For the First Time: Lanza's Sweet Little Swansong by Derek McGovern
It is one of the great ironies of Mario Lanza's movie career that what was arguably his best film, Serenade, should have been eclipsed at the box office by his weakest effort, the meandering Seven Hills of Rome. The latter contains so few opportunities for Lanza--either vocally or dramatically--that it emerges as a lifeless, stillborn piece of movie-making. Lanza himself described the movie as "lousy" and condemned his performance in it as "terrible."
While he was certainly being far too harsh on his efforts, this stinging self-criticism ensured that his next—and final—cinematic effort, the 1959-released For the First Time, would be a considerable improvement over the previous movie. Vocally magnificent, and possessed of a sweetness that redeems its many shortcomings, For the First Time emerges as a touching swansong from an extraordinary talent. As critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in a 2012 review of the film's DVD release:
What I like, even love, about this film is the way the real Lanza comes through - big-natured, impulsive, lovable, unreasonable, a glutton, an artist, just another guy from Philly, and the man who can sing "Come Prima" better than anyone else. What a talent, and what a loss.
However, as the angelic choir that heralds the opening credits makes abundantly clear, this is not a movie for prune-faced cynics. William Leonard of the Chicago Daily Tribune typified the rather mocking critical response to For the First Time in 1959, when he dismissed its plot as "lighter than hydrogen," adding that the film "puts absolutely no strain on the intellect."
Indeed, Leonard went on to write, "It's a pleasure to have such a plot interrupted by an operatic aria, a love ballad, a pizza ditty, or a novelty tune." Others, such as film historian David Shipman, a critic who openly despised Lanza, found the film even wanting on musical grounds, claiming that some reviewers had envied the plight of the leading lady, Johanna von Koczian, who for plot purposes is deaf. At least, he implied, she was spared the "misfortune" of hearing Lanza sing. However, Shipman conveniently overlooked the fact that von Koczian does hear the tenor's voice, and that, furthermore, Lanza is in excellent vocal form throughout (with one exception, which I'll get to later.)
A rare source of critical approval in 1959 was Howard S. Thompson of the New York Times. Singling out Lanza's courtship of Miss von Koczian as both believable and charming, he described the movie as "the tenor's most disarming vehicle in years."
"Toning his voice down—mercifully—he never sounded better," was also Thompson's assessment of Lanza's singing, and he lavished special praise on the tenor's renditions of "O Sole Mio," "Vesti la Giubba," and "Nium Mi Tema." He also commented approvingly on Lanza's slimmed-down appearance, a great improvement, he said, "over the previous year's Seven Hillsof Rome, in which he looked like the eighth [hill]."
What Thompson overlooked, however, was the alarming evidence that Lanza was clearly far from well in his final movie. He may have been slimmer in much of the film in comparison with Seven Hills of Rome (and, for that matter,Serenade), but here he often looks tired and subdued, with noticeable bags under the eyes and a strangely "painted" appearance confirming his precarious state of health. At other times he looks disarmingly handsome—almost like the Lanza of yore, with his endearing qualities of mischief and warmth written all over his expressive features.
The tenor's most disarming vehicle in years.
The final shooting script of For the First Time was reportedly inferior to the original version that Lanza had approved. What he thought of the changes is unclear, but as with Seven Hills of Rome, far greater attention should have been paid to the dialogue, which is often bland and uninspired.
(Below: The theatrical trailer of For the First Time)