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Tag Archives: Operettas

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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Three Jeanette MacDonald Film Reviews

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Despite only appearing in operettas, Jeanette MacDonald could seemingly do it all and the more I see her films, the more awed I am. I recently watched three of her films and I couldn’t decide which one to review, so I thought I’d review them all in miniature. The reviews are in the order that I saw them, rather than the order of their release.

Jeanette MacDonald and Jack Buchanan, Monte Carlo, 1930

Jeanette MacDonald and Jack Buchanan

Monte Carlo (1930)

You can tell that director Ernst Lubitsch is still feeling his way from the silent film medium to sound, though his films still feel less static than other directors in 1930. But some scenes linger too long instead of moving forward with greater rhythm. The story is an operetta adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel Monsieur Beaucaire, about a prince pretending to be a hairdresser. Jack Buchanan is the wealthy count/hairdresser, Count Rudolph Falliere. Jeanette MacDonald is the flighty, impoverished runaway bride who hires him.

The film opens with an extremely funny sequence involving the preparations for a wedding (in the rain) between Countess Helene Mara (MacDonald) and the wealthy Prince Otto von Liebenheim (Claud Allister). It’s a scene that could have been done in the silent era, as the stage is set for the wedding, servants run hither and yon, and we learn that the bride has run away, leaving an empty wedding dress on a chair

We next see Countess Helene running to catch a train with nothing on but a slip and a fur coat, which greatly surprises the conductor (silent comedian Billy Bevan). She then launches into “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song that became a hit for her. The song was much noted at the time for how Lubitsch staged it, with the song sung in time to the train as people watch the train pass…creating a more dynamic musical experience than was usual at the time.

But after the infatuated Rudy passes himself off as a hairdresser, the film begins to drag. ZaSu Pitts as Jeanette MacDonald’s maid seems slightly underused for comedic affect and there are simply too many songs and not enough plot. It seems like every five minutes either MacDonald or Buchanan launches into a song.

Jack Buchanan was a British musical comedy star who is best remembered as Jeffrey Cordova in The Band Wagon, but his rather nasal voice isn’t suited for these kind of romantic songs. The ending, however, picks up again as the countess, Rudy and the prince all go to the opera, which just happens to be an adaptation of Monsieur Beaucaire. Ultimately, what was most fun was seeing Jeanette MacDonald play a spoiled, flighty young woman who seems to change her mind quite frequently, but nevertheless remains adorable.

firefly03

Allan Jones and Jeanette MacDonald

The Firefly (1937)

After making a few successful movies with Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald wanted a change of leading man. She ended up with Allan Jones, who’s most prominent roles came in Show Boat and A Night at the Opera.

The Firefly is nearly a great movie that does everything right until the end, which makes it all the more frustrating. It was based on an operetta by Rudolph Friml, but was completely re-written save the songs. The setting was changed to Spain during the Napoleonic Wars (to reflect the current Spanish Civil War). Nina Maria (MacDonald) is a singer and dancer, who is also a spy for Spain. She seduces French officers and learns what she can. However, while on a mission she falls in love with the persistent and apparently harmless and aimless Don Diego (Jones), until she discovers that he’s a spy for France.

It’s a remarkable showcase for Jeanette MacDonald. She sings, she dances (she studied Spanish dance before filming), she’s funny, she’s dramatic and dedicated and consistently outwits everyone in sight, except for that little indiscretion of falling in love.

What’s frustrating is that the film insists on a happy ending, which doesn’t make any sense in the context of all that came before. The film may begin humorously, but ultimately it goes in a more dramatic direction. Not to mention the heavy-handed montages near the end meant to evoke parallels between Napoleon and Franco, complete with peasant uprisings and the image of chains falling off when the Spanish win. The film could have been at least 15-20 minutes shorter.

However, there is still much to like about the film. The gowns are by Adrian and as always in an Adrian designed costume drama, it is delightful to behold. Warren William, Douglas Dumbrille, Henry Daniell and George Zucco also appear to good effect.

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Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier

The Love Parade (1929)

The Love Parade marked the screen debut of Jeanette MacDonald. Ernst Lubitsch saw an old screen test and hired her. The two remained friends his whole life. The film also launched her as “the lingerie queen.”

Maurice Chevalier is Count Alfred Renaud, military attache in France from the fictional kingdom of Sylvania. After multiple indiscretions involving multiple women, he is sent home to face the queen (MacDonald). As soon as she sees him (and reads the report on his exploits) she decides she must have him and they marry. However, he soon grows frustrated with his role as the Prince Consort subservient to the queen.

The majority of the film is quite delightfully whimsical and ironic. It is playing on the idea that he is like the queen’s wife. He is an an adornment who is to provide the queen with an heir. Even the wedding vows are reversed, with him having to promise to obey and be “docile” while she is the one condescending to marry him and raise him up to her station. However, the ending becomes frustrating as he insists on his rights as a man and husband. It’s all played for comedy, but he essentially effects a coup and usurps her throne. She can’t do without him, so she yields her authority. This is precisely the reason Queen Elizabeth I never married!

Once again, it is fascinating to see Lubitsch transition between silent and sound films. He especially makes dynamic use of sound effects and music in The Love Parade (more so than Monte Carlo). It is extremely rare to hear non-diegetic music in early talkies (music that does not occur “naturally” in the scene, like an orchestra or phonograph) but considerably enlivens the film. Compared to Broadway Melody of 1929, the film feels fluid and non-stagy.

However, I can see why Lubitsch quickly moved away from operettas. I generally love musicals, even when the songs or dances stop the action, but in a Lubitsch film, the songs really do get in the way of his story and are often unnecessary, with the exception of songs like “Beyond the Blue Horizon” or “Let’s Be Common,” which is sung in The Love Parade by Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth about how they don’t have to live like the aristocrats when they marry, with separate rooms and the inability to have a good scrap and let some steam off.

The film includes several silent stars, including comedians Lupino Lane and Ben Turpin, who has a cameo that makes use of his trademark cross-eyed stare. Eugene Pallette also appears in an early talky role, showcasing his voice that is, in the words of the Self-Styled Siren, like putting “a double bass through a cement mixer.”

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2016 in Movies, Uncategorized

 

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