An Unlikely Murderer: Jimmy Stewart in “Rose Marie” from 1936

When I think of classic actors who seem like genuinely kind, honorable, likable gentlemen, Jimmy Stewart is at the top of the list. He was famous in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s for playing down-to-earth, genuine, and often bashful characters. He is often called Jimmy “Aw, Shucks” Stewart in fond reference to his many shy film roles. With his lanky, extraordinarily tall, and extremely thin frame and distinctly slurred way of speaking, he didn’t consider himself a Hollywood type. He may not have been a smooth swashbuckler, but there was something undeniably charming and appealing about Jimmy Stewart which made him a favorite in the Golden Era of Hollywood and a great star whose memory and work is still adored by many. In honor of his 111th birthday, Movie Critic of Movies Meet Their Match is hosting the Jimmy Stewart Blogathon on May 18-20. When I heard that Movie Critic, who is one of my best blogger friends, is hosting this blogathon, I knew I had to join. Even if I didn’t want to support my friend, I wouldn’t be able to pass up this opportunity to write about one of my favorite classic actors! For this occasion, I decided to join my first blogathon this year. Because of my busyness with my own series here on PEPS, I haven’t been participating in blogathons since December. However, I now plan to join some upcoming blogathons and hopefully combine them with my weekly features. This article is my first of two which I am writing for this blogathon. My second will be about one of my favorite movies with Jimmy Stewart, and I will publish it on May 20, his actual birthday.

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Jimmy Stewart is remembered for his roles as a boyish hero, especially in David and Goliath stories. Some of his most famous films are the three he made with Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It with You from 1938, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from 1939, and It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. He always was the honorable protagonist going against the odds to succeed and do the right thing. However, in one of his earliest films, he played a surprisingly sinister character. I refer to his supporting role in his fourth film, Rose Marie from 1936.

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After being signed to a contract with MGM in 1934, Jimmy Stewart made his first feature film the next year, Murder Man, in which he played a small part. In 1936, he received the role in Rose-Marie, the second Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musical. In this film, he played the supporting role of her brother in his third feature film role. Although he is a vital part of the story, this role only has about seven minutes of screen time toward the end of the film. However, in those brief moments, twenty-eight-year-old Jimmy Stewart rivets us with his portrayal of Jeanette MacDonald’s younger brother, John Flower.

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In this movie, Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) is a famous Canadian opera singer. She is renowned for her brilliant performance in Romeo et Juliette, which people crowd the street outside the theatre to hear, but she is pompous and snippy offstage. She coldly rebuffs the young man (David Niven) who has been following her from city to city attempting to persuade her to marry him. She tells her maid, Mrs. Roderick (Una O’Connor), that she thinks all men are “stupid idiots” and that the only man about whom she cares is her brother, who has been in prison for years. He held a man up with a gun, and he has been writing to his older sister anonymously ever since, not wanting her reputation to be besmirched by his criminal record. She is plunged into despair when she learns after the show that his parole has been refused. However, when her manager, Mr. Myerson (Reginald Owen), tells her that the Premier of Quebec has shown great interest in her, she sees her opportunity to help her brother. She puts on a glamorous dress and plans a dinner party that evening to impress the Premier.

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Marie puts on all her charm when she meets the Premier (Alan Mowbray) and his family. At her luxurious hotel room, she entertains her distinguished guests with cocktails, singing, and plenty of phony charm. Before dinner is served, she begins to work on the Premier by telling him that she has a problem, using her flirtation to win him over. However, before she can put her plan in action, she is notified that she has a visitor. While her guests go into dinner, she receives a half-Indian named Boniface (George Regas) who was sent by her brother. She is horrified to learn that her brother escaped from the penitentiary, went into the woods, and killed a Mountie who went after him. He sent Boniface to get money from his sister so that he can escape, but Marie insists on bringing it to him herself. She sends Boniface to purchase train tickets, and she dons an inconspicuous outfit. After getting all the money she can from Myerson and making vague excuses, she departs for the wilderness.

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Marie and Boniface travel to a remote outpost town in the Canadian wilderness, at which point they must get supplies to make the rest of the journey on horseback. While they are buying clothes at a local store, the dishonest Indian steals her money, leaving her penniless and frightened. She refuses to go to the Mounties, since she knows they are looking for her brother. Instead, she goes to the local tavern to look for work. She hilariously attempts to sing “hot” tunes for the rowdy customers with her refined, classical voice, but they ignore the dainty soprano. She soon is pushed aside by the usual singer, Bella (Gilda Gray). However, one person, a handsome Mountie, notices her singing.

