MacDonald, Jeanette (1903–1965)
MacDonald, Jeanette (1903–1965)
Broadway and Hollywood singer and actress . Name variations: Jeanette MacDonald Raymond; (nicknames) "Jessie," "Jimmie," "Jim-Jam," and "The Iron Butterfly." Born Jeanette Anna MacDonald inPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 18, 1903 (her burial crypt reads 1907, but as a young girl she enrolled in school by presenting birth records that stated 1903); died while preparing for open heart surgery on January 14, 1965, in Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas; daughter of Daniel MacDonald (a building contractor) and Anna (Wright) MacDonald; sister of actress Marie Blake; attended Dunlap Grammar School and West Philadelphia School for Girls in Philadelphia, and Washington Irving High School and Julia Richman High School in New York City; only finished the 10th grade; married Gene Raymond (born Raymond Guion, an actor), on June 16, 1937; no children.
Appeared in "mini operas" at four years old (1907); toured summer resorts on East Coast with Al White's "Six Sunny Song Birds" (1914); joined sister Blossom in The Demi-Tasse Revue in New York City (1919); quit school to appear in Broadway's The Night Boat (1920); after several small parts, played a lead in A Fantastic Fricassee and continued a secondary career in modeling (1922); received star billing in Yes, Yes, Yvette (1927); while appearing in the title role of Broadway's Angela, made a screen test at Paramount Studios in New York (1928–29); appeared as the female star in the movie The Love Parade (1929); after several films with Paramount and Fox, signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and made Naughty Marietta, first of eight films with Nelson Eddy (1935); as operetta began to lose favor with moviegoers, toured in concert (1939); debuted as Juliette in Gounod's opera, Romeo et Juliette, in Montreal (1943); made 29th and final film, The Sun Comes Up (1949); continued recording and personal appearances (through 1957); had an arterial transplant (1963).
The Love Parade (1929); The Vagabond King (1930); Monte Carlo (1930); The Lottery Bride (1930); Let's Go Native (1930); Oh, For a Man! (1930); Galas de la Paramount (Spanish-language version of Paramount on Parade , 1930); Annabelle's Affairs (1931); Don't Bet on Women (1931); Love Me Tonight (1932); One Hour With You (1932); The Merry Widow (1934); The Cat and the Fiddle (1934); Naughty Marietta (1935); San Francisco (1936); Rose Marie (1936); Maytime (1937); The Firefly (1937); Sweethearts (1938); The Girl of the Golden West (1938); Broadway Serenade (1939); New Moon (1940); Bitter Sweet (1940); Smilin' Through (1941); I Married an Angel (1942); Cairo (1942); Follow the Boys (1944); Three Daring Daughters (1948); The Sun Comes Up (1949).
Hollywood critic Louella Parsons once said that Jeanette MacDonald was "Hollywood's greatest show-woman," a person who gave the public what it demanded. By modernday standards, her movies and manners are passé, part of an age when American tastes were uncomplicated and easy to please. But in her heyday, she not only registered box-office successes for a youthful film industry, she also helped promote the independence of female movie stars. She combined her abilities as an outstanding singer and superb comedic actress with good business sense. Her Hollywood nickname, "The Iron Butterfly," sums up her beauty, artistry, business acumen, and independence. In an age that endured sexual harassment with so-called "studio couch auditions," she kept unwanted advances in check, despite appearing in risqué comedies and musicals. Of Scottish, Irish, and English ancestry, MacDonald once said, "I've been told I have an Irish temper, I know I have Scottish thrift, and, like the English, I love a good show."
Jeanette MacDonald began life in 1903 in Philadelphia, the youngest daughter of a middle-class, Presbyterian family, whose father was a building contractor. All of the MacDonald offspring showed interest in entertainment and were encouraged by their parents. The oldest daughter, Elsie MacDonald , ran a dancing, singing, and acting school in her hometown for several years. Blossom, the second child, had a modest career on Broadway and became a character actress in movies and television using the name Marie Blake .
