Jeanette MacDonald Biography

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Nelson Eddy (29 June 1901, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, d. 6 March 1967) and Jeanette MacDonald (b. 18 June 1901, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 14 January 1965, Houston, Texas, USA). Often called the most successful singing partnership in the history of the cinema, their series of eight operetta-style films vividly caught the imagination of 30s audiences. Eddy came from a musical family and learned to sing by continually listening to operatic records. After the family moved to Philadelphia, he worked at a variety of jobs including telephone operator, advertising salesman and copy-writer. He played several leading roles in Gilbert And Sullivan operettas presented by the Savoy Company of Philadelphia, before travelling to Europe for music studies. On his return in 1924, he had minor parts at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and other concert halls, and appeared on radio. In 1933, he made a brief appearance, singing ‘In the Garden Of My Heart’, in the film Broadway To Hollywood, which featured 10-year-old Mickey Rooney. This was followed by small roles in Dancing Lady (1933, in which Fred Astaire made his debut) and Student Tour (1934), after which he attained star status with MacDonald in 1935.

MacDonald took singing and dancing lessons as a child, before moving to New York to study, and in 1920 her tap-dancing ability gained her a place in the chorus of the Broadway show The Night Boat, one of the year’s best musicals, with a score by Jerome Kern. In the same year she served as a replacement in Irene, a fondly remembered all-time favourite of the US theatre. Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy were responsible for the show’s score, which contained the big hit, ‘Alice Blue Gown’. MacDonald’s other 20s shows included Tangerine, A Fantastic Fricassee, The Magic Ring, Sunny Days, and the title roles in Yes, Yes, Yvette and Angela. However, she appeared in only one real hit, George and Ira Gershwin’s Tip-Toes (1925), in which she co-starred with Queenie Smith. In 1929 she was teamed with Maurice Chevalier for her film debut in director Ernst Lubitsch’s first sound picture, The Love Parade. The musical score, by Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey, included ‘Dream Lover’, ‘March Of The Grenadiers’ and ‘My Love Parade’. It was a great success and prompted MacDonald and Chevalier to make three more similar operetta-style films together: One Hour With You, (1932; the Oscar Strauss- Richard Whiting - Leo Robin songs included ‘We Will Always Be Sweethearts’ and the title song); Love Me Tonight (1932), one of the most innovative of all movie musicals, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart score that included ‘Lover’, ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, ‘Mimi’; and a lavish production of The Merry Widow (1934, with Franz Lehár’s enduring score being aided by some occasional Lorenz Hart lyrics). MacDonald’s other movies during the early 30s were a mixture of musicals and comedies, including The Lottery Bride, Monte Carlo (both 1930) andThe Cat And The Fiddle (1934). The latter was another outstanding Lubitsch musical that teamed MacDonald with UK song and dance man, Jack Buchanan, and included ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’, one of her first hit recordings.

It was in 1935 that MGM brought Eddy and MacDonald together for the first time in Naughty Marietta. They were not at first sight an ideal combination, MacDonald’s infectious personality and soprano voice, ideal for operetta, coupled with Eddy, whose acting occasionally lacked animation. Despite being known in some quarters as ‘The Singing Capon And The Iron Butterfly’, the duo’s impact was immediate and enormous. Naughty Marietta’s score, by Victor Herbert, included ‘Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!’, ‘Italian Street Song’, and the big duet, ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life’. Rudolph Friml’s Rose Marie (1936) followed, and was equally successful. Sometimes called the quintessential operetta, the original play’s plot underwent severe changes to enable MacDonald to play a renowned Canadian opera singer, while Eddy became an extremely heroic Mountie. Two of the most popular Friml- Oscar Hammerstein II -Harbach songs were the evergreen ‘Rose Marie’, and the duet, ‘Indian Love Call’, which proved to be a major US record hit.

Both stars made other films during the 30s besides their mutual projects. In 1936, MGM starred MacDonald in the highly regarded melodramatic musical San Francisco, with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The movie’s earthquake climax was lampooned by Judy Garland in her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert, when she sang the film’s title song, with a special verse which ran: ‘I never will forget Jeanette MacDonald/Just to think of her, it gives my heart a pang/I never will forget, how that brave Jeanette, just stood there in the ruins, and sang - aaaand sang!’ Meanwhile, Eddy was somewhat miscast as an American football hero in Rosalie, with Eleanor Powell as Princess Rosalie of Romanza. However, he did introduce a Cole Porter classic, ‘In The Still Of The Night’, the song that is supposed to have moved MGM boss Louis B. Mayer to tears the first time he heard it. Noël Coward is said also to have wept, albeit for a different reason, when he saw MacDonald optimistically playing a girl of 18, and Eddy as a starving Viennese singing teacher in the film version of Coward’s Bitter Sweet (1940). Several songs from the original stage show were retained including ‘Zigeuner’ and ‘I’ll See You Again’. The MacDonald-Eddy partnership attracted much criticism for being over-romantic and far too saccharine. However, 30s audiences loved their films such as Maytime (1937), The Girl Of The Golden West (1938), Sweethearts (1938, MGM’s first three-colour Technicolor picture); and New Moon (1940), one of their biggest box-office hits, with a Sigmund Romberg -Oscar Hammerstein II score, which included the memorable ‘Lover, Come Back To Me’, ‘Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise’ and ‘Stout-Hearted Men’.

In 1941, MacDonald appeared in Smilin’ Through, with her husband Gene Raymond, while Eddy’s performance that same year in The Chocolate Soldier was generally thought to be his best acting on film. By 1942, the team had run out of steam. With the onset of World War II, moviegoers’ tastes had changed. Their last film together, I Married An Angel, even with songs by Rodgers and Hart, was the least successful of the series. In 1942, MacDonald made her final film at MGM, Cairo, with Robert Young. This was followed, later in the 40s, by a brief appearance in Follow The Boys (1944) and a starring role in Three Daring Daughters, in which, with the trio, she sang an appealing version of ‘The Dickey Bird Song’, by Sammy Fain and Howard Dietz. In 1949, after a career that had teamed her with many of Hollywood’s leading men, she made her last film, The Sun Comes Up, with another big star, the wonder dog, Lassie! For several years MacDonald also returned to the concert stage and appeared in operettas, and on television, before eventually disappearing from the limelight. She died from a heart attack in January 1965. After their break-up, Nelson Eddy appeared in the horror-musical Phantom Of The Opera (1943) and Knickerbocker Holiday (1944), in which he sang ‘There’s Nowhere To Go But Up’. His final movie appearance was with Ilona Massey in Friml’s operetta Northwest Outpost, in 1947. He returned to the stage, played in nightclubs and stock musicals and on radio, and occasionally television. He was appearing at the Miami Beach Hotel in Florida when he became ill and was taken to hospital. He died shortly afterwards, in March 1967.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.