MAYTIME (MGM 1937) Warner Archive

The Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald operetta craze reached its apex in supreme exaltation with Robert Z. Leonard’s Maytime (1937) a gloriously elephantine ode to love, superficially based on Sigmund Romberg’s smash hit Broadway show. Maytime – the movie – ought to have been an entirely different experience; its’ production schedule interrupted by the sudden untimely death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg on Sept. 14, 1936. Thalberg had envisioned Maytime as MGM’s first all-Technicolor spectacle and had even brought in the then 50 yrs. young Romberg to write four new tunes for this celluloid update of his much-beloved showstopper. Thalberg had also handpicked Edmund Goulding to direct the picture. Goulding’s reputation for wit and sophistication already possessed the mark of chic good taste Thalberg perceived as the perfect compliment to this very classy affair du Coeur. Alas, 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 reboot Maytime with a new director at its helm. But then Thalberg died, placing the project in indefinite turnaround. 
In the interim Jeanette MacDonald heavily campaigned to make San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable. Although the co-stars were anything but kosher toward one another between takes, the film became yet another feather in MacDonald’s cap and she approached Maytime with renewed resolve to renegotiate her MGM contract, while garnering a newfound appreciation for co-star, Nelson Eddy’s good nature. Dubbed by the critics as ‘the singing capon’ to MacDonald’s ‘iron butterfly’, Eddy knew that apart from his undeniable presence as a baritone he was, at best invisible, and at worst, something of a minor disappointment as an actor. A capon is a castrated chicken and, while the inference to Eddy - as a man - seems more than a tad cruel (in point of fact, it is), as a performer it fits 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 and period costumes only amplify this shortcoming.  Indeed, Eddy was very self-conscious and this translates into a queer asexuality on the screen. Although undeniably handsome, there is something oddly waxen about Eddy as a performer – more mannequin than man.
From the vantage and pall of this unflattering assessment then, Nelson Eddy’s performance in Maytime comes off as 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, Eddy’s new level of confidence in front of the camera gave fans of the duo their first real taste of the MacDonald/Eddy chemistry, and a genuine reason to celebrate. From start to finish, Maytime was re-conceived and rewritten in just six weeks – a masterful feat of the studio system with all its pistons impressively firing in unison. Even if Noel Langley, Claudine West and Rida Johnson Young’s screenplay owed much more to Noel Coward’s Bittersweet than Romberg’s original Broadway show, the results were to prove a real winner with movie audiences the world over. In fact, the film adaptation retains only one song ‘Will You Remember?’ from the Romberg original stage score.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and resident Metro couturier, Adrian’s plushly designed fashions, particularly MacDonald’s flounce and frilly gowns, are lavish accoutrements in the vein of Thalberg’s genius for creating lush and lovely screen spectacles. Given Mayer’s natural distaste for such absurd spending it is a minor wonder the picture was made at all. Mayer’s one denial in the post-Thalberg redressing of Maytime was Technicolor – then, still highly experimental, very costly, and proving not altogether successful at the box office. So, Maytime emerged, looking supremely ravishing in glorious B&W; Oliver T. Marsh’s cinematography affording the eye plenty of sublime vignettes, capped off by the ground-swelling romanticism of an immaculately bedecked Eddy and MacDonald, warbling ‘Will You Remember?’ amid an orchard of honeysuckle, its bowers casting a shower of soft and glistening white petals all around. To minimize costs, Mayer encouraged Gibbons to reuse as much of the interior glamor from Thalberg’s other spendthrift indulgences on Marie Antoinette (begun under Thalberg’s auspices, though yet to be released by the studio); a similar fate imparted on the studio’s production of the Garbo weepie, Conquest (made and released the same year as Maytime). Given the run of Metro’s extraordinary studio-bound sets, props and free-standing back lot forests, lakes and sets, Maytime is a thoroughly striking amalgam of Euro-sophistication meets California glam-bam. It oozes worldly charm.  
Our story begins on the kindly counsel of an aged Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) bestowed upon Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) – a passionate ingenue whose head is stuffed with the cotton, hay and rags to riches daydreams of becoming a great opera singer in New York. Predictably, Barbara’s rather Teutonic fiancée Kip Stuart (Tom Brown) does not want her to go. The couple quarrels. After Kip leaves Miss Morrison confides in Barbara she used to be Marcia Mornay – the world-famous opera diva who sacrificed true love for her art. Although we are yet quite unaware, as Barbara is, what real sacrifice looks like, MacDonald’s fragrantly wistful sense of longing infers the tale that is to follow will not be all hearts and flowers. Thus, 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 wed out of a sense of loyalty for all Nicolai has done to help establish and build up her career. Overjoyed with the prospect of becoming a great operatic star (even if she has to sell her soul to get what she wants), and quite unable to sleep from all the giddy excitement, Marcia sneaks away for a midnight carriage ride after Nicolai has gone to bed. As fate would have it, the carriage breaks down in front of a tavern. While the driver begins his repairs, Marcia is drawn inside by the superb 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).
