This [Really] is Your Life, Jeanette MacDonald!

November 12, 1952

The International Optimists’ Club (is that still a thing?) decided that that perpetually happy chappy, Ralph Edwards, needed to be the recipient of a plaque. And who better to give that plaque? Well, the Queen of Optimism herself, obviously, Miss Jeanette Anna Mac-D.

Actually it was all just a huge ploy to get her to the El Capitan Theatre, where Ralph’s new-ish show, This is Your Life, was being done. The show involved ambushing an unsuspecting famous person and subjecting them to a sometimes-awkward-but-usually-fun half hour review of their lives. All sorts of conspiracy happens to pull that off, with spouses, family members, acquaintances, etc, having to be in on it but not letting on to the person involved. Maureen O’Hara’s episode is really cute, it’s on youtube and I highly recommend it.  J-Mac was one of those Hollywood types who referred to the “invasion” of television and sort of pooh-poohed it in its early days, and she was busy concertizing, so she hadn’t really gotten familiar with TIYL, but whatever, she’ll pour herself into a strapless gown and go present this Plaque O’ Optimism. She sang a concert in LA the night before anyway, so she was in town (though during this period, she spent a lot of time in New York, so LA wasn’t “base” at the moment, I don’t think. I could be mistaken about that, but it isn’t crucial information. What is interesting, however, is that she was out in LA without her husband.).

What you need to know, without spending this whole post hashing it out, is that Nelson and Jeanette were broken up at this point. The years 1949-1952 were rough for both of them, but particularly bad for Jeanette. There had been a lot of talk about her and Nelson re-teaming on a movie, maybe at Metro, maybe somewhere else, and though several possibilities were discussed and, in fact, worked on, nothing fully came to fruition. Things had been extremely rocky for the two of them personally for a while, but it came to a head, according to confidante Sybil Thomas and verified by Jeanette’s sister Blossom, when Jeanette overheard some people discussing how she had photographed in test footage. Their suggestion was that Nelson should be paired with someone younger. Feeling totally irrational and out of sorts because of other pressures and tension in their relationship, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and she decided he’d lured her into filming to humiliate her. She packed up her stuff, told Nelson she never wanted to see him again and fled home, whereupon she had a total, complete, huge nervous breakdown. The fact that it took her this long to snap, when one familiarizes oneself with the RIDICULOUS amount of stress these people were under, from work pressure to the complete wreckage of their personal lives, shows just how strong she was. (I cannot IMAGINE her photographing that badly!! She’s flippin’ GORGEOUS in her last two movies—okay so her wigs were a wee big matronly but holy hell, she is stunning. She and Nelson would have looked perfect together. Let’s go find those meanies who said she wasn’t photographing well and punch them in the face.)

Friends who knew her before and after comment that she was changed from this point on—and indeed, she seems to be meeker and less balls to the wall in her dogged pursuit of her career after this. Yes, she worked–she actually was quite busy throughout the 50s with concert and stage work and sporadic TV appearances–but as we know, she never returned to films after The Sun Comes Up in 1948.

What she did do, because Nelson seemed to be a lost cause and movies were a no-go, is try to pull herself up by the bootstraps and give her relationship with Gene some CPR. They did the play The Guardsman, with the hope of taking it to Broadway, but it closed before it got there, due in large part to the complete lack of chemistry between the leads. Ever see Smilin’ Through? Gorgeous movie, beautiful costumes, wonderful old songs, terrific story, great cast and performances—except one. Gene isn’t all that offensive in and of himself, but they don’t really give any indication that they are dying to get wild in the dressing room between shots, either. Even when Jeanette added a mini-concert to the show, it was mostly her loyal fan following who bought tickets over and over.

The Guardsman, with Gene:

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Nelson, meanwhile, worked in radio and alternated between studying religion (frantically trying to give himself some peace) and screwing a rather long line of blip-on-the-radar type women. Every one of these conquests who have been interviewed knew about his relationship with Jeanette (that is not to say that they liked it) and they all admitted that he would have left them in a hot minute to go back to her.