Jeanette began performing with a local music and dance school while only four years old and by six was appearing in mini opera with other child prodigies. She played in Philadelphia vaudeville houses and when eleven years old toured with the "Six Sunny Song Birds," making summer resort engagements along the East Coast.
When Jeanette was 16, her sister Blossom, a member of the chorus line of The Demi-Tasse Revue in New York City, got her a dancing part in the same production. At about this time, the family moved to New York, and Jeanette, whose job lasted only several weeks, enrolled in school. When a minor performer broke her leg while appearing out of town in Jerome Kern's The Night Boat, Jeanette, who had joined the troupe's chorus in Rochester, replaced her, never to pursue a formal education again. The play, which began at the Liberty on February 2, 1920, ran through 148 performances.
Briefly unemployed when The Night Boat closed, MacDonald began training her voice and took dancing lessons. She may also have begun
studying at the local Berlitz language school, for she ultimately mastered French and Spanish. After playing a small part in Irene in Chicago, she managed a larger role in Tangerine, a huge success that opened on Broadway in September 1921 and ran through 337 performances. When not engaged as a performer, she sometimes modeled for New York furriers and lingerie merchants.
Her first important role was in A Fantastic Fricassee at the Greenwich Village Theater on September 11, 1922. After its moderately successful run, she appeared as the second female lead in The Magic Ring. Opening on October 1, 1923, it ran through 96 performances, a respectable figure for Broadway musicals and operettas in the Cinderella years of the 1920s. In it, MacDonald was billed as "the girl with golden red hair and sea-green eyes," who sang "eloquently."
Having played several times at the Liberty Theater, she returned there on December 28, 1925, in Tip Toes, a musical with songs written by George and Ira Gershwin. She was the lead ingenue, attracting the attention of the Broadway Shuberts, who signed her to a contract. The brothers, Sam, Lee, and J.J. ("Jake"), owned theaters in New York and elsewhere. With them, she starred in several so-so musicals, the first being Bubbling Over, a road success which lasted one week on the New York stage. Her next appearance was in Yes, Yes, Yvette, a musical which debuted in New York on November 3,1927. It was by the same producer as No, No, Nanette (1925) and did well in Chicago but failed after 45 performances in New York. MacDonald played the title role, receiving what were generally good reviews.
I never realized how much movie stars mean to people. Not what you do or what you say, but just your presence, your being there. It makes you feel embarrassed and rather humble.
Sunny Days, based on a French farce, opened at the Imperial in February 1928 and was a better vehicle for her. She played Ginette, a young flower shop girl, who is the mistress of a banker. Although it lasted four months, the music was considered lackluster, with the presentation relying on comedy and dance for its success. One critic, however, wrote that Jeanette was "a charming blonde who sings and dances expertly and looks better in lingerie."
Her next two appearances, which would be her last on Broadway, were flops. Angela, which started in Philadelphia as "The Queen's Taste," moved to the Ambassador on December 23,1928. How it managed 40 performances is baffling since it was described variously as having "stilted dialog," "tired dance routines," "abominable lighting," and "drab comedy."
Although entering her late 20s, MacDonald had never spent much time socially, devoting herself to her career. She did enjoying shopping and dining out but had established no serious relationships outside her family. During Angela, she met New York stockbroker Robert Ritchie, who became a constant companion and finally her business manager. The extent to which their romance developed is pure conjecture, and they separated in 1935.
Also during that play, her performance impressed movie star Richard Dix, who arranged a screen test for her. Though he planned to have her appear in a movie with him, the Shuberts would not release her from her contract. Later, while appearing in Boom, Boom in Chicago, she was noticed by director Ernst Lubitsch, who asked to see her screen test and subsequently bought her contract from the Shuberts. Known for his "sophisticated sex comedies," Lubitsch cast her in The Love Parade (1929) with Maurice Chevalier. It is considered by some as "a milestone in the development of talking-film technique." As the haughty Queen Louise of mythical Sylvania, MacDonald was at her sauciest, wearing revealing negligees and appearing in bathtub or boudoir. The movie was what one author called a "sophisticated musical sex farce" even by modern standards.
