Movie Stars: MacDonald, Jeanette–Actress-Singer

Jeanette MacDonald, the singing star of the 1930s, was born on June 18, 1903.

An annual poll of film exhibitors listed MacDonald as one of the top-10 box-office draws of 1936, and several films were among the top-20 moneymakers of the years in which they were released.

An American singer and actress, Jeanette MacDonald is best known for her musical films of the 1930s with French star Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade, Love Me Tonight, The Merry Widow, and One Hour With You) and the American Nelson Eddy (Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie, and Maytime).

Best Picture Nominations

Her screen career was short (less than two decades) but prolific; in the 1930s and 1940s she starred in over 20 features.  Four of her 1930s operettas were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, The Love Parade, One Hour with You, Naughty Marietta and San Francisco, though none won the top award.

She helped introducing opera and operetta, two challenging art forms, to broad base of filmgoers that were not avid lovers.  Much of this was accomplished via publicity about her frequent teaming with leading man Nelson Eddy.

Paramount Star

In 1929–30, MacDonald starred in six films, the first four for Paramount, then Hollywood’s most sophisticated studio. Her first, The Love Parade (1929), directed by Lubitsch and co-starring Chevalier, was a landmark of sound films, earning Best Picture nomination.  MacDonald’s first recordings were two hits from the score: “Dream Lover” and “March of the Grenadiers.”

The Vagabond King (1930) was a lavish two-strip Technicolor version of Rudolf Friml’s hit 1925 operetta. Broadway star Dennis King reprised his role as fifteenth-century French poet Francois Villon and MacDonald was Princess Katherine. She sang “Some Day” and “Only a Rose.”

Paramount all-star revue, Paramount Parade, in 1930, was similar to other revues produced by major studios to introduce silent stars to the public. MacDonald’s singing a duet of “Come Back to Sorrento” with Nino Martini was cut from the release print.

Let’s Go Native (1930), was a desert island comedy directed by Leo McCarey, co-starring Jack Oakie and Kay Francis.

The Lubitsch classic, Monte Carlo, centers on British musical star Jack Buchanan as a count who disguises himself as hairdresser to woo a scatterbrained countess (Macdonald). MacDonald introduced “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” which she recorded several times in her career.

MacDonald then went to United Artists to make The Lottery Bride (1930). but despite Rudolf Friml’s music, the film was not successful.

MacDonald next signed a three-picture deal with Fox. In Oh, for a Man! (1930) was more successful, MacDonald portrayed a temperamental opera singer who sings Wagner’s “Liebestod” and falls for an Irish burglar played by Reginald Denny.

Don’t Bet on Women (1931) was a nonmusical comedy in which playboy Edmund Lowe bets his happily married friend Roland Young that he can seduce the latter’s wife (MacDonald).

MacDonald was a sophisticated New York playgirl in the farce Annabelle’s Affairs (1931), a farce in which she plays a woman who does not recognize her own miner husband, played by Victor MacLaglen, when he turns up five years later. Praised by reviewers at the time, only one reel of this film survives.

MacDonald took a break from Hollywood in 1931 to embark on European concert tour. She returned to Paramount for two films with Maurice Chevalier. One Hour With You (1932) was begun by George Cukor and finished by Ernst Lubitsch. It was simultaneously filmed in French with the same stars, but a French supporting cast; there is no surviving print of Une Heure près de toi (One Hour Near You).

Rouben Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight (1932), considered to be one of the film musical’s best samples.  Starring Chevalier as a humble tailor in love with a princess played by MacDonald, much of the story is told in sung dialogue. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote the original score, which included “Mimi”, “Lover”, and “Isn’t It Romantic?” all tunes that became popular and were used in later picture (and in stage performances).

MGM/Nelson Eddy Years

In 1933, MacDonald left again for Europe, after which she signed with MGM. Her first MGM film was The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), based on the Jerome Kern Broadway hit, and co-starring Ramon Novarro. The plot about unmarried lovers having sex slipped through the Production Code. Despite a Technicolor finale—the first use of the new three-color Technicolor process other than Disney cartoons—the film was not a success.

In The Merry Widow (1934), director Ernst Lubitsch reunited Maurice Chevalier and MacDonald in a lavish version of the classic 1905 Franz Lehar operetta. The film was highly regarded by critics and operetta lovers, but failed to generate profit outside big cities. It had a huge budget, partially because it was shot simultaneously in English and in French as La Veuve Joyeuse, with a French supporting cast and some minor plot changes.

Naughty Marietta (1935), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was MacDonald’s first film in which she teamed with baritone Nelson Eddy.  Victor Herbert’s 1910 score, with songs like “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”, “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” “‘Neath the Southern Moon,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”, and “Italian Street Song,”again became popular.  The film won an Oscar for sound recording and received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It was voted one of the year’s Ten Best Pictures by the New York film critics.

