AH, SWEET MYSTERY OF SONGS AND SUCCESS
The Attenuated Careers of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald
by Nick Zegarac
For many an old time film fan, the singing duo of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald has no equal. Hearing the opening strains of ‘Sweethearts’ or ‘Indian Love Call’ immediately conjures to mind a memory of sheer delight into which the non-critical listener is drawn to hushed reverence. If only in song, the sound issuing from their lips is synonymous with eloquent chaste love. It luminously defies that crass commercialism associated with motion pictures.
Yet, what is there about the Eddy/MacDonald chemistry that makes their duets so indelibly etched in our collective consciousness, yet, just as easily is dismissing the fact that their acting apart from one other left much to be desired. To be obvious – they sang well together. But other film teams (most notably, Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson) have managed to hit the high notes far more consistently than MacDonald and Eddy.
In fact, the general criticism from musicologists, both during and after their on screen tenure, has always been that either Nelson or Jeanette possessed any ‘great skill’ for any other venue but the movies. An unflattering moniker of their day dubbed MacDonald’s temperamental diva “the iron butterfly” to Eddy’s emasculated “singing capon.”
If it was joy galore together for those brief years of operetta bliss at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then apart it was MacDonald who clearly had the more lucrative film career. Prior to – and during her - teaming with Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald had appeared opposite Maurice Chevalier in such classics as Ernest Lubitsch’s romantic sex comedy, Love Me Tonight, the melodic – if slightly saucy - The Merry Widow (1934) and as a romantic interest for Clark Gable amidst the earth shaken ruins of San Francisco (1936). Yet, it was her frequent costar, Nelson Eddy’s legitimate start as an operatic baritone away from the movies that MacDonald valued and respected the most.
Born in Providence Rhode Island on June 29, 1901, as a boy, Nelson Ackerman Eddy sang soprano in his church choir. According to relatives, the aspiring youngster never contemplated any venue for his life’s vocation other than singing. With adolescence came a change in his voice and his prospects. Music coach, Dr. Edouard Lippe so fervently believed in his protégé’s abilities that he loaned Nelson Eddy the money to study in Dresden and Paris. Eddy’s lusty baritone easily won a 1922 singing competition; the prize – a chance to apprentice with Philadelphia’s renown Civic Opera Company. By 1924, Eddy was headlining Pagliacci at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, an impressive debut by any standard.
Of her formative years, Jeanette Anna MacDonald might have shared in Eddy’s passion to become an opera legend. She was born on June 18th, 1903 with a rigid Philadelphian crust and quite accustom to having her own way, even as a child.
But MacDonald’s attempts at fame did not compliment her aspirations. Though she entertained dreams of stardom amidst the footlights – and some would argue that her demeanor and temperament suggested some vane greatness beyond the scope of her talents – MacDonald was repeatedly chastised by impresarios and opera managers who told her that her soprano was too frail for the legitimate stage.
Disillusioned, but nevertheless determined, MacDonald assuaged adversity and into bit parts in early Hollywood musicals for Paramount Studios where she began carving a niche as everyone’s favorite naughty and flirtatious girl of the evening.
Director Ernest Lubitsch cast her in his frothy 1929 confection, The Love Parade opposite debonair Maurice Chevalier. As the film’s passionate lovers, the chemistry between Chevalier and MacDonald was so palpable that it generated quite a scandal and Lubitsch reteamed them again for the risqué titled, One Hour With You and later, Love Me Tonight (both in 1932). In the interim, Jeanette was kept busy costarring in a string of largely forgettable – though highly profitable – light musical comedies, most usually finding her warbling a tune or two in a skimpy nightgown or slip.
Meanwhile, Nelson Eddy’s early successes on the stage had paved the way for a venture into radio (then a new medium). Upon giving his first broadcast, Eddy attracted the attentions of a talent scout from MGM. Enticed to Hollywood with the as yet unfulfilled promise of achieving genuine stardom, Eddy signed a studio contract in earnest, only to be wasted in several cameo appearances in films like Dancing Lady (1932) that were not primarily showcases for his talents.
