Nelson Eddy - Naughty Marietta (1935)

Naughty Marietta

This post got started due to rather personal circumstances; my grieving the very deep personal loss of my dearest friend of over forty years. This resulted in writer's block, personal life block, and a total lack of concentration for just about everything you can think of.

To begin to regroup, I began by shutting off the news. Additionally, my self-medicating included something I'd not treated myself to in a long time; the simple joys of sitting and listening to music to help get my mojo back. It has taken lots, and lots of music. Picking through the CD library, starting with much-loved pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi soon segued to Mr. Nelson Eddy. 

I have long been a fan and absolutely love his voice. Listening again after so long, well, I fell in love with his voice all over again. My opera pals might well sneer at my unabashed adoration of Nelson and his beautiful voice. I quite simply refuse to apologize for it. Vocally  he is gorgeous, he's also beyond gorgeous to look at, too. Listening to so much music after a long drought did what it was supposed to do, i.e, opened up my heart and mind and got me out of my funk.

I am equally passionate about music as I am about film and film history. To honor Nelson I thought I'd show him some love here. It seemed like a good idea watch to Naughty Marietta and then write something about him and the film.

Little did I realize that when I started researching to prepare some facts for what was going to be a tiny post celebrating Nelson Eddy that it would take me to places I never could have imagined. More on that later. I can only apologize for the length of this post, it kinda blew up. TMI, so sorry.

Let's begin with a bit of Nelson Eddy history before he became one half of the cinematic partnership to which he shall be eternally linked.

Nelson Eddy - The Singer

If people are not born with music in their souls, they should not try to sing. But if they are born with it, nothing in the world can keep them from singing. – Nelson Eddy

Nelson Eddy, Baritone circa 1930
Nelson Eddy was born into a family blessed with musical talent; both his grandparents sang, as did his parents. Isabel Eddy recalled the doctor exclaiming at his birth, “good lungs.” Both his mother Isabel and father William (or Bill) sang in church. He was, in the beginning largely self-taught, vocalizing along with the recordings of famous baritones like Titta Ruffo, Antonio Scotti, and Pasquale Amato to learn arias. He recalled when he could not hit the notes they did, he belted out what he could and drowned out the recordings. Similarly, and in reverse, world-renowned opera stars Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo, drew their own inspiration listening to and mimicking the recordings of movie star Mario Lanza. Such is the power of music, records, and cinema.

Young Nelson Eddy choir boy.
His early childhood years were largely uneventful. He got his start singing as a choirboy in various churches in Providence. As he grew up, all was not well for his parents. Although it appeared to be amicable, his parents took what was an unusual step for the time, they separated and then divorced a few years later. After the split, Nelson and Isabel moved to Philadelphia to be closer to her family members. His father William Eddy remarried and raised Nelson's half-sister Virginia. Nelson left his formal schooling behind at the age of 14 and worked a variety of jobs to add to the family coffers. This included several menial jobs and later as a copy boy at a newspaper, then promoted to obituary writer and, later, full-fledged reporter. He also worked in advertising. Anything to keep money coming in to support his mother and himself.

Nelson Eddy circa 1915

In addition to all his regular work, and much to the annoyance of one of his employers, Nelson had set his heart on becoming a singer. He sang at work which was an unwelcome distraction to his boss and other workers. As soon as he could afford it, he studied with famed 19th century baritone David Scull Bispham; their brief collaboration was ended by Biscull’s passing in 1921. Eddy also started studying with Edouardo Lippé who sent Eddy to his own teacher William W. Vilonat who helped the young baritone strengthen and solidify his technique. Vilonat took this rough diamond and helped facet his voice into a shining gem. Lippé, who later followed Eddy to Hollywood, remained a valued part of his team.

Soon Eddy was singing with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company and whose musical director also took him under his wing and coached him. Eddy made his debut as Tonio in Il Pagliacci on December 11, 1924. In early 1925 he debuted another new role, Amonasro in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. During the 1925-26 season, he sang in Jules Massenet’s La Navarraise doubled with Puccini’s comedic opera Gianni Schicchi in which he sang the title role. Reviews praised Eddy for his comedic talent in this role. He also debuted in a concert performance of Rigoletto, there is little doubt at this stage of his career this was a role that would tax his voice far too much. He never sang the role again. He finished the season in smaller roles in La Boheme (Marcello), Romeo et Juliette (Mercutio) and Madama Butterfly (Sharpless). Along with opera, Eddy began appearing in concerts, including in 1927 a grand concert to mark the centenary of Beethoven’s death. He performed in various oratorios and began in Philadelphia what would become a lengthy and profitable association, regularly singing on the radio.

Young baritone circa 1925-1926
In the summer of 1927, he traveled to Dresden for further study. He did not remain there long, barely three months. Back in Philadelphia he found himself cast in Italian opera, this time in roles as Silvio in Il Pagliacci, Lescaut in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro. He also returned to Wagner singing  both Donner and Gunther in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung. Both of which I would have loved to have heard.

