After the unexpected whirlwind of critical accolades and financial success that accompanied Naughty Marietta’s big screen debut, L.B. Mayer set about handcrafting a handsome string of screen operettas for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Each film became incrementally more lavish. Yet Mayer knew that the public wasn’t coming to these movies to see gargantuan production numbers, but to hear his two stars sing. In the brief interim between Naughty Marietta and the team’s next project – Rose Marie (1935) – rumours began to fly in the press that Eddy and MacDonald were lovers off screen. At first, MGM did nothing to either confirm or deny these allegations.
It was, after all, good publicity. Neither co-star cared for this intrusion into their private lives, however – perhaps Eddy least of all. Although MGM tried to finagle a romance of celluloid between Eddy and Cecilia Parker, then with Alice Faye, Eddy played his romantic intentions close to his vest. Some speculated he was gay – an accusation the extended family denied, although Eddy’s sister would later suggest that a childhood accident had left her brother impotent. Whatever the case, MacDonald attempted her own damage control, quashing rumours by pursuing a romance with actor Gene Raymond, whom she would later marry.
In the meantime, Mayer bought Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie for MacDonald and Eddy’s next big show. The stars spent one month in the Sierra Nevadas, an unheard of luxury in those days, capturing the isolated rural beauty of the high mountains and glistening streams, accompanied by an entourage of pack mules lugging cameras, reflectors, sound equipment, makeup huts and portable toilets to some fairly remote locations. The constant threat of a mid-September blizzard forced director W.S. Van Dyke to drive his actors and crew at a breakneck speed. Four weeks later, everyone came back to the relative safety of Culver City. But Van Dyke’s patience was twice tested by inclement weather and a bout of queasiness after MacDonald spent nearly six hours in a canoe with Eddy, shooting the title song.
Throughout the location shoot MacDonald wooed two suitors from afar; Gene Raymond and Bob Ritchie. On set, Eddy teased his co-star about her enterprising love life – but in the most congenial way. Each night co-star Jimmy Stewart entertained the group with an accordion at the lodge they were all sharing. Stewart was infinitely more at ease off camera than on, his knees shaking so badly during scenes he shared with MacDonald that it forced Van Dyke to shoot the pair from the waist up.
Rose Marie is another well-worn chestnut from the stage operetta’s glory days. Yet Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s screenplay veers wildly from the play’s more conventional origins. In their version, Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) is a Canadian soprano currently wowing New York audiences in Romeo and Juliette. After another peerless performance, Marie retires to her dressing room. She is pursued by an ineffectual suitor, Teddy (David Niven) and prodded by her manager, Myerson (Reginald Owen) into accepting a dinner invitation from the Premier of Quebec (Alan Mowbray) and his family. At first, the temperamental diva stamps her feet and refuses to comply. But then Marie’s maid, Roderick (Una O’Connor) gives her a letter about her brother John Flowers (James Stewart) who is currently serving time inside a Quebec prison. Jack’s most recent application for a parole has been denied.
Reasoning that perhaps the Premier can encourage the legal process in her favour, Marie entertains him at her apartment. Suspecting that the diva wants something in return, the Premier tells her he will respectfully listen to her request. But the night’s festivities are interrupted by a curious stranger, Boniface (George Regas) who brings unexpected news to Marie. John has broken out of prison and, in the process, murdered a Mountie. He is now a fugitive with a price on his head.
Distraught, and hardly thinking clearly, Marie commands Myerson to indefinitely postpone her operatic engagements. She packs a bag and dresses in casual clothing, embarking on journey with Boniface through the untamed Canadian Rockies. Arriving at an outpost near Lake Chibougam, Boniface steals all of Marie’s money and then disappears, forcing her to seek refuge inside the local inn. The bawdy saloon serves as a pit stop for roughnecks and Mounties alike, who come to cheer hooch dancer, Belle (Gilda Gray). Marie attempts an audition but is woefully upstaged by Belle who knows too well that all the customers really want is some shimmy and shake for their money.
Sergeant Bruce (Nelson Eddy) takes pity on Marie. After filling out the necessary paperwork for her stolen property he arranges for the Mounted Police to put her up for the night inside the inn, and furthermore offers to escort her through the hazardous mountain terrain in search of her thieving guide. At first Marie resists. The last thing she needs is a Mountie tailing her to her wounded brother’s hideaway. But Bruce is persistent. Moreover, he has wisely deduced that de Flor and Flower are the same name and that Marie and John are obviously related. Hence, sticking close to her will lead to the recapture of John.
