Where do I begin?
Do I start by saying this is one of the Big Things that I so often mention on this blog as going on behind the scenes? Because that’s true; this is one of those things. One of those things that months of stress and organization and strategizing with three fabulous partners accomplished. The JAM Project was formed, by us—that’s Angela and me and our dear friends Mary Lynn and Lynda, to take care of what’s left of Jeanette’s estate, plus the remaining holdings of the JMIFC. We have it. There. Secret’s out. Now you know, officially.
There is so much to say; so many, many directions in which to go. There are falsehoods to correct and new truths to bring to the fore. There will be time for all of it, eventually. These months have been heartbreaking and euphoric at once; the victories have been outstanding but the fresh devastation of just how complicated and difficult this good woman’s life was has been incredibly painful. We’ve only just scratched the surface of the material in our possession and already our minds are blown.
Today, though, I want to focus on one of the victories.
On September 25, 1957, Jeanette and Nelson teamed up for what would be their second and final television appearance together. The show was The Big Record, hosted by Patti Page. This show has long been considered MacEddy Holy Grail. It’s been lost for decades, squirreled away by the Co-Presidents of the JMIFC. Reports from people who saw it, long ago, are consistent in that they all indicate the obvious closeness between the two stars. Our assumption has been that that’s why the JMIFC hid it; Jeanette and Nelson just looked too damned cozy. They used to show it at the ClanClave meetings, but that friendly trend came to a screeching halt when a young Sharon Rich started writing about Jeanette and Nelson’s real-life relationship. And people who had known them started talking to her – and these previously-embraced-club-members were quickly disavowed and labeled pathological liars. We have those letters, too. Life’s grand. Anyway, the JMIFC war on Nelson Eddy was on. The censorship and “editing” done by Clara Rhoades to strip Nelson of any virtue at all and remove him as much as possible from Jeanette’s professional and personal lives is alive and well to this day in the club’s filing cabinets. It was as though suddenly Nelson was Voldemort – and to complete this imagery and bring it back to the topic at hand, The Big Record is a Horcrux. (For you non-Harry Potter folks, a Horcrux is an object in which a Dark Wizard has hidden a portion of his soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. “This is actually a perfect analogy,” she says, self-congratulating.)
[Weeellll…Clara and Tessa obviously didn’t read the books because they never did destroy the Horcrux; they just hid it. So now…mwahahahahaha, WE RISE.]
So for years, long before I came on the scene, far longer than I’ve been alive, The Big Record was lost. I know Sharon had looked for it. Angela and I have combed universities and other important libraries to no avail. We’ve tried the CBS archive and got nothing. There were, by our reckoning, two copies left in the world – Jeanette’s, and the one Patti Page herself had.
The very moment I was turned loose among the trunks and trunks of cans of film in this collection, I had only one title in mind – and then, there it was. But it wasn’t Jeanette’s. This was in a green plastic film can and it was labeled, “Good Condition, 5/71,” and there wasn’t a ton of film in it. So the piece we have as of this writing was made from Jeanette’s copy—and God only knows where that is. We don’t have the whole show. We don’t even have most of it. Sharon released the audio track on a CD on maceddy.com that is their big segment: Jeanette sings Italian Street Song, Nelson sings Out of the Night, and they chat with Patti Page and then do a duet of Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life as well as a small medley of other tunes from Naughty Marietta. We don’t have any of that.
Jeanette did a portion of the show in her white and lavender concert dress that she wore a lot in this time period. Here, she and Nelson are talking to Patti Page:
This is what the dress looked like in color:
Anyway, it seems that after this segment, she went offstage and changed gowns, because there are photographs of her with Nelson that are supposed to be from the same show, but she’s wearing the pink strapless dress and pearls that everyone will recognize from the cover of their Favorites in Hi-Fi album.
This, friends, is what we’ve got. Jeanette in her pink strapless, singing Will You Remember with her Nelson. Two minutes of these incandescently beautiful people making magic together as only they can. We found a guy in Arizona to transfer the film to digital media. He cleaned and restored and color-corrected it. He removed as much of the graininess as possible while keeping the integrity of the film intact and he stabilized the jumpiness. Due to the age and questionable storage practices for all these years, the sound is a little warped in spots—trust and believe it’s not Jeanette and Nelson hitting bad notes! While unfortunate, we assume everyone will have no problem overlooking it.