Eddy made his Carnegie Hall debut in the premiere
of Ottorino Respigi's Maria Egiziaca

With the Wall Street crash in 1929, Eddy left the struggling Philadelphia Civic Opera and was offered work at the Philadelphia Grand Opera, along with concert bookings. Soon he found himself in New York singing under the baton of Fritz Reiner as Orestes in Richard Strauss opera Elektra. He performed in several concert performances under Reiner including excerpts from Salome with the legendary Czech diva Maria Jeritza. This was Eddy’s only instance of singing on stage at the old Metropolitan Opera and Jeritza's last. Contrary to press releases later from Hollywood, he never sang with the company in staged opera and he is not listed anywhere in the Metropolitan Opera performance archives. In March 1933 he was heard on a broadcast singing in a concert version of the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal. This broadcast of The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Maestro Leopold Stokowski included Robert Steel in the role of Parsifal, Rose Bampton as Kundry and Nelson Eddy singing Gurnemanz. All the while Eddy was expanding his audience by being booked as a concert singer, with a level of success. While he mainly stuck to the east coast, his next tour took him across the country. It would be in San Diego where fate would play a part in changing his life and career in a big way.

During his then and long future career as a concert artist, Nelson Eddy included a wide variety of musical genres in his concerts. He often included pieces from oratorios, opera arias, lieder, songs of Stephen Foster and other American composers. In his lifetime he amassed a large personal library of scores and sheet music, many of which ended up in his repertoire. A serious student his entire life, his library of books, music scores and sheet music is now housed at Occidental College a gift from his widow Ann Eddy.  He sang in several languages, including French, German and Russian. He taught himself Russian, French, German and Spanish and was conversant in all of them. Personally, one of my favorite songs that Eddy had in regular rotation was Jules Massenet's Elegie.  Here is Nelson from a radio broadcast from 1945. He expresses lots of emotion here. My other favorite recording of this is by legendary Italian American soprano, Rosa Ponselle. She was another American singer who was largely self-taught and blessed with an abundance of vocal talent (Ponselle's sister Carmela also blessed with a gorgeous contralto voice). Rosa Ponselle later did a couple of screen tests at MGM in the mid-1930s, nothing came of it. She took part in the social scene in Hollywood and was feted by other Hollywood divas like Jeanette MacDonald and Grace Moore.  Ponselle remained good friends with MGM star Joan Crawford and silent film diva Gloria Swanson.

He also recorded Richard Strauss Zueignung in German. This recording while vocally and emotionally resplendent probably lacks a little in interpretation for the native German speakers.  Nelson was much more idiomatic in the rendition of Schubert below, which is sung in English.

The concert program below shows, for example, a thoughtful and wide array of musical styles, including opera, Russian songs, Debussy, Lieder, American songs and even a Kentucky mountain song. In reading about his concerts and audience reaction, he was very able to place the audience in the palm of his hand, so to speak. It seems clear that Eddy craved and fed off his audiences, which may be why he did so much radio as well. In my opinion, he was a very communicative, expressive singer. His voice and style lent itself to all manner of music, classical, opera to popular standards of the day. He changed with the times, resulting in his over 40-year career which spanned concert halls the likes of Carnegie Hall and later night clubs in Las Vegas and across the country. He was one of the highest-paid singers of his time and he earned every dime of it.

As I mentioned before, Eddy was a serious student of music for his entire life. Happily, he made nearly 300 recordings of a wide variety of musical styles and many sides are available on compilation CDs (or streaming if you do not mind the compressed audio). What he did not record, he performed on radio. According to his long time colleague and friend Robert Armbruster, Eddy was a very efficient musician when making recordings. He could lay down 12 tracks in an afternoon, each a single take perfectly.  Many other artists recording the same would normally take many days to accomplish a similar feat. Armbruster also recalled Eddy rarely missed a high note and was always prepared fully and on form. I truly believe Eddy's motto was exactly that he did live to sing, he loved it so. He gave 100% to his audiences. His audiences certainly loved him back for it. He was one of the highest paid concert singers in the 1930s and 40s.

Another talent Eddy possessed, he was an artist.  He painted, sketched and sculpted.  A Renaissance man if ever there was one.  

Nelson Eddy - Hollywood and Naughty Marietta

I remember seeing Nelson for the first time and thinking he fulfilled most of my requirements in a man: he was tall, blond, good-looking – but was awfully self-conscious about his acting  – Jeanette MacDonald 1963

I’ve handled Indians, African Natives, South Sea Islanders, rhinos, pygmies, and Eskimos and made them act – but not Nelson Eddy. – W.S. Van Dyke

Nelson Eddy came to Hollywood by a fluke. In early 1933 after a frantic call, he replaced an ailing Lotte Lehman on short notice for a concert appearance in Los Angeles. The concert was a roaring success for the young baritone who was literally an unknown in Los Angeles. Louella Parsons reported in her column that after 18 encores, it was not a surprise (to Parsons) that Eddy had been signed to a contract at MGM. Parsons added that Eddy would co-star with Jeanette MacDonald in I Married an Angel. As was typical of the time, many films announced never actually got made. I Married an Angel would not come to fruition for another 9 years hence. Then came another announcement, MacDonald and Eddy would be paired in a musical remake of the 1922 silent film The Prisoner of Zenda as Princess Flavia and Rudolph Rassendyll, respectively. Ben Hecht had been assigned duties of further adapting this Ruritanian romance. Once again, nothing came of this press blurb, more the pity. I think Eddy would have been a dashing Rudolf Rassendyll and MacDonald a ravishing Princess Flavia.

