Rita Hayworth was a busy woman in 1940, starring in five films before year’s end and none of them particularly memorable. (In case you missed it, you can read my thoughts on one of her earlier 1940 performances, Angels Over Broadway, here.) I might have been too harsh in my assessment of yesterday’s film because at least that had a narrative focus and sought to tell us a story. Music in My Heart is a musical spotlight for singer Tony Martin with a story vaguely connecting everything together. Rita Hayworth has more of an angle as the love interest in a pedestrian romance, but the film hides her background as a dancer, one of several odd choices that makes this a frivolous, unpretentious, and ultimately staid romantic drama.
Robert Gregory (Martin) is set to be deported on the same night his cab collides with Patricia O’Malley (Hayworth). Both are headed to the same pier where he’ll return to his home country and she’ll marry a millionaire she doesn’t love. However, both miss the boat and Patricia offers to let Robert stay at her house with her and her family. Patricia’s little sister Mary (Edith Fellows) decides it’d be swell for the two to get married, leading to Mary and Robert teaming up to make a love connection.
I can’t stress how wafer-thin the plot is, so much so that the film barely skirts past the hour mark. It’s hard complaining about the lack of character development in Angels Over Broadway when, in comparison, that film had too much! We meet Robert Gregory on the night he’s going to be deported….where? We’re never told where he’s being sent “home” and the only elaboration on why he’s being deported in the first place is his parents “never filed the citizenship papers.” Okay, so he wasn’t born here, but Martin looks to be in his ’30s and has had “three extensions” in….what, the last 30 years? There’s no commitment from anyone on what country he’ll be going to, maybe to avoid conflicts with WWII? But since Martin sounds as American as you or I, it’s laughable how this becomes the film’s main conflict. He’s essentially avoiding an immigration issue that, even in 1940, sounds preposterous. There had to be a multitude of ways to place him alongside Hayworth’s O’Malley so why pick an issue that, coupled with the non-foreign lead, makes no sense?
Removing that silly plot device, the film falls in to a fairly predictable romance starting with the even that brings out leads crashing into each other, literally. The script relies on that magic formula of the two characters going to the same place, sharing a cab, and spilling out their individual troubles. We’re also treated to their caustic snipes to each other because if you need any proof that these two are destined it’s in their mutual dislike of each other.
Hayworth and Martin are perfectly fine together, despite their relationship feeling forced from outside influences, particularly Mary. Edith Fellows plays the sister no different than the likes of Diana Lynn in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), although her reasons for pairing up the two boil down to Robert being a good-looking guy. Robert goes along with it, but you have to wonder if he’s doing it to get a green card. (This would be a fun twist on the “green card marriage” storyline, but the film doesn’t think that cynically.) There aren’t many scenes of actual wooing though – this is meant to showcase Martin’s singing, after all – outside of one cheesy come-on Robert gives Patricia, pointing out planets in the sky, then looking at Patricia and saying, “And here’s Venus.” Good for Rita for not falling for a line like that!
The trouble is that the story is at the mercy of the musical here. I’ve watched movies that painfully pad the runtime with outside elements, and while everything feels natural, there’s too many moments where the plot settles into a song. We open with Martin performing in an opera, then he goes to Patricia’s house where he sings to a monkey. Yes, you heard that right, there’s a song for a monkey complete with a trio of backup singers. By the end, the entire plot hinges on Robert singing, right down to turning himself in to a radio station that will allow him one final song before he’s deported!
You really have to go into Music in My Heart with an open mind and the realization it’s a musical starring Tony Martin…..and Rita Hayworth. As a Hayworth vehicle it’s far from the atrocity Hayworth biographers have labeled it as, but it’s a waste of her talent.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.