It was Jeanette’s sister, Blossom, who ultimately saved the day. Basically, Blossom knew about the plans for This is Your Life, she knew Nelson had already said he wasn’t interested in being a part of it, and she knew that it would look 14 kinds of bad for Jeanette if Nelson, of all people, failed to show up as one of the surprise guests. She cornered Nelson into having lunch with her, and found that he was not really aware of all the problems Jeanette had had, and he was sorry about them. Their meeting ended with him agreeing that he would show up, if nothing else, to spare Jeanette the indignity of having people wonder why he didn’t come. How she reacted to him after this period of “off-again” in their relationship would sort of dictate his next move.

There was to be a reception afterwards at the Bit of Sweden restaurant on the Sunset Strip, and the arrangements Blossom and Nelson worked out were thus: If Jeanette was glad to see Nelson and reacted well, Blossom was going to have to leave the party suddenly and Nelson would step up to give Jeanette a ride home. If she reacted badly, she would come home with Blossom as planned.

Here is a link to Jeanette’s episode of This is Your Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5C6xhQZymA

I want to be very clear right now that this episode has been edited—not much, but enough that it is important to mention. What’s missing are little seconds here and there as well as the original commercials. I have the whole uncut thing floating around somewhere on a VHS tape, so I know it’s still in existence, but for our purposes, this will do.

Look at this little Optimistic creeper, sneaking up on Ralph with her plaque:

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Ralph goes to kiss her cheek and asks if Gene is in New York and her response is, “Yes, he’s in New York, you’re safe.”

Ahahahahahaha. Gene is not going to chase you around the El Capitan, Ralph. No worries. Jeanette’s pretty sure she left him on the other coast.

And then we are treated to several full minutes of Jeanette Anna not having a single clue what the hell is going on. It’s really grand. I like the part when she scoots back on the sofa like she’s five years old.

I have absolutely no idea what this means but, sure, Ralph, you can have a pat/hug. It’ll be exactly like the pat/hug my husband gets in a few minutes:

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She gets that she’s been punked, but it takes her like, two full guests to figure out exactly what is going on. Here’s her snarky “mmhmm” and raised eyebrow when he mentions that her mom kicked the bucket and had been her “guide and inspiration”:

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She needs her glasses. Cue middle-aged-bifocals-position, holding picture way away to see what it is…

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“He’s [Gene] on a television show tonight!” ………….and you are a great big dope, babygirl. HAHAHA. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Jeanette. (Also does it not strike anyone else as interesting that she doesn’t appear to know the details about what he’s doing? He’s in NY. He’s on a television show tonight. Do you know any more than that, J-Mac? Do you care? Do you people actually talk at all ever?)

So Gene is on the phone “from New York” and she calls him Pappy and he calls her Bunc and it’s cute. “Bunc” is short for “Bunko” which was his nickname for her. Let’s go to Webster:

a swindle in which a person is cheated at gambling, persuaded to buy a nonexistent or worthless object, or otherwise victimized

or

a complicated confidence game planned and executed with great care

or

a fraud

Anybody else see the absolutely fantastic humor in this? THE OTHER HALF OF MY FAKE MARRIAGE, BUNKO. Hey, if you’re going to be part of this ridiculous mess, you gotta have a sense of humor. I guess that goes for the principals as well as the followers.

And just look at her, waving at the TV. She is so, so cute. And so embarrassing. It sucks that she didn’t have kids, if for no other reason than she would have been awesome at being mortifying in moments such as these. Nobody told her that dress was not the greatest, I guess. Oh well. She fared better than some actresses of her generation in the 50s.

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How do you not love this human? How. Just how. ❤ ❤ ❤

Gene: Will you call me afterwards?

Jeanette: Will you be home?

……………….And there you have it, folks. Ha. Gene says he’ll “wait for your call and make the date afterwards.” Great. Gene’s sort of sniggering laugh gets on my nerves and always has. But anyway.