Early MGM publicity Nelson Eddy with his
longtime accompanist and friend Theodore Paxson.
(Originally captioned for Prisoner of Zenda)
It was through the prodding of Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer’s private secretary, that Nelson Eddy received the offer of a contract from MGM. She had been at the concert and urged Mayer to test and sign the handsome baritone. When he was first signed to MGM, Eddy had little to show for drawing his salary. Not yet an actor, later he often joked that he never was an actor, but a concert singer who was in movies. In these early days, he haunted the lot in an effort to learn how things worked and actually get assigned something to earn his salary. It was a difficult time for him, being much more accustomed to being on the road than sitting home twiddling his thumbs. By his own account, he was a workaholic and needed to be busy. Therefore, lacking any real work, he threw himself into a routine, up early, his favored exercise playing tennis, then vocalizing and rehearsing material for concerts and radio.

Nelson Eddy was also an accomplished
and competitive tennis player
Throughout the rest of 1933 when not at the studio, Eddy continued concertizing in cities such as San Diego and Oakland.  Just before Christmas he traveled north and sang at the War Memorial Opera House with the San Francisco Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony at that time was sharing digs with the San Francisco Opera. During the rehearsal of Wotan’s Abschied (Wotan's Farewell) from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, Maestro Issay Dobrowen jumped down from the podium and grasped Eddy’s hands in gratitude for such a performance. Eddy returned the compliment “And you are a master. All through the years of my concert work I have dreamed of singing this aria with such an orchestra and under such leadership.” In addition to Wotan, Eddy sang Wolfram’s aria “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser. His appearances for these two concerts were hailed as nothing short of incredible in the local newspapers.

Eddy finally did go before the cameras, albeit briefly, in the Joan Crawford and Clark Gable film Dancing Lady. This film was also notable for someone who did not get a contract at MGM, Fred Astaire.

He was also seen in Broadway to Hollywood and in Student Tour performing a stand alone number. In Student Tour he had billing on the title card, appearing as himself. It is a long torturous wait before you get to his “special.” Sporting a dapper mustache, a very animated Nelson Eddy sings The Carlo, a dance number with themes reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. I found the song mostly unremarkable and the choreography likewise. One dreams of Busby Berkeley's creativity here. In the brief sequence that precedes his song, Nelson Eddy is utterly natural with Maxine Doyle, playing himself. A charming moment as he ties her toe shoe.

In the new year, he traveled back up to Northern California for more concerts. Eddy sang in the Pavilion in Marin with selections that varied from Le Nozze di Figaro, Il Barbiere de Siviglia and even an aria from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe (Eddy sang with an operetta company in Philadelphia). The event was a complete sellout. He was singing all over the state of California, but, still not cast in any major role at MGM. Eddy was also continuing guesting on the radio whenever possible. While still in San Francisco he debuted on local KGO and sang “Votre toast, Je peux Vous le render” from Carmen, “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser, and the popular song “Through the Years.”

MGM's publicity department was doing their part by planting newsworthy bits and pieces for the newspapers and fan magazines on Eddy to keep his name present. Before he knew it, his life and career would change dramatically with his casting in Naughty Marietta.

Louis B. Mayer claimed that Allan Jones was his first choice to play the part of Richard Warrington. MGM's New York Office and Mayer were unwilling to buy out his $50,000 contract with the Schubert organization. So contract player Nelson Eddy was cast. With all the prior announcements pairing MacDonald and Eddy in a film, it is hard to pin down if Allan Jones was truly in the running. Jones always claimed it was so.

Jeanette MacDonald recalled in her unpublished memoir that with regard to Naughty Marietta, “only the music had any appeal for me. ” She needed to be coaxed into doing the movie. Coax her Louis B. Mayer did according to legend, and as related in MacDonald's manuscript, Mayer fell to his knees singing the lament Eli, Eli to MacDonald to persuade her. MacDonald relented and told Mayer she was convinced and that she’d do the film. She also recalled “As a leading man, Mr. Mayer told me, they now had a husky baritone who had done a recital in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium (where he saved the day replacing an ailing Lotte Lehman). I hadn’t seen or heard of Nelson Eddy, though he’d been under contract for a year or so and sung one song in a movie called Broadway to Hollywood and another in Dancing Lady. He had been signed on the recommendation of Mrs. Ida Koverman, L.B.’s executive secretary, a brilliant, middle-aged woman who wrote her boss’s speeches and polished this rough diamond of a moviemaker until he truly gleamed.”

MGM soon confirmed his casting in a press release stating that Naughty Marietta would be filmed starring MacDonald and Eddy in the leading roles. MacDonald sent Eddy a congratulatory telegram on his casting in the film. Eddy replied to her by a formal handwritten letter:

Dear Miss MacDonald:

Thank you for the wire. It was terribly sweet of you and I appreciate it more than I can tell you.
Someday I hope to get up the courage to tell you I think you are the grandest person in the world.

Very gratefully yours,
Nelson Eddy

This formality would gradually melt away over the course of filming and blossom into a friendship that lasted for the next thirty years.

Shooting would not begin for another month. While he cooled his heels waiting for the filming to start, Nelson continued to concertize and perform on the radio. In mid-September, Nelson was back in the San Francisco Bay Area opening the Marin Musical Chest which boasted a full orchestra and a choral of 300 voices strong. He also made his final appearances in Grand Opera singing Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhaüser (with the great Danish Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, later a good friend in Hollywood) and Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida (the title role sung by the transcendent Elisabeth Rethberg, no less. I am a HUGE fan) at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Whether he liked or realized it at the time, these would be his final performances in staged opera. Had he continued in opera rather than film and radio, one wonders how successful his career would have been. The opera world was rich with baritones. Further, they were American baritones like Lawrence Tibbett and Richard Bonelli; as well as the up-and-coming Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill. Eddy, would have had plenty of stiff competition for operatic roles. Eddy himself commented later that he realized he would reach more people via film, radio, and concerts than the limited operatic stage.

