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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Singing Sweethearts Long Past

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy Under a New Moon (1940)

It's been easy to ignore or ridicule MacDonald/Eddy musicals since audiences laughed upon first sight of them in That's Entertainment. It was the one point in that compilation where mirth was directed at rather than with performers. My perception was clouded from there, having not seen a Mac/E up to 1974, and resolving not to if this was typical of their work. I still resisted as in "Not just now, maybe later" as clock lately ticked on New Moon as Warner Instant offering (movies there rotate and you can't put any off too long). Last night I gave in and came away glad for it. Gad, what a lavish spread this was! Understand Louis Mayer loved his Jeanette, thus Lion's purse spread wide for her vehicles. Richest were those with Eddy that made profit even on million plus invariably spent (notably more than committed to other Metro musicals, such as The Broadway Melody Of 1940, though The Wizard Of Oz topped them all for outlay). How many of us saw Nelson Eddy for a first time in anything other than 1943's Phantom Of The Opera? Or MacDonald beyond San Francisco?

Eddy comes off to least effect in Phantom, but was fine in Metros closer tailored for him, New Moon making clear how the series with MacDonald pleased a generation of viewing that would remember the team with real affection. Eddy could do action, manage comedy, and make love scenes with Jeanette believable. To latter extent, he beat Clark Gable in San Francisco. Operetta, yes, lots of it, does not undermine Eddy's masculinity. I rather wish That's Entertainment hadn't cut to the pair so sudden and head-on from Rose Marie, his pursed lips made up and the team faintly absurd against rear-projected wilderness. Those who'd holler "camp" at all old Hollywood had their ammunition here. And yet there were those in 1974 who saw MacDonald/Eddy as sentimental highlight of That's Entertainment, being the middle-aged, or better, by-then public who had loved the duo and looked forward to each of their co-starrings over period between 1935 and 1942. Our 60/70's-bred generation could never grasp feeling these folk had for Jeanette/Nelson in soaring song.

Eddy and MacDonald with New Moon Producer/Director
 Robert Z. Leonard

His Larger Part Cut, Buster Keaton Can Still
 Be Glimpsed in New Moon Crowd Scenes 
New Moon is really operetta variant on Captain Blood, Jeanette buying as bond servant the impudent Eddy, who's that way because he's actually a duke on the run from usurpers. Here was MacDonald/Eddy outreach to action attendance, New Moon's second half given to slave revolt, storm at sea, and plethora of effects equal to biggest spectacle MGM laid forth to that time. It had been a play and then a 1930 film with Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore, neither done on anything like scale here. New Moon was guided for a first two weeks by W.S. Van Dyke, who then ceded to Robert Z. Leonard, latter taking screen credit. A director's hand weighed lighter at Metro. Ones like Leonard were there to shovel coal to furnace lit by a dominant producer, in this case also Leonard, his reward for having made success of previous MacDonald/Eddys. Theirs was a series sufficiently oiled to need less individual input than coordination of departments. MGM by 1940 was a committee-driven factory, and if New Moon is soulless for that, there is yet size and still-breathtaking craftsmanship to make the sit worthwhile. The show still runs in terrific HD on Warner Instant, and is available on DVD.


Blogger Tom said...

The one MacDonald-Eddy musical operetta that remains a sentimental favourite for me is Rose Marie.

Yes, this one is regarded as a campfest by many, the film not helped by Nelson's rather wooden performance as Sgt. Bruce of the Mounties.

This is the one in which Nelson and Jeanette warble Indian Love Call flat out into the face of one another. (Hope neither of them were into onion sandwiches at the time).

Still, W. S. Van Dyke directs this film with an energy and good natured humour, and Jeanette is in great form. Of the eight musicals that she made with Eddy, this is the one which best shows off her comedy finesse.

Watch the scene in which Jeanette tries to emulate the sounds and body language of a honky tonk singer in a rough wilderness tavern in Rose Marie. She's terrific at it, funny and, yet, at the same time, rather sweet and vulnerable because her character is out of her depth.

And watch her early in the film, too, when she lampoons a prima donna who sends shivers of fear through her underlings and assistants when she's displeased with them.

I think this is the richest of her performances in the Eddy series. And he certainly sings in a manly fashion and has a very strong, still pleasing, baritone (at least, to my ears).

Jimmy Stewart, of course, has a supporting role as MacDonald's brother on the run from the law, as Mountie Eddy is out to get his man. That Stewart charm is on full display.

Speaking of charming, there's also a brief shot early of a young David Niven as a MacDonald suitor.

As far as New Moon is concerned, I used to confuse it with Naughty Marietta. The period costumes looked much the same to me, and I also remember thinking that Jeanette was starting to overdo it a bit in her histrionics towards the end of the film.

The freshness of her performance in Rose Marie was missing here, I think. Having said that, who else did this kind of operetta costume nonsense better than she, though?

10:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer look back on early acquaintance with Jeanette MacDonald:

I've not seen "New Moon," but I have enough of the other Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy starrers to second your comments as to the masculine strength of Eddy, whether in song or person. And yet, if I could have seen only "San Francisco," it would have been sufficient to appreciate how marvelous Jeannette MacDonald was.

