Melba (film)

Melba (film)

theatrical poster
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz
Story by Harry Kurnitz
Starring Patrice Munsel
Robert Morley
John McCallum
Music by Muir Mathieson
Mischa Spoliansky
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Edward Scaife
Editing by Bill Lewthwaite
Studio Horizon Pictures
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) June 24, 1953 (1953-06-24) (US theatrical)
Running time 112 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Melba is a 1953 musical biographical drama film of the life of Australian-born soprano Nellie Melba, written by Harry Kurnitz and directed by Lewis Milestone for Horizon Pictures,[1][2] marking the film debut of the Metropolitan Opera's Patrice Munsel.[3][4][5]



In January 1952, upon completion of the Melba story treatment by Harry Kurnitz, producer Sam Spiegel and his attorney flew to London with the script in-hand to acquire film rights for her story from Melba's estate.[6] In May 1952, Spiegel reported that the film was to be shot on locations in Australia and Britain with Patrice Munsel cast as Nellie Melba. Upon release of the information, representatives of the J. Arthur Rank organization expressed surprise, as they had themselves been planning a film about Melba. They had hoped to get Marjorie Lawrence for their own film and, when unable to do so, had even considered using actual recordings Melba's voice dubbed over that of an actress. They decided to put their plans on hold until they could find a suitable singer/actress for the lead role.[7] One of Speigel's early choices for director was Charles Vidor. In July 1952, Speigel flew to Paris to speak with him.[8] Speigel then hired Edmond Goulding as director. Pre-production for the film was being done in Paris, and Patrice Munsel and her husband arranged a second honeymoon in that city. When problems arose with Goulding, Speigel fired him and hired Lewis Milestone to direct.[9] The change of directors disheartened Munsel, as she had been looking forward to working with Goulding, and she found Milestone to be "more traffic cop than auteur". She had also anticipated a script that would allow her to play Melba as the "gutsy, difficult, strong-minded" person she really was, and was disappointed that the Kurnitz script "was essentially a plot-less, soft-centered love story built around a long string of opera sequences.".[2] By September 1952, Patrice Munsel had recorded all her songs for the film, and plans were being made to construct "Australian" sets on the Wiltshire plains. While Munsel's voice impressed critics, she did not resemble Dame Melba, with the biggest contrast being her American accent. When asked of her role, Munsel stated [sic] "We are not attempting to re-create Melba. We are simply paying tribute to her as a great singer in a way that will bring popular entertainment to the masses."[3]

Theodore Bikel wrote in his autobiography that because of Milestone's background, this was a felicitous choice by Sam Spiegel, as Milestone was an award-wining director with a great touch. There was however, a growing frustration between Spiegel and Milestone, both on set and off. After months of filming with growing tensions, and three days before the last scene was to be shot, a confrontation between the two caused Milestone to walk of the set and not return.[10]


Based on the life of Dame Nellie Melba, the film traces the career of Melba (Patrice Munsel) from the time she left Australia, traveling to Paris to receive vocal training, meets a new suitor, and debuts her talent in Brussells. As her success grows, her former suitor from Australia arrives in Monte Carlo, convinces her to marry him, but then finds himself placed in the position of being "Mr. Melba". When he leaves her to return to Australia, Melba remains in Europe to continue singing.

Partial cast

Critical response

The New York Times reported that the film was essentially one song after another and, listing the numerous works that were shared in the film, wrote "Even though jumbled together in an excessive, haphazard way, this massive mélange of mighty music is the meager salvation of the film." The reviewer, Bosley Crowther, offered that, while the task of portraying the life of Nellie Melba was laudable as a concept, the "storybook tale of an opera singer that Harry Kurnitz has put together is a mere offense to the taste and credulity of an average numskull, and it is assembled and played with little more sense." They disapproved of the plot which portrayed Melba as "silly and vapid", whose character then "comes out flat and gauche". The offered the storyline was "sticky and banal" and "overloaded with such obvious twaddle about ambition and success."[1]

Conversely, Spokesman-Review felt the film was a "worthy climax to her [Patrice Munsel] spectacular opera and concert career." They wrote that of the many films that attempted to adapt opera to the film media, this one is the best. They acknowledged that while the film was "broadly sentimental", it was appealing. And that even though the storyline did not factually follow the life of Nellie Melba, "it suggests its glory and glamour and completely enthralls the audience." They write that "Munsel is magnificent", and that even while not being photogenic in the Australian shot scenes depicting Melba's life as a cowgirl, once Melba is brought to Europe, "she is most attractive." Listing the many songs sung by Munsel, they made note of the attending audience applauding each, and wrote "Her singing is magnificent, and she is an actress of sufficient poise to carry complete conviction." The praised the supporting cast and Lewis Milestone's craftmanship as a director.[11]



  1. ^ a b Bosley Crowther (June 25, 1953). "review: Melba (1953),". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Brian Kellow. "Stars of Stage and Screen: Opera on Stage and on Film". Opera News. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  3. ^ a b staff correspondent (September 14, 1952). "Melba with an accent". Sydney Morning Herald: pp. 3.,1677000&dq=milestone+to+direct+melba&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  4. ^ "Munsel is Melba". Val-d'Or Star (Google News Archive): pp. 8. December 4, 1953.,1643502&dq=melba+lewis-milestone&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  5. ^ "Film at Foster Traces Life of Brilliant Star". Youngstown Vindicator (Google News Archive): pp. 14. May 26, 1954.,3473079&dq=lewis-milestone&hl=en. Retrieved May 4, 2011. 
  6. ^ Louella O. Parsons (January 22, 1952). "Annette Kellerman sees life story set". Milwaukee Sentinel (Google News Archive): pp. 3.,2844367&dq=melba+patrice-munsel&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  7. ^ "A New York Soprano will be Filmed in the Mantle of Melba". The Age (Google News Archive): pp. 2. May 5, 1952.,521622&dq=melba+patrice-munsel&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  8. ^ "Bearded Scot to be Monarch". Spokesman-Review (Google News Archive). July 29, 1952.,6974185&dq=melba+patrice-munsel&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (2003). Sam Spiegel. Simon and Schuster. pp. 141–142. ISBN 068483619X.,+Lewis+Milestone&source=bl&ots=F1K8EUEKMH&sig=iHz2BH8QyR_jYL8XOKnq0c6YVCk&hl=en&ei=mPTATbqfN4e4sQOWx-TgBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAzgK#v=onepage&q=Eddie%20Goulding&f=false. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  10. ^ Theodore Bikel (2002). Theo: the autobiography of Theodore Bikel. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 121–122. ISBN 0299182843.,+%22Sam+Spiegel%22&hl=en&ei=r-LATbvIGpL6swOQ29jgBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Lewis%20Milestone%22%2C%20%22Sam%20Spiegel%22&f=false. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 
  11. ^ Margaret Bean (September 16, 1953). "Patrice Superb in Lavish Film". Spokesman-Review (Google News Archive): pp. 14.,2570401&dq=melba+lewis-milestone&hl=en. Retrieved 4 May 2011. 

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