Monday, August 3, 2009

The Firefly (MGM, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was The Firefly, a 1937 mega-production from MGM that came from an attempt to split Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy after the success of Maytime and have each do a film without the other. Eddy’s without MacDonald was the mega-musical Rosalie, with Eleanor Powell as the female lead, a plot largely set in a mythical European kingdom, and a miscast Cole Porter doing his best to write stentorian songs suitable for the Eddy baritone, (“In the Still of the Night” was his only song from the score that became a standard.)

The Firefly, MacDonald’s film without Eddy, was a far better movie, based on a 1912 operetta by Rudolf Friml and Otto Harbach that in turn drew its inspiration from history: Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in the early 1810’s and his imprisonment of the rightful heir to the Spanish throne, Ferdinand VII. Reuniting MacDonald with the director (Robert Z. Leonard) and cinematographer (Oliver T. Marsh) of her favorite film, Maytime (the one true masterpiece — or at least near-masterpiece; the horribly sexist ending still rankles me — of the MacDonald-Eddy cycle), The Firefly cast her as entertainer Nina Maria, who’s actually billed as “La Mosca de Fuego” and who’s really a spy for the Spanish government; she attracts French officers as stage-door johnnies, romances them, gets vital military secrets out of them and passes the information along to her contact, the Marquis de Melito (Douglass Dumbrille, playing a sympathetic role for a change!).

In order to get rid of a particularly pesky French officer whose store of information she’s exhausted, Étienne (Leonard Penn), she plays up to a mysterious stranger named Don Diego (Allan Jones, taking Eddy’s place as MacDonald’s leading man), with the result that Don Diego falls instantly in love with her and follows her around the country, catching up to her carriage on his horse and singing the film’s hit song, “The Donkey Serenade” — actually adapted by MGM’s contract songwriters, Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, from an instrumental called “Chansonette” Friml had written for the original 1912 version of The Firefly. General Savary (Henry Daniell), an emissary from Napoleon, arrives in Madrid with an invitation for Ferdinand to come to Bayonne, just across the border between Spain and France, for a talk to settle the differences between their two countries. We know it’s a trap, and so do the Marquis and Nina Maria — but the guileless Ferdinand accepts the invitation, so the Marquis arranges with Nina Maria to play a gig in Bayonne as a cover for infiltrating the French general staff, finding out what’s really going on, and using carrier pigeons to relay the message to Ferdinand, who’s waiting at the Spanish town of Vitoria just across the border from Bayonne.

Only after a lot of romantic byplay between her and Don Diego, Nina Maria finally catches on when she realizes the markings on her pigeons have changed; someone has swapped her own pigeons for ones that would fly to the French court and give them the evidence they need to charge her with espionage and have her executed. (In the real world, they’d have shot her on sight without bothering with waiting for evidence, but that’s the movies for you.) Eventually she realizes that Don Diego is actually an agent of French intelligence and he’s been romancing her under cover to find out her secrets — an irony of which the film’s writers, Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett, could have made more of — and she’s turned over to Major de Rouchemont (Warren William), her latest sexual target in the French officer corps, to be put to death, only Don Diego, who makes the usual movie protestation that he’s been in love with her all the time, helps her to escape.

Ferdinand VII walks into the French trap, he’s taken prisoner, Napoleon installs his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Spain and there’s a series of increasingly bloodthirsty posters — including one that threatens to destroy any town where a Spaniard kills a French soldier — that anticipate the ones that would go up in cities under Nazi occupation in movies made during World War II. Nina Maria goes underground to aid the resistance and poses as a camp follower to the French armies, which overrun most of Spain until the British send forces to aid the Spaniards, the tide of the war turns and the entire outcome hinges on a battle at Vitoria — where through sending out phony information Nina Maria gets the French to screw up their battle formation so the British and Spanish forces can win the battle, and with the war over she and Don Diego — under his real name, André François — can get back together and hit the road to the tunes of “The Donkey Serenade” and the big love duet from the film, “Giannina Mia.”

The Firefly is an example of what I like to call the portmanteau movie — the sort of film Hollywood often made during the classic era in which they sought out to include some element every potential member of the audience would like — romance and glorious operetta singing to appeal to women, spy-thriller scenes and spectacular battle sequences to appeal to men. It’s a refreshing change to watch a movie like this in an era in which the film industry’s marketing strategy is quite the opposite — to fashion every film so totally to the tastes of a market niche that anyone outside that niche almost certainly won’t like it — but it also doesn’t do much to make the work of art a coherent drama. The business of a spy getting into trouble when she falls in love with someone on the other side wasn’t particularly fresh in 1937 (or, probably, in 1912 either!), and Josef von Sternberg had pulled it off a good deal better (and with a real sense of the tragic, one element MGM’s people weren’t interested in even though the tragic elements of Maytime had contributed to its artistic success, and probably to its commercial success as well!) in his 1931 Marlene Dietrich vehicle Dishonored.

The strengths of The Firefly are some of the most gorgeous MacDonald singing ever put on film (the film doesn’t make her pretend to be an opera singer the way Rose-Marie and Maytime did; all the songs here are operetta, the music she sang best, and written by a master of the genre), magnificent sets (just about every set in this movie looks like it could house a musical production number, whether it actually does or not!), the witty screenplay by Goodrich and Hackett (based on an adaptation of Harbach’s original book by Ogden Nash, of all people!) that gives MacDonald a chance to show off her skills as a comedienne, and Marsh’s magnificent cinematography, notably the Sternbergian shadows he throws over the faces of MacDonald and Jones during their big scenes together. Allan Jones is a personable hero, certainly a better actor than Nelson Eddy could have dreamed of being, and as a tenor (Eddy was a baritone), his voice blends considerably better with MacDonald’s from a technical point of view — but somehow, though they work well together, Jones just doesn’t ignite the charismatic sparks with MacDonald that Eddy did.

The Firefly was one of those frustrating (at least to the studio that made it!) movies because it attracted a lot of ticket buyers but had cost so much to make it ended up losing $300,000 — and Louis B. Mayer blamed the failure on Allan Jones, deciding that The Firefly would have turned a profit if Nelson Eddy had been in it and relegating Jones to “B” movies and second leads thereafter — ironically, since Jones had been the studio’s first choice for MacDonald’s leading man in Naughty Marietta, had dropped out of it at the last minute, Eddy had replaced him and the film had been an enormous hit and launched the MacDonald-Eddy team. Jones eventually ended up at Universal, where he made even clunkier movies than his later, lesser MGM films (including reprising “The Donkey Serenade” as a guest star in the 1943 Olsen and Johnson comedy Crazy House), and still later he fathered 1960’s singing star Jack Jones; today Allan Jones is known, if at all, as the romantic lead in the Marx Brothers’ films A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, and maybe as Gaylord Ravenal in the 1936 James Whale-directed Show Boat from Universal.