Mario Lanza was an American tenor and Hollywood movie star of the late 1940s and the 1950s. The son of Italian immigrants, he began studying to be a professional singer at the age of 15. Orchestral conductor Arturo Toscanini would reputedly later call him “the greatest voice of the twentieth century.” Others referred to him extravagantly as the “new Caruso”, after his “instant success” in Hollywood films, while MGM hoped that he would become the movie studio’s “singing Clark Gable” due to his good looks and powerful voice.
After appearing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, Lanza signed a seven-year contract with MGM’s head, Louis B. Mayer, who saw his performance and was impressed by his singing. Prior to this, Lanza had made only two appearances on an operatic stage, when in 1948 he sang the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.
His movie debut was in That Midnight Kiss, which produced an unlikely hit song in the form of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic aria “Celeste Aida.” The following year, in The Toast of New Orleans, his featured popular song “Be My Love” became his first million-selling hit. In 1951, he starred in the role of his tenor idol, Enrico Caruso, in the biopic, The Great Caruso, which produced another million-seller with “The Loveliest Night of the Year.” It was the top-grossing film that year. The title song of his next film, Because You’re Mine, featured his final million-selling hit song. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. After recording the soundtrack for his next film, The Student Prince he walked out on the project after an argument with producer Dore Schary over his behavior on the set.
Lanza was known to be “rebellious, tough, and ambitious”, and during most of his film career, he suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and sometimes other cast members. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper writes that “his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak.” She adds that he was the “last of the great romantic performers”. He made three more films before dying of a heart attack at the age of 38. At the time of his death in 1959 he was still “the most famous tenor in the world”. Author Eleonora Kimmel concludes that Lanza “blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time.”