Grace Moore was a figure out of another era -- almost a geological age's distance -- in popular entertainment: an opera singer who found success on the silver screen and even charted some hit records. Her story is also one of the most compelling tales of success, defeat, redemption, and tragedy in the history of American entertainment. Born to the family of a traveling salesman (and later department store owner) in Tennessee, she developed a love of music and, fueled by a magnificent voice, bluffed her way onto the Broadway stage. From an eventual star's berth at the Met, she jumped to motion pictures with the advent of the talkies, was destroyed at one studio by the pressures for success, and was then rescued and given a whole second career onscreen and the concert stage by the politics at another studio, only to die in an air crash a decade later.
Moore was born in Slabtown, TN, and her strict Baptist upbringing hardly made her a likely candidate for a career in entertainment, and she did intend, early in life, to become a missionary. By age 16, however, the "skinny, long-legged ugly girl" (as she described herself) had discovered music and that she had a voice that was worth spending some time developing. She studied singing and music theory at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, and then extended her music training in Washington, D.C., in the process making contact with the likes of Alma Gluck (1884-1938) and Mary Garden (1874-1967), and at 17 was a participant in a Washington, D.C. recital given by Giovanni Martinelli, the celebrated Metropolitan tenor, which got Moore her first mention in a review. She moved to New York and bluffed her way into the cast of a 1920 Jerome Kern-scored revue called Hitchy Koo. She continued to develop her singing and earned (and failed) a couple of Metropolitan Opera auditions in the early '20s. After a couple of years living in Paris, she returned to New York to play in two of Irving Berlin's Music Box revues. Her appearance in the 1924 show Tell Her in the Springtime led to a pair of recordings for Victor (later RCA Victor), "My Rock-A-Bye Baby" and "Listening," of which the latter was a number five U.S. hit.
By 1928, Moore was at the Metropolitan Opera, making her debut that year as Mimi in La Boheme. She came to specialize in French and Italian lyric soprano roles, often playing opposite the legendary Gigli in New York, and her career took her to opera houses in Paris, Cannes, and Monte Carlo, among other European cities. Moore's popularity was unusual, in that critics and audiences were divided on just how good she was in any of her roles -- she lacked some conviction in her performances, and may have had some technical limitations. Audiences, however, especially men, adored Moore because of her appearance and physique. She was no contemporary supermodel, but in an era in which the typical opera diva tipped the scales at anywhere up to 200 pounds, Moore's relatively svelte 130-140 pounds made her as visually alluring as any woman on any operatic stage. This helped very seriously in compensating for any shortcomings in her vocalizing and acting.
One of those who came to admire Moore was Louis B. Mayer, the vice president and chief operating officer of M-G-M. Then the biggest studio in Hollywood, M-G-M was making the leap to sound films in 1929-1930 with an emphasis on musical entertainment, and Mayer signed Moore to portray opera singer Jenny Lind in a 1930 movie called A Lady's Morals. The movie was less than a sterling success, but M-G-M tried again with Moore, this time with an adaptation of Sigmund Romberg's operetta New Moon, in which she co-starred with Met alumnus Lawrence Tibbett. Moore's career was vexed, however, by the stresses of screen work and the need to succeed. Following the box-office failure of A Lady's Morals, she began eating in earnest, and by the time of her second movie she was no longer the relatively svelte creature that Mayer had signed a year earlier. Moore had literally eaten herself out of a Hollywood contract. Dropped by the studio in 1931 -- and soon discovering that the Great Depression had wiped out a lot of operatic and concert possibilities for her -- she was back on the Broadway stage in 1932, and it was there that she walked into her biggest success to date, a fresh adaptation of Carl Millöcker's operetta Grafin Dubarry, called The Dubarry.
It was while performing in The Dubarry that Moore was spotted by Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures. At that time, Columbia was barely one of the major Hollywood studios -- apart from Frank Capra's movies, its output was distinctly low budget, low rent, and low ambition in comparison to such rivals as M-G-M, Paramount, Fox, RKO, United Artists, and Universal. Cohn liked what he heard of Moore's singing, however, and even more of what he saw, for she had slimmed down again. Although Cohn liked what he heard and saw, he saw more than just Grace Moore in front of him. He saw an opportunity, knowing of her previous failure at M-G-M, to take an actress that Louis B. Mayer had failed with and dropped and make her into a star -- a chance for Harry Cohn at tiny Columbia Pictures to show up the biggest mogul at the biggest studio of them all. Essentially, Grace Moore became the beneficiary of the inherent rivalry between the studio owners and chiefs. The Hollywood moguls, like the bluesmen transplanted out of the Mississippi Delta and into Chicago, had almost all known -- or at least known of -- each other coming up; they competed for the same theaters, stars, and audiences, usually hadn't liked each other, and never missed a chance to show up their rivals whenever one came along.
Grace Moore was Harry Cohn's chance. Cohn decided to build a serious musical around her -- and Columbia was not known for making musicals at all at the time -- called One Night of Love. For this film, Columbia commissioned an excellent score by Louis Silvers, and recruited one of the unsung talents in the world of film musicals, Victor Schertzinger (a composer, violinist, and songwriter), to direct. The result was one of Columbia's most prestigious films of the mid-'30s, a rich, artistically sophisticated, and nicely realized drama that made Moore a star. Harry Cohn had his hit, as good a musical as M-G-M made in 1934, and a female musical star as alluring as Jeanette MacDonald. And Grace Moore had her career back. Her recording of "One Night of Love" rode the top of the American charts for four weeks, and Moore followed it all up with the successful Love Me Forever in 1935. Her subsequently Columbia films weren't as well received, although The King Steps Out (1936), directed by Josef Von Sternberg and scored to the music of Fritz Kreisler, remains well worth seeing. In 1938, Moore starred in her final film, Louise, based on a work by Charpentier -- the director was Abel Gance -- the famed director of Napoleon, and it was filmed outside of Paris.
Moore resumed her stage career exclusively beginning that year, touring Europe extensively and even returning to the United States for appearances at the Metropolitan Opera. During World War II, she made extensive appearances on behalf of the Allied war effort, and she was later awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. She was as busy as ever after the war, and it was while on a concert tour in early 1951 that she died in a plane crash. ~ Bruce Eder