Grounds for Marriage

Van Johnson and Kathryn Grayson star in the romantic comedy Grounds for Marriage (1950) as nose-and-throat specialist Dr. Lincoln I. Bartlett and opera singer Ina Massine—Bartlett’s ex-wife. When Ina returns to New York from Europe, she seeks to reignite her relationship with Bartlett, who is now engaged to socialite Agnes Young (Paula Raymond), the daughter of his boss, Dr. Carleton Young (Lewis Stone). Bartlett resists Ina’s advances but when she develops a throat affliction right before her debut as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohéme, her ex-husband is called in to treat the condition. Although Bartlett initially diagnoses “blastomycosis of the larynx” and advises Ina to rest her voice, she proceeds to sing the performance anyway: the opera is a success, but Ina subsequently develops laryngitis. Dr. Young believes the malady is due to “functional aphonia” as a result of the psychological shock over her ex-husband’s plans to remarry, so he instructs Bartlett to help Ina work through her emotional troubles.

Bartlett is also an amateur oboist and performs with the Doctors Symphony Society of New York. Early in the film Ina agrees to appear as vocal soloist for their annual concert. Before she arrives at the dress rehearsal (held in a hospital operating room!) brain surgeon Dr. Engelstaat (Richard Hageman), the ensemble’s conductor, announces: “For our first number my colleagues and I will present for your pleasure the Toy Concertino of David Raksin. It’s an amusing little piece in which the composer makes jokes after the manner of Haydn’s Toy Symphony.” (While the famous Toy Symphony to which he refers was at the time attributed to Haydn, musicologists now generally believe that it was the work of Leopold Mozart.) The Dutch-born Hageman was himself a prominent opera and symphony conductor, as well as a composer. In addition to several small roles on screen, he composed and adapted the scores for a number of films, many directed by John Ford (including 1939’s Stagecoach, for which Hageman shared an Academy Award).

The Toy Concertino was David Raksin’s sole contribution to Grounds for Marriage: M-G-M music director Johnny Green asked Raksin to compose the piece because Bronislau Kaper (who would go on to write the film’s “background music” during post-production) was either unavailable at the time or had not yet been assigned to the picture. Raksin’s charming work begins with a slow introduction before launching into a playful allegro that employs “toys” (such as a bird whistle) in addition to the standard instruments of a chamber orchestra; Raksin’s brother Ruby orchestrated the music and Green conducted. Only Green and Kaper received screen credit in the main title sequence, but David Raksin was afforded the unique distinction of having his name included in the film’s dialogue. Green encouraged Raksin to extend the piece to make it suitable for concert performance, resulting in a slightly longer version that received its premiere by the New York Philharmonic on December 19, 1954. A number of other ensembles, including the San Francisco Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, would later play the work.

In addition to the music by Kaper and Raksin, Grounds for Marriage also features a number of other musical selections. After the Toy Concertino, the Doctors Symphony rehearses “Hymn to the Sun” (from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Le Coq d’Or) with Ina. Later on, Bartlett and Ina spend part of an evening at a Greenwich Village nightclub, where they hear “The Tiger Rag” and dance the Charleston to “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”; both selections are performed on screen by the jazz band Firehouse Five Plus Two.

During the film’s climatic sequence, Bartlett suffers from a bad cold and Ina arrives at his home to nurse him back to health with chicken soup and an alcoholic beverage, which (coupled with Ina listening to a record of herself singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen) sparks a dream sequence: Bartlett imagines himself on stage singing the roles of both Don José (dubbed by tenor Gilbert Russell) and Escamillo (dubbed by baritone Stephen Kemelyan) opposite his ex-wife as Carmen, with Dr. Engelstaat and the Doctors Symphony in the pit.

MGM Records released the Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bizet selections (conducted by Green and performed by the M-G-M Studio Orchestra) on a 10″ EP (MGM E-356) that also included an edited version of Raksin’s Toy Concertino (a portion of the allegro section was tacked onto the beginning, resulting in a fast-slow-fast form). This box set marks the first issue of the Toy Concertino performance in a digital format, as well as the premiere release of the original film version.

31. Toy Concertino
In the film, Dr. Engelstaat stops the orchestra when an obstetrician-musician must leave the rehearsal to attend to a patient; the conductor then resumes at “letter G” and plays the work through to its conclusion. The Toy Concertino was therefore recorded in two parts, only the second of which survived in the studio archives. For this CD we have taken the music directly from the film’s audio track and used digital editing techniques to create a single, seamless cue (without the interruption heard in the film). —