It’s a crime, really. Say the name Jeanette MacDonald to almost anyone (except a TCM fan) and you’ll get a blank stare for your trouble. And yet, she was one of the most popular actresses/singers of the 1930s and 40s, with box office numbers that rivaled, and often topped, her contemporaries across the board. (Here she is with Ty Power, crowned the King and Queen of the Movies in 1939.)
Her 1939 film, SWEETHEARTS, turned a profit while now-classic THE WIZARD OF OZ did not. So, why haven’t more people heard of her? It pretty much comes down to one word: Operetta. This filmed musical form had its heyday in the 30’s, then sank into almost complete obscurity thanks to changing public taste. Jeanette’s soaring soprano voice, most often associated with Nelson Eddy’s powerful baritone, rang with sentimental, unvarnished romance. The once-unstoppable movie twosome’s popularity was ultimately trounced by cynical audiences who turned to jive, boogie-woogie, and rock.
I discovered Jeanette through parody—hoop-skirted Carol Burnett batted her eyes and hollered into the face of fey Mountie Harvey Korman. When I finally sat down to watch ROSE-MARIE (the film Carol was spoofing), I—surprise!—simply fell in love with Jeanette.
Who knew? I started researching her life and—surprise again—there’s an enormous, fiercely fought, still burning (!) controversy about her life! Goodness! This raging controversy is summed up neatly on Wiki-pedia and much more elaborately documented in two diametrically opposed biographies of the cinema songbird. Is she really Nelson Eddy’s jealous, paranoid, fragile, edgy, swooning closet mistress? That’s what Sharon Rich, author of Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair–on screen and off–between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, would have us believe.
Miscarriages, drunken fights, rape, secret marriages, suicide attempts—you name it, MacDonald and Eddy went through it. You might ask (I certainly did) where on earth the author got all this juicy dirt. One of the star witnesses (among her impressive list of conferees and sources) is Nelson Eddy’s MOTHER! This copious diarist kept a record of everything Nelson wrote and/or said to her about Jeanette. Apparently, that included fairly explicit accounts of stuff most sons don’t keep written reports of, much less spell out to Dear Old Mom. I know a boy’s best friend is his mother, but if my son sent that kind of lurid detail to me, I’d be forwarding it along to a shrink!
And in the other corner, we have a very affectionate portrait of a high-spirited, healthy, stable but firm-willed prima donna in Edward Baron Turk’s satisfyingly chunky bio entitled Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald.
Turk is unapologetically nuts about Jeanette—witness his introductory caveat: “In today’s world, connecting with MacDonald calls for a shifting of gears. You have to let beauty, grace, and gallantry reenter your scheme of values. You have to acknowledge the redemptive power of romantic yearning and heartfelt sentiment. You must submit to the caressing intensity of soprano lyricism. And you need to respond to an erotic charge that perfectly balances sensuality with modesty, passion with restraint.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but sign me up! Who needs Fifty Shades of Gray when you’ve got Jeanette in Technicolor?
I waffled about which version to present here, but finally realized the only way we’d know for sure is to haul out the Ouija board. Aside from that, you’ll just have to read both books and make up your own mind. (Apparently, TCM’s Robert Osborne admits Sharon Rich’s version has a lot of evidence and seems to indicate there MAY indeed be some truth to it. Fascinating!)
Meanwhile, how ‘bout we settle for some of the timeless life lessons the lovely, silver-throated Jeanette has for today’s woman? Before the word became associated with screaming matches between tiara-wearing toddlers and stage-mothers, Jeanette was a true Diva. Let’s see what she can teach us about living the divalicious life, shall we?
Jeanette’s ”Diva by Design” Disciplines
Diva Discipline #1: Start huge
At 14, Jeanette had been singing for her supper in kid’s groups for years when, at a recital, she heard a soprano’s impossibly held high note. When she got home, still keyed up, she raced to her room and began to sing.” I started to let my voice go free, first low, then high, higher than I’d ever sung before…not with the clear, little girl’s voice I’d had until then, but with richer, higher tones, the way that grownups could sing.” She’d found her calling—now, she had to look the part.
Jeanette’s Aunt Sally had borderline vulgar taste, but still entranced her niece with an unabashedly feminine style. “She looked so radiantly beautiful that I’d gasp for breath at the sight of her. I wanted to look like Aunt Sally, hats and all.”
Believing her freckly, red-haired, broomstick-legged teenaged self was an affront to nature, Jeanette used every trick in the book to develop an angelic, ladylike, frothy style—including annexing the famed costume designer Adrian.
