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Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.

It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice

I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.

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Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still a child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.

Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.

Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.

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When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.

One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.

Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.

Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

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HARDY KRUGER and ANTHONY QUINN

HARDY KRUGER and ANTHONY QUINN

We recently watched The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s slap at Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, a movie that evoked the question of whether that subject matter could be treated appropriately in a humorous setting. Although the film was well received, Chaplin himself later said that if he had been aware in 1939 of the full scope of fascist atrocities in Europe, he would not have made it. The question of depicting Nazi atrocities in a comic milieu without minimizing the crimes themselves also arose with respect to Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), the 1997 quadruple Oscar winner in which a Jewish book-shop owner and his young son are caught up in the Holocaust in Italy and sent to a death camp, and the father sacrifices his life in order to shield his boy.

The unlikely mix of comedy and Nazi brutality also was the basis for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a 1969 film based on Robert Crichton’s novel by the same name. The film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starred Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger, and Sergio Franchi.

The people of Santa Vittoria transfer the wine to its hiding place.

The people of Santa Vittoria transfer the wine to its hiding place.

This story takes place in the summer of 1943. The government of Benito Mussolini has collapsed and the German army is in the process of occupying most of Italy. The people of Santa Vittoria learn that their town is soon to fall under German rule and one result will be that the Germans will confiscate more than a million bottles of wine that have been produced by the local co-operative. In the power vacuum that ensues because the local fascist government has been discredited and some officials arrested, the town fool, Italo Bombolini (Quinn), is declared mayor by acclamation. Under the guidance of a more sober character named Tufa, played by the tenor, Sergio Franchi, Bombolini devises a scheme to hide all but 300,000 bottles of the wine in tunnels that date from the age of the Roman Empire.

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When a small contingent of German army personnel, under the command of Capt. Sepp Von Prum (Kruger), take charge of the town, a cat-and-mouse game begins in which Bombolini patronizes the Germans but insists that the wine in the storage cavern is all there is. Kruger is under pressure from the SS to find the wine the Germans are sure is hidden nearby, but he eventually convinces the SS commander that the townspeople are telling the truth. In his heart of hearts, however, Kruger knows better, and as he and his men are about to vacate the town, there is a tense episode in which, in the presence of the whole village, he puts a handgun to Bombolini’s head and threatens to fire if someone doesn’t tell him what he wants to know. He is met with grim silence and, because he really doesn’t have the steel will expected of Hitler’s cohorts, leaves without further incident.

ANNA MAGNANI and ANTHONY QUINN

ANNA MAGNANI and ANTHONY QUINN

Magnani plays Bombolini’s wife, Rosa, the stereotypical Italian firebrand who badgers her husband about his indolence and drunkenness. Virna Lisi appears as a peripheral character, Caterina Malatesta, who is a love interest of Tufa and the object of Kruger’s rather courtly advances.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria was nominated for Academy Awards for film editing and best musical score (Ernest Gold); it won the Golden Globe Award as best motion picture comedy and was nominated for best director, best actor in a comedy (Quinn), best actress in a comedy (Magnani), best original score and best original song (“Stay,” which was written by Gold and Norman Gimbel).

 

This movie wasn’t nearly as popular as Crichton’s novel, and it was a loser at the box office. It is in many ways superficial, implausible, and obvious. And yet, for the price of an Amazon rental fee, it is worth watching for its entertainment value, including the arch but earthy performances by Quinn and Magnani and the charm of blue-eyed Hardy Kruger. The movie, entirely an American production, was shot in Anticoli Corrado in the province of Rome, with hundreds of local residents acting as extras.

 

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During the 22 days that David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the loose, I had occasion to mention to an acquaintance the name Willie Sutton. I was dismayed by the blank expression that name inspired. This happens to me more and more often as I get older and older. There was a time when, just as the name Enrico Caruso could be used interchangeably with the phrase “great singer,” the name Willie Sutton could be used interchangeably with the phrases “bank robber,” “prison escapee,” and “master of disguise.”

Sutton, who was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in 1901, was a bank robber and prison-escape artist. Because of his use of disguises, he was known as “The Actor.” At various times in his career, he posed as such things as a mailman, a telegraph messenger, a police officer, a window cleaner, a prison guard, and a maintenance man.

After a series of robberies and a prison term for safe cracking, Sutton was sent to 30 years in Sing Sing in 1931. He got his hands on a firearm, took a guard hostage, and escaped on December 11, 1932, using a makeshift extended ladder to get over the prison wall.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

He moved to Philadelphia and resumed his vocation until he was arrested again and spent about 15 years as a guest of the commonwealth. On April 3, 1945, Sutton and eleven other inmates escaped from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by crawling through a tunnel — Sutton’s fifth attempt to break out of this prison — but he was arrested the same day by city police.

Because he was a four-time loser, Sutton was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg. On February 10, 1947, he and other inmates, dressed as prison guards, carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. The story goes that the watchtower searchlights found the men, but Sutton yelled, “It’s okay,” and no one interfered with the escape.

That escapade earned Sutton a place on the FBI’s list of ten most-wanted fugitives.

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Sutton was said to have good manners, and he dressed to go along with his demeanor. In a wry coincidence, that turned out to be his undoing. Police, knowing of Sutton’s penchant for fine clothes, distributed his photograph to tailors and haberdashers. A clothing salesman — 24-year-old Arnold Schuster — saw that photograph in his father’s store. On February 18, 1952, the young man recognized Sutton on a subway in Brooklyn and followed him to a gas station where Sutton intended to buy a car battery. The young man called the police, and Sutton was arrested yet again. Less than a month later, Schuster was shot to death in what was presumed to be a mob hit against a squealer. No one was ever charged with the crime. In an autobiography published in 1976, Sutton wrote, ”Throughout my career I had plotted and planned my jobs to make sure that I would not have to hurt anybody, and now, after it was over and I was sitting in jail, a good-looking, promising young man had been killed because of me. The laughter of the gods.”

Sutton already had a life sentence plus 105 years hanging over his head, but he was tried again for a bank robbery in Queens and had his lease extended another 30 years, this time at the Attica State Prison.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

Because of his failing health, however, he was released on December 24, 1969. The following year, he did a television commercial promoting a new credit-card program offered by the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company.

Sutton was reputed to have said, when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton, however, denied having said that although, he added, if someone had asked him that question that might have been his reply.

“Why did I rob banks?” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all. Go where the money is…and go there often.”