Maytime 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.
In 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.
I 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!