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The confident policeman follows her out and introduces himself as Sergeant Bruce (Nelson Eddy). He is romantic and very charming, but she tries to evade him. When he realizes that she is the woman who lost her money, her case having been reported by the storekeeper, he brings her to the Mountie office. While interviewing her, he tells her that he recognized her voice from the radio. Combining her stage name with the false name she gave, he calls her Rose Marie. The romantic Mountie offers to help her find her guide, so he brings her to the Indian festival that evening. While rowing across the lake, he romances and serenades her, but she isn’t impressed by his lovely baritone voice or the song he wrote.

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At the festival, Rose-Marie sneaks away from Sergeant Bruce and manages to find Boniface. She confronts him, scares him into giving her back her money, and arranges a time for their departure that evening. When she reunites with Sergeant Bruce, she doesn’t tell him that she found her guide. She knows that Bruce is the Mountie who has been assigned to go into the woods the next day to look for her brother. She has told him that she is going to a rendezvous in the woods with her sweetheart, an Italian operatic tenor. That evening, the sergeant serenades Rose-Marie outside her hotel room. However, as soon as he leaves, she sneaks away. As he is talking to another man, the smitten sergeant muses about the beautiful opera singer’s name. When he explains that her unusual surname is Spanish for flower, he realizes that the diva is the sister of John Flower, the murderer he must locate. He hurries to her room and finds her gone. He quickly follows her, realizing that she will lead him to the criminal.

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Sergeant Bruce eventually catches up with Rose Marie and Boniface. While they are trying to swim their horses across a lake, Marie starts to flounder. Boniface flees for the opposite shore when he sees Sergeant Bruce approaching. The Mountie saves Marie, who lies to him about Boniface’s behavior. She refutes his help and says that Boniface will return. Sergeant Bruce leaves her on the shore but camps on the hill above. By nightfall, Rose Marie is cold, scared, still wet, and hungry, so she comes up to Bruce’s camp and makes friends. He agrees to take her to the place where she can get a new guide. Desperate, she agrees. Little does she know that he is using her to “get his man.”

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During the trip, Rose Marie begins to change. She learns how to work hard and how to help others, as she and Sergeant Bruce must work together to survive on the trail. As they are all alone together in the wilderness, the opera singer and Mountie find themselves falling in love with each other. They sing the beautiful “Indian Love Call” to each other, and Sergeant Bruce pledges to always come and answer if Rose Marie calls. However, each feels the dark shadow of her brother and his crimes hovering over their relationship.

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Sergeant Bruce leaves Rose Marie at the destination where she can get a new guide. Her new Indian guide takes her to Boniface’s cabin, where she finds her brother, John. She is so happy to see him, even under these awful circumstances. She gives him the money and makes him promise to be good from now on and to stay in contact with her. However, before he can make his getaway, Sergeant Bruce enters the cabin. He arrests John and tells Rose Marie that he knew she was his sister all along. He confesses that he truthfully meant his profession of love for her but that it doesn’t change his duty. She vainly cries and pleads with him to release her brother, but he can’t be corrupted. As he and his prisoner ride away, Rose Marie sobbingly sings “The Indian Love Call,” the song which the Mountie swore to always answer. Despite the pain it gives him, Bruce does not turn back. John takes the situation with morbid jollity and cocky acceptance.

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Back in civilization, the disturbed Marie is haunted during her performance of Tosca by echoes of Sergeant Bruce’s voice which she hears in her head. Finally, the emotional strain makes her faint onstage. After that, she spends several months in a remote cabin, trying to recover from the breakdown. Myerson comes to visit her, but he is disappointed to see that she is still lackluster. She hasn’t sung in months, and she is uninterested in taking a tour. After her manager has left, Rose Marie begins to sing “The Indian Love Call.” Suddenly, she hears Sergeant Bruce’s voice chiming in. She thinks that she is imagining it again until she sees him standing in the doorway. Myerson has brought him to make Marie happy again. He comes over to her, and they finish the duet together. “The End” appears on the screen as the music literally ends on a minor, unresolved note.

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John Flower is very much a supporting role, and he has fifth billing. However, although his screen time is limited, this character’s presence haunts the entire film. He is mentioned in the first dialogue exchange between Marie and Mrs. Roderick, during which Marie reads a letter from him. When Sergeant Bruce receives his orders about searching for the delinquent in the wilderness, we see a picture of the fugitive. This picture, which is the above photograph, is shown several other times in the film. When we finally see John, whom his sister affectionately calls Jack, it is a grand finale. A lot of suspense has been built by the frequent mention but the lack of appearance of John, so it is a climax to actually see the character who set the plot in motion.