Marcia is amused by Paul. He is nothing less than enchanted with her. Even so, 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) and attends Mornay’s last performance in France. However, at the opera Nicolai nervously spies Paul from beyond the footlights. Although he suspects Marcia and Paul’s friendship has developed deeper roots of affection, Nicolai is unable to justify these suspicions.  After the performance, Paul and Nicolai bump into each other in the hallway just outside of Marcia’s dressing room. She pretends Paul came backstage merely to congratulate her. But Nicolai is no fool. Moreover, he is the jealous sort. Paul is his competition for Marcia’s heart and he damn well knows it.
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 on the cusp of fulfilling her promise of marriage to Nicolai. 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 own singing career. Arriving in America to establish his own career with the New York Opera Company, Paul quickly rises through the ranks. Hence, when the company hires Marcia for their production of Traviata, Nicolai demands their choice of play be changed to the dourer Czaritza instead; less ‘artistic’ opportunity for Paul to rekindle his romantic passion for Marcia. Nevertheless, as the performances unfold in front of a live audience on opening night, the characters Marcia and Paul play are drawn into a spiraling passionate embrace that transcends art. Paul tells Marcia he will never let her go and Marcia agrees. She can no longer deny the love she feels. After the performance, Marcia fakes exhaustion to go home with Nicolai. But there she solemnly informs him she has decided to run away with Paul. Acknowledging Paul’s memory between them these past seven years of their married life, Nicolai – wounded and bitter – 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 he is giving Paul ‘his’ tonight. With this 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 to the present. A tearful Barbara thanks Miss Morrison for her advice. Kip returns and the two are reconciled with Barbara deciding to give up her career and become Kip’s wife. Drained of the strain of this lifelong secret, Miss Morrison quietly dies in her chair. She is revived as a youthful spirit and reunited with the perennially handsome Paul. The two walk away, hand in glove beneath the bowers of cascading honeysuckle; presumably destined to forever spend their eternity together.
Maytime is a marvelous 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; Bosley Crowther declaring that, as a popular screen team Eddy and MacDonald had never been more ‘natural’ together. While Jeanette MacDonald’s performance in Maytime is consistent with others in her repertoire, Nelson Eddy’s is remarkably relaxed. He is convincing as both the loveable scamp when first introduced in the tavern, then as the more mature suitor who vows to rescue Marcia from her duty-bound wedlock to 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 a supremely satisfying bumbler; utterly charming in all his frustrated buffoonery.
Purging all but one of Romberg’s songs from his score composer, Herbert Stothart composed a twelve-minute aria inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Czaritza, then proceeded to repopulate the rest with songs from dead musicians whose work had fallen into public domain. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became a pivotal backdrop for the scene where 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 gaps. At Napoleon’s embassy ball MacDonald trills the flirtatious Les Filles de Cadiz and the rousing Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. Purely from a musical perspective, Maytime is MacDonald’s show. The only time Eddy gets to sing alone is at the tavern when Paul is first introduced to Marcia and the audience. Otherwise, virtually all his songs are duets with MacDonald. Yet, Eddy becomes every bit MacDonald’s equal in the dramatic scenes – unusual and absolutely thrilling for fans only able to identify him as the usually wooden accompanist and/or appendage to MacDonald’s long lineage of robust and hearty chanteuses.
When Maytime had its premiere in March of 1937 it was all but universally revered by the critics as a seamless fusion of the high ideals of classical opera meets the pop culture at the movies. Audiences flocked to see it. In fact, Maytime’s box office even outranked San Francisco that, until Maytime’s release, had been MGM’s top money maker of the year.  Today, Maytime still ranks among the best movie musicals of its vintage. Unequivocally, it remains the very best operetta/movie musical Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ever made together. The picture is full of that champagne and caviar schmaltz, hearts n’ flowers lilting melodies that raise our spirits high, reaffirming – at least in the uber-glamorous realm of musical 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) re-scanned and cleaned up. It also deserves a 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 on DVD looks a tad digitized rather than natural. The gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped too, creating a harsher than expected visual characteristic with the mid-register tonality blown out and overall, quite unflattering. Age-related artifacts persist and are intermittently distracting. The audio is mono and quite strident in spots with some minor hiss and pop, as when MacDonald hits the high ‘C’ 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. Bottom line: we need Maytime restored and reissued from WAC on Blu-ray – sooner rather than later!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)