Jeanette MacDonald: The Girl of the Golden Voice

Between her successful tenures as a Broadway showstopper and a favorite on the concert stage, this vibrant bronze-tressed soprano delighted film audiences of the ’30s and ’40s in a string of memorable light musical fare. The youngest of three daughters, born in 1903 to a Philadelphia building contractor, Jeanette Anna MacDonald made her first stage appearance at age six, and landed her first Broadway dancing assignment at 16. The family moved to New York in furtherance of her career, and it wasn’t long before she was forgoing her formal education in favor of voice and dance lessons. Her breakout came with the 1923 musical The Magic Ring, and she’d remain busy on the Great White Way through the balance of the decade, by then dropping her middle name and becoming Jeanette MacDonald.

After seeing her in performance, Ernst Lubitsch offered her the female lead opposite Maurice Chevalier in 1929’s The Love Parade. In 1930, she appeared in The Lottery Bride, a song-filled romantic comedy set in Norway that was the only film produced by Broadway legend Arthur Hammerstein. Co-stars John Garrick, Joe E. Brown and Zazu Pitts joined in the musical fun.

Jeanette MacDonald would spend several fruitful years at Paramount, frequently in collaboration with Lubitsch and/or Chevalier, in saucy offerings like 1930’s The Vagabond King and Monte Carlo. Along with One Hour with You, 1932 would offer Jeanette the biggest hit of her Paramount years, when she and Chevalier headlined Love Me Tonight, whose Rodgers/Hart soundtrack includes her renditions of  “Lover” and “Isn’t It Romantic.” Leonard Maltin called it “one of the best musicals ever made!” After her contract with the studio lapsed, MacDonald took a brief hiatus from the cinema for a concert tour of Europe.

By then, MGM’s Irving Thalberg was anticipating a surge in the musical genre, and was determined to lure Jeanette back to be at its vanguard. Her first starring vehicle was 1934’s The Cat and the Fiddle, which co-starred her with former silent heartthrob Ramon Novarro. The same year found her reunited with Lubitsch and Chevalier for their memorable rendering of The Merry Widow, a reworking of Franz Lehar’s delightful operetta with added songs from the team of Rodgers and Hart, although it has been said that Lorenz Hart worked alone on this effort.

Jeanette MacDonaldThe studio brass resolved afterwards to bring a more family-friendly tone to her vehicles, and their search for her leading man in 1935’s Naughty Marietta brought them to one of their more obscure contract players, a handsome if stolid baritone named Nelson Eddy. The Victor Herbert music was ideally suited for them both, and audiences couldn’t get enough of their now-famous screen duets of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” and “Italian Street Song.” Nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, Naughty Marietta narrowly lost out to Mutiny on the Bounty.

Their affinity was immediate, and MacDonald and Eddy would become one of Hollywood history’s most iconic pairings in a string of enduringly popular operetta musicals released through the ’30s and ‘40s. Their 1936 success, the Rudolf Friml operetta Rose Marie, gave them perhaps their best-known duet as they sang Friml and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Indian Love Call.” That same year, Jeanette took a break from the operetta venue and appeared in one of her handful of projects sans Eddy, a highly regarded dramatic turn in San Francisco, opposite Clark Gableand Spencer Tracy. According to reports, it was Jeanette who insisted on getting Gable to co-star. He originally balked, saying, “I just sit there while she sings? None of that stuff for me.”

The rumor mill spewed that Jeanette and Clark completely avoided each other away from the set and were not at all compatible during filming. Apparently, audiences never noticed and it came as no surprise that San Francisco was a resounding success. Jeanette’s delivery of the title song at the film’s finale brought her more fans than ever imagined and her star continued to rise.

Back with Eddy, she appeared in Maytime (1937), another classic Sigmund Romberg operetta, which also starred John Barrymore; and, taking time in between to appear in another songfest, The Firefly, with Allan Jones, who wowed moviegoers with “Donkey Serenade.” Over the course of this heyday, in 1937, she entered into her 28-year union with actor Gene Raymond. After being married to Raymond for six years, Jeanette volunteered, “I can’t believe how blessed I am! I’m married to the most wonderful man, Gene Raymond, whom I’m deeply in love with, and, my career is right where I want it to be. I can live like this forever!” Oddly enough however, and probably with great humor, it’s been said when asked by a friend years later why she didn’t marry Nelson Eddy instead, Jeanette quipped, “I must have had rocks in my head.” She would remain happily married to Raymond until her passing.

