I’m about to bring something totally adorable to your lives. Prepare yourselves for your day to be vastly improved.
Our Jeanette was many things, and the word “perfect” sometimes comes to mind…….a description she hated, by the way, along with “angelic” and all its synonyms……..but she’s so gorgeous and talented and funny and smart that the word is tempting. She was a shrewd businesswoman, loyal, kind, patriotic and cagey. She’s also a smart ass, sarcastic (we were in fits over some of the stuff we were reading that she said to newspaper reporters), insecure, a worrier by nature, and emotionally, a late bloomer. She had a bratty streak a mile wide. Of course, we love her, so we just nod along with all of these things and conclude with, “Yep, she’s perfect.” Oh well.
A quality that I find MOST endearing is how nervous she got before an audience. She once wistfully said, “Every audience I’ve ever had: concert, radio, opera or television, has always heard something less than my best.” (And considering how very very magnificently she sang on so MANY of those occasions, that’s saying something!) In the recording booth, she was at ease, as she was on the motion picture soundstage. But her live audiences always got the Nervous Nellie side of her personality. She pinpoints her first attack of nerves (she was a ballsy, fearless kid at one point) in her autobiography manuscript as an occasion when she was allowed to sing at school, before the principal who disliked her and was constantly railing against a kid her age doing theatre work. The woman looked such daggers at her that she totally dried up and was unable to perform, much to her shame and embarrassment. (I have an aunt who used to do that shit to me, it’s legit. And it’s no good.) For the rest of her life, that feeling of terror lingered, which is something she bitterly regretted.
For anyone who has not seen it, I recommend The Voice of Firestone TV appearance (available on DVD) for a very real look at what I’m talking about. The typical pattern for Jeanette is that when she gets nervous, she sings too fast, pushing the orchestra, and her gaze goes directly to the ceiling instead of out to the audience. The shrewd listener who knows her voice well can detect her getting very “breathy” when she’s nervous, as well as sliding a few notes together here and there instead of stepping gently onto the center of each one. The Voice of Firestone was Jeanette’s first TV appearance, and between the quite laughable production values and Jeanette’s nervousness, it’s quite an experience. I don’t mean she’s in bad voice, she isn’t, but………well, just get the dvd and you’ll know what I mean.
One of the things Angela and I had digitized at the Library of Congress was Jeanette’s appearance on the Ford Symphony Presents program. This clip is dated November 4, 1945 and she sings two numbers, the first being Juliette’s Waltz Aria that was one of her (and my) favorite showcase pieces. Considering that she was doing opera around this time period, and Romeo et Juliette was one of the operas she was doing (Faust was the other), you’d think she’d be well-rehearsed, confident and have all the bugs worked out. But here are the MacDonald nerves in bold array, complete with slipping and sliding and the most delightful SQUEAK on a top note towards the end. She never does that!!!! Her high notes are her stock in trade! It’s 500% adorable and I can’t tell you how many times we played it back. We joked that it sounds like Nelson pinched her bottom at that exact moment. 😉
Here is Ford Symphony Presents Jeanette MacDonald:
Lest anyone think that we’re giving her a hard time by posting this, we’re not. She still sings it 33948723427384236 times better than you or I or anyone reading this blog possibly could. But her nervousness makes her human. As I said before, it’s terribly endearing.
And speaking of the MacNerves, I’d like to share a real treasure–this has not been available outside of the “vault” that owns it since it originially aired on August 5th, 1951. Here is Jeanette singing (and dancing!! GORGEOUSLY!!!!) selections from The Merry Widow. This is another thing that we found in June and we are very pleased to share it with you, here.
Several things to look for:
She’s gorgeous and brilliant and sublime and amazing and fantastic and looks awesome I love her costume and AHHHHHHHHHHH NEW JEANETTE THAT WE’VE NEVER SEEN OH MAHH GAHHHHHH!!!!!
But, for real:
She’s very nervous. In addition to exhibiting the “symptoms” I wrote about above, she nearly trips on her first entrance. (Anyone else want to hug her a little?) Also, notice that when she walks down the stairs, she has carefully coordinated someone there to hold her hand. She was deathly afraid of stairs, a fact that was documented way back in 1931 or so and never subsided. And check out how much of her choreography (which I’d bet you $900 she arranged herself—maybe not the other dancers, but judging by what she did on other TV projects, I bet she just sort of told her partner how it was going to be and that was that.) is identical to the Merry Widow Waltz in the movie! Nearly 20 years later and she still knows it. Adorable. Also, I always thought, in Vilia, it was the “spell” of her beauty…….not the “thrill” of her beauty, and a quick Google search verified this……so………uh, Jeanette?
BUT LOOK AT HER BEAUTIFUL DANCING I CANNOT HANDLE IT.
She looks fabulous. And I like her big stagey bows and dramatic pseudo-kiss blowing at Gene, who was replacing Ed Sullivan as the MC for the week.
That’s all. Admire the soprano. Adore the soprano. That’s an order. 😀