[23 September 2011]
It’s hard to believe that the once thunderously popular movies of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, which were defining MGM musicals of the 1930s, haven’t made it to DVD, but here are two at last through Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service. They contain bonus radio broadcasts, which implies that they’d been prepared for a regular box set release at one time. If those plans were dished, it’s probably because this style of operetta isn’t merely out of fashion, it’s dead and buried.
Their debut as a team is Victor Herbert’s traditional Naughty Marietta, about a French princess who escapes an arranged marriage by fleeing to the colony of Louisiana and meeting a dashing mercenary. This is the one where Jeanette sings “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” (which now makes many of us think of Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein) and Nelson marches to “Tramp Tramp Tramp”.
Today’s movies aren’t any more credible, but this confection is so removed from modern tastes, it’s like examining a lustrous exotic animal in a game preserve. What a glittering pelt. How surprisingly springy between those moments when everything stops dead for the mellifluous yowling. All we can easily recognize is future Oz wizard Frank Morgan being Frank Morgan all over the place. He’s the genial, blustering governor watched over by his lip-curling wife Elsa Lanchester.
It’s a mark of MGM’s respect for this box-office powerhouse duo that Sweethearts was the studio’s first feature in modern Technicolor, and damn, it’s lavish. It also modernizes the pair with a semi-screwball story in contemporary street-smart New York. They’re a married couple whose lives are dominated by a record-breaking six-year Broadway run of Herbert’s eponymous musical, and now and then we witness eye-popping sequences from this play within the play that also stars Ray Bolger, a dancing joy whose one number is over too soon. Red-headed Jeanette comes across as quite sassy, but then she was already a spark plug as Marietta. Eddy is a tall handsome fellow who holds his own without outshining her.
For two hours, there’s almost no plot as the show is largely stolen by supporting characters. There’s Morgan again as their producer, determined to keep them from signing a Hollywood contract. Mischa Auer and Herman Bing are the show’s writer and composer, at each other’s throats. The last reel introduces a complication when the couple is briefly separated, and even this is resolved quickly in a self-conscious reference to how nobody would ever swallow such a plot.
The script is co-written by Dorothy Parker, who must be the source of such lines as “We had a hard time persuading him to lead the orchestra tonight. We had to drop a hat,” and “You’d think in all this time she could have sprained just one ankle” (spoken by Jeanette’s understudy) and “I’ve got a picture we could start shooting tomorrow, if we had a script” (spoken by a Hollywood mogul). That kind of spice makes this project, which is paradoxically flimsy and elephantine at the same time, still at least a partly attractive time-waster.