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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where Operettas Made A Comeback

Naughty Marietta Is a 30's and 60's Hit

Each of majors needed meat to throw wolves that was the Legion Of Decency. With Code enforcement a game played for keeps since 7/34, the industry would prove fealty via pics pure as fresh fallen snow. Each had mode of delivery, Warners with costumes and polite romance of Errol Flynn, Paramount and de-fanging of Mae West plus increased volume on Bing Crosby, Astaire/Rogers dancing for RKO, and most famously, Fox's perfect timing that was Shirley Temple. All were answers to would-be local and/or gov't censorship, and successful besides. Did a buying public want clean pictures? Increased ticket sales convinced producers and showmen that they did, or maybe it was relaxed grip of a Depression and more dimes in circulation. MGM was perhaps best-prepared to accommodate the new order, having seen reality from further back and scraping barnacles even off '33 shows like Hold Your Man that played like clamps were already down. Smartest move at Metro was when it merged Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy for a first of what anyone with eyes tabbed for a long-run series: Naughty Marietta in March 1935.

Here was purified entertainment, but not oppressively so. In fact, parts of Naughty Marietta are charmingly earthy, being about unwed gals brought from France to the New World as mates for "stout and robust" men, part of shipment being princess-in-disguise Jeanette, with Eddy among lusty recipients of marriage merchandise. Some now laugh at these two in flights of song, but during a 30's peak, Mac and E traded love calls back-forth that was satisfactory sub for sex withheld since the crackdown. I don't wonder why/how Naughty Marietta became so popular. The thing has vitality, a fair pace, and if these two trilling is your bag, a near-best of MacDonald/Eddy teaming. To stay viable so long took real appeal, which they had and practiced until blow-off came in 1942. That's seven years, and a run not to be underestimated. Significant too was Naughty Marietta having a wartime reissue that did well, plus nostalgia-driven comeback for it and other MacDonald/Eddys when MGM's "Perpetual Product Plan" saw most of their teamwork back in theatres during the early-to-mid 60's.

It was a group of eight, including others of MGM musical backlog, played on otherwise slow weekdays, and pitched to blue hairs who'd remember Jeanette and Nelson's splendor at song. Prints were new, enough bookings to justify that outlay, and a pressbook plus fresh accessories were issued. Launch in 5/62 was met with immediate success at New England stands where the operettas were figured to get best response. Ted Mann risked the lot at his Minneapolis houses and drew happy hordes; he'd spread the eight-pack circuit-wide as result, this a signal to far/wide that oldies could pay. Helpful was fact these were undeniably clean pics, and tamp down of criticism calling theatres a corrupter of youth ("Families that go to the movies together, stay together," were MGM words set to PPP music). Policy more or less continues today with the "Fathom" series running digitally on saturation basis and pushed heavily on TCM. It's a scheme that can work --- and has --- for several years now (Double Indemnity their latest).


Blogger DBenson said...

At MGM Jeanette was usually an overly proper lady who had to be loosened up by relaxed and funny Nelson. In earlier Lubitsch films she wasn't exactly earthy, but she definitely knew her way around the block.

In "The Love Parade" she's a monarch who shows off her legs to advisors and summons rogue diplomat Maurice Chevalier precisely because of his oversexed reputation. In "One Hour With You" she's a wife who necks with her husband in the park. In "Love Me Tonight," she's a young widow who, according to a sadly censored Rodgers and Hart song, needs Servicing. And even in MGM's "The Merry Widow", she's formally romantic but pretty darn comfortable amongst the courtesans at Maxim's, very nearly giving in to temptation while teasing Maurice (interesting note: In this film, for all its sauciness, it's ultimately Jeanette seducing Maurice into respectability instead of Maurice seducing her into conventional femininity).

She's more of a stock heroine in "Monte Carlo", but she still lets her hair stylist (disguised aristocrat Jack Buchanan) get awfully familiar.

It's a real shame they weren't young enough for "Kiss Me Kate" -- The lead characters match up nicely with their MGM personas, with the bonus of letting Jeanette play sharper comedy. If nothing else, I think they both would have brought a lot of gusto to it.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"The best music is the cash register." Man, that says it all.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I always thought MacDonald was at her best in non-Eddy films: The Merry Widow, Love Me Tonight, San Francisco. She's wonderful in them.

Nelson Eddy is to me what Katharine Hepburn is to you.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...


8:57 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Mike: Don't forget "What's Opera, Doc?"

4:02 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Actually, the manager who won second prize in MGM's contest for best "World Heritage'' campaign (after Harry Weiner) is still with us. Dorothy Solomon (Panzica), who ran Loews Kings in Brooklyn, salvaged furniture from that movie palace when it closed in 1967, and at age 103, donated it back for the reopening late last year.

7:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for that great information, Lou. Nice to know that one of the winners is alive and healthy. I'm sure she'd have some terrific exhibition stories to tell.

8:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recalls Jeanette MacDonald and "San Francisco" from college:

There was also "San Francisco," with Jeannette MacDonald playing opposite Clark Gable in a massive hit that must have helped the popularity of her operettas with Nelson Eddy. I first saw it at the small North Carolina college I went to in the 70s, when it had an odd academic vignette between the fall and spring semesters called "the Interim." Professors were allowed to teach any thing they liked for three weeks, so long as they didn't repeat it from one year to the next. Students would receive credit but no grades other than pass or fail. A history professor there designed courses covering various cultural or historical aspects of the U.S., but always as a pretext for showing the old Hollywood films that he adored. This particular year he was offering an outright film course based on David Zinman's "50 Classic Motion Pictures," one of which was "San Francisco." I saw and loved it. Of course, it's a very entertaining movie, with Gable's roguish Blackie Norton playing off the demure Mary Blake of Jeannette, but what especially captivated me was her singing. I was just discovering serious music but had not yet come to appreciate the appeal or artistic merit of opera. The selections she performed in the film from Gounod's "Faust" quite won me over, as they did Blackie Norton. That final trio was perhaps the most thrilling I'd ever heard and remains so, when my acquaintance with music has more than deepened since then. It was gesture of the professor during an Interim, and no doubt a selling point to the administration for approving what was essentially the same course, over and over again, that the course showings for the class during the day were repeated for the student body in the evening. I came back to see "San Francisco" that evening, as much for the "Faust" segment as anything else, and have sought it out ever since, for essentially the same reason.

5:23 AM  

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