Director W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke
Production on Naughty Marietta finally started at the end of November according to The Film Daily; production would last for 55 days. Under the uncredited direction of W.S. Van Dyke (and Robert Z. Leonard), the pair could not have been in better hands. A musical was an unusual assignment for Van Dyke, he more accustomed to action pictures. He was an accomplished, efficient director and a tough as nails ex-Marine. One of his more recent films prior to Naughty Marietta was the wildly successful The Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy which was shot, unlike Naughty Marietta, in an economical 14 days. Van Dyke was a veteran of silent films, starting with D.W. Griffith working on Intolerance in 1916, he soon moved to Essanay making westerns. He honed his craft and moved to MGM in the mid-1920s and found greater fame with the 1928 film White Shadows of the South Seas shot on location in Tahiti and famously taking a film crew and stars to Africa for Trader Horn.

William Daniels, like Van Dyke was also a veteran of the silent era. He is perhaps most famous for being Greta Garbo’s preferred cameraman. He got his start at Universal working for Erich von Stroheim on Foolish Wives (which, by the way, has just undergone a new restoration and will screen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this April as the opening night program). Daniels was a master of light and shadow and his use of innovative lighting was pure magic on screen.  He would later be cinematographer on two more films with MacDonald and Eddy, Rose Marie and New Moon. On Naughty Marietta he had the wilds of Louisiana to lend his cinematic magic. His long career spanned the silent era, sound, and television with his final credit in 1970.

Neath the Southern Moon

Jeanette MacDonald was the veteran of the screen with several successful films at Paramount behind her under the guidance of Ernst Lubitsch. After joining MGM, she had already completed The Cat and the Fiddle with Ramon Novarro and The Merry Widow with Maurice Chevalier (her final film with both Ernst Lubitsch and Chevalier). MacDonald was generous as a colleague in that Eddy would receive star billing alongside her. She also showed Eddy a great deal of generosity during the shooting of the film after a little rocky start.

Nelson Eddy, with only three small parts to show for over a year under contract, had much to absorb and learn. It is not clear how much coaching, if any, he received prior to the start of Naughty Marietta. Readily admitting his lack of experience and that he was not an actor, Van Dyke never ceased to kid him of the absolute truth in this statement. He would need help from everyone working on this film. Jeanette recalled meeting Eddy, “I remember seeing Nelson for the first time and thinking he fulfilled most of my requirements in a man: he was tall, blond, good looking – but was awfully self-conscious about his acting. ‘I don’t know how to,’ he complained.” She continued, “Nelson was the butt of every kind of joke. The affection most of us developed for him came from the fact that he could laugh at himself; but, best of all, he sang like a lark!”

Captain Richard Warrington

Nelson always said W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke was very supportive of him. They became, in fact, good friends. Director Van Dyke cemented a lasting friendship with Eddy, ribbing him about his lack of acting chops “I’ve handled Indians, African natives, South Sea Islanders, rhinos, pygmies, and Eskimos and made them act – but not Nelson Eddy.” They both shared good humor, a talent for clowning and a healthy respect for one another, acting ability aside.

It was not only Eddy who was occasionally struggling during production; MacDonald had her share. This example of her own doing. The oft-told tale of her being late to the set blew up in her face one day.  She’d gone off to view the previous days rushes and had not returned from lunch in a timely fashion. Van Dyke, all kidding and joking aside, thought this the height of unprofessionalism. He closed the set down for the day and stalked off. MacDonald came back to a darkened soundtsage. Eddy recalled many years later, with a chuckle, that it was (closing down for the day) “at a huge cost to MGM.”  MacDonald was in the doghouse and she knew it. She arrived to the set the next morning, still not quite on time, but borne by four burly carpenters inside a doghouse. After proffering an apple to Van Dyke, her head popped out and asked permission to come back to work. Van Dyke roared with laughter, forgave her, and they became fast friends making eight more films together.

The pair pre-recorded their music and sang live with the music track on the set. In addition to being established practice at the time, one assumes this also served to help relax both stars from the pressure to deliver live on the sound stage. MacDonald also served to be the butt of another of Van Dyke’s practical jokes. In an unidentified sequence, MacDonald ready to sing for the camera, the playback was not her voice but Chinese Opera. Again, the entire set dissolved into unbridled laughter, including MacDonald. Eddy during a tense sequence also got blasted as well, this time by sirens.

Recording together mid-1930s
This costume film was markedly different from her previous screen characterizations. With Lubitsch, MacDonald was a saucy minx before the production code was established. She was known as his lingerie queen, and with Lubitsch, so much could be communicated with a sophisticated wink. Regardless of the more voluminous costumes of Gilbert Adrian, MacDonald moved through her scenes with easy charm and grace. She was equally as saucy here as Marietta, plenty of winks in the dialogue and in her reactions. She also subjected herself to some broad comedy in her first disguise as Marietta, wearing wire spectacles and gnawing on a hunk of bread. This is not something you'd ever see Norma Shearer doing. MacDonald embraced her comedic talents, and while vain about her costumes and hats, she knew a good scene when she saw it. She was a natural born clown.