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John is supposed to be little more than a boy, and indeed, in his third feature film performance, Jimmy Stewart looks young. He is tall and thin as ever, and his hair is black. He is very fair, and his features are strong and clear-cut. His eyes look darker than usual, which I suspect is a result of the dark eye-makeup which was often put on criminals or villains in 1930s films. He looks rougher because of being unshaven, a rare look for him. Physically, he looks just like his sweet self of other early films. However, there is a spiritual quality which pervades the character and is undeniably different than roles usually played by James Stewart.

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John, who is called Jack by his sister, is a wild young man. He proudly says to Marie, “I guess I made quite a stir with my getaway, huh?” He shows absolutely no shame about escaping or even about murdering the Mountie. He just wants Rose Marie to give him the money so that he can escape. He is happily surprised to see his sister, whom he greets with a kiss. However, he quickly grows angry when she says that a Mountie escorted her. When she implores him to keep in contact with her, he looks down and mutters, “Sure.” He knows that she wants him to be respectable, but he just wants to have a wild time with plenty of excitement and probably a life of crime. With a rebellious look, he says that he is thinking about going to China. Life is just an adventure to him. He doesn’t take anything seriously. Apparently, he didn’t take his first imprisonment very seriously, and he certainly didn’t regret his actions. He said he was getting stir-crazy, so he just had to bust out.

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Jimmy Stewart’s biggest moment in this film is when he and Nelson Eddy are riding away from the cabin on two horses, side by side. Marie is trying to save her brother from arrest by sobbingly singing “The Indian Love Call,” but Sergeant Bruce knows he must fulfill his duty, even though it agonizes him. Jack observes all this. He is extremely cool in this situation. He knows he is being taken back to be tried and probably hanged for murder, yet he doesn’t make an attempt to escape or plead for his life. He tells his sister it’s alright and allows himself to be handcuffed. As he rides along with the Mountie, he asks if there will be a lot of excitement about his capture in Montreal, which Sergeant Bruce confirms. He then asks the Mountie if he spends a lot of time up here in the wilderness, saying that he envies him. Next, he remarks that women don’t understand that a fellow has to have excitement. He refers to the fact that his sister has been “plugging away” at her music for as long as he can remember, saying that he wouldn’t work that hard for anybody. He concludes that at least this (the trial) will be something new. “I always did like something new,” he says with a confident smirk. Suddenly, his confidence fades, and, looking toward Sergeant Bruce with clear, sad, boyish eyes, he says, “Tell her that when you see her, will you?” When Sergeant Bruce sadly replies that he won’t ever see her, the prisoner resumes his cocky nature and says, “You’d think it was you taking the rap instead of me. Come on. Buck up!” As they keep riding, the brief look of fear and sadness steals across Jack’s face again.

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In this brief exchange, Jimmy Stewart creates such a deep character for Jack. He is obviously a wild, impetuous, and rebellious youth. Having excitement and doing something new are the most important things for him. He attempted a robbery as a boy to get some money, probably so he could go away but partly for the excitement. Since Marie remarks that he is all she has, they must be orphans. With a lack of clear guidance, Rose Marie turned to music. Jack, the younger child, probably got into a bad group and turned to crime. In the penitentiary, he didn’t reform. He got stir-crazy, so he broke out, only to commit a murder. He is very cool about his crime and its consequences, revealing how flippant he is. His cavalier attitude to Sergeant Bruce is partly an attempt to be tough and daring. He reveals how scared and dismal he really feels when his voice cracks as he asks the Mountie to tell his sister that he likes something new. He hopes that that thought will console her, showing that he does care about her. I think that he is also cheering himself with the thought. He has become a ruthless young man, but nobody likes to face death. However, his coolness reveals how desperate a criminal he is. He isn’t “just a boy” as Marie says. He is a man who knows he has done the wrong thing. He doesn’t seem to regret his actions or feel guilt, but he isn’t happy about the consequences. However, like many real-life murderers accepting their death sentences, he accepts his fate very calmly and with cocky resign. He likes excitement, and now he knows he must pay the consequences.

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 Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors and a likable, decent, charming man. In 1936, he was very handsome, extremely youthful, and charmingly boyish. In this movie, he is the leading lady’s beloved brother, her favorite person in the world. She goes into the wilderness and puts her very life in danger time and time again to go to him. She tries to distract the man she loves from his duty to save his life. Jack is very young and an orphan with no family in the world except a sister whom he doesn’t claim to protect her career. This sounds like the basis for a real sympathy angle. Surely such a character would be greatly pitied, despite his heinous crimes. After all, we don’t even see the Mountie whom he killed. Wouldn’t we root for this character and resent Sergeant Bruce for not sparing him?

