If you crossed Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier’s Pride and Prejudice with Captain Blood, and then threw in a touch of Mutiny on the Bounty and cast the entire thing as an operetta, you would have something that looked very much like Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s New Moon. At least, that is what I thought as I watched it.
The first part of New Moon comes off a bit like a comedy of manners. New Moon was released in 1940, the same year as Pride and Prejudice, and features the same delightful exuberance of bows, lace, and hoop skirts as designed by Adrian. Mary Boland even appears in both films (she’s Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice).
The time period is sometime just before the French Revolution. Marianne de Beaumanoir (Jeanette MacDonald) is fresh from Paris and arrives in New Orleans with her aunt (Mary Boland) to live on her plantation, which she hasn’t seen since she was a girl. Also on the ship are a group of rebels who are to be sold as bond servants, including the incognito His Grace, Charles Henri, the Duc de Villiers (Nelson Eddy). He is a revolutionary being hunted by the King’s men, so he pretended to be a mere commoner so he could commit a crime and have himself shipped off to safety as a bond-servant, where he plans to lead an uprising.
You can probably tell where this is going. Charles is sold to Marianne’s estate as a footman and we spend the first thirty minutes or so in a riot of gowns by Adrian with comic misunderstandings, comically polite behavior, lavish parties, and the kind of light, comic romantic sparring found in Pride and Prejudice.
However, this phase of the story eventually gives way as we move into Captain Blood mode and the bond servants must escape, take a ship and become pirates (complete with stirring song), managing to capture the ship that Marianne is on. This slides effortlessly into Mutiny on the Bounty, when they get shipwrecked on a tropical island and everyone must build a home there.
The plot is admittedly absurd. For example, the ship that they capture just happens to have sixty would-be brides on their way to Martinique to marry planters, as well as a convenient priest. Also, as was pointed out in this article on TCM, New Orleans was at this time no longer controlled by France. It was a Spanish Colony. But it seems cranky to complain about such things.
I’ve been thinking about topic of the operetta for a while. I have not seen very many Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals yet (just this one and Naughty Marietta – which also bears a strong resemblance to New Moon), but I often hear them described as sincere and sentimental, which strikes me as odd, because the words I would use for this brand of movie is really light and frothy. The plots are really no more ridiculous than any Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical (to whom they are frequently contrasted negatively) and Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy approach their roles in the same spirit as Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier approached theirs. Which is to say, slightly tongue-in-cheek.
Though Eddy and MacDonald did make some melodrama’s, too, I think it’s sometimes forgotten that operas and operetta’s have just as much emotional range as anything else. Think of the satire of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” compared with Verde’s tragic “La Traviata,” or Richard Strauss’ more shocking “Salome.” An operetta is not necessarily a light or comic opera, but an opera with dialogue, whereas in opera there is no dialogue and everything is sung.
One of the biggest knocks against Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that I hear frequently is that the operetta was a dying art form, compared to the vibrant and contemporary music of Astaire and Rogers. But even though it’s true, that shouldn’t be used to dismiss the operetta. After all, when Singin’ In the Rain, The Band Wagon and An American in Paris were released in the 1950s, they featured songs that were at least twenty-five to thirty years old, were nostalgic and representative of a dying art form. Soon, that kind of music (and dancing and movie making) would be swept away by rock and roll.
I must confess that I really enjoyed New Moon and a large reason was the music. New Moon was written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein and debuted on stage in 1928, where many of the songs became hits. The songs are unabashedly romantic and sincere, but there is something startlingly moving about their songs and when they sing “Wanting You” they generate a fair amount of heat. I can see why they made so many movies together.
I’ve been becoming a fan of Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson Eddy is a bit stiff (but not terribly so and he has a lovely voice), but she could act, as well as sing, and had an expressive face. She began her movie career as, in the words of author Richard Barrios, “the lingerie queen” because she spent so much time in her underwear in Ernest Lubitsch’s early operettas. She later teamed with Nelson Eddy in musicals that were less sophisticated (less sex-comedy, more romance), but featured more memorable songs and utilized her singing more. She could hold her own against anyone – Clarke Gable, Maurice Chevalier – and I’ve really been enjoying her films.
“Loving You” was one of the hit songs from the musical. This video doesn’t entirely do justice to their voices. Bad sound can make an operatic style of singing sound more shrill and less rich than it really is and when I streamed the movie to my TV from Warner Archive Instant, the sounds was much better.