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MacDonald, Jeanette (1903-1965)

MacDonald, Jeanette (1903-1965)

Jeanette MacDonald was one of the screen's best-loved singing actresses. The image of the star, greeting the famous earthquake with a song in San Francisco (1936), is forever enshrined in the popular consciousness—an image further immortalized by the verse to Judy Garland's recording of the title song, which recalls how Jeanette "stood among the ruins and sang." She became, and remains, however, equally well-known for her screen partnership with Nelson Eddy. The couple, universally known as "America's Singing Sweethearts" at the height of their popularity during the 1930s, epitomized the lush romantic world of the film operetta in eight films, beginning with Naughty Marietta (1935).

Born on June 18, 1903 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, MacDonald showed promise as a dancer and singer from a very young age. She began her professional career as a chorus girl on Broadway before assuming lead roles in musicals such as Tangerine (1922) and The Magic Ring (1924). Her film debut could not have been more auspicious. Paramount's most stylish European director, Ernst Lubitsch, took a chance on casting the blue-eyed, blond-haired soprano opposite debonair Frenchman Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade (1929). This first of four sophisticated, frothy films she made with Chevalier was a major box-office hit that garnered several Oscar nominations and made the leading lady an overnight star. She signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor Records and cut her first commercial record (songs from The Love Parade) on December 1, 1929. She made a couple of minor forgotten films elsewhere, but continued at Paramount, where she co-starred with Dennis King in The Vagabond King (1930), the first of many film adaptations of Broadway operettas in which she would appear, with British star Jack Buchanan in Monte Carlo (1930), and rejoined Chevalier for One Hour with You (1932), Love Me Tonight (1932), and Lubitsch's entrancing version of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow (1934).

MacDonald made successful European concert tours in 1931 and 1933 that enhanced her already tremendous popularity abroad. It was during the 1933 tour that she met Louis B. Mayer, who offered her an exclusive contract with MGM. She accepted the offer, left Paramount and the world of European high-style, "Ruritanian" operetta sophistication for that of wholesome, out-doorsy American romance, saccharine and innocent. She began her tenure at MGM and her partnership with Nelson Eddy with Naughty Marietta (1935), in which MacDonald plays a French princess who journeys to America and falls in love with an Indian scout. The operatically trained baritone and the fetching soprano warbled "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and captivated the public, who flocked in even greater numbers to Rose Marie (1936). It was quintessential operetta nonsense, with the music offering such disparate delights as "Some of These Days," "Dinah," and scenes from Puccini's Tosca. The film was a monumental success, MacDonald's star status was assured and, together, the "Singing Sweethearts" continued with the whimsical Maytime (1937), The Girl of the Golden West (1938), and Sweethearts (1938; their first in glorious technicolor and the biggest hit of all), The New Moon (1940), Bitter Sweet (1940), and I Married an Angel (1942)—the last, least, and silliest, which spelled the end of the partnership. Together, the couple represented the archetypal screen lovers, who surmount all obstacles to end up together, with MacDonald invariably cast as a well-born woman of one kind or another, caught up in alien circumstances and rescued through the love of the otherwise wooden Eddy, whose beautiful voice and noble profile was the perfect match for her.

In between the run of successful operetta, MacDonald co-starred with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco, with Allan Jones in The Firefly (1937), and with Gene Raymond, her husband from 1937, in Smilin' Through (1941).

Wartime audiences were less susceptible to the innocent charms of the MacDonald-Eddy operettas, and MGM terminated MacDonald's contract in 1942. Between 1939 and 1946 she made numerous cross-country concert tours. She constantly broke attendance records, and soon became the biggest box-office draw in the concert world. During World War II, she devoted much of her time to entertaining the troops, and attempted to expand her range to live opera. She made her debut on May 8, 1943, at His Majesty's Theatre in Montreal, Canada, singing Juliet in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, and reprised the role at the Chicago Civic Opera House on November 4, 1944. However, her voice proved too small to carry adequately in an opera house, and further attempts were abandoned.

Her film career was essentially over after the war. She made a cameo appearance in Follow the Boys (1944) for Universal, concluded her illustrious run in 1948 as the mother of Three Daring Daughters, a movie with music rather than a musical, and a Lassie film, The Sun Comes Up. Thereafter, Jeanette MacDonald remained active in radio and on television until her death, making numerous appearances on programs such as "Railroad Hour," "The Voice of Firestone," "The Toast of the Town," "Playhouse 90," and "Person to Person." During the 1950s she played in various summer stock theatrical productions, and made her nightclub debut in Las Vegas in 1953.

Jeanette MacDonald died on January 14, 1965 of heart disease. Her husband, Gene Raymond, was with her throughout her prolonged illness. At her memorial service her recordings of "Ave Maria" and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" were broadcast outside the chapel for the benefit of those who came to pay their respects. She had been a staunch Republican supporter, and her honorary pallbearers included Richard Nixon, former presidents Eisenhower and Truman, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Ronald Reagan.

By the end of the twentieth century, Jeanette MacDonald had become an enduring legend, the memory of her soprano voice and beguiling screen persona kept alive by television. The old-fashioned innocence and pure corn of her films with Nelson Eddy have become objects of affectionate ridicule, best summed up by New York Times critic Judith Crist who, in writing of Naughty Marietta, said, "When these two profiles come together to sing 'Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life', it's beyond camp, it's in a realm of its own."

—William A. Everett

Further Reading:

Baron, Edward. Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.

Castanza, Philip. The Complete Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. New York, Citadel Press, 1978.

Hamann, G. D. Jeanette MacDonald in the 30s. Hollywood, FilmingToday Press, 1996.

Knowles, Eleanor. Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. South Brunswick, New Jersey, A. S. Barnes, 1975.

Parish, James Robert. The Jeanette MacDonald Story. New York, Mason/Charter, 1976.

Stern, Lee Edward. Jeanette MacDonald. New York, Jove Books, 1977.

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