This article was written by Promise E. Pope, Director of Social Media for PEPS, for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon.
Happy Valentine’s Day, friends! February 14 is a day which is dedicated to love, romance, and sweethearts. What better way to celebrate this holiday than with a tribute to one of Hollywood’s most classic and romantic screen couples, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy? That was Rebekah’s thought. To celebrate the day of love, she and her sister, Tiffany, are hosting the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. I thought about reviewing Maytime as a contribution to the blogathon, but then I remembered the two too divine articles that Tiffany has written about it, so I decided there was nothing I could really add. Since this blogathon is all about sweethearts, I decided to focus on the sweethearts ballyhoo angle of Jeanette and Nelson’s fame. When were they first called “The Singing Sweethearts,” and how was this phrase promoted and perpetuated? Let’s find out!
Original trailers are a good way to determine the publicity that was being used for certain people at certain times. At the end of the 1936 trailer to Rose Marie, their second movie together, MGM made “A Prediction” that the audiences of America would be even more enthusiastic about Rose Marie than they were about their first movie together, Naughty Marietta from 1935, which was a big hit. In this “Prediction,” they refer to Jeanette and Nelson as “the greatest singing team of the screen” and “these singing lovers.” However, the word sweethearts wouldn’t enter the vocabulary of their publicity or their scripts until their next movie, Maytime from 1937.
The original trailer to this movie, which was four minutes long, really started the whole sweethearts thing. The trailer begins with an audience applauding and praising adjectives such as “Magnificent” and “Glorious” floating over the image. Then, big white letters appear on the screen as the camera pans over the audience. “The Acclaim and Applause of Millions Heralds the Triumphant Return of The SINGING SWEETHEARTS of… ‘Naughty Marietta’ and ‘Rose Marie.’” It was no coincidence that all the sweetheart ballyhoo was unleashed for Maytime; sweethearts were an important element in that movie. The romantic climax of the movie is on May Day, when Nelson sings a song to Jeanette that he says is about more than May Day; it’s also about sweethearts. “You see, you’re mine,” he says earnestly. When she looks unsettled, he says, “Only in the song,” but we all know he doesn’t mean it. The romantic duet they sing there is “Will You Remember?” the only Sigmund Romberg song from the operetta Maytime that was used in the movie. This devastatingly romantic song begins with the lyrics, “Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart, will you love me ever?” I never even remember that this song is called “Will You Remember?” To me, it is just “Sweetheart.” Robert Z. Leonard, the director of this picture, rolled out the red carpet to advertise them as “The Singing Sweethearts.” Perhaps they were called that in magazines and advertisement before Maytime; I don’t know. All I know is that Maytime, my favorite movie with them and of all time, started the sweethearts angle in their movies.
The next year, they made “the biggest musical extravaganza of 1938,” The Girl of the Golden West, another picture with Robert Leonard direction. Despite the huge popularity of Maytime, the trailer to this Sigmund Romberg adaptation of a Puccini opera doesn’t refer to them as sweethearts but as the “King and Queen of Song.” (Maybe that’s because Jeanette MacDonald married Gene Raymond in between the making of Maytime and The Girl of the Golden West. The public was very upset that the “sweethearts” hadn’t married each other. They probably thought that referring to them as sweethearts in the trailer would only aggravate the situation. If they weren’t careful, they could have made Mr. Raymond seem more like Nikolai than John Barrymore did!) However, in the actual movie, there is a reference to sweethearts in the dialogue, which I’m sure is no coincidence. When dressed as the Mexican bandit Ramerez, Nelson Eddy’s character is robbing Jeanette MacDonald’s fearless saloon owning character, Mary. She tells his men to leave her luggage alone, and he suggests that she put on one of her pretty dresses for him right there. She says, “I will not.” He mischievously replies, “Oh, maybe you save them for the sweetheart in Monterey.” She stubbornly replies, “I haven’t got a sweetheart, thank ya!” He says, “Don’t thank me, because if I got something to do with it, you got one right now!” However, the mildness of their sweetheart references was only temporary. The next movie would change that forever.
