when she is afflicted with polio and their relationship alters. Eleanor never hits a wrong note, and when she attempts her comeback at the Met in the opera Tristan and Isolde, you realize why she was nominated for the Oscar. Assisted by braces, Eleanor slowly, painfully stands to finish her last number. It is a powerfully effective ending. It was not, however, accurate. In reality, Lawrence sang in the Met production of Tannhäuser and did not rise to her feet at the end.
It is Eleanor Parker’s finest performance, and it is obvious why she always called this her favorite film. Later, in an interview with The Miami Herald (March 15, 1970), Eleanor gave drama editor Frances Swaebly her thoughts on the movie: “It was the hardest thing I ever did, and I think the best. For one thing, what a joy to hear Eileen Farrell’s glorious voice come out of my mouth. I would like to think I could sing like that.
“I love Melody for the opera and the language. I don’t know music, and I don’t sing, and I had nobody to help me. So, I had to teach myself how to do the role with only records and sheet music. It was not easy.
“Melody also made an opera fan out of me. I now have an extensive collection of opera records.”
Memorable moments in the movie abound. Particularly impressive is Eleanor’s miming to “Waltzing Matilda” sitting in her wheelchair, rousing the boys in uniform to join in the song. Eleanor’s spirit and Farrell’s equally inspiring vocal make this a truly affecting moment. As is the set-up for “Over the Rainbow.” Unsure of her singing after a long absence due to her polio, her gradual uneasiness emotionally connects her with the wounded servicemen; her initial awkwardness develops into something beautiful and moving.
An even more deeply poignant, pivotal scene occurs earlier, when she is despondent over her illness and she refuses to exercise her legs. In desperation, her husband puts on one of her old recordings, “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” and leaves the room. Knowing she must try to drag herself across the floor to turn the record player off, an agonized Ford ignores her pleas. William Ludwig recalled: “I remember watching them shoot the very dramatic scene in which Eleanor, as the now-crippled Lawrence, crawls across the room to knock over a record player playing one of her old recordings. Eleanor gave it everything she had, which was plenty; her knees were bleeding when the director [Curtis Bernhardt] yelled ‘Cut!’ Looking at the rushes afterward, some technician noticed that an overhead microphone was dimly visible in the scene. They were going to shoot it again, but I said, ‘Look, there’s no way Eleanor can possibly top what she’s done in this scene. And if people are looking toward the ceiling while she’s crawling along the floor, then we don’t have a scene to begin with.’ The mike was left in, and to my knowledge not one person or critic ever noticed it.”
It was truly a sin that MGM failed to promote Parker’s Oscar nomination, and Anna Magnani won for The Rose Tattoo. William Ludwig noted, “I still believe that what helped our screenplay earn an Academy Award was the quality and substance which she gave to the starring role.” Besides the win for screenplay, Interrupted Melody received a nom for Helen Rose for her fabulous costumes, the most memorable being the beaded bikini for the Samson and Delilah number. William Tuttle did astonishing work on the make-up for Eleanor’s opera roles, especially his artistry in making her look like Carmen and Delilah.
Interrupted Melody may be underappreciated today, but it has all the elements of a classic. This treasure of a film has never become dated; it’s as fresh and vibrant today as it was in 1955. Marjorie Lawrence may be somewhat forgotten today, but her inspiring film demands a reappraisal. Its melody, and memory, lingers on.