And did it work! Watch Technicolor Jeanette in SMILIN’ THROUGH and see if you can keep from gasping when she explodes into view, flame-red hair curling softly around her pretty face, full, rosy-red lips parted in a dazzling smile, vivid sea blue eyes sparkling. She’s a stunner! Divas know image isn’t everything, but it’s plenty.
Diva Discipline #2: The French art of coquetry
In those busy teen years, Jeanette earned a salary in Al White’s singing children’s troupe and was singled out as a real “prima donna.” White taught her to deliver a song French dancehall style…flirty, slightly naughty, but still naïve and charming. Jeanette learned to be saucy, comical, and mischievous by darting sidelong glances to the crowd as she sang, inviting them to laugh with her.
She never forgot those tricks—see her making impish moues and flirting shamelessly in her opening numbers in NAUGHTY MARIETTA and ROSE-MARIE. But somehow, thanks to an angelic face and ladylike nuances, she never sunk to vulgarity.
Jeanette relied on her coquette’s charm to get her out of trouble time and again. In 1934, director Woody Van Dyke II yelled at Jeanette for holding up the shoot early in the filming of NAUGHTY MARIETTA. Jeanette’s response was to arrive the next morning in a huge doghouse, borne by complicit stagehands. She cooed a coy apology—and offered an apple through the doghouse door—before appearing. Delighted, Woody became her number one fan and a close friend for life. Divas know the power of flirting.
Diva Discipline #3: Drama, drama, drama
To add grace to her singing gestures, Jeanette absorbed a fledgling version of modern dance from early mentor Albertina Rasch, a danseuse who wowed the Hippodrome crowd with a mash-up of pointe and interpretive dance. Pounding the floor with a clichéd cane and screaming in Russian, the “Czarina” taught Jeanette that “if a woman’s body is lithe and resilient and perfectly controlled and she possesses ‘an abundant vitality,’ she will “project, regardless of her actual social stratum, the manners and mental attitudes Europeans typically associate with aristocratic breeding.” From Rasch, Jeanette learned to glide gracefully, rather than stride vigorously, across a stage.
Jeanette put that lesson (and a few others) to work one evening, according to a friend’s reminiscence of a restaurant visit. It seems Jeanette needed, rather urgently, to use the ladies’ room, but rather than slip out a nearby side exit, Jeanette waited (and waited) until the orchestra took a break and the dance floor cleared. Then, she rose and majestically swept across massive, empty dance floor—all eyes upon her. Why the drama? Well, Jeanette happened to be wearing a simply gorgeous embroidered Spanish shawl with long fringe, and, she explained to her quizzical friend, “At times like this, I think I’m the most beautiful thing in the world—and beauty is something that shouldn’t be kept private.” Divas know how to keep your attention.
Diva Dictate #4: Damage control
To craft herself into an operatic force, Jeanette studied French (de rigueur for artistes of taste) at Berlitz, voice at a Manhattan operatic studio, dance with Wayburn, and even riding lessons (you never know when you’re going to get that Valkyrie role). To pay for these studies, she modeled. One sweltering July day, Jeanette posed in furs at a photo shoot; afterwards she remarked to a male friend that she was certainly aglow with perspiration during the shoot. When he snarkily implied she got the modeling gig by sweating in another fashion, she decked him on the street.
Years later, when a nasty rumor surfaced in Europe that Jeanette had died in a car crash with a naughty prince, she again took her reputation in her own hands and organized a singing tour of France. The French clasped her to their collective bosom, calling her “La Belle Americaine.”
One Parisian journalist swooned: “Jeanette MacDonald is not a woman of ordinary dreams and adventures. She is not a heartless beauty holding out a tired promise of vague possibilities (Editor’s note: Marlene D., call your office). Everything in her delicate being hints of real sensual delight and urges you on to ecstasy…call it sex-appeal, if you must. But she has so much more. Her bewitching qualities transcend vulgarity. They elevate dreams and exalt desire.” Divas protect their brand.
Diva Discipline #5: Show ‘em who’s boss
A family scandal made Jeanette leery of men’s promises; she feared being controlled by any man. Her classic diva response was to do the controlling, but in an utterly feminine, beguiling way. Jeanette’s earliest mentor in this was Mitzi, an elfin Broadway singer and friend: “Very early in my career,” the pint-sized prima donna declared, “I made it a rule to give myself an I-Owe-Me present every year. An expensive one. That way, no dirty old man will ever have an I.O.U. on me!” Jeanette acted on that lesson when she arrived in Manhattan for the 1934 world premier of THE LOVE PARADE, her first stop was Cartier’s for an emerald-cut diamond ring.