Physically they have aged, but somehow they are utterly, gorgeously unchanged since the 1930s. Their radiant joy in performing together is palpable. They are doing what they love to do, with the person with whom they love to do it. Nelson’s enormous, boyish pride in the woman he loves is leaping off the screen. Jeanette’s energy and ecstasy at being in his arms is unmatched in what we’ve seen of her other work from this decade. (Also, I have to feel like this is the end of the show, because the MacDonald Nerves are absolutely nowhere to be found.) They are two halves of a whole, blissfully united and we get to watch. They are on national television, but you get the sense that their audience has nothing to do with it; these people are performing to and for each other and that’s it. We are watching something very private happen very publicly, just as we did for eight films. This quality that is theirs alone is what drew people to them and kept them begging for more. They have incredible voices, but the truly mesmerizing thing about them is that they are every bit as emotionally effective with no sound.
It is with enormous delight that we share this with all of you. So many of us on the Jeanette and Nelson story spend hundreds of tireless hours researching and digging and discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of their lives, but in moments like these, we can all just step back, secure in the knowledge that these people tell their own story so much better than we ever could. All they need is a platform. I know I can speak for the four of us of The JAM Project when I say that it is an honor and privilege to be able to give them that very thing, sixty years after the fact.
…Aren’t you glad I didn’t spoil that really great surprise at the end???????
I think it’s pretty clear why this hasn’t been made available before now. 😀 😀 😀
What follows is a blow-by-blow of everything that has killed me about this two minutes of wonder in the six hundred times I’ve watched it so far. Don’t read this until you watch the video.
Okay, we can start with the first twelve seconds. Nelson, with purposeful stride, crossing the stage to get his girl and leading her back into position for their song. His face is just absolutely more than I can handle. He is beaming, he’s into it, he’s excited, he’s happy. Nelson’s performance in this two-minute clip completely annihilates his entire career with Gale Sherwood. What I mean by that is that, in all of the available material of him performing with Gale, I personally have never seen this level of sincerity, of realness, with her. Or with anyone else, for that matter. This is his girl. Has been his girl for twenty-some years, now. Will always be his girl. He’s being allowed to adore her in public and he’s enjoying that to the full. Jeanette, in observance of his intent, gives him the first of many humongous grins as she reaches her hand into his, her eyes on his as they move back across the stage. His face when he’s walking backwards is precious. The man is in heaven. He breaks their eye contact to look her up and down, as if he’s never seen her before. Is he, perhaps, admiring the wardrobe change? Cause that’s real cute, if he is. Jeanette will, always and forever, be his favorite dish. “I know her,” he said once, “And what she is to me can never be marred by age.” He makes that very clear and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet. Jeanette, for her part, has the first of many self-conscious moments in this segment, looking down after staring into Nelson’s face for a few seconds. I imagine that’s like looking directly into the sun. He’s so intense that it’s overwhelming for her and she’s the first one to break contact—this is a pattern we see over and over again with these people. Is she afraid she’ll give too much away if she keeps looking? Does she know too well the effect he has on her? She always did have a sense of reserve, that way. That’s why her tears on This is Your Life are so compelling. You expect her to be in control.
Jeanette takes the first line of the song. As she’s singing, her free hand comes out, slowly and naturally. And Nelson looks down at it before clasping it in his. These people are adorable. (This is one of the places where the sound is warped, I assure you homegirl knows her notes.) During the “Will you love me ever?” line, Nelson’s face moves very slightly – this is at about second 23 or 24. Something about his face, which we can’t see, makes Jeanette hand over the second humongous grin as she sings the word “ever”. I wonder if he didn’t wink at her, or something. She’s looking into his eyes and her face reacts. Good Lord.
