Maytime (1937)

17 Aug

maytimeMaytime made me think of Beau Brummel (1924) and Love Me or Leave Me combined into an operetta. The movie was based – loosely – on an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Rida Johnson Young from 1917 and is constructed like an extended flashback.

When a rather flighty young lady contemplates trying to become an opera singer, she quarrels with her boyfriend, who wants to marry and settle down. Her neighbor, the elderly and mysterious Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) counsels thinking twice about leaving the man she loves and tells the young lady her own story, of how she was once the great Marcia Mornay, opera singer during the time of Louis Napoleon in Paris.

Marcia was a young singer from Virginia who was found by the great voice teacher/manager Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) and through his coaching and guidance, propelled into stardom. When the flashback begins, she is just beginning to make a name for herself in Paris.

In the meantime, Nazaroff proposes marriage. His usual mode of operating is to ask sexual favors from the women he mentors, but in the case of Marcia, he has fallen too deeply in love. Mostly, it seems, out of gratitude and a little bit of awe that he would propose, Marcia accepts him. But soon after, she also meets a carefree young American, Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) who is also training to be an opera singer, except that he does not apply himself or wish strongly to succeed. They fall in love, but Marcia is unwilling to hurt Nicolai, who she feels has given so much to her and her career, and she and Paul part ways and she marries Nicolai. An inevitable, tragic love triangle ensues.

Maytime 4In certain ways, this film did remind me of Love Me or Leave Me. Barrymore’s Nazaroff is not physically abusive or bombastic like James Cagney’s character, but the dynamics are the same and John Barrymore is excellent at suggesting the passion hidden beneath the elegant exterior. He’s like a languid vampire, always behind her like a brooding shadow, sucking the lifeblood out of her. No wonder she seems so tired after seven years of marriage to him. It’s not the lifestyle of an opera singer, as she assumes; it’s him. He seems to control her entire life and career.

You know from the beginning that he’s going to be the possessive, jealous type, though he seems to be trying not to be. He knows he has no right to be jealous, because he asked her to marry him knowing she did not love him. But though he tries, one can just tell that something is wrong and that at some point he’s going to explode and Hyde is going to emerge from Jekyll.

And Jeanette MacDonald also does an excellent job of showing that, subconsciously, Marcia is afraid of Nicolai. She never articulates it, but you can tell in the tentative and careful way she treats him. One can’t help but wonder if there was fear, as well as gratitude, that prompted her to marry him and not tell him about Paul.

Nelson Eddy as Paul gets the least interesting role of the film. Love Me or Leave Me had the right idea in making the story about Ruth Etting’s relationship with her husband rather than her lover. And might have been nice to have more between MacDonald and Barrymore in Maytime. Nelson Eddy’s role is necessary, but he doesn’t have any character dynamics to offer. He does, however, share an excellent chemistry with Jeanette MacDonald when they sing. I am constantly surprised at how sexy and emotionally intense opera can be on film. The climactic scene where they sing together while Nicolai watches from the wings and begins to boil over is believable largely because of the chemistry they generate. Nicolai is not just seeing things.

Maytime 3I also found it ironic that the only intimate moment Paul and Marcia can share during the production of the opera at the end of the film is on stage – very publicly in front of a whole audience – where they can whisper a few words to each other.

The songs are lovely, though I don’t know if I found them quite as memorable as Rose-Marie, New Moon, or Naughty Marietta. Many songs from many operas are featured, but the opera at the end is a fictional opera, called Czaritza, and was written using music from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. There’s really only one song from Romberg’s operetta left, the love song “Will You Remember.”

It’s a tearjerker, but in a good way, with an ending like Beau Brummel or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I call those kinds of movies cosmic romances, a romance that transcends time or space. It’s one of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy best films, aided tremendously by John Barrymore.

His history as an actor plays well into the role of Nazaroff. Perhaps we read more into it knowing he’s played Jekyll and Hyde or Svengali (which he did in 1931). Though he’s not exactly a Svengali in Maytime. This is, after all, Jeanette MacDonald, who already has tremendous talent and drive, but it’s a related idea.

As an aside, I think Barrymore would have made an excellent vampire or Count Dracula.

This post was written as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read the rest of the contributions to this blogathon in honor of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel Barrymore!



Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movies


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14 responses to “Maytime (1937)

  1. Sharon

    August 18, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Beautiful post, Christina. Even though Eddy is handsome it’s still Barrymore who takes my breath away. He was sublime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 18, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      Thank you! Yes, I so agree with you about Barrymore – he’s a mesmerizing actor!


  2. Michaela

    August 18, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    I actually haven’t seen any Eddy-MacDonald films, mainly because I’m not sure I’d enjoy them. I’m not a fan of opera or Eddy, but this film sounds intriguing, particularly its similarities to Love Me or Leave Me. And who could turn down John Barrymore?

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 18, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Admittedly, there are a lot of songs between Eddy and MacDonald – especially in the middle, where Barrymore’s character kind of disappears for a while and I kept expecting him to come back. But if I had to recommend an Eddy-MacDonald film, this definitely would be one of them – it especially benefits from Barrymore’s presence!


  3. Silver Screenings

    August 20, 2016 at 5:00 am

    Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy films aren’t usually ones I drop everything to watch, although I agree they have fab onscreen chemistry. However, because John Barrymore is in this one, I will track it down.

    Gorgeous costumes, judging by the images. The wardrobe alone looks worth it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 20, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      Oh yes..the costumes are gorgeous! Sometimes I think any gown created by Adrian is practically a character of its own. 🙂

      I think this might be one of MacDonald and Eddy’s best films (they always say Rose-Marie, but this might be a better story)…the addition of Barrymore adds a nice, darker touch that is frequently missing from their films.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    August 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon. I’ve always adored this movie. I love films with ghostly endings like this. Great post. I also invite you to check out my entry for the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 20, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      The ending is so lovely!! I think it’s going to become one of my favorite MacDonald-Eddy film.

      Thanks so much for hosting…and for the link!


  5. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    September 7, 2016 at 5:47 am

    Hi Christina. Hope you’re going well. I just thought I would drop by to invite you to join in on my latest blogathon. The link is below with more details.


  6. cottagecaretakersyahoocom

    August 17, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    It seems we wrote about the same film with John Barrymore for this blogathon! Here is mine: Your article is very captivating. You took an interesting approach to describing it. I wrote another article about “Maytime” for May Day, and it was more involved: What struck me about your article is that you pointed out a similarity between this and “Love Me Or Leave Me.” My sister Rebekah and I noticed that the first time we watched this picture. Three great minds with but a single thought! I think that Warner Brothers should have made a film about Ruth Etting’s life in 1938 or 1939 and used John Barrymore as Moe Snyder. He was so menacing in this picture. I think your article is grand.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 18, 2017 at 7:27 pm

      Thank you (and for including me in the great minds)!!

      That would have been a very fascinating film with John Barrymore! I wonder who they would have used for Ruth Etting, though I think she was still making movies in the early thirties, so perhaps she could have played herself.

      Thanks for the link! I look forward to reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. muriel

    February 22, 2019 at 10:03 am

    This is one of my favorite movies ever. Barrymore is amazing in it. He was quite dissolute at the time, I think it’s one of his last great performances before his mind/body gave way to drink.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 27, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      You make a great point…how tragic that he was unable to continue giving such great performances.



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