The Sterilization of Jeanette MacDonald

I’m ba-aack. ūüėÄ

So, yesterday, I posted a bunch of photos in one of my favorite Facebook groups, including one of Jeanette, Claude Jarman, Jr., and Lassie (or maybe it was Major, Lassie’s stand in?) sitting in a tent, around a heater, obviously cold, on the set of¬†The Sun Comes Up, Jeanette’s final movie. This picture launched a whole LONG discourse between myself and several of the members of the group about Jeanette’s last two films.

Disclaimer: I love all of Jeanette’s movies. All of them, with the possible exception of¬†The Vagabond King. So understand that the forthcoming criticisms are, yes, criticisms, but there is MUCH to love and appreciate about these movies just the way they are.

Also understand that being personally critical of Jeanette is not something at which I’m super good. I ain’t about getting hit by lightning and homegirl’s aim is pretty spot on. So.

Now, for¬†Three Daring Daughters¬†(can we please agree to refer to it from now on as TDD? Yeah? Great.), MGM cast the current “it” guy, Jose Iturbi, incredible pianist, heavily accented short little fellow, as Jeanette’s love interest. He’s supposed to rock her world so hard that she abandons the “shackles” of being a single mom to three teen/preteen girls and marries him on a whim during an extended boat trip. Oh. Okay. Well, for starters, our Jeanette is a tallish (5’5″), willowy beauty…and she’s legit taller than him in her heels and upswept hair. And for me, that’s sort of an immediate buzzkill. They look …not sexy… together. This is the movies and stuff like that matters, I’m sorry. Secondly, there is¬†absolutely no passion. No clinch. No “I shouldn’t, it’s wrong, I’m so responsible but ohhhhhhhhhhh do it again, don’t stop……” scene that would have lent a shred of authenticity to the idea of this very strong, independent, intelligent single mom (she’s the editor of a high powered magazine) throwing caution to the wind. We don’t see her actually throw the caution. We see her blow out a candle and in the next scene she’s ditched the Serious Mom Wigs and has cute shorter curly hair. And as if to remind us how super wild and kinky the honeymoon was, that scene also has the one kiss in the movie—-an afterthought peck in fadeout. Like they’ve been married 112 years, not approximately 12 seconds.

And see, this ticks me off. Louise Morgan really, if treated better by the script, could have become Jeanette’s most compelling portrayal, but she doesn’t get half a chance. In the scene where she’s wearing this gorgeous orangey-coral dress and hum/singing along to¬†You Made Me Love You, floating in via piano from the next cabin, you get a glimpse of what might have been. You see Louise yearn. You hear this low, soft voice, and the way she’s lounging around on the sofa…yep, this is a woman who is in touch with the fact that she maybe has been missing out on some Man Things since she ditched the girls’ father. She is sexy. She is¬†gorgeous. She experiences desire. She has layers and feelings and longings—it occurs to her, and us, that maybe she’d like a kind of love that doesn’t come from her kids. Maybe she’d like to be a¬†woman and not just Mommy.

(Now just imagine that the camera cuts to Nelson Eddy playing that damn piano. …Now that everyone is a little giddy in the pants, I’ll remind you all that it wasn’t Nelson. Many sorries.)

The fact that Jeanette is able to bring us these layers in that very short space of time is a tribute to what she is capable of as an actress. Then the camera reveals that it’s Mr. Iturbi and the viewer is sort of like, “…Oh.” But see, we see Sexy Jeanette for half a second, and lest that get dangerous (MOM CHARACTERS CANNOT BE SEXY!!!! ESPECIALLY JEANETTE MACDONALD MOM CHARACTERS BECAUSE SHE’S STILL A VIRGIN GUYS.), we have to temper that with Very Safe G-Rated Little Piano Man. I promise, I’m really NOT hating on Mr. Iturbi. I think he’s a great talent, Jeanette said he was good to work with, he was sweet to the kids (particularly Ann Todd who played Ilka, as she was a pianist), and he’s charming in a cute way. But as a romantic leading man for my girl Jeanette he is totally unsatisfying.

And THIS, friends, is the crux of the problem.

MGM—as many things as it did well and right with regard to the motion picture art form—mishandled the MacDonald sexuality.

Let me put you in touch with Jeanette Anna of the pre-MGM days.

They called her The Lingerie Queen of the Talkies.

