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Bitter Sweet (1940)

In the 1930s, there was literally a musical for every kind of musical taste: Bing Crosby and crooning; Fred Astaire and the great standards from Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern; classically-trained singer Deanna Durbin, swinging and ballad singing Alice Faye. And for operetta, there was Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Bitter Sweet is the second to last of eight movies that Eddy and MacDonald made together. It’s definitely not in the same league as MaytimeRose-Marie, or Naughty Marietta, but I was once again struck with what beautiful chemistry they have while singing together. It’s like the singing equivalent of Astaire and Rogers. Astaire and Rogers have their sexiest chemistry while dancing and Eddy and MacDonald have their sexiest chemistry while singing.

In Bitter Sweet, the year is 1890 in London and Sarah Millick (MacDonald) is in love with her music teacher, Carl Linden (Eddy), though she is engaged to the stultifyingly dull Harry Daventry. She and Carl elope and return to his home in Vienna, but he has very little money. He is trying to interest anyone in his operetta while she inadvertently attracts the amorous attentions of Baron von Tranisch (George Sanders, in short-cropped hair and monocle).

With a title like Bitter Sweet, it’s not surprising that the film ends tragically, somewhat similarly to Maytime. Though not quite as successfully.

Bitter Sweet is an adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1929 operetta “Bitter Sweet.” He was inspired, he said, to write the operetta after listening to Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), which is a satiric comic operetta about the wealthy and aristocratic in 1890s Vienna. Evidently, Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” was partly in the mold of a satire. The 1940s film, however, is squarely in the serious romance category.

The film is in color, the first film in color that I have seen with MacDonald and Eddy. Adrian designed the gowns and as is usual with Adrian, I sometimes have the impression that the gowns could get up and walk by themselves, such extraordinary creations they are. I always enjoy Adrian’s gowns.

But I have to bring up the topic of neckties and the power of suggestion via neckties. In the beginning of the film, when Carl and Sarah sing their first duet, he is wearing a bold blue necktie that matches her dress. Clearly, they are meant to be together. At the end of the film, after he is dead, a certain sympathetic Lord Shayne (Ian Hunter) is helping Sarah produce Carl’s operetta and is wearing a more subdued blue necktie. It occurred to me that perhaps it was a sign that Lord Shayne was destined to be part of Sarah’s future. I thought I might have been reading too much into the color of a necktie, but when I later read the plot of Coward’s original operetta, it turns out that she does indeed marry Lord Shayne.

One difficulty with the film, however, is that Jeanette MacDonald is a little too old for the role she is playing, though Eddy is not, since he’s supposed to be older. She simply appears far to knowing and mature a woman to be so naive in general, and especially about the intentions of Sanders. Even in her early days appearing in Lubtisch operettas, she projected intelligence, even when playing flighty women. It also doesn’t generate the same level of tragedy that Maytime does, with the death of Eddy coming a bit too abruptly.

Perhaps the most hilarious moment of the film, however, comes when both Carl and Sarah try, separately, to trade singing lessons for a chicken. The trouble is that they both try it on the same shopkeeper. Like the shopkeeper, if I encountered anyone in the streets who sang like either of them, I would probably consider myself lucky to trade a chicken for some lessons.

And for me, the most effective moment, though brief and unpretentious, is when Sarah (called Sari by her husband and now by everyone in Vienna) is climbing up the many stairs to her apartment after successfully singing in the opening of Carl’s operetta. It’s not a long moment, but it mirrors the moment earlier in the film when Carl carried her up all those flights of stairs. Despite the applause and music and success she just experienced, we know that when she reaches the apartment upstairs, it will be empty now. It’s poignant, perhaps even more poignant than the song she sings when she reaches the top and opens the window to reprise their love song.

I’ve been making it a point to see every film that Eddy and MacDonald made together and am now closing in on my goal. All that remains is I Married an Angel and Sweethearts. Thanks so much to Pure Preservation Society for hosting “The SInging Sweethearts Blogathon.” Happy Valentines Day!

 

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Movies

 

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Maytime (1937)

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!

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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movies

 

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New Moon (1940) and Operettas

MV5BMTYzNjcwNDQ5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5NTY3MzE@._V1_UY1200_CR87,0,630,1200_AL_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.

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing a romantic song

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing a romantic song

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 RainThe 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.

Mary Boland and Jeanette MacDonald

Mary Boland and Jeanette MacDonald

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.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2016 in Movies

 

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