Nelson takes the second line, and now we’re looking at his face and Jeanette’s back. He draws both of her hands up between their chests, covering them with his for just a moment, then seems to have a change of heart and wraps his arm around her instead. What I didn’t notice until I’d reviewed this several times, is if you watch her arm, her arm wraps around him in response to his arm wrapping around her. We catch Jeanette being very Hollywood for a moment, gazing off into the distance, but when they sing “my dearest one” together, his eyes seek hers and hers snap back to them. At the end of “one”, Nelson starts to smile at her but has to draw breath for the next line. Jeanette continues gazing up at him on the first “Sweetheart, Sweetheart,” really drinking him in, standing there looking like an open vessel into which he is pouring this well-worn song. She’s receptive, she somehow still, all these years later, isn’t the least bit tired of this. Not even a little. (Well okay Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ look how the man is looking at her I don’t think I’d be tired of that either.) On the third “Sweetheart,” we get the third big smile, which is immediately followed by her opening her hand and laying it on his chest, another signature MacEddy move.
“Though our paths may sever” contains some abject tenderness. Nelson once again wants to put his arm around her, so he does, and she responds with her arm in the same way. He pulls her in close and his chin finds its way into her hair. There’s a tiny moment where his eyes close as they settle into that position (albeit briefly). However, the best part about this is when Nelson’s chin goes into her hair, her chin makes a tiny snuggling motion. These people love to be close to each other. They love to be touching. We’ve known that for so long from the way they are on film and in candid shots on the radio and at parties and things through the years, but it’s so much more fun to get to watch it in action. Nelson is at his nurturing, tender best with her and she loves it. She always was like that, thriving on affection. However, they can’t stay that way for long, because there’s another couple of lines to sing.
On “to life’s last faint ember” we see their hands – her right and his left – rejoining and getting back into position between them. I’d really love to know what’s so delightful about “faint ember” because these two find something on those words about which they exchange a really darling mutual smile. And I love what happens next. Right as they start the “will you remember” line, Nelson gives their joined hands a little shake, it’s kind of like he gets a better grip on hers. It’s like a little jolt of underscoring.
As they sing “springtime,” they share another little mutual smile. Nelson almost seems to be the one to push them to their next positions, pulled back from each other, still holding hands. These two wrote the book on how to sing in duet. He’s still looking at her like he’d enjoy having her for lunch, and on “lovetime” we see him give her the up and down once over for the second time in two minutes, looking extremely pleased with what he’s seeing. They break apart with one hand to fan out to the audience on “May” and Jeanette almost loses her scarf on one arm, but a quick flip of her hand fixes that. At the end of their long note, you see Nelson do a little cutoff jerk on her hand, as if he’s feeling the end of their song.
Then comes the good part. (What? This is ALL ‘the good part’!!!) Nelson immediately pushes her scarf up off of her hand so he can kiss it – and it’s not a wee little peck, either. His intensity and courtliness makes her laugh a sweet, self-conscious, grinning laugh, from which she dissolves into her ever-graceful curtsy. She curtsies just great. So pretty. She murmurs a ‘thank you’ to the audience and Nelson jiggles her hand like we’ve seen him do before. He does that with her. When she stands up, he passes the hand he’s holding to his other hand (he ain’t about to let go of her!) and puts his arm around her waist, and they swoop in facing each other and the first time I watched this my heart leapt into my throat because I was thinking, “Holy crap, he’s gonna kiss her!” But nah, they apparently remembered themselves at the last minute and settle for beaming at the still-applauding audience, with Nelson giving her another little jiggle, during which her two little hands come up and wrap around his big one.
And then it happens. It’s as natural as breathing. Jeanette MacDonald looks at Nelson Eddy and puckers her lips. It doesn’t look the least bit pre-meditated. It looks like something she’s used to doing. A reflex. A habit. I don’t know what on earth she was thinking, except maybe in the moment, she wasn’t thinking. It seriously kind of looks like she didn’t mean to do it, like she forgot herself in this private-public moment. That’s much rarer for her than it is for him, which makes this five million times more valuable. She wants a kiss. She wants this man to kiss her. She tells him – and us – very clearly. Right there in front of God and everybody. And then, Nelson, bless him—you give the boy an inch and he takes a mile—Nelson loses NO TIME in taking her up on her offer and zooming his mouth into hers, right onto his very favorite bottom lip, which appears to both delight her and scare her to death and she manages to play it off by shaking her finger at him and making some flustered gesture which we must assume is meant to tell him that he’ll mess up her makeup if he kisses her. Too bad he already did. And then she dissolves into schoolgirl-esque giggles and we see the textbook flustered MacDonald Hand to Throat while Nelson exuberantly pats her back, looking really pleased with himself. I MEAN, DAMN. G’HEAD, GUYS. YOU DO IT. YOU JUST DO IT.