Ralph mentions her amazing contribution to the Army Emergency Relief Fund during the war and she reacts with sweet modesty. Never call this girl’s patriotism into question, kids. She practically bleeds red, white and blue. Another moment I love is when Ralph shows her a picture of her jitterbugging with a random soldier at the Hollywood Canteen (before bringing him onstage) and she remembers his first and last name, plus the fact that he was married and had a baby. A brief encounter in a busy life from ten years before, and look at her. What a sweetie pie.

Then her 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Edna Clear comes out, and Jeanette is again the very picture of adorable charm and grace. Ms. Clear says Jeanette was one of her “most brilliant” pupils, which is a veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery long stretch (J-Mac was not a very good student–she got much more learned later in life and “never regretted not going to college”). Even so, it’s super cute. Then they show some pictures from her movies and play a little strain of music from each. She coos during Lover Come Back to Me, by the way. Ralph makes mention of her “great co-star, Nelson Eddy” and look at her face:

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Nervous wreck. When she had first gotten there that night, some wise-ass parking employee told Helen Ferguson (who brought her) to park Miss MacDonald’s car “over there beside Nelson Eddy’s”….and this is the point where I think she really starts realizing that maybe that guy wasn’t being stupid. Maybe Nelson is here. Is he really here? Is he coming out? How is he going to act? …How am I going to act? Shit. Keep it together, Jeanette. You’re on national television. Crap crap crap. Is he really here?

She seems to breathe a little when they mention her wedding date, because she realizes Nelson is not the next person coming out. Dr. Martin, the minister who married her and Gene, comes out and, as soon as he’s there, Jeanette sportingly drops the nervous look and becomes all warmth and sweetness again. Dr. Martin pontificates a little about they “show in their life the philosophy of the holy bonds of matrimony” and Jeanette looks down, embarrassed. Yep, that’s a little awkward.

And here comes Gene. She hugs him and tells him he played it “very well and very straight” and he goes, “Did I play it straight?”

Guys, it’s a cheap laugh and it’s wrong, but I WILL NEVER NOT CHUCKLE.

So then Ralph brings Nelson up again and that look is back on Jeanette’s face. Awesome, now she gets to see Nelson for the first time in a very long time and Gene’s going to be here for the fun, too! And check out Gene, looking to see how she is reacting—he’s already seen Nelson backstage at this point:

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Grace Newell, Jeanette’s life-long voice teacher and “adopted” mother (according to the sweetest ever letter written by Jeanette to Grace, who outlived her, a few months before Jeanette’s death) comes out next and is precious, and Grace is followed by our heroine, Blossom, who so plainly adores her sister–and the feeling is completely mutual. Then they say something about Elsie the Family Cow—excuse me, I mean Elsie, the other MacDonald sister–and this part is edited out of this youtube video, but, Scout’s Honor, Jeanette wrinkles her nose at Blossom and mouths, “Oh, is she here too?” Elsie is not our favorite sister, you see. Nevertheless, she’s there, all lacquered and blonde and awkward, but definitely related two the other two and sporting the one characteristic that all three sisters got in full measure: an absolutely gorgeous set of teeth. Check out the teeth on these girls!

And finally, but finally, Ralph turns the subject to love, and we know Nelson must be next. (No, I’m totally serious, that happens.) At the word “love”, music begins to play in the background—the song that Nelson sang at Jeanette and Gene’s wedding—and her face is unchanged, but you can see Gene beginning to watch her carefully. And then, from backstage, Nelson starts to sing.

Here is the link to the video of Nelson’s portion of the episode. If you don’t have 25 minutes to kill on the other one, WATCH THIS ONE. It’s two and a half minutes long and it’s sort of the law that you watch it. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and it still kills me.

The INSTANT she hears his voice — I actually put a stopwatch on it. It takes her three-quarters of a second to go from polite listening to full-blown O-face.

The MacDonald Ecstasy:

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NOBODY ELSE GOT ANYTHING CLOSE TO THIS REACTION.

And then, in the 10 seconds following that reaction, she begins to cry. While her head is still back, you see her struggling to keep her emotions in check, and failing. Gene, watching all this in a sort of bemused way, sportingly hands her his handkerchief. There are people who say, “Oh, I would get teary too, listening to a song from my wedding,” …but it has nothing to do with the song. She reacted before he’d even formed one word. It is the sound of Nelson’s voice. The affirmation that he is there, that he is singing, that he still cares about her enough to show up. He’s there, and he’s there for her, and she knows it at once.