This was something to which Nelson Eddy had some difficulty, his acting could be stiff and stilted.  He was more natural in the lighter scenes. He avoided close contact with MacDonald for the first few days. He was intimidated by her though he soon warmed up to her. According to MacDonald biographer Edward Baron Turk, Eddy sheepishly approached MacDonald and confessed, “I was all prepared not to like you. I heard you were pretty tough to work with – [that] you’d try to crowd me out of every scene. I want to apologize. I know you’ve been throwing scenes my way.” This opened the door and soon the pair were running lines together away from the hustle and bustle of the set. With this support Eddy began to relax. MacDonald was also generous by suggesting that Eddy be given one of her songs, “Neath the Southern Moon.” Thus began a screen partnership that would last for another seven films, each containing what became trademark bantering, give and take before the final reel.

I am with Jeanette here.
In Naughty Marietta credit goes not only to Van Dyke’s direction but to the script by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett along with John Lee Mahin. They basically tossed the original book by Rida Johnson Young and transformed the story to a brisk adventure punctuated by music and witty dialogue. Van Dyke knew exactly how to set the scene and let the dialogue sparkle. Sparkle it did. Added for some comic relief were alumni from The Thin Man Edward Brophy and Harold Huber as two of the rangers.

It was with this film that MGM's alteration in the screen persona of Jeanette MacDonald began; going from lingerie vixen to something a little less down to earth. More hidebound by huge gowns and a more Victorian attitude. This was not at all real life, but, an odd kind of legacy that persists to this day. The weird inability for fans not being able to separate their actors from their onscreen roles. It’s puzzling how MGM sanitized her exuberant personality. MacDonald had already proved herself to be a talented comedienne. Her wry humor can be seen to great advantage in this film. She may be a Princess here, nevertheless, this might as well be a Lubitsch picture. MacDonald is very much completely in on the joke and she delights in every scene. So much froth, joie de vivre, and so very, very funny. It is clear she was having a marvelous time. The entire opening sequence is charming with MacDonald racing up the stairs of the musician’s garrets singing all the way (Chansonette). The down to earth Princess knows everyone. MacDonald finishes at the rooftop singing to the crowd with a little shimmy, hands on her heart, "You are bad but I adore you." MacDonald is just thoroughly adorable here. A natural, she shared many qualities, I think, with Irene Dunne, singer and comedienne. Of course, in the clip below and in true Hollywood fashion, she first has to help out the venerable composer and teacher with inspiration for the song that will be the big duet in the movie. she knows more than he, naturally.

Nelson Eddy in his first starring part must have felt much stress to perform and get the job done. He was a fish out of water and by many accounts a perfectionist. He proved himself very able with the comedy, lightness of touch and was certainly not at all hindered by his virile sex appeal. The rapport with MacDonald sparks on screen was impossible to deny. His brash manner and use of lines to cut her down to size, well, they both gave as good as they got. His character's assurance and massive ego set off the sexual tension between them right from the start. I would be remiss to not mention that Eddy is quite attractive in his first scenes wearing buckskin, fringe, and a coonskin cap. Move over Jess Barker, here is my Daniel Boone. Rawr. You can see he is already on the make singing Neath the Southern Moon. This video begins and ends with Eddy's RCA Victor recording, the film video is in the middle just about 1 minute in.

In song, Nelson Eddy was a very effective communicator. His diction, phrasing and intonation of his beautiful singing voice were perfect, he knew very well how to shape a lyric. A very good case in point is the sequence where he serenades “Marietta” I’m Falling in Love With Someone. After so much banter and foreplay, this is where the film turns. It is truly the first real romantic moment. Much more so than the more famous duet Ah Sweet Mystery of Life, which is the payoff for all the prior flirting and sexual tension. Eddy’s experience as a vocalist really shows here, as I mention above, his phrasing and diction are impeccable.

As Warrington sings to Marietta while floating along the river and it really is quite something. While this film was released well after the implementation of the production code in 1934, this sequence could not be a more elegantly blatant a seduction. As the pair float along, he begins to describe haltingly “a very strange feeling I’ve never felt before” speaking the lyrics he will soon sing to her. MacDonald who is at her flirtatious best here locking her huge (and gorgeous) eyes on him teasing him about his symptoms “dizziness too?” She did have a very musical lilt in her voice when teasing this way. Her reactions are priceless. The first recitation of the song is lovely. Marietta is enjoying his attentions and is playfully crossing her fingers every time he mentions something she does not like. In this case it is the word love, again a tease. Warrington grabs her hand each time and uncrosses her fingers and forcefully sets her hand in her lap and continues on with his ardent song. She, meanwhile, smiles at him and shyly lowers her gaze as he sings. When she repeats the crossing fingers gesture using both hands, he uncrosses them and continues to hold them down expressing his control of the situation. She is all teasing, he is dead serious. At the climax of the song, his voice rings out when he reaches the line “I’m sure I could love someone madly” Full on voice up in the mask with a rich, ringing high note on the extended phrasing of the word “madly” which is utterly thrilling. He continues to the last line “If only someone would love me.” As before with a solid high note and accent on the words “love me” now three syllables. The result is visceral and smacks you right in the chest (at least it does me).

