Women of History: Jeanette MacDonald

Author’s Note:  This was originally meant for two weeks ago but I had trouble writing it.  I’m still not very happy with the outcome, but it is complete.  I may revisit Jeanette in the future and rewrite this better.

In the United States, we celebrate our Independence Day on July 4th.  This month’s theme is going to be American women of history.    While Canada also celebrates Canada Day in the month of July, I’ll be doing Canadian women of history another month.

Our first WHO is Jeanette MacDonald.  Jeanette MacDonald is an American Actress from the 1930s.  About a decade ago, my grandmother and I, who liked to watch old classic films together, started watching operettas, in particular the ones done by Jeanette and her frequent Co-star Nelson Eddy.  We collected movies, stills and other things relating to Jeanette and Nelson.

Jeannette Anna MacDonald was born on June 18th in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The year of her birth is somewhat of a mystery as different records say different things.  According to a baptismal record, the year of her birth was in 1903.  However, later in life Jeanette would change her name (dropping an n), and her year of birth (Saying it was 1907).  Even her gravestone lists the 1907 date, and her widower, Gene Raymond, would continue to insist it was 1907.  However, several sources now list the 1903 date as accurate.

Jeanette was the youngest of three daughters of Daniel and Anna MacDonald.  She had two older sisters, Elise and Blossom.  All three of them were sent to dancing school and performed in recitals.  They also began to act in shows in the local area.  Blossom was the first to leave and find work in New York on Broadway.  She would later gain fame as Grandma from the Adams Family as well as other character work on television.

Jeanette followed her sister to New York, and soon found work in various plays.  She was assisted by her sister, who introduced her sister as 13 rather than 17 when she arrived in 1920.  She had quite the voice, and soon it gained notice.  Within a decade she was headlining shows, and she caught the eye of director Ernest Lubitsch.  Lubitsch was about to film a musical called Love Parade and decided to cast Jeanette in it.  It became her big screen debut, and with one of her many singing partners over the years Maurice Chevalier.

In the 1920s and 30s, Hollywood was run by a Studio System.  The remnants of this system still remain within the current organizations, but it was much different then what we are used to today.  There was no rating system for movies.  Film was still developing as an art form.  The first movies were filmed in the late 1800s with various success.

The first movie ever made was done by Eadweard Maybridge in 1878 to answer question horse enthusiasts were curious about. He took several rapid shots of the horse being ridden in what was the first stop-motion film.  By the time of Jeanette’s birth, film had grown into a medium of story telling with The Great Train Robbery (a 10-minute western) and Le Voyage dans la Lune (a 10-minute Science fiction story).  The first spoken dialogue movie was The Jazz Singer in 1927.  So, the medium that would be Jeanette’s legacy wasn’t every old when she was hired for her first musical.

The Love Parade premiered in 1929, just two years after The Jazz Singer.

The Studio system at the time had several major studios who controlled the entire production of the film.  They would put their creative teams and actors under long-term contracts, with the occasional lending out to other studios.  They would write, produce, film, and distribute the film all within their own studio.  They often own different theaters to showcase their own movies.   If you look up classic film stars like Jeanette, you’ll notice that their films seem to have the same production studio, and that they often work with the same directors and costars.

The major studios may even seem familiar now, over fifty years after the studio system that supported the ‘Golden Age of Cinema’.  Love Parade was made by Paramount, one of the studios that branched out to other mediums of entertainment.  Other studios included Fox Film Corporation (later renamed 20th Century Fox), RKO Picures, Loews Incorporated (which was later part of MGM), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists and Warner Bros.  Many you may notice remain in some form a part of the film making process.

Jeanette’s second film followed shortly afterwards, also by Paramount.  Vegabound King was released in 1930 and starred Jeanette with Dennis King.  It was filmed in Technicolor, but it’s often released for viewing in black and white.

In 1930 she made 5 films (including The Vagabound King).  She reunited with Chevalier in Monte Carlo (1930) and was lent out to other studios for a few films, including Oh, For A Man! (1930) and Don’t Bet On Women (1931) with Fox.  Jeanette was already developing a following.  She and Chevalier did another film in 1932, Love Me Tonight, which remains a popular film among her fans.  In 1934, the two made a version of The Merry Widow.   This film was produced by MGM, which would be the major studio associated with her career.

The thirties brought many changes to the Film industry.  In 1930, The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc (the association of many studio heads), known occasionally as the Hayes Code.  The code was put together after backlash from some of the scandals of the 1920s.  It was to create films that maintained social values.  Some of it might make sense to the modern viewer, but it also contained things like forbidding miscegenation (the intermarriage/interbreeding of races).  It outlawed any profanity or any action or reference that might be considered ‘obscene’.  Jeanette’s career following the code would be different in style
In 1934, Jeanette would be teamed up with Nelson Eddy by MGM, forming the most popular of her partnerships.  That year Naughty Marietta, a screen adoption of an operetta was released and made the pair quite popular.  Within a year, the pair made Rosemarie, which has lingered as a fan favorite, as well as some of their more popular songs to perform later in their careers.  All together the pair made 8 films within the decade.  Nelson eventually choose doing a night club act over acting while Jeanette continued to act.

During the thirties Jeanette’s life changed personally as well as professionally.   She met married Gene Raymond, a fellow MGM star.  Depending on the sources is how close the couple was.  Sources range from being totally in love to being in an arranged marriage to cover up Gene’s homosexuality.  The two worked together professionally only once with Smilin’ Through(1941).

Also depending on sources is Jeanette’s relationship with her professional partner Nelson Eddy.  According to some they could barely stand each other (most likely incorrect), others they had a deep friendship and yet others they were romantically involved in a long-term and eventually tragic love affair.

Jeanette was never able to carry a child to term, despite rumors of several pregnancies.  It was something she had wanted but unfortunately was never able to have.   She did manage to meet several of her career goals.  Her film career carried into the 1940s, with an interruption during WW2.  During that time she did several concerts in aid of the war effort and worked with the USO.  She also began to do stage work again, including an opera in Montreal.  She made a few more movies in the late forties, but for the most part her career was finished as far as film was concerned.

In the 1950s, Jeanette transitioned into television and concert circuits.  She recorded several albums, including one that was a collection of songs she was known for from her films with Nelson Eddy.  However, in the 1960s, her death declined.  She suffered from a heart condition and spent several visits to a hospital. In 1965, Jeanette suffered a heart attack while awaiting another surgery.

After her death, she remained popular in classic film fan circles.  There are several fan clubs dedicated to her, and some dedicated to her and Nelson Eddy jointly.  Her films were featured in several musical clip films (such was That’s Entertainment), and she left behind a large body of film, radio, and stage work.  She inspired young singers, and people continue to be inspired by her music today.

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Jeannette MacDonald

MacEddy:  Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy Biography (Website done by biographer Sharon Rich to accompany her researched biography Sweethearts).

The Legendary Jeannette MacDonald

TCM:  Jeanette MacDonald

Wikipedia: The Studio System

The Studio Era:

Open Culture: The Birth of Film:  11 Firsts in Cinema

The Motion Picture Code of 1930

Censorship in Film: The Motion Picture Code of 1934

David Hayes Production Code website (WARNING: Occasionally has flashing icons and sometimes is hard to navigate.  However it has a lot of information about the production code.

The Complete films of Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy by Phillip Castanza

Sweethearts by Sharon Rich.

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