by Paul Batters
The beauty of classic film is the incredible depth, diversity and range of story and genre. With the arrival of sound in the late 1920s, Hollywood not only seized the opportunity to expand the canvas but also began to develop the musical. Before long, an incredible range of stories via the musical began to be told, using the camera in new ways but also utilising different musical forms, particularly jazz and opera. I must readily admit that I cannot claim to be a huge fan of the Hollywood musical and therefore certainly not an authority on the subject. Yet it is important and even crucial to gain an appreciation of the way Hollywood interacted with its’ audiences and how it gauged what audiences wanted. As a student of classic film, the “Singing Sweethearts’ Blogathon for 2018 offered a chance for me to expand my horizons and learn more about two of the biggest stars of the 1930s, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, by reviewing what is considered as one of their biggest hits, Maytime (1937). It was their third film together, and by many accounts is perhaps the best of the eight they made together between 1935 and 1942.
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, a solid director, Maytime is ultimately a love story, revealing the pain of lost opportunity, the obstacles of love yet is also a celebration that true love cannot be contained, even by death. It is May Day 1906 and the story is told in retrospect, as an elderly woman, Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) tells the story of her life to a young singer, Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver), who wants a career but finds that this dream is at odds with her fiancé Kip Stuart (Tom Brown). In an attempt to show that she understands, Miss Morrison reveals that she was actually a famous opera singer herself named Marcia Morney.
In her own desire to become successful in the world of opera in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, Marcia is trained by the famous and talented though Svengali-like Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore). Out of a sense of gratitude for his guidance and leading her into a world of success, Marcia accepts Nazaroff’s marriage proposal. Despite both knowing that love is not part of the acceptance, Nazaroff hopes that love will eventuate yet his domineering personality sees Marcia more as a possession, which he can shape to his will.
It is at this point that love finds Marcia despite her not seeking it. Late into the night, Marcia finds herself edgy and restless and escapes into the Paris nightlife, finding herself stranded in the Latin Quarter after a mishap with her driver. Whist there she meets Paul (Nelson Eddy), a fellow American and also a singer. However, he is poor and struggling yet the two are attracted and despite her promise to Nazaroff, Marcia and Paul meet again for lunch. Marcia knows they cannot be, despite Paul not wanting to lose her, and she says yet again that they cannot see each other.
Paul, however, has other ideas and goes to the opera to see Marcia perform and later meets her in the dressing room. Paul secures her promise to meet him for the May Day celebrations in the country and she accepts.
What follows is a wonderful day and Marcia declares she has ‘never been so happy’. This beautifully filmed sequence is made all the more special, as Paul declares he will sing a song for her so that she will always remember the special day that they have shared. The song of course is the theme song ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ and the moment becomes painful and bittersweet. Unable to hold back their feelings, Marcia and Paul declare their love for each other and Paul’s declaration that they met ‘too late’ certainly lifts the song to a greater level. They will part but the day that they have shared and the beautiful song that they share, becomes a testimony to true and unending love, which they will always hold in their hearts. It acts as a poignant and bittersweet marker for the two lovers who only have that song to signify their love.
As the years pass, Marcia’s career reaches new heights. At this stage in the story, Marcia has been married to Nazaroff for seven years but finds her life as empty as her marriage. But fate will play its’ hand. Paul has also become successful and dramatic irony will find Nazaroff arranging Marcia and Paul to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. They pretend not to know each other but the audience can see their incredulity at being re-united. Their performance of La Tzarine is a public triumph but it also becomes symbolic as a triumph of their reuniting. Their love reborn, Marcia begs Paul to never leave her again and Paul declares to Marcia ‘You’re not going back to him. I’m taking you away tonight’.
But it will not be so easy. Nazaroff sees what is going on and despite promising to let Marcia go, after her revelation that she loves Paul, his jealousy and possessive nature will rear its’ ugly head.
To give justice to this review, it would remiss of me not to give away the ending – so fair warning as we step into the territory of spoilers!
Nazaroff intends to do far worse than Marcia imagines and she follows him to Paul’s apartment, to witness the husband she does not love shoot and kill the man that she is in love with. As he lays dying in Marcia’s arms, Paul tells her not to weep and that he will always be with her. Their song will forever hold them together.