If Maytime was the start of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s portrayal as sweethearts, Sweethearts from 1938 was the climax. Just the title warned people how far they were going to go with the sweetheart angle. Surprisingly, the trailer to this Technicolor extravaganza didn’t actually refer to them as sweethearts. Maybe that was still because of her recent marriage, or maybe the filmmakers decided that there was plenty of time in the movie to call them sweethearts. This movie was “based on” Victor Herbert’s operetta Sweethearts, but all they used from it was the title and some of the songs. The story and a few of the songs were written by employees of MGM. That was pretty standard practice at the time. (Maytime, which was supposedly a movie adaption of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta by that name, shared nothing with that operetta except the title and the duet.) No doubt MGM bought the rights to this piece simply because it was about sweethearts, and they wanted to cash in on all the wonderful sweetheart ballyhoo of Maytime. Instead of basing the movie on the story line of Mr. Herbert’s stage work, they made the movie about a husband and wife singing team who star in a Broadway show called Sweethearts that is very similar to the original Herbert work. (They put a disclaimer at the end which says that the stage work is not supposed to be the operetta by Victor Herbert, but they’re not fooling me. They just didn’t want anyone to be offended because the two creators of the work in the movie are a couple of bumbling fools played by Herman Bing and Mischa Auer.) The theme from this play is the wonderful “Sweetheart Waltz,” which is played several times throughout the movie. Some people, including my dear friends who are hosting this blogathon, have suggested that this song is played too much during this movie. Maybe it is, but I love it! If you have a wonderful song, why not use it a lot? A popular phrase used throughout this movie to refer to Jeanette and Nelson, or rather Gwen and Ernest, is “the Sweethearts of Sweethearts.” Of course, they’re more than just sweethearts, since they’ve been married six years. The whole theme of the “Sweetheart Waltz,” though, is “forever we’ll be sweethearts.” In the movie, their radio show is called “The Sweetheart Hour.” (That’s an original title, isn’t it?) Their names on the marquis are always surrounded by lit pink hearts. When they have been separated for a while, the first thing Ernest says to Gwen during their telephone reunion is “Sweetheart!” Naturally, she replies, “Sweetheart! Hello.” There’s no doubt about it. If you want to watch a movie about sweethearts, no movie has more focus on sweethearts than Sweethearts, which is all about sweethearts who play sweethearts in a play called Sweethearts, and the sweethearts are played by “The Singing Sweethearts,” Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who were really good at playing sweethearts!
The next year, Jeanette MacDonald was named Queen of the Box Office, but Nelson Eddy wasn’t included in this. I consider him to have been the Prince Consort of the Box Office in 1939, since it was her five movies with him during the past four years that had catapulted her to that position. However, Tyrone Power and not Jeanette’s sweetheart was named Box Office King. Broadway Serenade was made to celebrate her success, but Nelson was not included in that, either. The honor went to an up and coming MGM star, Lew Ayres, who was making fame for himself as Dr. Kildare in the popular MGM series with Lionel Barrymore as co-star. The movie was swell. It wasn’t like it would have been with Nelson, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It would have been a different movie altogether if he had been in it. That same year, Nelson Eddy was with different leading ladies in two movies, Let Freedom Ring with Virginia Bruce and Balalaika with Ilona Massey. These also are movies which I enjoy. However, the public wanted to see the “Singing Sweethearts” together again.
In 1940, audience members got their wish. The famous singing team was reunited on the screen with New Moon, another Robert Z. Leonard adaption of a Sigmund Romberg operetta. They were back in 18th century costumes, and they looked marvelous. They were as talented, magical, and romantic as ever. The trailer before the movie showed the filmmakers’ eagerness to stir up the sweethearts ballyhoo again. They referred to their last collaboration, Sweethearts, since they wanted to capitalize on its success. “The Sweethearts of Sweethearts are Sweethearts Again!” they proclaimed, overusing the phrase just about as much as I did a few paragraphs ago. They later referred to them as “The King and Queen of Song.” Despite this sweetheart introduction in the trailer, there were no references to them being sweethearts in the movie itself.