Excitement aside, this kiss is a very interesting look at the same dynamics that have been in play here for twenty years. So often, Jeanette has to assume the role of the “adult” in the relationship because Nelson won’t. We’ve read of Nelson, on a radio show with a studio audience, wanting to kiss her in front of the curtain. That was in the 40s and this is identical behavior in the next decade. Jeanette simply has more reserve than Nelson, especially where ‘going public’ with their relationship is concerned. That’s why it’s so utterly, fabulously compelling that she is the one who initiates the kiss. It would have been exciting but not surprising if it had been Nelson. To have it be her is something else again. Still and all, you can see her go on immediate retreat when his mouth touches hers. Jeanette, as I’ve written about before, was a rule-follower by nature. She was not deceitful, she was not dishonest, she was not a cheat. That’s why she cared so much what Mayer thought, folks. Whether she could or could not do what she wanted in the face of her boss is totally beside the point. To say that Mayer wouldn’t “let” her do something is over-simplifying the situation. Jeanette’s conscience dictated that she toe the line. It is not in her nature to have an affair. It just isn’t. That’s why this is so complicated. Twenty-some years into her relationship with Nelson and marriage to Gene Raymond, she still isn’t the affair type. The situation is hopelessly compounded by the fact that there is no earthly way she can quit Nelson. Their bodies and eyes and betray them with regularity, but this kiss comes dangerously close to crossing a line in this public space. Jeanette cares what people think and what they say. Nelson doesn’t. Kissing him in an unscripted way on this national stage is outside the limits of her personal propriety. It’s one thing to do it, it’s a whole other thing to do it and have everybody know. This situation is, yet again, a dichotomy. Her playful, affectionate nature would love a kiss (she initiated it, can I just repeat that here?!) but her sense of guilt will not allow her to go with it.
Another thing it’s important to note here is that this television appearance happened shortly before the meeting Jeanette orchestrated in a New York attorney’s office with all four spouses present. The topic of this pow-wow was two divorces. Gene and Ann were agreeable, but when Nelson was struck by how severely he’d be taken to the cleaners, he balked and that was the end of that, causing another serious rift between them in 1958. But what you’re seeing here is two people who, yet again, have marriage on their minds. Sunny Griffin said, in his videotaped interview with Sharon Rich, that they discussed getting married all the time (this was in the fifties); marriage was something in which they were both interested. The mid-fifties were a really good period for them as a couple, with a lot of time spent together in New York. By the time they did The Big Record they were in such a good place personally that Jeanette was working behind the scenes to arrange for Ann and Gene to come to New York and talk turkey. While the outcome of the meeting was not good, what we are seeing is the happiness that prompted the meeting in the first place. It makes sense, when considering this part of the story, that Jeanette’s reserve would be in evidence when Nelson kisses her—why would she want to screw something up in the home stretch? Nelson never did care about that kind of thing, not where she was concerned.
This is their story. This is the story. These two people and how much they loved each other and the hard-fought reality of that love is the story. The pride on Nelson’s face as he shares the stage with the love of his life has struck me perhaps more deeply than anything else about this longed-for footage. I have yet to see film or photograph that shows Nelson this happy in the last decade of his life. Losing her killed him. He lost everything. Here, he has everything; his girl and his music. His entire world is in his arms. To borrow a phrase coined by Isabel Eddy upon watching her son with Jeanette, he is “beaming like a headlight.” She is there and she is his in front of everyone in these moments. We might as well be back in the café in Maytime, looking at him and his beautiful adorable glamorous glorious radiant indescribable vision of perfected loveliness (shake). It is staggering to consider how strong they were, how they were able to hold onto each other and keep going, somehow. These people buried their child. They lost seven other pregnancies. They’d had a multiple-year breakup and had been unable to survive without each other. They’d made life-ruining decisions and had to live with the torture of the consequences. Life has chewed them up and spit them out and yet, still, they stand on this stage and find tremendous, powerful ecstasy in each other. That’s the story. That’s why we’re here.
Happy Valentine’s Day.