Has Jeanette MacDonald Outgrown Hollywood?

by Gordon Barrington
Motion Picture
September 1939

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WHEN a magazine editor interviewed Jeanette MacDonald a few [weeks ago, she walked his legs off. I The editor drove to Jeanette’s front door, and expected to be invited inside. Instead, Gene Raymond’s very vital wife met him outside, hooked her arm in his, and hustled him off on a hike of the Bel Air district, whether he liked it or not. Jeanette walks a mile every evening, before she goes to bed. The last part of her walk is an uphill march. The prominent editor went back to his hotel steaming, dripping with perspiration, and very much out of breath.

There’s your picture of Jeanette, in a nut-shell. On the move. Anybody can sit down and sip Martinis and chatter. But why sit when you can be moving? That’s the way with her career, too. Her career moves. It forges forth, sometimes like a battleship, with long, even surges, sometimes like a toy balloon, taking off and zinging up into space with the freedom of the air, itself. Like the magazine editor, the people who follow its movements go home steaming, dripping wetand panting for breath.

Jeanette’s latest expedition covered the length and breadth of the U. S. She was her own manager, so she did what she pleased. She pleased to have herself a concert tour, so that’s where you found her and heard her—somewhere in Ohio, or Nebraska, or some other state, singing her head off.

Hollywood’s been a swell experience, and she may be back. She probably will. But lately she has been taking her daily constitutionals right along, in trains, planes, taxis and elevators. One time, a friend asked Jeanette what she considered the most important thing in life. “Keeping your circulation up,” she replied, without so much as the bat of an eye-lash. I can believe it. A Jeanette MacDonald with jaundice would be like a pursuit plane with the pink eye, or a racing car with doughnuts for tires. How long Jeanette will gallavant about the country, nobody knows. Not even Jeanette. Something will probably pop up in Hollywood that wil make her blood tingle, and we’ll see he back here again, in the groove.

At the moment, the odds are against if I’ve been wrong before and this may be an other one of those times. Hollywood and Jeanette may be breaking up. Or at leas saying a fingers-crossed adieu. There may be a clean, open break, or there may be a split that will see Jeanette dividing her time. Perhaps the split will widen as time goes on as it did with Grace Moore and Lily Pons

For one thing, Jeanette has been offered; contract by the Metropolitan Opera Company. You can’t sniff at an offer from the Met. To the offer, Jeanette hasn’t answered, Yes. But she hasn’t said no either.

Then, there are her music lessons. She is taking them daily, and gives special attention to foreign tongues and inflections, volume, gesticulations, and the other appertenances of concert and operatic singing.

AND there is the current Eddy-MacDonald split. Nelson Eddy did the picture Let Freedom Ring without Jeanette, and Jeanette went into Broadiuay Serenade without Nelson. Maybe the fans have had enough of Eddy and MacDonald as a team, for awhile. It was good while it lasted, but enough is enough, seems to reverberate from Jeanette’s and Nelson’s studio. At least for the time being. And the studios generally echo the sentiments of the fans.

Jeanette could very well be wearied of telling Nelson she loves him in various incantations and several different languages, and vice-versa. Just as Astaire and Rogers have seen enough of each other, for the present. With Jeanette and Nelson, the strain of working together may have been even greater.

After all, though Fred and Ginger were in each other’s arms seven hours a day, week after week and month after month, Fred was able to look out the window occasionally while he was dancing, and Ginger had the opportunity once in a while to gaze at the wall paper.

But with MacDonald and Eddy it was a voice to voice communication all the way. And over just as long a period. When Jeanette wasn’t chirping to Nelson, Nelson was warbling to Jeanette. They’re both swell people, and they get along together. But so do a brother and sister—when they don’t see too much of each other.

IN A way, I suppose, we should be prepared for Jeanette’s bow from the screen, should such an eventuality come about. It was not so long ago, at the conclusion of her Paramount contract, that she packed her trunks, kissed her friends and her pet dogs good-bye, and hied herself off to Europe for an extended concert tour. Here she gave recitals in all the major capitals of the Old World, and was gone for nine months. Her renditions of some of the more serious musical works, to the satisfaction of the exacting Continental and British critics, brought her acclaim as a true vocal artist. Her accomplishments on this tour overshadowed, in a way, the work she had done, hitherto, on the screen.

Jeanette at this time might possibly have continued her successes as a concert singer, and hers might have been a face forgotten for all time to movie audiences. Whether it was the lure of her great movie public, an overwhelming interest in the screen, where her several talents are given full expression, or the wish to continue her voice training—that brought her back to Hollywood, can only be a matter for conjecture.

Should Jeanette decide to make the plunge into opera, it is only fair to ask, has she the requisites for success in this field? Jeanette vocalizes an hour-and-a-half to two hours every day. She keeps her vocal chords exercised with strains from semi-classical ballads and operas. Along with this are routine exercises her teacher has given her. Her range is from about low A to high E flat. To carry the more difficult operatic roles successfully Jeanette would have to stretch her range a little lower and a little higher. Her aptitude for languages and operatic gestures would carry her in these divisions, but her volume would have to be worked on.