Nelson Eddy also made films without his famous co-star, and in 1937 he scored a big hit with MGM’s dancing superstar Eleanor Powell in the romantic Cole Porter musical Rosalie. Eddy, cast as a football-playing West Point cadet, falls in love with European princess Powell, and is aided in his efforts by faithful friend Ray Bolger. Politics and music merged when Nelson Let Freedom Ring in 1939; then the studio paired him with Ilona Massey in Balalaika in 1939 and with Rise Stevens in The Chocolate Soldier (1941). Another appearance without Jeanette was in 1943 with The Phantom of the Opera, in which he seemed out of place–but it did big box office for Universal. Possibly Eddy’s most unusual solo outing was when he supplied the voice of Willie, the operatic title star of The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, a segment of the 1946 Disney animated feature Make Mine Music. In 1955, Eddy would appear on television to star in Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song, which some feel would have been a perfect pairing for the MacDonald/Eddy duo.

After making films away from each other, audiences demanded that the dynamic duo make another movie together and in 1938, MGM responded with The Girl of the Golden West. The score was written by Sigmund Romberg with lyrics from Gus Kahn and it was a smash success — but was nothing compared to their next pairing. Later that year, fans stood in unprecedented lines to see the first Technicolor MacDonald/Eddy event, Sweethearts, another Victor Herbert triumph. The storyline was tailor made for the MacDonald/Eddy dream team, who star as a successful Broadway singing duo–sort of a musical comedy version of Lunt and Fontanne–whose happy lives quickly change when Hollywood offers come calling, causing mistaken identities, conniving agents and gossip columnists to wreak havoc on their once-peaceful relationship.

MacDonald followed with 1939’s Broadway Serenade with Lew Ayres but their fans again clamored for Jeanette to appear together with Eddy: 1940’s Technicolor musical drama, Bitter Sweet, their seventh film together, based on the Noel Coward stage success, which includes their duet, “I’ll See You Again.”  Romberg’s musical on the high seas, New Moon followed, containing some of their best musical numbers including “Lover Come Back to Me”,”Stout-Hearted Men” and “Wanting You.”  In 1941, Miss MacDonald appeared on screen with her real-life husband in their first and only film together, Smilin’ Through, the music-filled melodrama in which Jeanette sings “Land of Hope and Glory,” whose music is well-known as “Pomp and Circumstance” traditionally heard at graduation ceremonies around the world. By the WWII years, the operetta formula had lost its vogue, and the MacDonald/Eddy pairing made its last bow in its biggest misfire, the 1942 modern-dress effort I Married an Angel. That same year she played opposite Robert Young in the unlikely musical/spy drama Cairo, notable mainly for a scene where Young asks her “Have you ever been in San Francisco?,” to which MacDonald replies, “Yes, once with Gable and Tracy, and the joint fell apart!”

Jeanette subsequently turned her attentions to the stage and war benefits, attending countless USO appearances and making a mere handful of films–a cameo in the 1944 all-star revue Follow the Boys; with Jane Powell in the 1948 musical Three Daring Daughters; and her highly underrated performance in the 1949 Lassie drama The Sun Comes Up–before calling it a day.

She thereafter busied herself with touring and the occasional TV appearance, though ongoing heart ailments would find her curtailing her activity by the mid-‘50s and made her last appearance in public when she sang at the funeral of Louis B. Mayer in 1957. She continued in declining health for another decade, reportedly passing on comeback opportunities like the role of Mother Abbess in Broadway’s The Sound of Music. At her funeral in 1965, Eddy, Chevalier and Jones were among her pallbearers at Forest Lawn Cemetery, as a recording of Jeanette’s signature classic, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,” was played to sobbing crowds.

Now, enjoy some scenes with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the trailer from MGM’s Maytime from 1937:

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