Once in Hollywood, Jeanette embraced all the trappings of divadom: She moved to a chi-chi address, insisted on pay increases and top billing, indulged in moments of pretty pique, and charmingly admitted when she was wrong. She practiced a swooping signature and insisted her roles must have an “M” in the name to honor her lucky number, 13 (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet). She posed for publicity pictures in le dernier cri ensembles.
Her sets were off limits to unannounced visitors. She lunched alone in her dressing room on fresh veggies brought from home.
She once stomped on an ugly wig, refusing to wear it. Her agent foolishly used an ugly racial slur in her presence; Jeanette fired him on the spot. When offered what she perceived as an insulting salary for a radio broadcast, she fought fiercely for a salary worthy someone of her status, both a movie and radio star. To teach her miserly bosses a lesson, she then donated that hard-fought salary to charity. Divas do it with flair.
Diva Discipline #6: Play every angle (and curve)
(What was all the fuss about? Get an earful here.)… Jeanette wanted to branch out from European-style farces and costumed operettas and prove she could carry a picture without a towering blonde baritone or a smarmy Frenchman.
So, when Jeanette learned writer Anita Loos wanted her to star in a new non-musical drama called SAN FRANCISCO, our red-headed dynamic diva launched a campaign to get the part and hire a reluctant Clark Gable as her co-star.
Jeanette boldly went behind L. B. Mayer’s back and sent a personal letter to Felix Feist, MGM’s general manager of sales and distribution. Watch and learn, girls—here are excerpts from her masterpiece letter:
Massage his ego: ‘I am appealing to you because I believe you…have more influence on what this gang out here shall do than anyone else.”
Speak his language: “I am more than ever determined that I want to continue making my appeal to this former type of trade who comprise the majority of audiences.”
Spell it out for him: “Please don’t get the impression that I am trying to run your job, but I am interested in making myself, if at all possible, the outstanding personality on the screen, to make my appeal to all classes, music lover, non-music lovers, the layman and his wife, etc.”
Seal it with a kiss: “So there! It’s up to you to get a Gable-MacDonald special for your early Fall release.”
Felix’s telegrammed response: “Not only are you beautiful and talented but you are geedee (god-damned) smart. We adore you. Am working for you.”
SAN FRANCISCO became MGM’s biggest moneymaker (before GONE WITH THE WIND) and garnered 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Divas know how to manage a man.
Diva Discipline #7: Sweat equity
During WWII, Jeanette, like dozens of other Hollywood stars, worked tirelessly to raise war bond money and entertain troops. Nicknamed “The Star-Spangled Singer” and “The Army’s Best Sweetheart,” Jeanette sold songs while Lana Turner sold kisses. “I’ll sing in a field if necessary,” she told USO staffers, “I don’t want a big stage and fancy lighting effects. I only want to sing for as many boys as want to hear me.”
Throughout the scorching summer of 1942, Jeanette sang, sweating along with her audience (hmmm…there seems to be a pattern here), but never failed to dress as if in a concert hall, believing a beautifully dressed woman was a morale-builder.
During one 15-city concert tour Jeanette decided to raise more money by raffling off encores. She told the bidders “You give…and I’ll sing as long as my throat holds out!” One wee girl bid all she had—one dollar—to hear “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”; Jeanette brought her up on stage and sang directly to the entranced child. By tour’s end, Jeanette had raised $94,681.87—the biggest cash contribution from a single entertainer. Divas don’t have to act like divas to prove their greatness.
Diva Discipline #8: Bring it
Jeanette’s incredible voice, deeply emotional performances, and indominable will elevated her to the pinnacle of popularity in an era when goddesses walked the backlots in droves. But it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t developed and honed her talent…all the tricks and tantrums in the world are useless, unless you’ve got the goods to back it up. Whenever Jeanette sang, she brought it! In fact, when syncronising her on-screen singing to the pre-recorded playback, she insisted that the recording of her voice be played at full volume, so that she could sing along in full voice, not sparing herself as many singers did for these sessions. She sang–each time she sang–with her whole heart.
“Halfway ambition,” Jeanette reminds us, “can be a dangerous thing. If you’ve a burning desire to do something, do something!..Given a voice, the girl who wants to become a singer must…be possessed of a determination to succeed that consumes her every other thought.” Divas know passion has a price–and they’re willing to pay it.
At last I’ve found you…
Take a break from the cynical, snarky barb-trading that passes for romance so often and watch this, probably the most famous of the MacDonald-Eddy duets. As you watch, release your modern understanding of romance and love. Open your mind and heart…and ”submit to the caressing intensity of soprano lyricism.” Jeanette believed in her films, saying she wanted audiences to “leave the theater feeling good and happy to be numbered among the human race.” And so we do, Jeanette. Merci.
This blog post is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon 2012. Be sure to check out other bloggers’ insights into the stars we love so much.