Soon after, she cut her first recording with RCA Victor, singing selections from the film The Love Parade, the first of several films she made with Chevalier, a difficult man to work with under almost all circumstances. The strait-laced MacDonald found his "derriere pinch[ing]" distasteful. For his part, he could not understand why she did not like his off-color jokes. Still, they worked well together and made three more movies.
Fresh from her first success, she appeared in The Vagabond King (1930), an adaptation of Rudolf Friml's operetta, directed by Ludwig Berger. But Paramount's first talkie in full color was panned by the critics. She also sang in the all-star revue Paramount on Parade. Though cut from the American release, MacDonald remained in the Spanish version, Galas de la Paramount (1930), acting as an emcee and speaking and singing in Spanish. Lubitsch, impressed by her natural beauty and hardworking eagerness, cast her in Monte Carlo (1930). As in the earlier movies, she played aristocracy, a countess who falls in love with her hairdresser, only to discover happily that he is a count in disguise. One of her songs, "Beyond the Blue Horizon," became a hit.
Before movie musicals went temporarily out of style in the early '30s, she made Let's Go Native (1930) for Paramount and The Lottery Bride (1930) for United Artists. The former, a wild burlesque of shipwreck castaways with much singing and dancing, was fairly well accepted. The latter, despite songs by Friml, was not well received. She
was also put on loan to Fox studio where she made three comedies that featured her mostly in nonsinging roles—Oh, For a Man! (1930), Don't Bet on Women (1931), and Annabelle's Affairs (1931).
In 1931, the French novelist Andre Ranson spread the rumor that MacDonald had been killed by a woman she had wronged in an illicit love affair. To correct these misimpressions, MacDonald made a smashingly successful singing tour of Europe. Lubitsch brought her back to America and paired her again with Chevalier in One Hour With You (1932). Because of previous commitments, Lubitsch named George Cukor to direct. But when the production was deep into filming, Lubitsch found himself free of his assignment and began to make frequent appearances on the set, offering suggestions. When the fed-up Cukor quit, Lubitsch took over. The movie, though not lucrative, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, losing to that year's winner, Grand Hotel.
Chevalier also co-starred in her next picture, Love Me Tonight (1932), which featured songs by Richard Rodgers and Moss Hart, costumes by Edith Head , and a deadpan, risqué turn by Myrna Loy . It proved to be a money maker for Paramount but was to be MacDonald's last movie for them. Hollywood critic and playwright DeWitt Bodeen believed Love Me Tonight was not only the best film she and Chevalier made but considered it "one of the very best and brightest movie musicals ever made." It was also the first "integrated" musical, notes the Motion Picture Guide, with the score "seamlessly sewn into the story." Still, with all her success, MacDonald was unhappy with the way her career seemed to be heading in America. She toured Europe again, buying a villa in southern France. Louis B. Mayer, impressed by her talent and recent performance, followed her to the Continent and signed her to a contract at MGM, where she became one of the most beloved musical stars of all time.
Her first two productions for the company were The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), with the fading silent-film legend Ramon Novarro, and The Merry Widow (1934), her last picture with Chevalier. Once again Lubitsch, now working for MGM, directed the pair in this operetta by Franz Lehar. One of her biographers, James Harvey, called it the best film of her career, writing that "her parodic talent, her gift for ardent nonsense, her ability to convey sexual longing in a direct, pure, unembarrassing way—all were qualities exactly and deeply suited to Lubitsch's comedy of dry astonishment." Editors of the Motion Picture Guide agree: "MacDonald more than held her own in the comedy department as she snapped off the lines with Carole Lombard -like expertise." Despite her accomplishments, MacDonald had not yet achieved superstardom. But opportunity for it came with her next picture.
