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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  • Kent Gravett

    Nice reminder of a fine lady. However, I vote for their duo of “Wanting You” in The New Moon as their best duo. If anyone gets a chance listen to it and enjoy the fun of the entire movie–one of their best.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Jerry Frebowitz

    We think it is safe to say that New Moon will be coming to DVD one of these days and fans, young and old, can enjoy the beauty of these two great stars singing together.

  • JIM RICK

    SINCE I GREW UP BEING A JANE POWELL FAN (40′S AND 50″S) MY EARLY EXPOSURE OF JEANETTE WAS IN “THREE DARING DAUGHTERS”)…AND FOUND HER REMARKABLE…ALSO SHE LOOKED LIKE POWELL, AS DID ANN SOUTHERN IN “NANCY GOES TO RIO”…OF COURSE NOW I HAVE SEEN MOST OF HER FILMS AND THINK SHE WAS GREAT…..

  • David Ecklein

    I too would like to see “New Moon” reissued on DVD, with the same treatment that “Naughty Marietta” and “Sweethearts” are now getting. It has been our favorite classic movie even since we first “discovered” it several years ago. Of course, a box set of all eight Eddy-MacDonald MGMs on DVD would be even more appreciated. Our VHS tapes are wearing out!

  • Ruth Hanson

    I was first introduced to Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy when I was in junior high (l956. Our music teacher showed Naughty Marietta to us. We were thrilled by their beautiful voices and good looks. Have been an avid fan ever since. Hope all of their movies get put on DVD so we can enjoy them for years to come.

  • joan m. slotnick

    There is and will never be another like Jeanette MacDonald. Beautiful and sweet which came through when she was on the screen in everything she did. MacDonald and Eddy were the finest pairing of voices and brought joy to all in their movies. I have ordered Naughty Marietta and wish that New Moon would also be released on DVD. Listening and watching them is pure pleasure.
    She is so missed as is Nelson Eddy.
    They just don’t make them like them anymore.

  • Diane Flaherty

    In case you Nelson and Jeanette fans were not aware, there is still an organization of loyal fans: The Nelson Eddy Appreciation Society. We are a world-wide Society. Check out our site at:
    http://www.nelsoneddysociety.org

  • Richard Compton

    Nelson has a great voice and knew how to sing and harmonize with all the great opera and concert voices.

  • Jim

    A great voice that low fidelity recording equipment of her day was sadly never able to capture. An exceptional dramatic performance in San Francisco.

  • JSG

    How nice to see Jeanette’s name mentioned. I too would love to see more of her on DVD. I was thrilled to get the collection of her early Paramount films, but along with the Eddy pairings I’d really like to see Three Daring Daughters, TheCat and the Fiddle, The Merry Widow, The Firefly, and one of my favorites, Smilin’ Through with her husband Gene Raymond (the color is beautiful and the music lovely).

  • Ashley Standeven

    I have been in love with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy my entire life. My mother expose me to them when I was very young (I’m currently 23) and I couldn’t thank her more for that. They’re films, not to mention their onscreen chemistry, were simply breathtaking… You could truly tell they were in love with eachother. To this day, when I watch their films or hear one of their songs come up on my iPod, I always have to stop and sing with them. …it’s infectious. They have had such an amazing influence on my life, and I can’t wait to share them with my children… When I have them! lol

  • Dave

    What song did she sing at Louis B. Mayer’s funeral? Anyone know?

  • Florence Mitchell Dryer

    As a child living in Philadelphia, I would only go to the movies if it were a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie. (I’m 78 years old, so that was a long time ago). They were (and still are) my favorite singing duo. I have pre-ordered “Naughty Marietta” and “Sweethearts” and would love to see (and own) all of their movies on DVD!

  • Paul Brogan

    At Mr. Mayer’s funeral Miss MacDonald sang “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life”. The funeral was not actually her final public appearance. In 1958 she and her husband were interviewed by Edward R. Murrow and in 1959 she starred on the stage in “Bitter Sweet” in several locations to standing room only crowds.

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  • Barbara (Bronken)

    So glad to see some of the MacDonald/Eddy films starting to come out on DVD… however slowly. They have been extremely difficult to find. As others commented, I too would love to see ALL their films come out as a boxed set.

  • Gail

    Loved all of the Jeannette and Nelson Eddy films. Glad they are finallt being releasex to DVD

  • Douglas

    I feel that the romantic duet “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” was her best performance. I have all but one of her movies (Annabelle`s Affairs (1931). She suffered her first heart attack during the filming of “The Sun Comes Up” (1949), and her health was failing from that time.

