Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy: The Glory of Hollywood Operetta in Jeanine Basinger’s “The Movie Musical”

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
23 January, 2020

One of the more joyous things about recent new studies on musicals is the fact that they include operettas, without much ado. Just as a natural part of the (hi)story. That is also the case in Jeanine Basinger’s The Movie Musical – 630 very opinionated pages that don’t attempt to give a chronological overview, but instead focus on themes such as “Pairs.” One of them being “MacDonald and Eddy.”

Jeanette Basinger's "The Movie Musical!"

Jeanette Basinger’s “The Movie Musical!” with Gene Kelly smiling at you. (Photo: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing)

In that section about “the most popular singing duo ever to appear in movies” – with their “eight successful operettas” that are “unequalled in film history” – you get a very amusing and loving description of what made their partnership so special and what, in turn, makes the film operettas they appeared in special.

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in their first film operetta together: an adaptation of Victor Herbert's "Naughty Marietta."

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in their first film operetta together: an adaptation of Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta.”

Basinger writes about Jeanette and Nelson that “they are often derided, and at best are seldom taken seriously” – “except by their large numbers of devoted and loyal fans.” It’s probably true to say that no one likes MacDonald and Eddy except the public, is how the author puts it in her tongue-in-cheek style. “It might be better said that nobody likes them except everybody who’s seen them. Most of the people who make fun of them have never actually seen a MacDonald/Eddy movie, and their knowledge of who or what they were is linked to comic skits by Carol Burnett or Benny White, or possibly the Madeline Kahn’s famously funny rendition of ‘Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life’ when Frankenstein’s monster makes personal contact.”

Basinger goes on to discuss the on-screen magic that happens when MacDonald and Eddy are paired in Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose-Marie (1936), Maytime (1937), Sweethearts (1938), The Girl from the Golden West (1938; not technically an operetta but still one of the famous titles in that list), New Moon (1940), Bitter Sweet (1940) and I Married an Angel (1942).

The book includes the famous Noel Coward comment when he saw the movie version of his Bitter Sweet. Coward wrote in a letter to his secretary that “no human tongue could ever describe what [they] have done to it. It is, on all counts, far and away the worst picture I have ever seen. MacDonald and Eddy sing relentlessly from beginning to end looking like a rawhide suitcase and a rocking horse respectively.”

Jeanine Basinger tries to reframe that acid verdict and she describes how Eddy’s wooden manliness and dark operatic voice works well next to the flirty soprano of MacDonald. She explains that what Coward hated is exactly what audiences loved – because the erotic tension between them was believable: “Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald sing to each other the way Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers dance with each other. What they feel and think comes to an audience through their song.”

There are some amusing prejudices about operetta, e.g. that Eddy is solidly masculine “for operetta,” implying that generally operetta heroes are not. This is not given any in-depth analysis, however. Instead the movies are discusses, one by one, but also the operetta movies they made without one another, including the wonderful films with Maurice Chevalier directed by Lubitsch and Mamoulian.

American tenor Mario Lanza singing the hit songs from "Student Prince" made the music famous again in the 1950s.

American tenor Mario Lanza singing the hit songs from “Student Prince” made the music famous again in the 1950s.

When the 1940s came around, the MacDonald/Eddy type of operetta “went the way of the dodo bird,” Basinger writes. And she looks at other pairings such as Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and especially with Mario Lanza. (“Unlike many opera stars, Lanza could sing pop songs without seeming to be slumming.”) Of course the Student Prince gets a special mention here. A film in which only Lanza’s voice can be heard because he had weight problems at the time and was replaced by Edmund Purdom. Who looks rather dashing and masculine, “for operetta.”

The other big section devoted to the genre in a chapter on “Opera and Operetta”: “Opera stars might be a business challenge, but operettas were different. They were a logical choice for Hollywood to turn into mass-market movies. Hollywood didn’t have to invent the form or write or create it. Operettas were ready-made, highly popular; and the often beautiful and sentimental songs and stories appealed to the era. As soon as sound arrived Hollywood embraced them, putting them onscreen, where they stayed for a remarkably long time.”

Poster for the 1929 film version of "The Desert Song."

Poster for the 1929 film version of “The Desert Song.”

Basinger addressed the negative image many operettas have today (“largely thought of as nothing more than old-fashioned musicals, flawed by a lack of dance numbers for the leads and overly sentimental by modern standards”). So she tries to find that special elements that made these titles (and their movie adaptations) to popular – starting with an at-length discussion of the various Desert Song versions with John Boles as the Red Shadow (1929), Dennis Morgan (1943), and Gordon MacRae (1953).

(For an article on the film versions of Desert Song, click here.)

She also discusses the various Merry Widow versions, starting with Erich von Stroheim and ending with Lana Turner in the MGM Technicolor extravaganza. And she reminds us of the importance of Lubitsch for the history of musicals – and operetta!

The genre pops us regularly elsewhere too, in the bio pics section and because other movies are put in relation to operetta films. I personally enjoyed Basinger’s strong personal opinions, even if I don’t always agree with her. At least she’s clear in what she thinks and doesn’t hide personal attitudes behind generalized “facts.” It’s refreshing. Which is especially evident in her last chapter “Final Number” which takes us to the recent past of La La Land. Let’s just say it’s a very funny read.

Richard Barrios' "A Song in the Dark" from 1995.

Richard Barrios’ “A Song in the Dark” from 1995.

The book is a great continuation of discussions started by Richard Barrios in A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (1995). Barrios gives a much more detailed account of these early stage-to-screen adaptations of successful Broadway operettas (Vagabond King, Desert Song, Golden Dawn etc.), Bassinger is a quicker read.

Lobby Card for the movie version of Emmerich Kalman's "Golden Dawn".

Lobby Card for the movie version of Emmerich Kalman’s “Golden Dawn”.

Which is also true with regard to Jeanette MacDonald, whose life is covered expansively in Edward Baron Turk’s Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald (1998). They all contain glorious photo material. Which is certainly also true of Jeanine Basinger’s The Movie Musical – with Gene Kelly smiling at you on the cover.

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