The next movie was Bittersweet, also in 1940. This picture, which, like every movie they made besides Maytime, The Girl of the Golden West, and New Moon, was directed by W. S. Van Dyke, was adapted from Noel Coward’s operetta of the same name. The trailer advertised them as “The King and Queen of Song,” a phrase which seems to have been popular after their marriages to different people. The movie itself made no references to sweethearts.
In 1942, they released their final movie together, I Married an Angel, a W. S. Van Dyke picture which was adapted from the risque Rogers and Hart Broadway hit of the same name. I am very biased when it comes to their movies together, and apart, too. I basically think that every movie they ever made together or separately was good. (That’s a very general statement; it doesn’t include all Jeanette’s pre-Code films, some of which make me tired. Let’s say that I like all the movies they made together or apart after their collaboration began in 1935.) However, I Married an Angel is an exception. Honestly, can Mr. Van Dyke have been serious when he made this movie? I know the poor fellow was very ill at this point with cancer and heart disease. On the other hand, he made a few good movies after this before he died in 1943, so being ill is really no excuse. I think that someone had a bone to pick when he made this movie, or rather, everyone did. Even the trailer is sarcastic. It says that this movie is being released “BECAUSE YOU WANTED SOMETHING DIFFERENT!” Who, me? I didn’t want something different. They were always great up until then! Unfortunately, this movie is simply too awful to me. I think it’s really a shame because it doesn’t do justice to the wonderful Singing Sweethearts. The script, direction, story line, and music are so weak that they really struggled. Their chemistry doesn’t even seem to be good here. It’s very awkward at times because of the awkward scenarios. Oh, dear, I’ve gotten terribly distracted. Anyway, in the trailer they refer to them as “your favorite singing stars,” but there’s no mention of them being sweethearts. The only reference to sweethearts is when it says that that movie is their first modern musical since Sweethearts. In the movie, however, they did every hackneyed thing possible, so Woody Van Dyke had to put in a little plug for sweethearts. The title song was written by Rodgers and Hart, but songwriters from MGM added an interlude to it. In it, these lyrics for Nelson were added, “I’ll tell the people on the street/And everyone I meet/That you and I are sweethearts.” It’s not the most natural, comfortable line. It feels like they just jammed it in there because Woody wanted to put in a plug for the old sweethearts angle. He was just wasting his time. Mentioning sweethearts couldn’t save this movie.
The film pairings of the Singing Sweethearts ended with I Married An Angel, but the Sweethearts angle didn’t. Let’s skip to six years later. It is now 1948, and Jeanette MacDonald has made her second to last movie, Three Daring Daughters. She has finally admitted to being older than twenty-three, and she is playing a mature divorcee with three daughters. Her husband, Charlie Morgan, left her years ago. He is apparently a rat, but she has led her daughters to believe that he is a wonderful man but that they were separated due to his absence as a foreign correspondent. When she is away on a cruise, her daughters arrange to bring back their father. Little do they know that she has married another man, Jose Iturbi, while away. It becomes very confused. The daughters don’t want to accept Mr. Iturbi, but eventually they do. You never see her first husband, since he is sent to a far corner of the earth before he makes it to New York. The redeeming quality for divorce and remarriage which they feebly inserted is the news that Charlie got remarried two years ago, so now it’s alright for Louise to be remarried. (Just between us, I think this movie was made when Joe Breen was in Jamaica, contemplating retirement in 1948. Steve Jackson was in charge of the PCA in his absence.) Well, I suppose they want you to think that now she’s going to be happy because she’s married to a nice man. I agree that Jose Iturbi is a very nice man. However, the filmmakers made a fatal error that has completely changed the movie for me since I discovered it. After she has married Mr. Iturbi, he asks her to sing with the accompaniment of his piano and orchestra during a rehearsal. She reluctantly agrees. He begins to play a song. She smiles in acknowledgment and sings. Here is the link to a recording of this song on YouTube. Before we continue, you have to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT5EMpHBR0I.
