Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Chocolate Soldier (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I eventually watched last night was The Chocolate Soldier, a 1941 vehicle for Nelson Eddy in the waning days of his MGM career. This was at a time when they were experimenting with different partners for both Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald — she got to make The Firefly with Allan Jones (who’d turned down the male lead in the 1935 Naughty Marietta; Eddy got the part and the film’s enormous success launched the MacDonald-Eddy team) and Smilin’ Through with her off-screen husband, Gene Raymond, while he got to do Balalaika with Ilona Massey and The Chocolate Soldier with an intriguing partner indeed: up-and-coming Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens. The vehicle MGM picked for them was an old operetta composed by Oscar Straus in 1909 to the plot of George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man — but Shaw refused to let MGM have the movie rights to his play, so producer Victor Saville and the MGM “suits” needed a replacement plot into which to fit the big scenes from Straus’s score.

They decided to make The Chocolate Soldier a remake of The Guardsman, which had begun life as a 1910 play by Ferenc Molnár; the U.S. premiere had taken place on Broadway in 1924 and had starred the legendary husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. MGM had bought The Guardsman and filmed it in 1931 with the Lunts repeating their stage roles, Sidney Franklin directing (beautifully, using moving-camera shots, superimpositions, depth-of-field shots and all the other tricks of the cinematic trade to make sure this potentially static story became a real movie and not just a photographed play) and Ernest Vajda and Claudine West scripting. The basic plot is about a husband-and-wife acting couple who’ve only been together two or three years (in The Guardsman it was only six months!) but their marriage is already on the rocks; at their performances together at the operetta theatre in the capital of “Balkany” (the decidedly fictional country in which this takes place) he’s swamped by teenage girl autograph seekers, while she’s making gooey eyes at the military men in the audience during their performances.

Aided by a critic friend of his (Nigel Bruce, playing the role Roland Young had in The Guardsman), the male half of this duo, Karl Lang (Nelson Eddy), decides to test the fidelity of his wife Maria Lanyi (Risë Stevens) by disguising himself as a uniformed Russian with a great voice and attempting to seduce her. Alas, Production Code enforcement had tightened so much since the so-called “pre-Code” days of The Guardsman that — as in the similarly plotted (but with the genders reversed) Two-Faced Woman, Greta Garbo’s last film, made at MGM the same year — the censors stipulated that the would-be seducee must know from the get-go that her would-be seducer was in fact her legally married husband in disguise, thereby leaching a lot of the entertainment potential out of the story premise.

The Chocolate Soldier is an example of a good movie that could have been a lot better. The excerpts from the Straus operetta aren’t all that interesting (except for a comedy song called “Seek the Spy” done by a chorus of six men who do an acrobatic dance as they look for Eddy, who’s hiding in a suit of armor in Stevens’ boudoir — don’t ask) and they don’t relate to the plot in any way at all — the careful parallelism of story and story-within-the-story that helped make the MacDonald-Eddy films Maytime and (less so) Sweethearts so great isn’t even attempted here — and though Maria tells her husband that she recognized him from his kiss, one wonders why she couldn’t tell even earlier from the moment she heard him sing: after all, she does hear that voice for several hours eight times a week! There are some clever bits in The Chocolate Soldier — many of them centering around the home life of the couple: they compete with each other doing vocal practice and they each have their own servants and even their own dogs — and the cinematography (mostly by Karl Freund with some fill-in work by Ray June and Harold Rosson when Freund fell ill) is utterly luscious, with effective use of light and shadow in cheery defiance of the usual MGM edict that everything had to be brilliantly and vividly lit all the time.

On the down side, though, is director Roy Del Ruth — there’s nothing really wrong with his handling of this story, but it cries out for a Sternberg, Lubitsch or Wilder (or, for that matter, Victor Saville, whose stylish British musicals with Jessie Matthews helped make her a star and hold up vividly today; had he directed this film as well as producing it, it would likely have been better) — and also the performance of Risë Stevens. She’s beautiful, she looks great in Gilbert Adrian’s gowns, she has one of the great voices of the 20th century (and as a mezzo-soprano she actually blended better with Eddy’s baritone than Jeanette MacDonald’s high soprano did), and she’s certainly a competent actress. The problem is she’s no more than a competent actress, and through much of this movie one misses the sheer effervescence MacDonald would have brought to this part. Stevens had a somewhat peculiar career in that at the Met she was frequently cast as males — on one RCA Victor recital LP she performed five selections from four operas, and in only one of them (Bizet’s Carmen, in which she played the title role) was she cast as a woman: the others were Gluck’s Orfeo, Mozart’s Cherubino and Richard Strauss’s Octavian, “trouser roles” (opera-speak for female-to-male drag parts) all.

Here she not only gets to play her own gender but her big operatic selection is “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila — in which she does by far her best singing in the movie: the plot makes a great fooforaw about whether her character’s voice is better suited for opera or operetta (the conceit is that she was working her way up as an opera singer when she married Paul and he insisted she shift to operetta so they could work together), but as far as Stevens herself is concerned there’s no contest: it’s obvious from the conviction with which she sings Delilah’s aria (and also the “Song to the Evening Star” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which both Stevens and Eddy sing — separately — as part of a running joke in the film) that opera, not operetta, was her true métier. (His, too; Eddy does his best singing of the film in Mussorgsky’s “Song of the Flea,” the piece with which he introduces himself in his Russian singing guardsman’s disguise.)

The film’s musical program is pretty varied — seven selections from the original Straus operetta, introduced with the convoluted credit, “Music by Oscar Straus; Musical adaptation by Bronislau Kaper and Herbert Stothart (1941); Original lyrics by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson; English lyrics by Hugh Stanislaus Stange (as Stanislaus Stange),” cheek by jowl with operatic arias and a lovely original song, “While My Lady Sleeps” by Bronislau Kaper and Gus Kahn, which Eddy is unfortunately obliged to sing in his fake Russian accent (on the 1950’s LP Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Hi-Fi Eddy got to record it in his normal voice, to much better effect — and John Coltrane did a haunting jazz version of the song in 1957 for his first solo LP). More sophistication in the direction and writing of The Chocolate Soldier would have helped it a lot; as it stands, though, it’s still good fun even though it’s hardly a patch on The Guardsman and it runs about 10 to 15 minutes too long for its own good (not usually a problem in a movie this old!).