Years ago, the small college I went to had a one month interim between the fall and spring semesters, in which the professors could teach a course on whatever subject caught their fancy. The only restriction was that they couldn't repeat it. One in particular, a history professor who dabbled in local theater, was quite the movie fan, and he contrived a series of courses that, whatever their ostensible subject--the culture and mores of the 1920s, perhaps--were really about the movies. It was during one of these that I saw "San Francisco" for the first time, and so entranced was I by it, that I returned that evening to see it again, when it was made available to the student body.

It is a wonderfully entertaining show, with Gable and Spencer Tracy in top form, colorful characters and backgrounds, and of course, an incredible recreation of the great earthquake of 1906. What I came back for, however, was to experience once more a particular scene, when Jeannette appears as Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust." Her character had been presented as being somewhat demure but determined in wanting to become an artist. Here now was the perfect setting for her talent, one of the grandest of operas, and with a final trio that may the most thrilling ever composed. It was perhaps the first time that any music had really touched me, and I found myself transported as I listened to her voice soaring above the line of the orchestra. I've read criticism since then concerning the size of that voice or its power, but in that moment she was utterly superb and I could well have imagined the heavens parting, that angels might greet her as one of their own.

I'll look forward to seeing "New Moon," but as something to complement what I already keep in memory.

3:47 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed "New Moon". But - to me - it's the least of the films they made together. Largely a watered-down retread of their initial hit "Naughty Marietta" but with different songs. Still, it was, I believe, their last big money-maker. And my grandmother, a dyed-in-the-wool Mac-Eddy fan, loved it all her life.
I agree with most of what Tom said about "Rose Marie". It's probably my favorite. Laced with a bracing outdoor feel that's too often absent in the dire color remake from '54. I always found Eddy a perfect partner for MacDonald. They looked great together. And - with him - she shared a bantering, affectionate chemistry never quite achieved with her other partners. Even the Chevalier-MacDonald teamings were more smarty-pants than endearing.
I love "The Girl of the Golden West"; the original Sigmund Romberg score's a real beaut!
And Dorothy Parker co-wrote
their Technicolor triumph "Sweethearts". So there's plenty of sharp wit in the mix. Nelson's 1939 musical "Balalaika" had all the lush trappings of the MacDonald-Eddy series. But it didn't have Jeanette (for whom Ilona Massey was an inadequate substitute).
In '48 around the time Metro reunited Astaire & Rogers for "The Barkleys of Broadway", there were tentative plans to reteam Jeanette and Nelson in "Three Daring Daughters". The film was made and it proved to be enjoyable froth - with nice songs, new MGM charmer Jane Powell on board and Jeanette (in Technicolor) looking and sounding every bit as great as she had during her hey-day. But no Nelson. In spite of the fact that he still looked dashing and was in top vocal form, the honchos at Metro decided to use Jose Iturbi. A fine pianist, no doubt, but surely the most unprepossessing onscreen partner Jeanette ever had. With MacDonald & Eddy co-starring,it could have been quite an event for them and all their fans. Too bad it didn't happen. But thank goodness we still have all the pictures that did.

4:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

What a shame that MacDonald and Eddy couldn't be reunited in "Three Daring Daughters." It would have been a perfect showcase for them with Eddy in the Jose Iturbi role.

Donald Benson writes in with some observations re Eddy's later work for Disney, and a certain Laurel-Hardy feature that's reminiscent of Mac/E's:

Eddy -- or at least his voice -- may be best remembered now from Disney's "The Whale That Wanted to Sing at the Met." First part of "Make Mine Music" and then recycled as a freestanding short, it features Eddy providing all the voices.

A footnote: "Swiss Miss," the last of Laurel and Hardy's musical comedies, is the only one not based on a classic operetta. I now wonder if it wasn't meant as a light spoof of the Eddy-MacDonald genre, with a musical couple at odds over nothing at all and a festive setting that is, even within the plot, fake (an alpine resort assumes period costumes and customs to help a composer get in the mood).

4:32 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

It may have been cool to renew appreciation for Busby Berkeley, Andy Hardy and Esther Williams back in the 70's-80's, but the MacDonald-Eddy operettas were still stuck in that "Can you believe people actually watched this crap?" ghetto way longer than most antiquated genres. Let's not forget NEW MOON was included in the Medved best seller THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME. Of course, time, and even more time, adds perspective and today two hours with Jeanette and Nelson seems much better spent than five minutes revisiting that curiously outmoded snark-fest.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The only other time I heard of "New Moon" was in the book "The 50 Worst Movies of All Time." I guess it depends on your point of view.

10:59 AM  
Blogger berigan said...

Rose Marie one of the 50 worst films of all time? Medved must have somehow confused it with Rosalie, with Eleanor Powell and Nelson Eddy. Now, that stinks. New Moon, as others mentions, does remind one much of the earlier film, Naughty Marietta(My Mom once asked a video store in the 80s if they had Naughty Marietta, they told her, they didn't rent X rated movies! ;0 ) I have always felt that even when they were made, Nelson and Jeanette knew they were a bit campy, but enjoyed making them.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

The MacDonald - Eddy musicals were hardly 'camp' when they were made. America was more musically diverse during the first half of the 20th Century. Radio and films once believed in showcasing both high and lowbrow entertainment -- Pop and classical. When swing music threatened to take over the Nation (if only), there was almost a manic need to give equal time to classical music (Deanna Durbin, anyone?). Operetta's were huge in Hollywood and this team led the way.

I don't believe anyone considered their musicals out of fashion until rock music began taking over the nation and people became more rigid towards other music genres.

1:53 PM  

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