Yes, it’s true. They chose “The Sweetheart Waltz.” Maybe the director, Fred Wilcox, thought it was a charming reference to her hit from ten years earlier, Sweethearts. I don’t know why he was feeling so sentimental; he never directed any of their movies together. Anyway, did you notice her expression as she sang that song? She looked so romantic, nostalgic, and sad. I think that anyone who knows anything about the Singing Sweethearts will agree that she’s thinking about Nelson. I love this song in Sweethearts, but I have to admit that it sounds much more emotional in this movie. That’s largely because they’re playing a married couple in the 1938 movie. In this movie, the song is more like “Will You Remember?” from Maytime. She’s singing about her sweetheart who will always be her sweetheart because they didn’t get married.
When the song begins, Jose looks almost a little melancholy, perhaps because he knows that she is remembering something in which he has no part. Then, a violinist dramatically steps down and plays a little solo before Jose waves him back to his chair. His strains are very reminiscent of a violin solo in the “Zigeuner” scene from Bittersweet. The violinist in this movie even looks like the one from Bittersweet; maybe it’s the same violinist. When Jeanette begins to sing, she looks melancholy and emotional. She tries to be lighter when she comes to the chorus, but the feelings get stronger. When she sings, “Sweetheart, this day will never fade,” she has tears in her voice. I can hear the cry in her tone. That line is just too much like Maytime. This song created a strange sensation for me. Suddenly, I had the idea that Charlie, her ex-husband, is Nelson Eddy. You never see him, so he could be. I know Charlie is supposed to be a rat, but then about whom is she singing? After all, she’s still playing a character. About whom is Louise Morgan singing? She’s not singing about Jose. If she was, she’d be looking at him. She’s singing about a man she loves who isn’t there. She has to be singing about Charlie. She does tell one of her daughters that she loved Charlie when she married him. Obviously, she still loves him. She’s just hurt because he left her. Maybe he didn’t want to leave her. Maybe when he was in Africa, he heard rumors that she had fallen for another man, so he thought she didn’t love him any more. After she sings that song, she and Jose walk out, discussing plans about telling the children about their marriage, but she’s not thinking about that. You can tell that the emotion from the song has carried over into the rest of the scene and, if you ask me, the remainder of the movie. They shouldn’t have concluded the situation by saying that Charlie married a girl named Fifi Mornay. (That name has significance. Jeanette said her name was Fifi in a scene in The Merry Widow from 1934, and she was Marcia Mornay in Maytime.) They should have had Nelson Eddy come in as a surprise ending! They could have said that, somehow, Louise’s marriage to Jose in Cuba was illegitimate. Thus, she could remarry Charlie, and they’d all live happily ever after! I’m sure that such an ending would have spurred MGM to make another movie with them together. They were thinking about it a lot. I like Three Daring Daughters a lot, but it saddens me because I think she should have gotten remarried to her sweetheart. By the way, an interesting side-note about this movie is the fact that Thomas E. Breen, Joseph Breen’s son, has a walk-on role as a ship steward. Look for the young redhead who delivers a telegram to Mrs. Morgan on the ship.
Before I end this article, I would like to mention my thoughts on Jeanette and Nelson as sweethearts in real life. Some people think they had an affair, but I don’t believe that. I believe that they loved each other, but she refused his proposal because he wanted her to go into at least partial retirement so they could raise a family. She married Gene Raymond, and he married Anne Franklin. I think that Nelson’s marriage was happier than Jeanette’s. I think that Jeanette later regretted marrying Gene instead of Nelson, since she obviously still loved the latter. To me, their romance is like Maytime. They fell in love. She married another man. They had their courtship and movie romances to last them a lifetime, since they missed out on love together in real life. It’s tragically romantic! That’s one of the terribly romantic and ironic things about Maytime. When they were making that movie, Jeanette had recently announced her engagement to Mr. Raymond. The movie was strangely foreshadowing what was about to happen to the sweethearts in real life. Of course, Gene Raymond didn’t shoot Nelson Eddy after they filmed the terribly romantic duet in New Moon. I don’t think he was as jealous as Nikolai because he didn’t care that much. Although they never were married in real life, their love was suspended in the eight movies they made together.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Watch one of the beautiful movies with the Singing Sweethearts today, and read some of the marvelous articles in PEPS’s Singing Sweethearts Blogathon. Jeanette and Nelson were never married, but, as it says in the “Sweetheart Waltz,” “Forever they’ll be sweethearts!”
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