She and Nelson make eye contact for just a moment, and he reaches out and takes her hand–the same one that has the handkerchief in it. Still emotional, she grabs the handkerchief away and holds it in her other hand, the better to hold his hand with. (This part is taking me forever to write because I get caught up in watching it!)

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It’s really hard to capture, because he’s turning towards her and the youtube quality of this recording sucks, but Nelson is definitely smiling, having seen her reaction and felt her hand probably squeezing the crap out of his:

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It is necessary to note here that Nelson is reading the lyrics while he sings—VERY unusual for him. One good look at her face, and you see his arm move as he throws the music behind the couch. He’s not holding it in the next shot. She has been effectively turned into a puddle of MacGoo:

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He keeps squeezing and wiggling her hand, just like he used to do in all their movies—Girl of the Golden West contains a scene of such blatant hand porn that it might be too much for this blog. And then she just sort of melds right up into his arms.

And it looks for a split second that their faces are going in the same direction, but damn it, no kiss. They remember they’re on TV.

And then Jeanette finds herself exactly where she is supposed to be. ❤

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Blissed-out MacDonald, right there. Gene who???

Gene literally could have dropped dead off to the side and nobody would have noticed.

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Look at Nelson. Star football player and his cheerleader girlfriend, anyone? Still holding hands, by the way.

Then Gene shakes hands with Nelson, who still has Jeanette’s hand, and look at Gene’s body language here:

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That two-handed grip is known as the “politician’s handshake” and body language research defines this as “an attempt to control the situation or person” ………Welp. Yep.

Nelson, being cute, addresses her as “Jeanette–I may call you Jeanette, may I?” and she laughs and Gene, in some sort of fiercely misguided attempt to be relevant, goes, “That’s all right, old man, I give you my permission.”

Hey, Gene! HERE’S A GREAT BIG DOSE OF FUCK OFF.

Nelson, by the way, skipped the rehearsal for TIYL the day before (but he DID attend Jeanette’s concert at the Philharmonic–this was noted by several sources, including a rather rude critic who found Nelson’s presence at the concert more exciting than the concert. He just didn’t go backstage to see her afterwards.) and had the TIYL people scrambling in blind panic for replacement people to try to fill the gap if he really didn’t show on the actual day. When he did arrive, he was given a prepared speech–the only guest to get one—because he hadn’t attended the rehearsal and they didn’t feel he could be “trusted” to make the appropriately PC comments. He doesn’t even get through all of his statement before he sort of trails off and Jeanette is like, “Well Nelson, what can I say, except it (his performance) was certainly one of the highlights of our wedding (snort) and we’ll never forget it!”

He then kisses her hand and that’s more-or-less it. At the end of the show, she’s given a wristwatch and she sort of starts to show it to Gene, but then shows it to someone on her right—whether that is Nelson or Blossom or just a coincidence, I’m not sure.

The fact remains that Jeanette was not an overly weepy-in-public type, and Nelson totally did her in, the moment she heard him. It’s amazing what you can learn about her, just from watching this show. Her chemistry with Gene is palsy and fun, but her chemistry with Nelson is emotional and adoring. This moment in time was the catalyst for their reconciliation, and they would be “on again” from this point until her death in 1965.

So thanks, Ralph Edwards! But more importantly… thanks, Blossom. 🙂

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One thought on “This [Really] is Your Life, Jeanette MacDonald!

  1. Thanks to Ralph, thanks to Blossom and thanks to you too Katie for laying it all on the line. I’ve watched it so many times and Jeanette, bless her is such an open book about her feelings for Nelson. Never have I seen such emotion from a ‘platonic friend and co-worker!’ Yeah, right. Having watched it so many times I thought I knew every move, but only after your step by step analysis did I find out just what happened to the word sheet Nelson held in his hand! Great coverage of the whole thing. Congratulations my friend.

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