Screen operettas were considered hopelessly passé by the time MGM acquired Jeanette MacDonald’s contract from Paramount in the mid-1930s. This subgenre in the American theater is a curious one; its stories usually set in some vague Tyrolean landscape where the inhabitants speak and sing in English, their librettos inspired by the likes of Toscanini and Verdi, yet remaining firmly rooted in the more pleasurable ‘pop’ tunes of the turn of the century. As such, the operetta is a hybrid: not quite an opera, but loftier in its aspirations than Tin Pan Alley, pretending to be high art even as it is obviously geared to pleasing the masses.
The initial cycle of operettas was European by design with compositions by Strauss, Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan. With the advent of motion pictures, the operetta moved more distinctly away from these European roots and settings. But this migration proved somewhat awkward and occasionally detrimental to its popularity. On stage the operetta was an extension – or perhaps more accurately, distillation – of the high theatrics of grand opera. But on screen its artifice often became more artificial than artsy; the rehearsed mannerisms and grand gesturing of its fussy divas and preening tenors stiff and too highbrow for the popcorn set, unaccustomed to having their heroes in cod piece and heroines donning heavy wigs.
But L.B. Mayer was a rank sentimentalist at heart who loved operettas with a passion. And anything that Mayer loved that much he could usually make the general public love too. The trick was in how to achieve the balancing act between what the public considered highbrow and what they had embraced as their popular entertainment. Part of Mayer’s quandary was resolved when he acquired Jeanette MacDonald’s contract. Mayer didn’t have to introduce her to the public. The superstructure was in place. Yet, her popularity had crested in only a few years.
However this downswing in MacDonald’s career did not dissuade Mayer, perhaps because he had her in mind as a co-star for Nelson Eddy, the somewhat wooden tenor Mayer had signed in 1933. Eddy had been given a plum song in Joan Crawford’s Dancing Lady woefully illustrating that his forte was decidedly not singing pop tunes. The tenor had come to Mayer’s attention after a lengthy and semi-prosperous career as a ‘legitimate’ singer with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company. MacDonald always had great aspirations to perform on stage. But these were denied her, while Eddy was a veteran of more than 28 operas by the time he was brought in to co-star in Naughty Marietta (1933).
The film, loosely based on Victor Herbert’s stage hit was, by all accounts, a very risky venture: an operetta with one slightly faded star and another virtually unknown to film audiences. Eddy, who had heard the rumours that MacDonald could be quite difficult to work with, approached the part with some trepidation. This apprehension, coupled with Eddy’s own self-consciousness proved crippling at the start of the shoot. Still, the timbre in his baritone was a counterbalance to MacDonald’s occasionally shrill soprano. Better still, the two got on famously after the first day’s shoot, setting Eddy’s mind at ease.
Naughty Marietta is the story of a beautiful princess who masquerades as a casquette girl in order to avoid marriage to an elderly Spanish duke; standard operetta fodder. The screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, John Lee Mahin and Rida Johnson Young, opens on the frivolous Marietta (MacDonald): a beloved benefactress to her people. She delights in the prosperity of simple folk, frequents a pet shop and then the home of her old music instructor before returning to the palace to indulge some wild birds inside a gloriously absurd glass conservatory. Marietta is betrothed to Don Carlos de Braganza (Walter Kingsford) by her uncle, Prince de Namours de la Bonfain (Douglas Dumbrille). To escape this looming fate, Marietta stows away aboard a ship-full of amiable young girls bound for New Orleans. The women, as it turns out, are being imported for the express purposes of marrying the local planters, farmers and soldiers.
The ship is taken by pirates, but the women are spared their fate when Marietta seizes one of the lit torches and runs toward the sound of an approaching band of mercenaries, screaming for help. After a heroic rescue, the captain of the guard, Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy) serenades Marietta. But she solemnly declares she does not intend to marry. An understandable friction develops as a result of this obstinate defiance, yet mutual attraction to one another. But Warrington is a gentleman. He and his men escort Marietta and the rest of the girls safely to New Orleans where they are met by the anxious Governor Gaspar d’Annard (Frank Morgan) and his jealous wife (Elsa Lanchester).
D’Annard is certain that he has seen Marietta in Paris before, but cannot place her. To deflect his memories from the truth, Marietta pretends to be a courtesan and is exiled to a private house away from the other girls. Marietta tries everything to get Warrington to leave her alone. It’s no use. She intrigues him in more ways than one. But their romance is repeatedly thwarted, first by the arrival of a theatrical group, and later by three ‘would-be lovers’ who come to call on the elegant courtesan with brazen overtures that mildly insult her. While Warrington gets rid of these midnight suitors Marietta seizes the opportunity to escape her safe house.
The following afternoon, Warrington finds Marietta working at the Marionette Theater. He follows her to lunch where the two become better acquainted. Regrettably, their chance for flirtation is interrupted yet again, this time by soldiers in search of the Princess. Warrington hides Marietta from view and aids in her escape through some rough jungle terrain en route to his headquarters. Unfortunately, the pair is ambushed by French soldiers and Marietta’s true identity is revealed to Warrington.
The Governor shows Marietta the King’s mandate for her pending marriage to Don Carlos who has just arrived in New Orleans. A ball is given to mark their engagement. But Julie (Cecilia Parker) one of the girls Marietta befriended on the boat earlier in her misadventures has arrived to forewarn her that Warrington has decided to attend the ball also, despite being threatened by the Governor with arrest for treason. Warrington arrives in full military regalia and is ordered to leave at once. However, as Marietta begins to serenade the governor’s guests, Warrington joins in. The audacity of their public display of affections shocks the guests and Warrington is placed under arrest. However, the guards who apprehend him are actually men loyal to Warrington – not the governor. These men help Warrington and Marietta escape to a safe passage along the Western frontier where, presumably, they will live happily ever after.
Naughty Marietta is a glossy spectacle, ably diffused from becoming just another weighty bore by its melodic score that includes the rambunctious ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’, trilling ‘Italian Street Song’ and capped off by the luscious romantic pas deux, ‘Ah Sweet Mystery of Life’. Viewed today, Naughty Marietta’s mistaken identity scenario is not terribly prepossessing. The screenplay is episodic at best. Ironically, the second best thing about the film – after MacDonald and Eddy’s duets – is W.S. Van Dyke’s ‘get on with it’ approach to the directing. It keeps the narrative moving even when the plot stubbornly refuses to come to life.
Van Dyke’s no nonsense approach also gives immediacy to MacDonald’s performance while masking the fact that Eddy is woefully uncomfortable in his period duds. Better still, MacDonald and Eddy seem to bring out unique qualities in each other that neither had when working apart. Shot in half the time and half the budget of MGM’s The Merry Widow, Naughty Marietta was a massive hit for the studio, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and outranking such heavy hitters in popular polls as Mutiny on the Bounty and Top Hat to become an unqualified hit.
Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD is fairly clean, with a strong gray scale and very solid contrast levels. The B&W image is crisp with strong tonality that yields a myriad of fine details. Age related artefacts are still present but will not distract. Film grain is accurately represented. Digital artefacts are expertly concealed. This is a nice effort from Warner. The audio is mono and represented at an adequate listening level. Like other titles in the Warner Archive, this one comes with only a theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)