Famous Quote: “I’m sure people must say about me, on the screen, ‘Good gracious, is Jeanette MacDonald going to take off her clothes – again?'”

undiesbackJeanetteUndies  youngandsultry  undies

I mean, hell, Maurice Chevalier measured her boobs in Love Me Tonight:

chevalierboobmeasurement

And she totally mouth-kissed a girl in One Hour With You:

WTFJeanette

Yeah, yeah, that was all Pre-Code. I get it. I do. BUT……it’s also a little hilarious how the general public opinion of Jeanette contains words like “highbrow” and “prissy” and “proper” and “ladylike” and “icy” and “frigid” and on and on and on. THE ABOVE PICTURES ARE HOW SHE GOT FAMOUS IN THE MOVIES, PEOPLE.

She was on Broadway first. She was Musical Theatre, not Opera—and she really wanted to be “Opera”—something that would fascinate her about Nelson Eddy when they met. HE was “Opera”…..she was “Musical Theatre” and nary the twain shall meet. Usually. She proved ’em wrong. ūüôā

So Jeanette gets to Metro and she makes The Cat and the Fiddle, which I think of as sort of a transition for her, because she looks prettier (she was always beautiful but EVERYBODY is a little prettier at Metro, that’s just how it works) but she still is retaining the threads of the Jeanette that the movie audiences know. And there’s some suggestiveness here; the main characters are shacked up but not married, there’s kissing in bed, she tells him about basically dreaming about him naked, etc. It came out in 1934, that pivotal year for The Code, which applied to all movies released on or after July first (Thanks, Sharon, I hadn’t remembered the date)—and it seems to have squeaked out just in time, as most of it was filmed in 1933. Then came¬†The Merry Widow, which Metro produced but which brought together the team she already had established elsewhere: Chevalier and director Ernst Lubitsch. So really, aside from the sheer BEAUTY of the production—the sets and costumes are VERY Metro and VERY lavishly beautiful—it doesn’t really feel like an MGM movie. Lubitsch made everything he did have that pre-code feel. As Jeanette discusses in her interview with Tony Thomas later in life, his specialty was whimsical innuendo.

The big image change happened when she and Nelson teamed up for¬†Naughty Marietta. The movie, as we all know, was a barn-burning sensation, launched the Mac/Eddy team and so on and so forth—it has MUCH to commend it on every level, but the fact of the matter is that gone forever was the Jeanette that movie audiences had known and enjoyed previously.

Mariettaembrace

She’s stunning and startlingly beautiful, to coin a phrase, all swathed in period costume after period costume. She’s coquettish and coy but never seriously sexual. The typical pattern is that we see her first, she gets the first song, he’s usually not as important in life station as she is, he likes her immediately, she doesn’t like him, then she REALLY likes him but is hard to get, then they sing a duet and are officially in love until struggles force them to part but they usually are reunited (and if not, he gets to die on her powdered bosom a couple times). The “formula” is not complicated. Nobody cares about this. When the two of them open their mouths to sing, the rest of the world can go hang itself. They were the absolute best at what they did and that’s all there is to it. You can be someone who likes Jeanette better or likes Nelson better, I think we all have our preferences, but if you can’t recognize that it was TOGETHER that they were best known, best loved and did their best work…….well, you’re an idiot.

But the fact of the matter is that her figure, and indeed, her actual sexual presence, went from being her stock in trade (apart from her voice, obviously) to what¬†Modern Screen¬†(If I’ve mis-attributed that quote, please correct me, but I’m almost positive it was Modern Screen, in the little gossip blurbs, and I think I have the actual copy of the magazine where it’s mentioned) termed the “best kept secret in Hollywood.”

That’s what happens at Metro, friends. Family pictures, you know.

(I’m not knocking that either, really. I think we could use a hell of a lot more family pictures in this day and age.)

The thing is, as their personal relationship developed, so did their chemistry on screen. Jeanette and Nelson can’t help but be sexy together. Please observe this clip, a zoomed in look at their hands duing the Obey Your Heart sequence in¬†Girl of the Golden West. I’m not going to go into all the back story of what was going on (but Sharon did a great and recent analysis of it, go here.) but the fact of the matter is that nobody in 1937 is going to DIRECT this sort of hand play in a very Code-happy studio environment. Just look:

I mean, please imagine that he was doing that to ANY OTHER part of her body. Pick one. That is some seriously sexy business right there, and her thumb is playing right back. My point is, moments of sexy show up in every single movie, whether the studio wanted them to or not, Hayes Code be damned. But why did Metro want her to be seen as such an innocent type? Could it be that Mayer, who long-nursed a personal soft spot for Jeanette, didn’t want her¬†charms on display? Could it be that the more intense the passion looked with Nelson, the less the public would be enamored of the humongous studio sponsored marriage to Gene Raymond? I mean, selling Gene to the public as Jeanette’s husband was a hard enough job anyway. But marrying her off to the absolutely-NEVER-threatening-to-the-ivory-tower Raymond ensured that she was seen as prim, boring, prudish and dispassionate. And then her damn fan club took it from there and here we are.