After Marie and Bruce observe an ancient Indian ceremony together, Marie skulks off with Boniface who reluctantly agrees to fulfill his obligation and take her to John. Bruce pursues the pair from a distance, but is forced to intervene in a rescue after Marie is nearly drowned while attempting to cross a deep stream on horseback. Unable to find another guide until Hayman’s Landing, Marie agrees to allow Bruce to be her escort. The two begin their trek across the wilderness as strangers, but finish it hopelessly in love.
Bruce suggests that Marie will only think of him as a policeman once back in the city and the two presumably part company forever. Marie finds John wounded inside a remote cabin. She provides him with enough money to start over abroad. The plan is foolproof. If only Bruce had not followed her obvious trail straight to the cabin’s door. Bruce reappears with gun drawn, apprehending John in handcuffs and carting him back to the Mountie outpost. Marie begs for John’s release, but Bruce is unmoved by her tears.
With no legal recourse to appeal John’s conviction, Marie bitterly returns to her stage career. But she is no longer the spoiled operatic diva with an iron-cast heart. Now, she is haunted by memories of Bruce and the brief love affair they shared in the Rockies. Eventually, these persistent reminiscences drive Marie into a mental breakdown. Retreating to the snow-capped sanctuary of a Canadian sanatorium Marie remains tearful and confused. Myerson hopes that his star – and frankly, his meal ticket – will return to the stage in six months. Inexplicably, Bruce arrives to sing a few bars of the romantic ballad ‘Indian Love Call Song’ that they once sang together in the woods. His voice stirs Marie from her catatonic grief and the two are reunited in the genuine sorrow of their love.
Rose Marie is an oddity indeed. Setting aside the clumsy way the opening snippets from the Romeo and Juliet opera are staged – supposedly as live theater but actually achieved using some truly awful rear projection and sincerely laughable dissolves – the rest of the story is evenly scripted and nicely packaged for maximum effect; taking full advantage of the stunning Sierra Nevada locations. Yet there is a sincere and rather disturbing fatalism to the love story. Marie’s obsessive loyalty to her murderous brother is rivalled by her passion for Sergeant Bruce – the one man capable of destroying the object of her devotion. Even more unsettling; we are never entirely convinced that Bruce’s romantic intentions toward the woman he pretends to know as ‘Rose Marie’ is – for all intent and purposes – honourable, so much as he is exploiting her misguided allegiances to snuff out a murderer and thus fulfill the Mounties edict of “we always get our man.”
Rose Marie has disturbing psychological ramifications not found in Friml’s original stage work. Marie’s nervous breakdown and subsequent self-imposed exile suggest more deeply repressed emotional insecurities and unfulfilled erotic longings that need to be exorcised. Yet these are never resolved in the film, even as MacDonald and Eddy embrace for their final close up before the fade out, leaving audiences with a devious emotional cliff hanger to resolve in their own minds. Does Sergeant Bruce get the girl as well as ‘his man’ or are the lovers destined to be forever parted in this bizarre chasm of intoxicating fidelities horribly gone awry? While many critics have often flubbed off MacDonald and Eddy as lightweight musical fluff, faintly smelling of formaldehyde and mothballs, Rose Marie presents us with a more probing constellation of quandaries than who simply gets the girl in the final reel.
Warner’s MOD DVD is a tad disappointing, considering how exemplary their mastering efforts were on Naughty Marietta. On Rose Marie the B&W image appears uniformly thicker and less refined. Grain is heavy and rather distracting. Overall, the image is sharp, but contrast levels appear slightly bumped in some scenes, while rather weak in others. Age related artefacts are everywhere and frequently intrude on our enjoyment of the film.
The image is inconsistently rendered. The opera house sequences – with their dupe/rear projection trick photography - suffer the most from a dense and thoroughly unimpressive amount of distracting grain that registers as digitized grit. The Totem Tom Tom Indian processional – shot day for night – is very grainy with very low contrast levels that obscure almost all of the fine detail. On the whole this is a middling effort with predictably par for the course results, given Warner’s rather slapdash way of offering deep catalogue titles as part of the burn on demand Archive.
The audio is mono as originally recorded, with obvious hiss and pop throughout. Like other titles featured in the Archive, the only extra herein in a theatrical trailer in even worse shape than the feature. Not what I expected. Certainly, not what this film deserves.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)