Mayer planned to star Allan Jones with her in Naughty Marietta (1935). But Jones, also a contract player for the Shuberts in New York, was unable to break his contract. So Mayer chose a bit player, Nelson Eddy, who had appeared in small parts in three movies. It was a stroke of genius. Ed Sullivan, in the New York Daily News, was soon writing that the team of MacDonald and Eddy were becoming the "sensation of the industry." Naughty Marietta, which received high praise, became one of the 100 top-grossing films in history. MacDonald would make seven more pictures with Eddy in the next six years: Rose Marie (1936), Maytime (1937), The Girl of the Golden West (1938), Sweethearts (1938), New Moon (1940), Bitter Sweet (1940), and I Married an Angel (1942).
Over the years, MacDonald's and Eddy's names became inseparable and rumors abounded of a secret love affair. Both were moralists and conservatives. Both loved opera. Both came from Philadelphia, Eddy having moved there from Rhode Island. And neither had finished high school. Their movies became steady money makers for MGM. "When they sang they lifted your soul from an abyss to the highest floating cloud in the sky," noted Eleanor Powell . "They were the epitome of perfect blending and perfection."
In between her movies with Eddy, MacDonald made other films. By far the best was San Francisco (1936), which gave her a larger acting and smaller singing part opposite box-office greats Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. She finally appeared with Allan Jones in The Firefly (1937), and then with Lew Ayers in Broadway Serenade (1939). During these years, she was associated with many of the great names of filmdom and American entertainment.
After parting with Ritchie, she began a romance with actor-singer Gene Raymond, whom she married in "Hollywood's wedding of the year" in 1937. The marriage lasted until her death. (Sharon Rich maintains in her 1995 book Sweethearts that Louis B. Mayer engineered the marriage, that Raymond was a closeted gay, and that MacDonald had an enduring affair with Eddy for 30 years. Biographer Edward Baron Turk claims that MacDonald and Eddy had little use for each other.) MacDonald's only movie with Raymond was Smilin' Through (1941)—a romantic drama that covered two centuries and allowed her to play a dual role: Moonyeen of the 19th century and Kathleen of the 20th. Her last picture with MGM was Cairo (1942), a spoof of espionage films. Although the idea of camp entertainment was yet to surface, she was well on her way to becoming a superb camp player.
With World War II underway, MacDonald became a regular on the USO circuit. As her movie career declined, she became increasingly interested in opera and began serious study, debuting with Ezio Pinza in Romeo et Juliette in Montreal in 1943. She also sang with Pinza in the Chicago Civic Opera Company's presentation of Gounod's Faust in 1944. Recital appearances and stock productions drew huge crowds. Although plans to pair her with Eddy in still another movie were considered, it never happened. They did appear together on Eddy's radio show, and songs from their movies were released by recording companies. She was featured in three more films: Follow the Boys (1944), Three Daring Daughters (1948), and The Sun Comes Up (1949). In the latter, she played with Lloyd Nolan, Claude Jarman, Jr., and one of Hollywood's famous movie dogs, Lassie.
Although she gave concerts and made radio and television appearances in the early 1950s, increasingly MacDonald spent more time at home being Jeanette MacDonald Raymond, a name she used in her everyday life. One of her last public appearances was at Louis B. Mayer's 1957 funeral where she sang, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." Her own health deteriorated rapidly. She collapsed during a performance in Washington, D.C., and had an emergency appendectomy. In 1963, she entered Methodist Hospital in Houston to have an arterial transplant. Two years later at the same medical facility, while being prepared for open heart surgery on January 14, 1965, Jeanette MacDonald suffered a heart attack and died. Newsweek called her subsequent burial at Forest Lawn in Hollywood the "Funeral of the Year." Among the honorary pallbearers were two living former presidents of the United States and two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Senator Barry Goldwater, General Lauris Norstad, Nelson Eddy, and several movieland stars were the actual pallbearers. Hauntingly, recordings of her singing "Ave Maria" and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" were played.
During much of her career, Jeanette MacDonald handled her own business arrangements with skill and determination. Soft and lovely while performing, she was a shrewd bargainer when dealing with show-business executives. She brought decency and decorum to a Hollywood in need of such leavening. Few entertainers have had as great an impact on their times as she, and though she belonged to a less complex, more pristine America, her songs and movies remain forever.
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Robert S. La Forte , Professor of History, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas