Maytime: Remembering Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy

 

"I thought that spring must last forevermore;
For I was young and loved, and it was May."
- Vera Brittain (May Morning 1915)

The early 20th century was an interesting and captivating era for motion pictures, in particular with the adaptations stage actors and performers made to silent film and finally to "talkies". The dynamics which were once limited to live musicals and stage plays were now enjoyed in true-to-life form, on screen to a world of adoring audiences.

The transition from silent to sound wasn't without it's complications, however. Actors and actresses, at times, carried over their melodramatic, often exaggerated methods into the new medium. Though these techniques were generally neccesary to lend a complimentary demension to a stage show or silent picture, this formula at times appeared as pretentious overacting when sound was introduced.

Actor's voices regularly fell under scrutiny as well, and could work for or against an on-screen actor. While many moviegoers instantly fell in love with Greta Garbo's husky, Swedish accent in her 1930 "talkie" debut Anna Christie, MGM and Garbo's favored leading man, John Gilbert, didn't fare as well. A combination of his flat, affected delivery, high tenor voice and subpar recording equipment of the time made this once celebrated sex symbol of the 1920s box office poison.

 

Two actors of the day who faced slightly different, yet equally challenging adjustments, were Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

The two were crossover acts -- singers, who transitioned from the live venues of opera houses, to actors, starring in motion pictures; Eddy, an accomplished, classically trained baritone, and MacDonald, a stunning beauty and talented soprano with a three-octave range.

Between 1935 and 1942, the two singers would star in eight successful movies together, each incorporating their vocal talent with a commanding screen presence as well as an exceptionally natural comedic ability.

It's difficult to pin down a single production by either artist to spotlight as their "best". Nelson Eddy had nearly 30 successful opera performances under his belt before his appearance in film, in addition to various TV/radio appearances and albums throughout his career.

Jeanette MacDonald was quite accomplished in her own right, having a successful run on Broadway before her film career and, like Eddy, a noteable catalog of recordings. Furthermore, is there such a thing as a "bad" Jeanette MacDonald movie? In my opinion, there simply is not.

With many fans of Eddy and MacDonald, the movie Maytime remains an all time favorite.

Taking into consideration the outstanding musical performances in this film, as well as the undeniable chemistry these two shared, it's one of my favorites as well.

Maytime (1937) is the second film adaptation of a Sigmund Romberg musical produced 24 years earlier -- of which was adapted from the Walter Kollo German operetta Wie einst im Mai, produced in 1913. 

The film's story is told from the point of view of an elderly woman, Marcia Morney (Jeanette MacDonald), in 1906, as she recalls a long past romance with an up and coming singer, Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy), to a lovesick young woman she befriends at a May Day celebration.

The movie itself consists mostly of flashbacks of this tumultuous affair, shared by the young Marcia and Paul, after a chance meeting in Paris.  

Marcia is engaged to her mentor and teacher Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore), yet is torn between honoring her commitment to him and maintaining a successful career, or possibly losing everything by choosing Paul.

Understanding that the odds are against them, Paul and Marcia reluctantly, yet mutually, agree to part ways -- after spending one last day together.

In this clip, Will You Rememeber?, we see Nelson Eddy at his finest, serenading Jeanette as she lovingly gazes into his eyes. The intimate connection these two shared was unmistakable. Scenes such as these would be fodder for Hollywood gossip, for decades to come.

Most noteworthy, and an evermore impressive musical number in Maytime, is an operatic pastiche  entitled Czaritsa.  Written by Herbert Stothart, and set to various movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Czaritsa is a bittersweet, fictitious tale of a Russian Czar facing execution, as he shares the last exchanges of loving sentiments with his disheartened queen. 

At this phase in the movie, after years of separation, Paul and Marcia's musical careers bring them together in a twist of fate -- a production in which Paul is cast as the Czar, Marcia as the Czarina. 

This performance is one of Eddy and MacDonald's best collaborations, and of great significance to anyone who's familiar with Nelson and Jeanette's real-life, 30-year, on/off again, alleged affair.

In Czaritsa, the two pour their hearts out to one another, lamenting a union which cannot be.

As the number climaxes and comes to a close, a tear falls from Nelson's eye as he embraces Jeanette.

To whom did this tear belong, Nelson or the Czar?

Was the Czarina grieving...or was Jeanette?

This aspect of Eddy and MacDonald's relationship is an entirely different story, an offshoot to two extraordinary careers of very interesting personalities. Movie buffs who're interested, may find the book Sweethearts by Sharon Rich an intriguing read.

Other notable performances in Maytime for suggested viewing would be Nelson Eddy's comical rendition of Ham and Eggs, Jeanette's interpretation of the Leo Delibes classic Les Filles de Cadix and the duo's soulful Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.

Whether you're a fan of musicals, operettas, or movie classics in general, Maytime is a must-see.

Young and old fans alike, may you always "remember the day".

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Comments

Yep, Jeannette and Nelson might have romanced all those years after all those movies and their performances give indications that they were.
However, other couples were not that taken with each other. Consider Veronic Lake and Allan Ladd. Also Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Those two couples had little use for each other. Too bad they weren't more like Jeannette and Nelson. Their romance might have enhanced their movies.
I hope fans of Eddy and MacDonald see this story.

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