by Paul Marsh
JUST about five years ago an unusual incident occurred on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. There was little pattern for it, but nevertheless it happened. What was it? Very simple—a queen had given up her throne!
This may sound as though royalty was once again repeating its abdication routine, and in a way, it was true. However, the queen in this case was Jeanette MacDonald, who had reigned with unquestioned glory in her position as the top musical lady on the Culver City lot.
There wasn’t a multitude of rumblings at this decision, nor did Jeanette leave any ill-feeling behind her. The time had come, she said, for her to try her wings in other fields. In the back of her mind lurked this desire, and one bright morning, just after a final hike, she suddenly decided that now was the time to act!
In her musical star-studded career, she had chalked up such notable successes as “The Cat And The Fiddle,” “The Merry Widow,” and soon after that came a new singing star to team with her—none other than Nelson Eddy.
Their screen union proved to be one of the finest musical teams to grace the screen, and in short order they were writing new chapters in Hollywood musical history.
Their first film together was “Naughty Marietta,” and overnight Jeanette’s star rose to the uppermost heights of moviedom. Then came “Rose Marie,” and so many popularity records were shattered that there was no doubt whatever about the goldish-red-haired songbird’s supremacy.
In the following year Jeanette’s name was associated on the marquee with that of Clark Gable in a spectacular epic entitled, “San Francisco,” and the picture was such a success that ten years later it was still being shown through the nation.
Young moviegoers, who are familiar with the name of Jeanette MacDonald but sometimes have difficulty in matching her lovely beauty and thrilling voice to a familiar face, will no longer have that enigma confronting them. When they see “The Birds And The Bees,” in which Jeanette stars, they too will leap on the bandwagon of her long-time fans.
But let’s get back to the beginning of our story, about a top-ranking star who overnight decided she’d had enough of movie-making, and had the courage to quit because there were a number of other ventures to which she had been looking forward for some time. She had told herself that some day she’d give them a try, and that time had come.
As you probably know, Jeanette possesses one of the most glorious soprano voices to be heard. She displayed it in one picture after another, in such tunepacked operettas as “Maytime,” “The Firefly,” “Sweethearts” and “The Girl Of The Golden West,” to mention only a few of her cinema triumphs.
Her first love has always been singing, and her career received its start in New York. She had gone about this tricky routine of getting along in show business in an intelligent way, starting low and gradually rising to the top of Broadway’s best among musical comedy leading ladies.
When she could go no farther in New York, she looked for new fields to conquer. Opera? Perhaps, but not yet. Movies? So far none of the many offers she’d received tempted her particularly. But just as she was closing in “Boom, Boom,” along came dynamic Ernest Lubitsch.
“That’s the girl I want for ‘The Love Parade!” he said enthusiastically, and shortly thereafter signed her to a contract.
What Jeanette did in “The Love Parade” is now film history. It was among the first big film musicals which proved to Hollywood that American moviegoing audiences would like semi-classical music, providing it was offered in an attractive manner.
Next came the best-seller version of a Broadway favorite, “The Vagabond King,” which was followed in rapid succession by “Monte Carlo,” “One Hour With You” and “Love Me Tonight,” to fill the demands of the army of MacDonald fans.
Shortly after these successes, she began her co-starring with Nelson Eddy, and it gave the nation a team that has yet to be excelled. They were the beautiful Princess and Prince Charming of the screen musical world, and each new picture by them sent the cash customers to the box-offices in droves. They made the name of Composer Victor Herbert a household word.
In 1937, following a two-year courtship which almost paralleled a story-book romance for ups and downs, Jeanette married handsome Gene Raymond, a movie star who was doing all right for himself. He and Jeanette had been drawn together by their mutual interests, especially music, and they started out on what would soon prove to be one of Hollywood’s happier marriages.
In the ensuing seasons, Jeanette went on to thrill her eager listeners with “New Moon,” “Bittersweet” and “Smilin’ Through,” but by 1941 she began to feel the first grumblings of divine discontent. Once again she confronted herself with the fact that she had reached the pinnacle in her field, and the urge to strike out completely into another channel was upon her for a second time.
The advent of the war gave her an added impetus to make a change. Her husband had been among the first to enlist, and she was imbued with the spirit that she, too, would like to help her country. What could she do? Sing at camps, hospitals, War Bond rallies, and on service radio programs!
During these past years, Jeanette had been combining concert tours with movie work, so when the time came for her to leave the screen, she was ready to make a quick decision.
“Quitting pictures was an easy matter,” she said. “After we had finished “Cairo,” I simply walked into the front office and told them I wanted to leave. It was all very quiet and simple—I had made up my mind, and that was all there was to it.
“Naturally, I had a personal issue involved, because Gene was going overseas soon, and I wanted to spend all the time I possibly could with him. The day after I left the studio, I flew East to have my last week with him before he shipped out to the ETO.
“Motion pictures had suddenly become unimportant to me. When I returned to Hollywood after Gene had left, I didn’t go near the studio. I had told myself that that phase of my life was over, and I didn’t particularly care if I ever made another movie again. Besides, I was too engrossed in the camp and hospital tours 1 was preparing to make.
“I went on these tours for three seasons, and it was wonderful! Singing to a group of servicemen is a most satisfying experience, and of course I never forgot that somewhere in Europe my husband might be listening to a singer under similar circumstances, so it gave me added heart.
