Jeanette MacDonald knew how to flaunt spunk like no other woman in her time and, incredibly, she reigned during an era of ultra-spunky women. Jeanette knew how to be feisty and flirty without losing any of her natural refinement which made her ideal to play roles of princesses in the guise of commoners, a recurring theme in her films and one which began with Naughty Marietta (1935), the first picture to feature the magical pairing of MacDonald with Nelson Eddy.
Now, who would have predicted that an old Victor Herbert operetta (1910) starring two relatively unknown film personalities would become the smash hit of 1935? Ah, sweet mystery of showbiz! Producer Hunt Stromberg evidently recognized the wealth to be found in this gem of a pairing. MacDonald and Eddy were such an engaging duo and audiences immediately loved the unique quality of their onscreen comradery; their playful banter, scrumptious singing voices, and their fetching good looks.
Naughty Marietta was hugely successful and established MacDonald and Eddy as the “Singing Sweethearts.” Their first film together featured all of the special ingredients that would be included in each subsequent MacDonald/Eddy musical: adventure, romance, witty dialogue, humor, and beautiful music.
Jeanette MacDonald stars as Princess Marie of France, who is being pressured by her evil uncle (Douglas Dumbrille) to wed the foppish Don Carlos of Spain. To escape from this fate she swaps places with her maid, Marietta, and joins a shipload of casquette girls bound for America. Casquette girls were French women that were sent to the French colonies of Louisiana to be the wives of colonists.
Just as they approach Louisiana they are captured by a band of pirates and dragged to their lair in the swamps. Who comes to their rescue but the dashing Captain Warrington (Nelson Eddy), leader of a troop of mercenaries. Hoorah for Captain Warrington! He quickly recognizes the regal quality of Marietta’s bearing but has no inkling that she is a princess in disguise. Instead, smitten with her charms, he begins to woo her, and within thirty minutes (of film time) she falls for his winsome ways….as does the audience.
Naughty Marietta is pure entertainment from start to finish and justly deserved its Best Picture Oscar nomination that year. If the script seems to have that added sparkle it is because it was penned by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, whose work included the Thin Man series and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Victor Herbert’s beautiful musical numbers included “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” ( which became MacDonald’s signature song), “Italian Street Song”, “Chansonette”, “Tramp Tramp Tramp” and the lovely “I’m Falling in Love with Someone.” MacDonald and Eddy were not only talented singers but adroit comedians as well. The “‘Neath the Southern Moon” sequence and the marionette number are particularly amusing. To add to the merriment, MGM assembled a top-notch supporting cast which included Frank Morgan as Governor d’Annard, Elsa Lanchester as the Governor’s wife, Cecilia Parker (in her pre-Andy Hardy days) as Marietta’s friend Julie, and Akim Tamiroff as Rudolpho, the gypsy king.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”
This article originally ran on MovieFanFare last November, and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing 10th anniversary celebrations.