  • Bernard Seto

    So nice to read something about Jeanette MacDonald
    in this age of DVD/Blueray/ipad’s—Warner Archive
    is still taking their sweet time in releasing
    all the Jeanette-Nelson musicals! Can’t they see that there are a lot of Jeanette/Nelson fans out there ?? They have released all the Kate/Spencer
    and Fred/Ginger and Myrna Loy/Dick Powell “duets”
    Give us the rest of the Jeanette/Nelson musicals !!

  • Alexander Foundoukis

    Jeanette MacDonald, The Iron Butterfly, was beautiful, had the lovliest voice, was great in comedy and in drama and died too young. Tahankfully we have DVDs, Tapes, Laserdiscs, and various recordings on wax, vinyl and CD.

  • Tom S

    Please release the rest of the MacDonald/Eddy films on DVD. Without Nelson she was great in San Francisco, Broadway Serenade and especialy The Firefly. I read everyones comments and was surprised the the great film Maytime was not mentioned.

  • Roger Phillips

    I love Jeanette MacDonald. I have four of the MacDonald/Eddy movies; do a google in the internet and you can find how to order. My favorite songs are “Sweet Mystery of Life” and “Indian Love Call”–it’s corny but I wish I could get “Indian Love Call” for my cell phone ring! J is great in the Lubitsch musicals and also “Love Me Tonight”. A plus of “Sweethearts” is seeing her hair in color. She couldn’t go wrong with both Gable and Tracy in “San Francisco”. I found the old book “Sweethearts” in a used store; it says Jeannette and Nelson were lovers in real life though they married others. They were born about the same time and he died not too long after she did. I also was lucky to find a CD made of recordings of some of their songs and love to listen to it. They were the singing version of Astaire/Rogers. They deserve to be more well known today.

  • Ashley Standeven

    Maytime is my FAVORITE film of Jeanette and Nelson’s! However, I cry every time John Barrymore kills Nelson at the end. But when they end up together at last and sing “Will You Remember” when they walk the path it’s just so beautiful, both visually and musically. Oh! I also wanted to say… I personally have “Indian Love Call” as one of my ringtones! “When I’m calling yooooooooouuuu! Will you answer tooooooooo?” I love it! :)

  • Bunny

    I was introduced to the Jennet/Eddy movies by my father who took me to an unversity campus theater at the university where he was a professor, I was in Jr.High at the time and instantly fell in love with this magical couple. During this time period, my Beatle and Monkee albums bit the dust to make way for a new collection of anything staring Jenette or Eddy. back then it was albums that I collected- now I have a shelf full of their videos! I’m an avid fan oflate night television I was so surprised and dekighted when I caught an old 1950′era Jenette film on tv! It was a “Lassie” movie with a very young Dwayne Hickman( Dobie Gillis), who plyed her son. I found an old video at a second-hand store- “Willie the Operaic whale!” Nelson voiced Willie who sang “Shortin’Bread”

  • Julie Illescas

    I have been a fan of Miss MacDonald and Mr. Eddy since discovering them on tv in 1956. They were a delightful combination of true musical artistry and complimented each other perfectly.

    You can’t imagine how delighted I was to read of the upcoming releases of two of their most memorable films, NAUGHTY MARIETTA and SWEETHEARTS! J and N fans have waited SO LONG for the powers that be to release the 8 films that they made at MGM from 1935 to 1942. I don’t know who is responsible for this epiphany, but we are so grateful it has finally come! Please, please, consider offering their other 6 starring films! Each is a delight in its own right. The MacDonald/Eddy team is still winning new converts, even in this day and age! True talent never fades..and Jeanette and Nelson had it..in spades! Time may lie heavy between, but what has been, is past forgetting (Noel Coward – Bittersweet). Thank you so much!

  • Gloria Briganti

    Loving operettas, my all time favorites, naturally, Jeanette and Eddy. As for the comments of Roger Phillips, 4/26/11, I too have always heard that they were deeply in love, but Eddy’s mother did not approve and they didn’t marry. I also heard that being married to Gene Raymond (who looked a little like Eddy)was not that happy, but he would not give her a divorce. Can anyone varify that? That’s why I was a little surprised of the write up above.

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  • Muriel Parsons

    I fell in love with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy as child when i would see them in the small theatre that we as children would go to every Saturday. I imagined that i would have such a love story in my life but i didn’t as dreams such as these often don’t come true. Now 60 years later, i can see and dream of them once again.