“I rarely had a set program, because I asked the boys what they wanted to hear. You’d be surprised how many of our American lads like “Indian Love Call,” “Sweet Mystery Of Life” and “Sweethearts.” I must have sung each one of them about a thousand times!
“We always remember the most amusing things that happen to us, and these camp shows left us with plenty of them. Once, when we were singing at the camps through the Southwest, it was so hot that my pianist passed out, and the boys and I were soaked with perspiration. I looked as though I had just come out of a shower with my clothes on!
“In-between the Army shows, I made several independent tours, but naturally they weren’t as gratifying as those at the camps. I liked making the Armed Forces radio transcriptions because I often wondered where and under what circumstances our men would listen to them.
“A highlight of the war years for any married woman is the return of her husband from overseas, and mine was typical. I had had word that Gene might be coming home, but of course wartime secrecy prevented me from knowing what that date might be. I was in New York preparing for my first opera, ‘Romeo And Juliet,’ and Gene hadn’t had time to get my letter telling him I was there. I kept visualizing his arrival in New York, and then taking the first plane out to Hollywood.
“Fortunately, we arranged a way of informing him about my address through the hotel at which I usually stayed, and I waited and waited in the apartment I had taken in the East Fifties. Then, in the usual husband fashion, the morning I didn’t put up my hair and looked like anything but the attractive wife I wanted to be, he showed up!
“Gene was able to go to Canada for my operatic debut, and in the Fall I sang in ‘Faust’ and ‘Romeo And Juliet’ during the Chicago Opera season. I was having my fling with opera, and was loving it! I had left Hollywood to do concerts and opera, and it had all worked out as I had hoped.
“Then came the end of the War. I went to Great Britain on a singing date, and when I returned. Gene was doing a season of Summer stock with Gertrude Lawrence in New England. We stayed East for the Summer, and I enjoyed the first vacation I’d had in a half dozen years. In the early Fall Gene was called to Hollywood for several picture committments, so we entrained for the Coast.
“I had no plans whatever except to enjoy once again being just Mrs. Gene Raymond. Certainly I had no intentions of returning to the screen, but on the second day at home, the telephone rang, and five minutes later my plans for the future were neatly arranged!
“The call was from Mr. Ben Thau, top studio executive, who said he had a script which he thought I’d like, and if I did, would I consider returning to M G M .
“Tell me about it,” I asked him.
” ‘Well,’ he hesitated. ‘How do you feel about playing a mother?’
“It depends on what kind of a mother she is, and whose,” was my reply.
” ‘Jane Powell’s, in a good story with Jose Iturbi. It also has Edward Arnold in the cast.’
“Mr. Thau sent me the script, which I enjoyed, and I found no objection to being a screen mother. When Mr. Pasternak, the producer, telephoned me a few days later, I told him I thought the story was fine, and that I’d like to play in it. So there I was, the circle completed, back again at work at my old studio.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be back. I hadn’t realized how much I missed picture-making until I came back to it. And to add to the sense of being home again, the studio gave me the crew that worked with me on my former pictures. Actually, I feel as though I’ve been away on a long vacation, and have returned to work with a lot of familiar people.
“I’m enjoying it, too, because everything started out right. I liked the crew, and was happy to discover that they liked me, too. They gave me a grand reception. Our set was very pleasant, and we had a lot of fun making ‘The Birds And The Bees’ and I’ll be optimistic enough to say that you’ll like the story it tells.”
She and her husband rarely make the nightclub rounds, but they are avid partygivers and goers. When Jeanette is the hostess, invariably at some point in the evening two things occur—they play charades and then Jeanette is called upon to sing. She honestly admits she likes to do both.
She has a pixie sense of humor, with a penchant for amusing incidents which bring on a good laugh. She can take a joke as well as give one. A constant candy-nibbler, she usually pokes into the sweets tray with a comment that she really shouldn’t, and then goes ahead and selects the most delectable piece!
She likes outdoor life, which she satisfies by frequent dips in her pool. She confesses that she has a fault of frankness, but amends it by saying that if she has hurt some one’s feelings, she goes out of her way to correct the harm she has done.
Her gracious and sincere manner is one of her greatest charms. Unlike too many Hollywood luminaries, she is a good listener, but on the other hand, can carry on a conversation that is invariably worth listening to.
She doesn’t know yet whether she’ll team up again with Nelson Eddy, primarily because she has no idea about what pictures are being scheduled for her. She’d like to do one a year, make either concert or opera appearances part of the time, and during the remaining time be Mrs. Gene Raymond, housewife.
At the moment, she and her husband are enjoying their first postwar vacation together. It’s not a fashionable jaunt to Palm Springs or Acapulco, but like so many ex-GI couples, they are busy doing their guest room over into a full-time bedroom.
“I’ve traveled enough,” said Jeanette. “Now it’s time to settle down. Besides, there are a million little things to do around the house—things we just forgot about during the War. That old adage about ‘woman’s work is never done’ is certainly true with me now!
“This is actually the first chance Gene and I have had to start a complete marriage. Our careers always seemed to get in the way. Now we’re really going to concentrate on it, and see if we can make up for all the things we’ve missed.
“This time we’re back in Hollywood to stay—we hope!”