Marietta asks him to sing again as she’s letting go and loving this. She likes what she is seeing and hearing. She is bewitched (yet still playing hard to get) and it’s been clear from the start she has bewitched him. It’s charming and so flirtatiously sexy when she pleads with him, “sing it again” resting her chin in her hand with a grin. He retorts “I thought you didn’t like it?” She replies and entreats him, “Oh, but I do, please? (pause, tilt of head and big eyes), please?” He asks about the crossing of fingers wondering is she going stop him from singing his heart. She crosses her fingers again and holds them up, “Oh that!?” with a huge grin hides both hands behind her back and settles in for another serenade. He begins again to sing and this is where what was lovely before, becomes a seduction. He starts the reprise softly, sotto voce, crooning and MacDonald’s face mirrors beautifully the emotional reactions Marietta is experiencing. After the first line her hands come out from behind her back and rest in her lap and she leans a little closer almost imperceptibly. His voice is enticing and enormously sexy. On the second line, “I’m falling in love with someone head a whirl” his arm reaches out the length of the tiller gently caressing it as if it were she. He makes no other move and you think he might. The next line, you see her half close her eyes and her surrender is right there, a little nervous swallow. His song goes from crooning to more full voice where you can hear his own desire and see that now his seduction of her is complete. His voice rising to the climax once again, wonderful high note and then end. There was nothing in the action here that is vulgar or blatant physically. Nevertheless, this was something even The Motion Picture Production Code could censor. This is the pure magic of their charisma and electric chemistry on screen. Is it any wonder that the public just ate them up? You can see exactly why. It’s just marvelous and her reactions are just everything.

It is followed by a short and charming exchange where he asks her to sing back to him. She stammers she has another song (Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life) and she did not know it, not until now. He asks is it prettier than mine?  She stammers it's different.  "Would it be wrong to sing it to me" he asks, "Oh no, it would be right." Bingo, he's won her.  He tries to take her hand and she pushes it away, playfully patting his hand as she does so.  Previously so confident, now she's flustered, not in control of the situation or her feelings.

This is a beautifully filmed sequence, the background (rear projection) floating past behind them without anything to detract from what we are supposed to be looking at. It set the mood beautifully, pure magic. Dappled light and shadows of the trees and leaves flickering on their faces. In both the two shots and closeups, William Daniels had so much to work with here. MacDonald looks beyond lovely and Eddy so young and handsome. This really is the epitome of cinematic romance of which William Daniels was a true master. I had prepared a gorgeous video of the entire sequence before and after the song and I hoped you might agree with me, it’s magical. Sadly, the copyright police killed it once I posted it to youtube.  The lesser clip here will have to do. Perhaps I read too much into this, but listening with my eyes closed, I totally get it. The actual film footage starts at about 2 minutes in.

MGM may not have known it at the time the film was in production that this was going to be a monster hit, they surely hoped so. The Los Angeles Times headlined “Nelson Eddy’s Debut Hailed as Triumphal.” In reviewing some of the magazines of the era, such as Modern Screen and Photoplay, the letters to the editor sections are filled with mentions of Nelson Eddy. It is clear that among his new and ardent fans, acting ability or lack thereof did not hinder in the slightest his popularity. The audience was clamoring for more. He was a wonderful the combination of stalwart manliness and dreamy romantic hero. As MacDonald recalled regarding the cast and crew he was beloved because "he sang like a lark." Clearly the fans ate this up, too. Goodness knows I certainly did. He and MacDoanld recorded songs from the film for RCA Victor and they sold in the thousands, at the height of the Great Depression.

After the film premiered, Eddy was on a concert tour and returned to his home town.  A letter writer to Modern Screen boasted local pride:
I want to tell you how Nelson Eddy was received here in his home town during a recent concert tour. Thousands of people had gathered in the Metropolitan Theatre to hear him sing. The buzz of their excited voices was drowned out by the thunderous applause which greeted Mr. Eddy as he came on the stage with Theodore Paxson, his accompanist, and Governor Theodore Frances Green. The latter said that he considered it an honor to have been chosen "the one of us" (that's how he expressed it) to introduce the baritone to "the all of us." 
Then Mr. Eddy said, "Ladies and gentlemen, and all you school chums out there, I came here with a big chest, but now I can't help feeling a little humble and modest. A long time ago a little girl said if I ever came back to Rhode Island someday she'd give me a kiss, and there was a little boy who promised me a sock on the nose. As for that kiss, I'm hoping for success before the evening's over." And he preluded his singing with, "I'm a little nervous, but I'll do the best I can."
"The Song of the Flea," in particular, was delightful because of the comical grimaces Nelson made as he sang it. His rendition of "Evening Star," too, brought down the house with applause. And everyone admired him for the generous way in which he shared the applause with his accompanist, who also rendered a solo. (Betty Seidel, Providence, R.I.)

One wonders if the girl showed up with that long ago promised kiss. After Naughty Marietta, Nelson Eddy was the Elvis Presley of his day, he was literally mobbed everywhere he went. His concert audiences packed with adoring women as well as music aficionados.

Sunday News Cover
Nelson Eddy in natural color (Kodachrome)
Image courtesy of my friend Victor Mascaro
Naughty Marietta went on to garner a nomination for Best Picture and Douglas Shearer earned the sole award given to the film for sound recording. It was re-released in the early 1940s to big box office and also in the 1962 re-release. It is a charming, fun film, filled with lots of good performances.  Hilariously arch is Elsa Lanchester as the wife of Governor Frank Morgan. The aforementioned Brophy and Huber add some fun. It's a delight and you can totally see why the audiences of the era ate this up. I guess you can tell, I'm a tad besotted with Nelson Eddy now.

