In honor of Mayday, here is an article about a beautiful Code musical with the Singing Sweethearts of the Screen!
Why do some romances end in bitter tragedy instead of victorious beauty? One may ask this after the beautifully sad ending of “Maytime” from 1937, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s third film collaboration. Paul is shot by Marcia’s insanely jealous husband and dies in her arms; their romantic reunion in the afterlife would certainly not be enough to satisfy some romantic viewers. Although Paul’s tragic death may seem like an unnecessarily tragic ending, the Code’s standards of morality would not have permitted their earthly union. To see why “Maytime” had to end the way it did to satisfy the Code’s principles, we will discuss the beginnings of their romance, Marcia’s marriage, and the possibilities for the film’s ending.
An impetuous midnight excursion changes Marcia’s life forever. She decides to take a carriage ride around Paris, thinking she will only be gone a few minutes, but one of the carriage’s wheels breaks. As the driver looks for his horse, which has run away, she waits in a cafe, where she meets Paul Allison, a handsome American who has a beautiful voice but a carefree spirit. Although Marcia is an opera singer, her own American blood and youthful enthusiasm make her accept a date for breakfast with Paul the next morning and forget her engagement to her middle-aged manager, Nicolai. Despite her better judgement and her opera performance that evening, she keeps her date with Paul, and the two quickly realize they are in love. The climax of their romance occurs on Mayday, when he takes her to a joyous festival. For a few brief but blissful hours, they are sweethearts, admitting that one beautiful day must provide memories which will last them a lifetime. They say goodbye, thinking they will never meet again.
Marcia owes all her success as an opera singer to her possessive manager, Nicolai. She marries him entirely out of gratitude and obligation, since she doesn’t love him at all. He seems to love her, but his love is a selfish and aggressive one, not one which is tender and gentle. She is a good wife to him, but she does not grow to love him; it is impossible since she knows how real love feels. When they return to America seven years later, Paul is her leading-man in an opera. Nicolai notices the connection between them; although Marcia says she merely encouraged him to keep singing in Paris, he realizes there is more between them. He is furious and insanely jealous. Marcia asks him for a divorce so she can marry Paul, but it is obvious that he will never let her be with another man.
As the film nears its close, there are not many paths it can take. Paul and Marcia have declared their love for each other and decided to go away together, but she is married. For their plan to work, she must get a divorce. The Code, however, had an unwritten principle that divorce and remarriage would not be shown or at least not be justified. For her and Paul to get married at this point would be a sin and a cursed union as long as Nicolai was alive. It would have been an option for Nicolai to have died instead; he could have killed himself when he learned of his wife’s love for another man. However, this is rather idyllic and also quite improbable, since possessive men like Nicolai rarely eliminate themselves to make their wives happy. The most plausible alternate Codish ending would have been for either Marcia or Paul to have realized the sin and folly of her divorce and their marriage; it would not have been unlikely for her to have overcome the impetuous impulse by the next morning. However, this ending would have been dissatisfying and incomplete, since the sweethearts’ brief reunion would have made each party in the love triangle discontent. Nicolai would be even more jealous and unpleasant, since he would now know that Marcia loved another, Marcia would be even more discontent and unhappy, since she would have given up her chance for happiness, and Paul would always be tortured by the possibility of someday winning her. Thus, the only option was for Nicolai to kill Paul. Thus, no sin pollutes their romance, Marcia does not have to remain with her husband, since he will surely be executed, and the ideal of the love between Marcia and Paul is martyred and enshrined with his death.
Having reviewed the beginning of the romance between Paul and Marcia, her marriage, and the options for the film’s ending, we see that Paul’s death was the most romantic ending which would satisfy the Code. Their romance is doomed from their first meeting, since Marcia has just accepted Nicolai’s proposal, and she will not break her engagement because of her debt to him. Marcia is a good wife to Nicolai for their whole marriage, but he himself acknowledges the fact that she never completely belongs to him. Paul had to die, since his death was the only ending which would preserve the ideal of their forbidden love without polluting it with her divorce. To be awarded a seal, a film’s ending must not be happy, but it must be moral.
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Marcia: Jeannette MacDonald
Paul: Nelson Eddy
Nicolai: John Barrymore