Amazing too, how they are shunted off into separate pictures when things are a little too risky.¬†Rosalie and¬†The Firefly happened between¬†Maytime and¬†Girl of the Golden West. What else happened in that era? Jeanette’s wedding. Letting them be together at work was too risky. They might decide to rage against the Machine and run off together. Something might slip. They were blissfully happy, even though Jeanette was married, during the making of¬†Sweethearts, until Jeanette lost Nelson’s child at around six months of gestation. The Mayer Machine just BARELY gets away with keeping that under wraps, and promptly ushers Jeanette into¬†Broadway Serenade¬†and Nelson into¬†Let Freedom Ring¬†and¬†Balalaika. And what else happens? Oh, yeah, drunk and majorly fucked up Nelson elopes with Ann Franklin. And Jeanette tries to kill herself at the end of production on¬†Broadway Serenade, to which she always referred as being her least favorite movie she ever did. (As always, these episodes and subsequent documentation can be explored in more detail by reading Sweethearts¬†by Sharon Rich.)

It just annoys me that too many of Jeanette’s Metro pictures have her being a one trick pony—even if it’s one HELL of a trick. She was a good actress, a splendid comedienne, but also capable of beautiful depth of feeling, especially as she aged. Her performance in¬†The Sun Comes Up is absolutely gorgeous. Helen Winter has a little bit more of a meaty script than Louise Morgan does in terms of internal character development, but is just as short on the leading man front. Lloyd Nolan was a great guy and a personal friend of Jeanette’s and Nelson’s, but he doesn’t exactly spark with her on the screen. Which probably suited everyone just fine, because again, Jeanette is not allowed to be sexy, and CERTAINLY not when she’s playing a mom. I mean, it makes you long for her to have played a mom like Maureen O’Hara’s character Maggie in¬†The Parent Trap…THAT is a transformation. She’s a great mom, but the reunion scene between Maggie and Mitch is swoon-worthy. Very romantic and very, very sexy. I didn’t say it needed to be dirty. It doesn’t. That isn’t. But it’s real.

Jeanette was on her way out after¬†I Married an Angel. She did¬†Cairo to finish out her contract (I effing love that movie) and wouldn’t be seen again at Metro until¬†Three Daring Daughters. There was great “Welcome Home” fanfare about her return to her old stomping grounds after years of absence, but it seems that once she was there, they weren’t really sure what to do next. She was still exquisite, still had the best soprano voice in the movies, and wasn’t really old enough (well, okay, she was 43, so according to what she liked to tell people, that would make her 39…and she looked late thirties) to be shoved around the bend into Mom-dom. Nelson strongly objected to her playing Mom roles, perhaps because he knew that once she did that, she wouldn’t be able to go back to playing a real romantic lead—which he knew damn well, publicly and privately, she should have still been doing. She rallied for Nelson to be cast in TDD and wrote Hedda Hopper that it would have been a “hot” box office reunion….and how right she was. That movie with Nelson would have been ENTIRELY different. And Metro would have had to admit that she was sexy. That he was sexy. That they were sexy together. This was no mannered, powdered wig period piece…this was a modern movie. If Louise Morgan had met Nelson Eddy on that ship instead of Jose Iturbi….I mean, can you imagine? Sexy, sexy. Perhaps that’s exactly why it didn’t happen. The studio wasn’t ready to make a grown up movie about grown up people. The idea that you can raise your kids and still feel the tingles for the right man who reminds you that you’re female……yeah, apparently that wasn’t a thing at Metro. Pity. It would have been great. Look at this candid of TDD-era Jeanette (with Iturbi) WITHOUT the wigs that made her matronly in the movie:

withIturbi

She doesn’t look old enough to be the mother of a high school graduate. She just doesn’t. Don’t effing tell me all that was left to her were Mom roles. Nelson, pal, you were EXACTLY right.

TDDprettyeyes

A screen capture from TDD. Look how gorgeous. Staaaaaaahp it.

Perhaps the best way to end this much-longer-than-anticipated post is with this anecdote:

Sometime in the 1940s, Nelson Eddy had occasion to see¬†Monte Carlo, one of Jeanette’s Lingerie Queen Pre-Code films. (You know, the one where she runs around in her underwear and sings¬†Beyond the Blue Horizon on a train. That song became one of her signature numbers.) Upon seeing it, his comment was:

“That’s the Jeanette I know.”

The defense rests.

 
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