MacDonald and Eddy made another seven films together. The next Rose Marie was an even bigger success.  But, that's another film and another story.

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald - Ripping Up the Bodice Ripper

Friends, yes. Lovers, never. – Nelson Eddy

Nelson and I used to date each other before I married Gene. We always have been good friends, but, well, it was just never a romance. – Jeanette MacDonald

A studio arranged date or party?
(Hint: The pair were attending a performance of Maytime)

They certainly had great charisma on screen. Like Gable and Lombard, Tracy and Hepburn, it’s fun to imagine the singing sweethearts had a romance off screen, too. Fandom for movie stars has always had extremists and alternative viewpoints. If you go back in history, this applies to opera stars and stage actors, too. This has been something going on for centuries.

There are fans that simply cannot separate fantasy from reality. I am well versed in the bizarre nature of fandom because of my long association in the world of Rudolph Valentino. I have been squarely on the front line and in the trenches since the 1970’s. It can be very bizarre and includes everything from people claiming to be Valentino’s illegitimate children, to their mother (sister/aunt/grandmother) having had affairs with him, to the erotic fan fiction that gets written featuring him to this day. Regardless, nothing in my past prepared me for what I found with a simple Google search on Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Therefore the time has come to address the elephant in the room, i.e., history versus revisionist history and the purported torrid off again/on again relationship between Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. This revisionist history of the pair was something completely new and alien to me. Running across the massive number of blog posts, videos (and comments in both) were, quite literally, eye-popping. It does not take much digging to find an entire alternate universe of Nelson and Jeanette. There are factions of believers who are very vocal and passionate about this and woe betide you if you dare to disagree.

So let’s back up with a little ancient history. Both stars had fan clubs which dated back to the 1930’s-40’s. The MacDonald fan club still existed when I first discovered their films in the late 1970’s. Eddy’s original fanclub disbanded at the time of his passing in 1967; it was replaced later by The Nelson Eddy Appreciation Society, which is also now defunct. My first movie theater screenings of Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie were at the Old Town Musical Hall in El Segundo on a visit to LA. I remember the place was packed with a much older (than me) contingent of fans. I was the youngest person in the hall. I can only assume these were likely members of the Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club. About this time I also read James Robert Parrish’s book The Jeanette MacDonald Story. Then I became involved in the world of all things Valentino, silent film and film history; soon forgetting about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, as one does.

Return to today and imagine my surprise to find this world in which it is reported that MacDonald and Eddy had a 30 year affair that began with a horrifying date rape, then followed with a mock marriage ceremony, multiple pregnancies, miscarriages or abortions, unhappy “on paper” marriages, secret diaries, secret houses, and even suicide attempts. Well, this certainly is something new and ever so Hollywood Babylonishly juicy. Is any of this true? My answer and belief is an emphatic no.

This all stems from a book by Sharon Rich entitled Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair -- On-Screen and Off -- Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, published as far as I can tell in several editions (currently a 20th anniversary edition). Curiosity got the better of me and I downloaded the book on kindle. I cannot express how sorry I am that I did so. This thing reads like how you would imagine a truly bad Harlequin Romance novel, only worse. “Letters” “Diaries” and direct conversations all related in the most purple of prose. This is pure fan fiction and should be taken as such.

This kind of a book gets my back up. The research, as it is, is incredibly sloppy. The lack of scholarship, the lack of transparency regarding sources and references, absolutely maddening. This tome breaks every rule a good biographer or scholar should follow when writing a biography or a non-fiction work. Sources must be available and plainly set out. It muddies the water for future researchers who are now going to have to pick away at this stupid book and the numerous blogs that unpack and read into videos the most ridiculous claptrap.

Big chunks of the narrative attributed to Nelson Eddy’s supposed private diary entries. These “diaries” presented herein as being hand copied by his mother Isabel Eddy.  Mrs. Eddy then mailing the letters and transcipts to some friend in Oregon. Where is an example of a letter?  Where are the dates, the envelopes, postmarks? Nothing, it is to be taken as fact only because she states these are so. Vaguely citing Isabel Eddy letters is not a bona fide source. Puleeze and this is just one instance.
Using quotations from third party conversations that are not recorded anywhere and cited as direct? Sources noted for many quotations as being “a witness” “an insider” “sources say, ” etc. Eyewitness accounts from restaurants, please, cite your source, date, place, etc. The list of this kind of crap can go on and on.

The MacRaymonds on the town

Rich also engages in poor scholarship regarding basic film history in repeating tropes that have been disproved over the last several decades.  This includes her references to the career of silent star John Gilbert as just one egregious example. Among the juicier stories Rich relates is of a tale that MacDonald and Eddy unable to control themselves have a rendezvous in flagrante delicto on the set of Maytime one night. Um, she does realize that MGM (as every other studio in Hollywood) was a 24/7 a day factory with people all over the place working at all hours. Besides, lets face it, making it up against a papier maché tree? Unlikely if such a thing actually happened they both had dressing rooms to retire to for said rendezvous? Again, puleeze.

Rich slanders everyone in this book, starting with MacDonald herself, Eddy, and their spouses without anything concrete to back up so many of her claims. She bends any narrative snd skews it to fit her version of what may or may not have happened. There is plenty of evidence that each pair were average married couples with normal ups and downs.

Nelson Eddy was a devoted husband to his wife Ann Eddy by many accounts. He adored his step-son Sidney from her prior marriage. Their marriage, like Raymond and MacDonald’s, lasted for the remainder of their lifetimes. Eddy was notoriously private, so there is plenty we just do not know.

