For the First Time: Lanza's Sweet Little Swansong by Derek McGovern Part Two
The other major drawback to the movie is its plot resolution—a recurring problem in several of Lanza's films. Johanna von Koczian's character is initially deaf, then has her hearing restored in a groundbreaking operation, only to lose it again before it is all-too-conveniently regained in a dramatically flat depiction.
As Howard S. Thompson lamented, "[Would that the scenarists] had dared to follow through with a logical downbeat ending." For either von Koczian should have lost her hearing—once and for all!—thereby imbuing the movie with considerable poignancy, or the climactic scene in which Lanza learns that her hearing had only temporarily disappeared should have been given real urgency and suspense. As it is, Lanza's character is merely informed by Miss von Koczian's uncle (Hans Sohnker) that the latter's niece's hearing has returned—to which he rather feebly replies, "Thank Heaven."
A downbeat ending would have heightened the element of pathos in the movie's original title: Silent Melody. One only needs to consider the plight of poor Johanna's character, doomed to a Beethovian world in which she can only relive her aural memories of Lanza's Tony Costa in her "inner ear," to imagine how devastating such a conclusion could have been.
It would be fascinating to unearth the original script and learn if such an ending was ever contemplated.
However, rather than continue to bemoan another lost opportunity in a Lanza movie, let's focus instead on some of the film's most enjoyable moments.
For the First Time begins with a scene that cheekily recreates a then-recent incident from Lanza's own life. In April 1958, he had infuriated Hamburg music lovers when he cancelled a recital for the second consecutivetime. In the movie, a performance of Rigoletto at the Vienna Opera House is cancelled when Lanza's character fails to appear, although he eventually turns up outside the opera house on top of a taxi, singing a (surprisingly strained) rendition of La Donna è Mobile to assorted spectators. Some sloppy dubbing during a snatch of Bella Figlia Dell'Amore immediately follows, and we are then introduced to the characters played by Kurt Kasznar and Zsa Zsa Gabor. "Remember how I kept you undercover in Mexico last year?" purrs Gabor in one of the movie's better exchanges. "I sure do," replies Mario. "We were the only two people in Acapulco who didn't get a suntan."
The snappy dialogue is maintained in the next scene, a delightful piece of banter between Lanza and Gabor in a bar in Capri. Mario looks exceedingly handsome here, and his delivery of the lines is suave and assured. "I'm hiding from a cruel, ungrateful world," he mockingly informs Gabor in a deliberately theatrical voice.
"Must you hide alone?" Gabor asks seductively. "No," replies Mario. "No. [pause] Let's have a little supper on my terrace." Putting on their respective pairs of dark glasses, the two then disappear into the night together, leaving us to our own imaginations as to what may follow.
An enjoyably corny scene follows in Capri's main square. Poking fun at his real-life weight problem, Mario briefly jumps on a set of scales, shaking his head at the results. Things then become rather silly with the supposedly incognito Lanza reading a magazine which contains a cover shot of himself in exactly the same apparel. Naturally, he is immediately recognized by a group of adoring girls, and coerced into singing. "What's your favourite aria?" he asks his audience. "Don't you know anything good?" replies one ingrate, to whom Lanza amusingly cocks an eyebrow. "Good?"he responds in mock-astonishment, as his eyes mischievously dart about. "Something very cool and dreamy," requests another young woman. Mario happily obliges with a fine rendition of Come Prima. It's immediately apparent that he is in good voice, and his tender phrasing at the beginning of the song is a seductive delight.