In 1936, MacDonald starred in two of that year’s highest-grossing films of that year. In Rose-Marie (1936), MacDonald played a haughty opera diva who learns her kid brother (Jimmy Stewart) has killed a Mountie and is hiding in the northern woods; Eddy is the Mountie sent to capture him. Nelson Eddy and she sang Rudolf Friml’s “Indian Love Call” to each other in the Canadian wilderness.  When the Canadian Mounties temporarily retired their distinctive hat in 1970, photos of Eddy in his Rose Marie uniform appeared in U.S. newspapers.

San Francisco (1936), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, depicted that city’s famous earthquake.  MacDonald played a hopeful opera singer opposite Clark gable as the proprietor of the Barbary Coast gambling joint, and Spencer Tracy was his boyhood pal, now a priest who gives moral sermons.

Maytime, co-starring Nelson Eddy, Frank Morgan, and Paul Lukas, was produced by Irving Thalberg, whose untimely death in September shut the production down and the half-finished film was scrapped. A new script was filmed with a different storyline and supporting actors (John Barrymore). This (‘second’) Maytime (1937), was the world’s top-grossing film worldwide, and is considered one of the best film musicals of the 1930s. Rendering “Will You Remember” by Sigmund Romberg brought MacDonald another gold record.

The Firefly (1937) was MacDonald’s first solo-starring film at MGM with her name alone above the title. Rudolf Friml’s 1912 score was borrowed and a new song, “The Donkey Serenade”, added. With real-life Americans rushing to fight in the ongoing revolution in Spain, this historical vehicle was constructed around a previous revolution in Napoleonic times. MacDonald’s co-star was Allan Jones.

The MacDonald-Eddy team split after MacDonald’s engagement and marriage to Gene Raymond, but neither of their solo films grossed as much as the team films, and by the fall of 1937, MGM was barraged with outraged fan mail.

The Girl of the Golden West (1938) reunited the two stars, who had little screen time together and the main song, “Obey Your Heart”, was never sung as a duet. The film had an original score by Sigmund Romberg, reworking the old Belasco play.

Mayer had promised MacDonald the studio’s first Technicolor feature and he delivered with Sweethearts (1938), co-starring Eddy. In contrast to the previous film, the co-stars were relaxed onscreen and singing frequently together. This box office smash hit integrated Victor Herbert’s 1913 stage score into backstage story scripted by Dorothy Parker.  MacDonald and Eddy played a husband and wife Broadway musical comedy team who are offered a Hollywood contract. Sweethearts won the Photoplay Gold Medal Award as Best Picture of the Year.

After MacDonald suffered a miscarriage during the filming of Sweethearts, Mayer dropped plans for the team to co-star in Let Freedom Ring, Eddy made that film solo while MacDonald and Lew Ayres (Young Dr. Kildare) co-starred in Broadway Serenade (1939). They played a musical couple who clash when her career flourishes while his flounders. MacDonald’s performance was subdued (Eddy married Ann Franklin during the shoot) and choreographer Busby Berkeley, just lured by MGM from Warner, was asked to create a grand finale.

Following Broadway Serenade, MacDonald left Hollywood on a concert tour and refused to renew her MGM contract. Eddy starred in Balalaika while MacDonald’s manager was summoned from London to help her renegotiate. After initially insisting that she film Smilin’ Through with Jimmy Stewart and Robert Taylor, MGM forced her to appear in New Moon with Eddy, which proved to be one of her more popular films.  Composer Sigmund Romberg’s 1927 Broadway hit provided the songs: “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “One Kiss,” and “Wanting You,” plus Eddy’s version of “Stout Hearted Men.”

This was followed by Bitter Sweet (1940), a Technicolor film version of Noël Coward’s 1929 stage operetta.

MacDonald’s next Technicolor project was Smilin’ Through, in 1941, based on a 1919 stage play that had been remade several times.  The themes of reunion with deceased loved ones was timely and popular after World War I.  MGM hoped that it should resonate with filmgoers during World War II. MacDonald played a dual role—Moonyean, a Victorian girl accidentally murdered by jealous lover, and Kathleen, her niece, who falls in love with a murderer’s son.  James Stewart and Robert Taylor, dropped out of the picture to enlist into the military effort, and they were replaced by second bananas, Brian Aherne and Gene Raymond.

I Married an Angel (1942) was adapted from the Rodgers & Hart stage musical about an angel who loses her wings on wedding night. Anita Loos script was subject to censorship cuts, resulting in compromised feature, that marked the last teaming of MacDonald and Eddy. MacDonald sang “Spring Is Here” and the title song.

After a falling-out with Mayer, Eddy bought his MGM contract (one film left to make) and went to Universal, where he signed a million-dollar, two-picture deal.

MacDonald remained for one last film, Cairo (1942), a spy comedy co-starring Robert Young and Ethel Waters, cast as MacDonald’s singing maid.

Within one year, beginning in 1942, L.B. Mayer released his four highest-paid actresses from MGM contracts; Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jeanette MacDonald.

Of those four stars, MacDonald was the only one whom Mayer would rehire, in 1948.  And while Garbo and Shearer retired altogether from screen acting, Crawford went on to a second, even more successful career at Warner, during which she won an Oscar Award for Mildred Pierce.

MacDonald died on January 14, 1965, at the age of 61