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Strangely enough, I don’t feel much pity for this character. I can’t speak for other viewers, but I feel no sympathy angle toward him. It’s partly because of the script, which doesn’t tell us his outcome. However, we know that he will get the death penalty because of his crimes. I credit this lack of sympathy angle primarily to Jimmy Stewart’s great talent. He plays the role of a cold-blooded murderer with ruthless calmness. He has the strange, almost mad confidence and emotionless removal from the situation which most murderers do. At times, he reveals that he feels some emotion, but he feels no remorse. He doesn’t ask for mercy, and none is given him by Sergeant Bruce. By the same token, he doesn’t ask for the audience’s pity, so I don’t feel any. He convincingly plays the role of a killer, fully receiving the ramifications of such a role. If he played it for sympathy, he would have cast villainy on the leading man, Nelson Eddy’s Sergeant Bruce. In his third featured role, Jimmy Stewart gallantly accepts the role of a villain. It wasn’t a role he would play often during his career, but he showed in this early character that it was something he could do brilliantly.

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This film was made in 1936, when the Code was in full force. By making his role the villain, Jimmy Stewart did more than keep hatred from Sergeant Bruce. He fulfilled a necessary law of punishment for crime. Some sins could be forgiven under the Code, but murder was unpardonable. If a character commits a first degree murder, it is a death sentence for him. In some way or another, he must die for his sin. As soon as Jack enters the picture, we dismiss all hope that he didn’t actually commit the murder. He admits to his crime with his behavior. Thus, he has to die. Escaping is not an option. In a pre-Code film, perhaps the murderous brother could get away with the promise of making a fresh start, but not so in a Code film. He killed a law-enforcer who was just doing his job, so he can’t go free. However, the fact that he is arrested is not enough to make the situation acceptable and Code-compliant. If Jack were made too sympathetic, he wouldn’t seem like a villain. However, Nelson Eddy is a very sympathetic actor, so Sergeant Bruce could easily seem just like he is forced to do his duty. Then, justice and the law would become the villain. This is never allowed in Code films. When Bruce and Rose Marie are talking about justice and the laws of nature, she says, “You sound so cruel.” The audience could easily think that the law and punishment for crime are cruel if it were played wrong. For The Great Villain Blogathon in 2017, I wrote about the first gangster film, The Doorway to Hell from 1930, and explained why the policeman is the real villain of the film. Because he allows the sympathetic young gangster played by Lew Ayres to die at the hands of another gangster, he makes justice and the law of retaliation seem cruel. Not so in this film. Because of the Code, there can be no sympathy for a murderer, no matter how charming the gentleman who plays him is.

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As Rose Marie pleads for her brother’s life, she begs Bruce to let him go. She asks him not to let this come between them forever. She is so emotional that, the first time I watched it, I almost wanted the Mountie to agree. After all, John is her brother, and he is very young. The moment is instantaneous, because Jimmy Stewart does little to inspire our sympathy. We quickly remember that he is a coldblooded murderer. However, that moment makes us wonder about what sort of a different life this character could have had. He always talks about excitement, but one line reveals a possibility. He says that he envies Sergeant Bruce’s career, which keeps him in the wilderness a lot. What a shame that Jack couldn’t have reformed while in the penitentiary and gone on to be a Mountie! He could have had danger, excitement, and something new in a constructive and very patriotic profession. Alas, that is not an option for this character, who throws away his chances at a decent life because he is impetuous and impatient. Just when his sister was trying to secure a parole for him with the Premier, he had to escape and murder, ruining all possibilities for his life. It is very sad, but that is the tragic fate of so many people’s lives. Perhaps that is why the film ends on an unresolved note, subconsciously leaving us with an unsettled feeling about the bitter consequences of crime. Such a message would not be so impacting if not for Jimmy Stewart’s brilliant acting. In under ten minutes, he delivers an unforgettable performance. For his devoted fans, it is all too small a role, but it was the beginning of a great career!

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4 thoughts on “An Unlikely Murderer: Jimmy Stewart in “Rose Marie” from 1936

  1. Well, it’s taken me long enough to comment *sheepishly shuffles feet*, but I did read this during the blogathon and found it perfectly fascinating! I’ve never seen Rose Marie, but I can see Jimmy Stewart in this kind of role. Especially interesting that he can keep a bad character from being too sympathetic. That’s talent, that. *nods*

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Megan,

      I’m glad that you liked this article! I know that you would enjoy this film. It really does show Jimmy Stewart’s talent, which could adapt well to different roles. Thank you for reading this!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Like

  2. Sounds like an interesting film! I remember the first time I saw After the Thin Man and was basically shocked at Jimmy Stewart playing a less-than-savory character in it. He certainly could pull off the occasional bad guy role when called to do so!

    Liked by 1 person

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