Louis B. Mayer is the chosen villain. There is no question Mayer could be an awful and vindictive person.  Apparently, according to Rich, Nelson Eddy was target #1 before Naughty Marietta was even completed. By the time of Rose Marie, he was ordering Eddy to be made up and lit badly so he would be reviled and rejected by the fans? Because he was sleeping with the leading lady? Really, Naughty Marietta was a sleeper hit, the studio could not cast them both fast enough to repeat the golden gravy train. Both the New York and Hollywood offices saw the dollar signs, they were not going to screw up the goose that was laying golden eggs in the midst of the Great Depression. Secondly, if MacDonald and Eddy had, indeed, fallen in love and decided to get married, MGM would likely not have shut them down. The 1938 film Sweethearts which is also thoroughly charming, would have been an even larger box office hit than it was. If Eddy had been Mayer's target, he could have easily fired him for a single breach of his contract. None of this folderoll is true.

Further, if Eddy and MacDonald truly behaved as Rich sets them out to, MacDonald with multiple pregnancies, suicide attempts (on the MGM lot no less), and Eddy showing up to work drunk throughout shooting, etc., they both would have been held accountable and/or fired. They were still under the obligation of a morals clause in their contracts. Both were professional, ambitious, very hard workers and Rich’s claims otherwise are ridiculous.

The Eddys
Rich also claims that they shared a love nest which MacDonald decorated with furniture from her home with Raymond. It seems that in Rich’s narrative they spent more time in this secret lair than with their spouses. You’d think their respective spouses would have noticed? Oh right, he was always away cavorting with some male fling. Ann Eddy was just this side of being insane and a blackmailer. One of the creepier claims in this sad fantasy is after MacDonald lost another baby, Nelson claimed the little corpse, drove off and buried it someplace in Ojai. No, really, I told you I truly regretted reading any of this ridiculous book.

Then, there is the outright plagiarism, Rich lifts entire bleeding chunks from James Robert Parrish’s book The Jeanette MacDonald Story, without a single footnote or reference to it as quoted material. How do I know?  I just re-read the James Robert Parish biography of Jeanette MacDonald to prepare for this long ass post. This, my friends, is plagiarism.

Briefly stated, plagiarism is using someone else's words, ideas, and visual representations without giving adequate credit to the source. Some plagiarism is illegal — an infringement of copyright; ALL plagiarism violates scholarly ethics.

There are no footnotes to be found (at least not in the kindle edition). The sources are laughable. Shoddy work. There is plenty more to unpack, but, I just can’t.

All I can say is both MacDonald and Eddy deserve better than this. New fully researched biographies for each individual would be a great thing. Edward Baron Turk's Biography Hollywood Diva is pretty good. A short biography of Nelson Eddy An Authorized Tribute by Gail Lulay was published 20 years ago and it appears to not have gotten much traction. The Lulay book suffers from having absolutly no bibliography, sources or notes. The author did speak to many of Eddy’s close associates like long time musical partners Theodore Paxson and Robert Armbruster and had participation from Sidney Frankin, Jr. and Eddy’s half-sibling as well as the remaining Eddy clan. Nonetheless, to my eyes this is not merely a biography, it is a response to Rich's book. Eddy's life and career deserve a much deeper look. 

As of this blog post, from what I have read in the three books I consulted, I will end here thusly, when ‪Jeanette MacDonald‬ married Gene Raymond, she promised she would never remove her wedding band. She never did. While filming, she disguised it with tape. Inside the band was a message from Gene Raymond to his bride. Neither of them ever revealed the message for it was for them alone. I like that, tres romantic.

Eddy riding his horse Dice on the beach
(I cannot recall the name of his dog)

Ann Eddy survived Nelson Eddy for 20 years, she never remarried. Upon her death in 1987 her son Sidney Franklin, Jr. found a sterling silver box at her bedside. Inside was a memento in Nelson Eddy’s distinctive script, “I shall love you forever and ever.” Again, tres romantic.

You can decide for yourself what is true and what is not. It all depends on what you read.

You might well ask, why do I care about any of this? Why do you have such a bee in your bonnet? I care because this crummy book besmirches their names, their legacy, not to mention every other person mentioned therein. It peddles falsehoods, it's sloppy research, at worst fan fiction presented as fact. There is a lot of room for new research on both MacDonald and Eddy individually and I hope this happens. I can only say, in my opinion, these two deserve a better legacy. A legacy that leaves people the joy of discovering their lives, films and recordings without this ridiculous book.



Margot Shelby said…
What a lovely and detailed review of Naughty Marietta. This is my first comment on your blog, because Eddy, MacDonald and their musicals are not quite my thing but it's always a pleasure to read an essay by someone who has a real passion for his subject.

About Sharon Rich's so-called biography, you should have a bee in your bonnet about books like this. Just like Darwin Porter's and Kitty Kelley's books, it always amazes me how things like that get published. I like to think there's a special place in hell reserved for "authors" like that.

I'll check out your blog more.
Anonymous said…
I am curious. Do you not think Gene Raymond was gay or at least had gay relationships.
I am not speaking about the Rich book. It seems there were other stories that spoke to that
rudyfan1926 said…
Re Gene Raymond, I have absolutely no idea one way or the other.
Caftan Woman said…
I got lost in your wonderful article on Nelson Eddy, and I thank you for it.