For the First Time: Lanza's Sweet Little Swansong By Derek McGovern Part Three
However, director Rudolph Maté's careless approach lets the "Come Prima" scene down slightly. In the second half of the song Mario is awkwardly filmed from behind as he walks among the audience, ultimately coming into contact with Johanna Von Koczian. The latter is rather implausibly introduced as she walks into the assembled throng reading a letter and oblivious to Lanza's presence.
(It would have been more effective to have placed her sitting quietly away from the group, thus allowing Mario to approach her out of curiosity that she is not responding to his performance.) The final note of the song is also poorly synchronized, with sloppy editing causing the on-screen tenor to finish the song before his singing has actually ended.
Gripes aside, the scene conveys much of Lanza's charisma as a performer, and he is clearly enjoying himself immensely here.
In the next scene Mario encounters Johanna against a spectacular backdrop of Capri's dazzling blue sea. The dialogue in all of the film's outdoor scenes was recorded at a later stage, and here the scene is not helped by some marginal dubbing. Hans Sohnker and Annie Rosar, in the respective roles of Johanna's uncle and housekeeper, are also introduced in a poorly written encounter involving the former's pet goat.
Lanza's appearance then changes dramatically in the scene that follows at Sohnker's villa. Filmed in a Berlin studio nearly two months after the previous scene, Lanza appears puffy and bloated, but acts well with restraint and conviction. An accomplished actor (and singer) himself, Sohnker would later praise Mario's acting performance in For the First Time.
And indeed Lanza does act convincingly for the most part, making his often-wooden dialogue seem considerably more sophisticated than it has any right to sound. Were it not for the distracting sight of his ever-changing appearance—coupled with moments of tiredness which render him somewhat subdued at times—this would probably rank as his smoothest on-screen performance. Of course Lanza would not be Lanza if he didn't go grandly over the top on at least one occasion, and he cheerfully obliges in the endearing proposal scene. "Keep this for me for the rest of our lives!" he passionately exclaims to Johanna as he gives her a ring, and wraps her in a tender embrace. At other times, he appears so natural and relaxed that he scarcely appears to be acting. One example of this is the scene in which he bids farewell to Gabor as he boards the ferry to Naples. Saying goodbye to her, he turns away, but then looks at her again in a sweet moment that transports an otherwise ordinary scene into something unexpectedly touching and real.
Chemistry and in-jokes
It must have helped that he got on exceptionally well with the entire cast, all of whom perform their roles with as much distinction as the weak script allows. Hans Sohnker and Johanna von Koczian shine throughout. The 25-year-old Ms. von Koczian may have seemed a little young for Lanza (who looks every bit his 37 years—and then some at times), but there is a genuine chemistry between the two that makes up for the age difference.
Apart from several in-jokes about Mario's weight, I was also amused by the insertion of Antonio Cocozza (Lanza's father), as the name of one of the men arrested after a rather silly brawl scene.
But in-jokes and good acting aside, it is Lanza's singing in For the First Time that rescues the whole thing from the clutches of mediocrity. The movie contains the most perfectly balanced musical programme of any of his movies since The Great Caruso, and vocally this is a much more consistent film than Serenade. Given the disappointing box office performance of the latter (probably not helped by its heavyweight operatic content), the producers of For the First Time must have initially blanched at the idea of so much solid opera in the movie. Yet to their credit, Lanza was ultimately allowed to sing complete renditions of the Otello Death Scene and "Vesti la Giubba," together with the sparkling trio "E Voi Ridete" from Così Fan Tutte and the triumphant Grand March ("Gloria all'Egitto") from Aida.