Ironically, with this downturn in Eddy’s prospects came a proportionate upswing in MacDonald’s career. By 1934, MacDonald had garnered sufficient reviews to warrant her own contract at MGM. The move from Paramount was decidedly a step up. On the Paramount lot rumors abounded that Jeanette had been obstinate to the point of defiant. Though she left Paramount of her own accord, it has been suggested that the decision was a relief to her bosses.
MGM’s Vice President in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg, attempted to rekindle the old MacDonald/Chevalier in his home court. But when tempers flared between the two on the set of The Merry Widow (1934) Chevalier vowed to never again work with her in the movies – and regrettably, never did. Casually assessing the damage in their professional working relationship years later, MacDonald politely quipped “I've been told I have an Irish temper. I know I have Scottish thrift, and, like the English, I love a good show.”
In a stroke of marketing genius and perfect timing, MGM’s fastidious and sentimental mogul, Louis B. Mayer paired Eddy and MacDonald in their first grandiose screen operetta, Naughty Marietta (1935). Only a year earlier, the showbiz publication Daily Variety had declared the screen operetta maudlin and dead. But under Mayer’s affinity for schmaltz and froth, Eddy and MacDonald debunked that assessment. Naughty Marietta was a thunderous critical and financial success.
MGM christened their new duo ‘America’s Singing Sweethearts’ and promptly set to work crafting an impressive slate of like-minded projects beginning with Rose Marie (1936), the bittersweet tale of a young operatic singer, Marie DeFlor’s (MacDonald) and her growing love for a Canadian Mounted Policeman, Sgt. Bruce (Eddy) who is, in fact, out to capture her fugitive brother (James Stewart).
The film capitalized on MacDonald’s ability to exude ample quantities of haughty exclusivity beneath which lurked the heart of a girl next door yearning for homespun intimacy. Justly famous for its fresh outdoorsy bravado, Rose Marie forever cemented Eddy and MacDonald’s association and their place in film history by introducing the ‘Indian Love Call.’
Perhaps because Eddy’s personality was not prone to delusions of self-grandeur, his association with MacDonald seems to have been one based in mutual respect. MacDonald secretly admired Eddy’s prior stage career and he allowed her to have more than her share of close ups in their duets.
Eddy’s first debut in a role apart from MacDonald was in the ravishingly extravagant musical, Rosalie (1936) in which he costarred opposite the studio’s top tap dancing star, Eleanor Powell. Although he may have been ill suited to play the varsity heart throb that falls in love with a Ruritanian princess the film afforded Eddy the opportunity to introduce Cole Porter’s hauntingly beautiful, “In the Still of the Night” as well as the film’s galvanic title song.
After soprano Grace Moore fell ill, Jeanette MacDonald returned to Eddy’s side in Maytime (1937) a tragic love story dripping with kitsch and foam. Once again, the team of Eddy and MacDonald could do no wrong. Maytime was a box office hit and it prompted L.B. Mayer to begin thinking of the pair in the same exclusive reverence previously afforded only Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO. Like Astaire and Rogers, this deliberate association forced Eddy and MacDonald into an awkward artistic corner. Henceforth they infrequently departed their on screen coupling for independent projects and increasingly none of their work apart performed up to standard.
Of their subsequent re-teaming, no film came near to recapturing the afterglow of success embodied in Maytime. On the overwhelming popularity of this film, MGM rushed Eddy and MacDonald into two more operettas, The Girl of the Golden West and Sweethearts (both in 1938).
Although quite successful, neither performed as well as Mayer had anticipated. Hoping to diversify his investment, Mayer split the team up and cast Eddy opposite Iona Massey in Balalaika (1939). But the Russian fantasy seemed to illustrate that Eddy apart from MacDonald was simply not enough of a talent to carry an entire film. Pitted against the more gregarious Massey, Eddy seemed stultified and rigid.
MacDonald reunited with Eddy for two of their least successful endeavors; New Moon and Bittersweet (both in 1940). Though each film managed to make a tidy profit, it was now becoming obvious to Mayer that his verve for a new cycle of screen operettas had run its course. Split from MacDonald again, Eddy was given the melodic though placid singing sensation, Rise Stevens for his costar in The Chocolate Soldier (1941), a film in which he haplessly attempted something of a fractured Russian accent to lure his wife’s affections away from an American lothario that he presumes to be her boyfriend.
