The Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald craze reached its apex with Robert Z. Leonard’s Maytime (1937) a gloriously elephantine operetta superficially based on Sigmund Romberg’s Broadway show. Maytime’s production schedule was interrupted by the sudden unexpected death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg on Sept. 14, 1936. Thalberg had envisioned Maytime as MGM’s first Technicolor spectacle and had even brought in Romberg to write four new tunes for his celluloid update. The producer handpicked Edmund Goulding to direct. But the results proved disastrous. After spending nearly $800,000 Thalberg and assistant director Joe Newman concurred. The footage thus far assembled was a catastrophe. In a gutsy move, Thalberg resolved to start Maytime over again from scratch with a new director at its helm. But then Thalberg died, placing the project on indefinite hold.
In the interim Jeanette MacDonald heavily campaigned to make San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable. Although the co-stars were anything but kosher toward each other between takes, the film became yet another feather in Jeanette’s cap and she approached Maytime with renewed resolve to renegotiate her MGM contract, while garnering a newfound appreciation for Eddy’s good nature. Unflatteringly dubbed ‘the singing capon’ to MacDonald’s ‘iron butterfly’ by the critics, Eddy knew that apart from his undeniable presence as a singer he was something of a minor disappointment as an actor.
A capon is a castrated chicken and, while the inference to Eddy - as a man - may seem more than a tad cruel (in point of fact, it is), as a performer it fit his acting rather succinctly. There is no hint of masculine passion or even a modest twinge of virility to his performances in either Naughty Marietta or Rose Marie. Eddy was self-conscious, but this translated into a queer asexuality on the screen. Though undeniably handsome, there was something odd and waxen about Eddy as a performer – more a mannequin than a man.
Yet Nelson Eddy’s performance in Maytime comes off as something of a revelation, especially when directly compared to his two previous outings. There is verve to him in Maytime that is excitingly alive. Perhaps the delays in the production gave the singer time to rethink his approach to the material. Or maybe he had finally begun to mature as an actor. Either way, this new level of comfort with the camera gave fans of the duo their first real reason to celebrate. From start to finish, the new Maytime was rewritten in just six weeks. Noel Langley, Claudine West and Rida Johnson Young’s screenplay owed much more to Noel Coward’s Bittersweet than it did Broadway’s Maytime. In fact, the film only retained one song ‘Will You Remember?’ from the Romberg score.
Our story begins with the kindly advice of an aged Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) bestowed upon Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) – a young girl whose head has been filled with dreams of becoming a great opera singer in New York. However, Barbara’s fiancée Kip Stuart (Tom Brown) doesn’t want her to go. The couple quarrel and after Kip leaves Miss Morrison confides to Barbara that she used to be Marcia Mornay – the world famous opera diva who sacrificed true love for her art.
We regress in flashback to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. Marcia and her impresario, Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) are invited to the French court to perform for Louie Napoleon (Guy Bates Post). Afterward, Nicolai tricks renown composer, Trentini (Paul Porcasi) into writing an opera exclusively for Marcia. Later that same evening Nicolai proposes to his protégé. Although she does not love him – and Nicolai knows this – Marcia agrees to the marriage out of a sense of loyalty for all that he has done to help establish and build up her career. Overjoyed and unable to sleep, Marcia sneaks away for a midnight carriage ride after Nicolai has gone to bed. The carriage breaks down in front of a tavern. While the driver begins his repairs, Marcia is drawn inside the tavern by the superb tenor voice of Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) a rather devil-may-care sort who lives in a nearby squalid one room apartment with his music teacher, August Archipenko (Herman Bing).
August admonishes Paul for coming home so late, but is told that tomorrow Marcia Mornay has agreed to join them for lunch. She fulfills this promise, reminiscing with Paul and August about her home in Virginia. Paul steals a pair of opera tickets belonging to his friend Fanchon (Sig Rumann) to attend Mornay’s last performance in France. However, at the opera Nicolai nervously spies Paul from beyond the footlights. Although he suspects that Marcia and Paul’s friendship has developed deeper roots of affection, Nicolai is unable to justify his suspicions. After the performance Paul and Nicolai bump into each other in the hallway just outside of Marcia’s dressing room, but she pretends that Paul came backstage merely to congratulate her.