Love unfulfilled is perhaps one of life’s greatest cruelties and after having made the mistake of parting once through honour and obligation, Marcia and Paul have their love stolen from them through the finality of murder. It is almost too much to fathom before we are brought into the present. It appears that Marcia and Paul’s tragedy, however, will serve some purpose as the story moves into the present with Barbara choosing Kip over a career.
The final scene could easily be dismissed as sentimental and saccharine but it feels more like a triumph over tragedy. As Marcia sits in the garden, she is told her tea is getting cold and responds ‘I’ll only be a moment or two’. Left alone, our hearts break imagining what she is thinking and there are no words for such a poignant moment as she breathes her last and quietly slips away. But her spirit arises, as Paul greets her. They are both young and beautiful, and they sing ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ – the song that had always rung out the love that they shared and now share again. The spirits of Marcia and Paul look on as Barbara and Kip finally embrace. It is the ultimate victory for love – for the young lovers and the now eternal couple, brought together in death. As the camera pulls back, the audience cannot help but shed a tear as the mis en scene beautifully frames the couple in the garden, amongst the blossoms falling upon them.
Today, these two singing sweethearts are not as well remembered as other stars from the classic era. The operetta has gone largely out of favour and fashion, and with respect to both stars, they were competent yet not highly talented actors. Indeed, the focus of their films was their vocal abilities more than their interpretation of roles and ability to shape character development. Yet in fairness, this meant that the vehicles designed for MacDonald and Eddy were often limited, resulting in less opportunity to develop or show range of ability. One of the advantages of Maytime is that it does allow both actors, particularly MacDonald, to exhibit a greater range of ability. As Marcia, she delivers a performance that extends beyond the superficial, from being young and vivacious to an aged woman in her twilight years. Maytime has been often listed as the best work Eddy and MacDonald ever did together and by all accounts MacDonald lists the film as her favourite (perhaps because she was given the chance to show greater acting ability than other projects).
There is also an incredible range of musical performances, which are beautifully filmed and work perfectly in terms of story development. Both Eddy and MacDonald have numerous moments to display their talents but these are not gratuitous and indeed assist in establishing character and driving the story forward. One of the true highlights of Maytime is the duet during La Tzarine heightened by the passion Paul and Marcia feel for each other. When they embrace during the performance, the audience knows that the two cannot ignore or deny their love any longer. It will lead to tragedy but their love for each needs to be realised, whatever the cost. However, for me the true musical highlight is ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ The first time it is sung, our hearts break and at the climax, when we hear it again, our hearts are put back together again.
It would be one of the biggest hits for MGM in 1937 and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Music. The production values are classic MGM with special attention to MacDonald’s elaborate costumes and despite there being some mawkish moments, it is hard to dismiss the pathos that Eddy and MacDonald bring to the story. Leonard as director ties the key elements of the story with good pacing and by MacDonald’s own account appreciated his direction and the freedom he allowed the cast. For my money, MacDonald is particularly strong in her role and of course the great John Barrymore is outstanding as the jealous and domineering Nazaroff. Both spellbinding and repellent, Barrymore certainly intensifies the sense of dread in the audience and the tragedy that will undoubtedly follow the revelation of Paul and Marcia’s love. Barrymore’s performance becomes symbolic of the obstacles that stand in the way of love. Furthermore, Barrymore allows for MacDonald’s performance to reach greater depths, more than evident in Marcia’s revelation to Nazaroff that she loves Paul. Perhaps this also explains why she rated Maytime as her favourite film.
Maytime was certainly a pleasant surprise for someone who has generally steered away from musicals. Yes I found Maytime to be a little ‘schmaltzy’ at times and MacDonald’s finding ways to stare at Eddy as he sings to her to be a little off-putting. But the strengths far outweigh the few trivial issues that the film has. Overall, it’s a story that works, perhaps because it was lifted from Noel Coward’s ‘Bittersweet’ (and interestingly reflects a common theme that Coward would also examine in David Lean’s Brief Encounter). And as any good film will do, it will find its’ place in the hearts of its’ audience. In this case, Maytime achieves this by reaching that most universal of all emotions – love.
A very special thank you must be extended from me to Rebekah and Tiffany Brannan for their encouragement in writing for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon and opening my classic film experience up to new possibilities in the form of the musical.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.