FROM what we know of Jeanette, we’re sure she would never be able to give up the screen without certain remorses. True, she is a superior vocalist, with a firm knowledge of music, and she has been pronounced by competent critics a most delightful and able rccitalist, and a potential opera star. Yet, there is also her personal happiness to consider. As the gay, coy and effervescent heroine of Naughty Marietta, The Firefly and Girl of the Golden West, we seemed to see Jeanette MacDonald hitting a pattern in which she revelled. And a pattern which delighted her fans to the point of idolatry. We wonder, in the light of this, if a more serious and “up-stage” MacDonald would be really happy for any length of tune.

It all seems to come down to the fact that Jeanette, in her movie life, has been given the opportunity to express all of her talents to the full. On the screen, it is not simply Jeanette MacDonald, the singer. It is also Jeanette, the charming beauty, the clever actress, the graceful dancer, and the girl with a personality that has a universal appeal. Eliminating from her life the satisfactions she derives from the release of these talents, would she, we wonder, be completely content? And would she be absolutely fair to herself?

Should Jeanette eventually turn a cold shoulder to the screen, what, we must ask, would be the reaction of her fans? Would they feel snubbed, or would they wish her well? Do Mr. and Mrs. Moviegoer feel Jeanette is actually destined toward greater things? And if so, do they give her their blessings? Or is the buoyant Jeanette so engrained in their hearts that they will keep calling her back for more?

During her concert tour they have sought her out in every city and hamlet she has visited. She has been acclaimed as few screen personalities have been acclaimed. Even as she seeks the seclusion of the more elite concert halls, the mob has hailed her, and heaped their adorations upon her. To them, she is the “Queen of the Screen,” and the new “America’s Sweetheart.” In the midst of this popularity come the hints that Jeanette is steering her course toward “higher and nobler things.” Make certain, Jeanette, they are, for you, the right things!

THERE seem to be two predominating personal influences that have affected Jeanette in recent months, extending her interest in serious music. One of these influences has been Jeanette’s prototype, Grace Moore. Miss Moore’s career has served, for some time, as an example which Jeanette, secretly, would like to follow. Like Jeanette, Grace Moore achieved great heights as a singing star in pictures. Having attained these heights, she went on to what she believed to be “better things.”

The current spring. season saw Grace Moore appearing at the world-famed Opera Comkme in Paris. This appearance is to be followed with recitals in London, and then a return to this country to sing with both the Chicago and Metropolitan Opera Companies in the fall. Jeanette, without a doubt, visualizes itineraries of this sort for herself; and they are not, of course, beyond the realms of realization.

The other personal influence is Gene Raymond. Gene, not so long ago, was one of the brighter lights of Hollywood. Then came a series of roles to which he felt he was not suited, and which, he felt, hurt him professionally. Rather than go on with these roles, he refused to accept the renewed contract his studio offered him. Four or five other screen offers came his way, but these, too, he refused. His interest in the screen was waning, and finally the secret came out. He was busying himself with something else! He had, in his spare time, written several musical scores, which seemed to click with the public. Among them were, Will You?, and You Little Devil. With his marriage to Jeanette there came a renewed interest in the field of music, and, with the wedding bells still clanging in his ears, he decided to devote all of his time to it.

A VISIT to the Raymond estate in BelAir today will reveal a veritable “music factory.” Neatly tucked away in the rear of the comfortable, almost oldfashioned living quarters, is wdiat the Raymonds call the “music house.” This is Gene’s and Gene’s alone. It’s his sanctum sanctorum. Rhyming dictionaries, score sheets, pianos, recording apparatus, a radio and a victrola are its only equipment. Here Gene has reclused himself. “And he won’t come out,” says Jeanette, “until something really worth while has been written.” He has an operetta nearly completed. When this has taken its final form he will try it out on the market; then, he tells us. he will hide out again, and continue his studies of music in its higher forms.

In an atmosphere such as this, it is no wonder Jeanette has taken an increasingly serious attitude toward the musical side of her life. As staunchly as she denies she is influenced by Gene’s absorbing interest iu music, it is hard to believe she is not carrying her own muscial career to the utmost in order to please, in part at least, the man whom she adores.

Within the Raymond home itself there is a “music room,” a sort of counterpart to Gene’s own pet “music house.” Here, side by side, are Jeanette’s piano and the handsome electric organ Jeanette gave Gene for his birthday. “She shall have music wherever she goes” seems to be the theme song of this household. Together, apparently, Jeanette and Gene are determined to make music a thing to be studied and a thing to be created, for all it’s worth, in their lives.

With the musical advances Jeanette has made, can it be that the movies are becoming too confining—too limited for her musical talents? Naturally, in movies, she can only hope to appear in light operas, translated from the original stage versions. Nor is there the vocal range in movies she would be afforded, with development, in concert and opera. Is Jeanette, in actual truth, outgrowing Hollywood? Maybe she is. Maybe, on the other hand, she is letting her hat-full of thrilling and varied screen talents go by the board, through absorption in a single interest. Think it over, Jeanette. This comes from your friends in Hollywood, and your fans all over the world.