The next afternoon Paul and Marcia go ‘maying’ at the county fair; a golden afternoon of indulgences capped off by a romantic rendezvous in the pastoral hills outside of town where Marcia reluctantly admits she is about to marry Nicolai as she has promised. Paul desperately wants Marcia for his own, but she denies him their mutual love, marries Nicolai and departs Europe for a whirlwind tour of America. In the meantime, the forlorn Paul focuses his ambitions on his singing career, returning to America to establish himself as a tenor with the New York Opera Company. Hence, when the company hires Marcia for their production of Traviata, Nicolai demands that the play be changed to Czaritza instead.
As the performance unfolds in front of a live audience on opening night, the characters Marcia and Paul are playing are drawn into a passionate embrace that transcends their art. Paul tells Marcia that he will never let her go again and Marcia agrees. She can no longer deny the love she feels. After the performance, Marcia fakes exhaustion to go home with Nicolai where she informs him that she has decided to run away with Paul. Acknowledging that Paul’s memory has been between them these past seven years of their marriage, Nicolai retires to his room, retrieves his pistol and trudges through the snowy streets to Paul’s brownstone.
Realizing too late where her husband has gone, Marcia runs after him. Nicolai arrives at the brownstone first. He tells Paul he has decided to give Marcia her freedom tomorrow, but that he is giving Paul his freedom tonight. With that cryptic message, Nicolai murders Paul. Marcia burst into the room and rushes to her lover’s side. He dies in her arms and the scene dissolves back into the present. A tearful Barbara thanks Miss Morrison for her kindly advice. Kip returns and the two are reconciled with Barbara deciding to give up her career to become Kip’s wife. Drained of the strain of this lifelong secret, Miss Morrison quietly dies in her chair, revived as a youthful ghost reunited with Paul, the two walking hand in glove through a bower of cascading cherry blossoms where they are destined to spend eternity together.
Maytime is a marvellous movie; full of the sort of rank sentimentalism that warmed L.B. Mayer’s heart. And in viewing the film today one has to concur with its initial critical reception; that Eddy and MacDonald had never been more natural together. Nelson Eddy’s performance is remarkably relaxed. He is convincing as both the loveable scamp we are first introduced to in the tavern, then as the more mature man who vows to rescue Marcia from her slavish duty toward Nicolai. MacDonald effortlessly runs the gamut of emotions and ages, from precocious flirt to world weary matron. John Barrymore lends a diabolical credibility to Nicolai Nazaroff; a man barely able to restrain his possessive jealousies. Herman Bing is charming in all his frustrated buffoonery.
After purging all but one of Romberg’s songs from the score, composer Herbert Stothart composed a twelve minute aria inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Czaritza, then proceeded to repopulate the rest of the score with songs from dead musicians whose work had fallen into public domain. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became a pivotal backdrop for the scene in which Nicolai suspects a romantic entanglement between his wife and Paul. Other arias were borrowed from Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Wagner to fill in the musical repertoire. At Napoleon’s embassy ball MacDonald trills the flirtatious Les Filles de Cadiz and the rousing Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. Musically, Maytime is MacDonald’s show. The only time Eddy gets to sing alone is at the tavern where his Paul is first introduced to both Marcia and the audience. Otherwise, virtually all of his songs are duets with MacDonald.
When Maytime had its premiere in March of 1937 it was all but universally praised by the critics as a seamless fusion of the high ideals of classical opera meets the pop culture of the movies. Audiences flocked to see it and Maytime’s success even outranked San Francisco that, until Maytime’s release had been MGM’s top money maker. Today, Maytime still ranks among the best movie musicals of its vintage and certainly remains the very best musical Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ever made together. It’s full of schmaltz, heart and lilting songs that raise our spirits, reaffirming – at least in fantasy – that perhaps some of the hardships in life can be rectified in the hereafter.
We could us a bit of rectifying on Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD transfer. Maytime is a film that deserves to have its original negative (if one still exists) rescanned and cleaned up. Personally, I’d like to recommend it for a 1080p Blu-ray release. The film, as it currently exists, is decidedly grainier than usual or what is even acceptable by today’s mastering standards. Grain structure is an inherent part of photographic film. But Maytime’s grain looks a tad digitized instead of natural.
The gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped up, creating a harsher than expected visual characteristic; overall, quite unflattering. Age related artefacts persist and are sometimes distracting. The audio is mono but quite strident in spots, as when MacDonald hits the high notes during Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. As with other films in the Warner Archive Collection, all we get with this offering is a theatrical trailer that – oddly enough – looks very clean and solid. Recommended for content – not quality of transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)