  • Ashley Standeven

    Gloria- if you’re interested in learning more about their personal relationship I would recommend reading the book “Sweethearts” by Sharon Rich. It goes into detail about their relationship and is backed up by extensive research. …it’s a fascinating read if you love these two as I do! :)

  • Martin Stumacher

    What a joy it is to see Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I can’t begin to describe the beautiful feeling I get when I hear their voices blended together. They are one more example of what made the Golden Age Film

  • Mary Connolly

    Ialso love Jeanette and Nelson and have been a fan for most of my life, I have most of their films courtesy of late night TV but would love to get New Moon and Nelson Eddy’s one I cannot remember it’s name but it is set during the 2WW and then goes back in time. Does anyone remember the name of that film. Unfortunately when The Merry Widow was sent to Australia some bright spark renamed it The Lady Dances. But Jeanette and Nelson were just magic together.

  • tom bratton

    Along with the voice, Jeanette had a classic face, particularly in profile. She could have easily been the model for the “Gibson Girl” image.

  • Barbrasgirl8

    Mary, I think you mean “Smilin’ Through” which was set in WW2 and co-starred Gene Raymond, an Eddy look alike (but not as handsome and a better actor) with Jeanette.

  • bern

    hi so glad to see so many maceddy fans-they were amazing- as rene fleming has said on tcm”they did it all” their voices blended so well together it is pure joy..i run a yahoo group for sharon rich(author of sweethearts) and we have been sending emails and letters to warner and tcm to please release some dvd’s a box set would be nice but i believe if the respons is great enough-they will
    i like to give back some of the joy jeanette and nelson have given to me- i discovered them in my teens in “maytime” still my favorite- the chemistry and beauty were and are unmatched
    so we will contiue to send our letters and ask for the box set of our darling duo
    bernadette

  • Vivienne

    Nelson Eddy and jeanette MacDonald had the most beautiful voices, their coming together on the screen was magic. Their voices could never be duplicated and they are still loved all over the world.

  • Colin McIntosh

    Great to heaar that DVDs are being issued. Will they come to Britain?

  • Mary Connolly

    Just remembered the name of the WW2 film that Nelson Eddy was in it is Smiling Through, does anyone know if or when that will be released.

    • Dar

      Actually, it was Gene Raymond in Smilin’ Through.

  • Linda Schiffer

    I always found her voice annoying and tinny sounding in her earlier films, but obviously that was due to the technology of the day. While she did have a lovely voice, does anyone recall the beautiful operatic voice of IRENE DUNNE? Just listen to her in “Roberta” or the earlier version of “Showboat.” Her voice, even in those early films of the 1930s and 1940s technology was clear as a bell.

    • Jo

      They did not have technology in those early days that is why so many stars did not make it in talkies. Jeanette MacDonald’s voice was beautiful and a bell ringing sound for as long as I can remember. Perhaps the theatre you saw her films in had a rotten sound system. Yes, Irene Dunne had a lovely voice, but it was not as strong as MacDonald’s was, nor had the range.

  • JSG

    Read “Hollywood Diva:A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald” by Edward Baron Turk, for an accurate story of the life and loves of Jeanette MacDonald. Unfortunately people seem to be following the Sharon Rich tabloid book of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Sharon Rich used Jeanette’s Sister Blossom Rock to validate her invented stories about a supposed relationship Between Jeanette and Nelson. It is all fiction! Blossom, unfortunately had had a stroke and was living in the Motion Picture Country Home and Sharon Rich would hang around her whenever she could to later use her, after her death, as her source. My mother new Jeanette and Gene well and Jeanette’s family and this Nelson Eddy romance is TRIPE!

    • cicciuzzu

      I’ve read both. I prefer Sharon Rich’s book if only because it offers the reader an incredible romantic tale of two star crossed lovers rather than Turk’s bone dry account. We’ll never know the truth of the MacDonald – Eddy affair, but I for one, after viewing all the photos of the pair lounging together at Tahoe, find Turk’s claim they didn’t like each other hard to believe.

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  • rob

    “light musical fare”? Maytime is a classic and hardly light musical fare. You also can’t list Smilin’ Through in the category of light musical. They are probably among her best films along with Rose Marie.

  • Al Hooper

    I agree: “Rose Marie” was the best of them all. As much fun today as it was when first released.
    – Al Hooper (E-HOOPER.COM)