On the whole, MacDonald faired better in her work away from Eddy. Her costar billing with Clark Gable in San Francisco (1936) was a colossal hit, and even such convivial drivel as The Firefly(1937) and Broadway Serenade (1939) generated respectable returns and reviews. That same year, a New York Daily News Survey crowned MacDonald was crowned “Queen of the movies.” It was the height of her popularity as a movie star.
But with America’s entry into WWII, Hollywood’s genuine fascination for gay ol’ Europe and its lilting waltzes seemed to suddenly cool, and, tepid attempts to rekindle that past – as in Smiling Through (1941) with Brian Adhere standing in for Eddy – were abysmal flops.
MGM made one last valiant attempt to unite Eddy and MacDonald, this time in the contemporary fantasy, I Married An Angel (1942), in which a man born of the earth finds eternal romance with a woman literally sent down from heaven. Neither the premise nor the plot clicked with audiences.
Disenchanted with her waning career, MacDonald made one more film for MGM at the start of the new decade – Cairo (1942) before effectively disappearing from the screen entirely until 1948. But her temperament, as well as that of her costar, Ethel Waters, clashed both on and off the set.
As for Eddy, he departed MGM all together to appear in Universal Pictures’ most costly production of 1943 – the lavishly mounted remake of The Phantom of the Opera. But Universal had made an egregious error in refocusing the film’s narrative on Eddy’s operatic baritone and his romance with a young Parisian chanteuse. Though the film looked and sounded great it was decidedly heavy on opera and short on terror.
As the decade wore on it became clear to Eddy that his prime in motion pictures had passed. He provided the narrative and singing voice for Willie the Whale in a poignant segment from Walt Disney’s animated feature Make Mine Music (1946) before appearing in his last film, the wholly forgettable and non-musical Northwest Outpost (1947). An era had come to its end.
MacDonald was perhaps more reluctant to leave movies than Eddy, for her success in front of the camera had been the only she had ever known. After appearing in a minor role in Three Darling Daughters (1948) and an equally token offering in The Sun Comes Up (1949), MacDonald had to admit – if only to herself - that she too was no longer equal to the material being offered.
As a team, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald never sang again on celluloid. However, as the dawn of television grew more prominent, the duo enjoyed a minor resurrection in their careers. MacDonald was given an honorary doctorate in music from Ithaca College in New York on May 30th, 1953.
Although the accolade must have been gratifying, it paled in comparison to the resurgence of popularity that came from reruns of the Eddy/MacDonald films run on late night TV. Record companies began soliciting the pair for re-recordings of their greatest love duets in stereo. Still in fine voice and with their mutual respect untarnished – though perhaps mellowed – Eddy and MacDonald appeared together on several albums for Capitol Records, the last of these cut in 1959. Occasionally each provided cameo reminiscences of their career together and life apart for television variety shows.
Apart, Nelson Eddy spent most of his time indulging his hobby as a gifted sculptor. He continued to perform for live audiences – which had been his first love prior to becoming a movie star, and most notably did a duet with Gale Sherwood in a successful nightclub act that ran from 1953 until his death from a stroke in 1967. As for MacDonald, she quietly and completely retired from the fray of performing, content to be the wife of actor Gene Raymond, whom she had married in 1937. On January 14, 1965 Jeanette MacDonald died of a heart attack in Texas with her husband by her side.
Frequently, both MacDonald and Eddy were asked to clarify the simple fact that despite having been paired as man and wife in their films, the two never entertained romantic longs for one another off the set. MacDonald set the tone for clarity first.
“I can't believe how blessed I am. I'm married to the most wonderful man, Gene Raymond, whom I'm deeply in love with, and, my career is right where I want it to be. I can live like this forever!”
Eddy was somewhat more frank about the misconception.
“I don't know why people still want to believe that Jeanette MacDonald and I were a couple off the set,” he once told a reporter, “There's no truth to that rumor, at all. She's happly married to Gene Raymond and I'm happily married to Anne (Denitz Franklin). I guess people want to believe that what they see on the screen is reality while in actuality, it's just a movie.”
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).