Thursday, June 23, 2016

America's Singing Sweethearts

Films: Naughty Marietta
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When you talk about classic screen couples, a few names come up. Fred and Ginger, naturally, but also Tracy and Hepburn, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and Bogie and Bacall. I think it’s fair to mention Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in that crowd. They made eight films together, and their films were incredibly popular. The first of these, Naughty Marietta (sometimes called Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta) is the only one nominated for an Oscar, at least in the categories I care about.

I have to admit, I was worried. I’ve seen a few Jeanette MacDonald films and have either liked them or at least been neutral on them. MacDonald was an engaging presence on screen and she had great timing for light romantic comedy. The problem is the singing. I’ve learned to appreciate musicals a lot more in the last six years, but opera just doesn’t work for me, and she was definitely an operatic singer. The singing, in fact, has been the hardest part of her films for me to deal with, even if I’ve liked everything else. Nelson Eddy is a new one on me; all I really knew about him is that my mother wasn’t a fan.

So let’s knock this out right away—for me, the music was the biggest issue I had with the film. I tried. I just don’t like the style. That said, the original stage play is the source of “Sweet Mystery of Life,” so it’s got that going for it. And it really is just the style. The songs aren’t bad, but Jeanette MacDonald sings in a terribly high voice that makes me go all fetal.

Anyway, this is the story of Princess Marie (MacDonald), who lives in Paris with her uncle (Douglass Dumbrille) during the reign of Louis XV. Marie has been promised in marriage to an elderly and rather unpleasant Spanish Duke named Don Carlos (Walter Kingsford). While she conspires to find a way out of the arrangement, she learns that one of her servants, Marietta (Helen Shipman) is heading to New Orleans on a boat. Marietta has always dreamed of marrying a young man in Marseilles, but they are both too poor. In New Orleans, she can be guaranteed a husband with an income among the colonists. So, naturally, Princess Marie gives Marietta enough money to stay in France and assumes her identity on the boat for N’awlins.

And this is where it gets fun. Just before the ship arrives, it is attacked by a group of pirates, who kidnap all of the women and take them to shore. Before anything terrible can happen to the women, a band of mercenaries hired to keep the Indian population down wanders by and hears the screams of the distressed ladies. The mercenaries, led by Captain Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy), wade into battle and save the women and lead them unbesmirched to the city, to the thanks of the grateful governor (Frank Morgan), who is under the constant jealous eye of his wife (Elsa Lanchester).

You can certainly see where this is going, right? Warrington because quite enamored of “Marietta,” and she plays hard to get, since she’s not really there for a husband, but to get away from one. He pursues, she runs, and eventually relents because he’s big, handsome, and has a good singing voice (if you like that kind of thing). Meanwhile, Princess Marie’s disappearance is obviously noted and her uncle sets sail for the colonies to bring her back and force that marriage on her. Since this is a musical from 1935, though, there’s not much in doubt with how it will all turn out.

When I said that the style of the singing is the main downside, I mean it’s really the only downside. There’s a lot going on here that’s really entertaining. Eddy and MacDonald make a really good on-screen couple, so it’s no wonder that they did eight movies together and were as popular as they were. Eddy seems to have the same sort of light comedy timing that MacDonald does, and they play off each other well.

Not only that, but they look the part. Jeanette MacDonald was truly beautiful, so casting her as a princess makes sense. Based on my mother’s opinion of him, I expected Nelson Eddy to be either weasely or a big mush, but he’s neither. He actually looks good in a uniform of the era. From what I understand, this was a star-making vehicle for Eddy, and I can see why. He looks the part of a classic Hollywood leading man.

I’m pleasantly surprised. I could live without the singing, or could live with it in a different style. True, the story doesn’t go anywhere new. If you’ve seen a musical…ever…you know where this is going to end up. But it’s genuinely funny in places. Having Frank Morgan and Elsa Lanchester is such a treat, since both were wonderful comic actors, and they play of each other beautifully. Naughty Marietta isn’t going to set the world on fire or make you change your mind about musicals one way or the other, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Why to watch Naughty Marietta: It’s surprisingly funny.
Why not to watch: All of the singing is brutally operatic.


  1. The duo of Frank Morgan and Elsa Lanchester is a big plus in the film's favor, both were such unique performers, but that operatic score is something that keeps me from revisiting any MacDonald/Eddy film.

    I like Jeannette she was a pleasing presence in all her films with a sly sense of fun. The problem is that even when she sang contemporary songs her voice retained that high pitched shrillness unlike the other major soprano of the time Deanna Durbin who was able to switch to a more modulated warmer tone.

    I'm with your mother on Nelson Eddy. I find his rich baritone voice easier to take and he's attractive in his way even if he looks like he was carved from cream cheese but he's such a vanilla presence on film.

    This isn't a bad film but when they started trilling I found something to do in another room until they were done.

    1. I agree completley on the singing, obviously. I get why there are people who like it because it's not specifically bad--it's just not something I like.

      We'll disagree on Eddy, though. I think he's got the same comic sensibilities that MacDonald did--they make a good pair for each other. I find him less bland than, say, Leslie Howard or Franchot Tone.

      That said, I'm not spending any time tracking down their other seven pairings.

  2. I love Jeannette MacDonald so much! All of her movies have at least one really awesome scene that makes up for the rest of it, no matter how much time I spent looking at the clock to see how much time there is left. I love Rose-Marie, and San Francisco is mostly very compelling. (Despite being an atheist, I cried at the end of San Francisco the first time I saw it.)

    Even though I'm not such a big fan of The Firefly, I love "The Donkey Song."

    (And I've seen them all numerous times because my dad loves Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy so much.)

    Naughty Marietta gets lots of points for the scene where Jeanette is in the puppet show! That is hilarious, and when I see it, I always manage to get through the rest of the film (some of which I find rather tedious) because I know the puppet show is coming up.

    It is a major crime of Old Hollywood that they never filmed an opulent, big-budget opera just for Jeanette MacDonald. They experimented with A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935 (which I love) and it's criminal that they didn't produce something like Carmen for Jeanette MacDonald.

    1. The puppet show is a fun scene, I agree. It preceeds the scene where Jeanette MacDonald finally falls for Nelson Eddy outside of the theater, so it also works as a nice lead-in for the romance that follows.

      Now, if I could just learn to like her singing, we'd be in complete agreement. When she's doing light comedy, I think she's one of the best there was.

    2. As to liking her singing, it probably helps a lot if you grew up with it. My father was mostly a country music fan. But for some reason, he also liked Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, so we would listen to 8-track tapes of their greatest songs. A lot.

      My father also liked The Student Prince quite a bit.

    3. In my family, the opposite was true. My mother regularly made fun of Eddy/MacDonald films and singing.