Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rose Marie (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched our “feature” for the night, Rose Marie, an oft-filmed story ( lists three versions — 1928, 1936 and 1954) based on a 1924 operetta by Rudolf Friml with book by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II (originally produced by Hammerstein’s father Arthur — I know this sort of thing gets confusing but Oscar Hammerstein II was actually the grandson, not the son, of Oscar Hammerstein I). The one we were watching was by far the most famous of the three, the 1936 version, the second film Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made together. They were put in it after the enormous blockbuster success of their first joint effort, Naughty Marietta (1935) — another film based on an operetta, that one by Victor Herbert (and the reason MGM made all these films based on operettas long after the genre had faded from popularity is very simple: operetta was Louis B. Mayer’s favorite form of music) — even though there’s a note on the trivia page that says the project was originally intended to be shot in three-strip Technicolor as a vehicle for Grace Moore and Nelson Eddy, but after the smash success of Naughty Marietta MacDonald replaced Moore and Mayer had the film shot in black-and-white instead. (Mayer was notoriously indifferent to color, thinking that three-strip Technicolor was simply not a big enough box-office draw to justify the added expense; in those days it cost twice as much to make a film in color as it did in black-and-white. After Irving Thalberg’s death Mayer scrapped the color footage that had been shot for the third MacDonald-Eddy film, Maytime, and as is well known Mayer actually tried to talk David O. Selznick out of shooting Gone With the Wind in color — but Selznick felt the story demanded color, and as it turned out he was right not only aesthetically but commercially: Gone With the Wind had a far longer theatrical reissue life in color than it would have in black-and-white.)

Rose Marie has a relatively simple plot — at least once the screenwriters, Frances Goodrich, her husband Albert Hackett, and Alice Duer Miller, got done with it (I’m assuming the plot of the original operetta was more complicated — operetta plots usually were): Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) is a brilliantly talented and highly temperamental prima donna who turns in a magnificent performance of Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette and afterwards fires her manager, breaks off her relationship with her sort-of fiancé Teddy (a young and almost unrecognizable David Niven) and tells her maid Susan (Aileen Carlyle) that the only man she’ll ever love is her outlaw brother, John Flower (James Stewart — this early in his career MGM had no idea what to do with him!), who’s in prison for being involved in a holdup and has just been turned down for parole. When Marie hears after her performance that her brother has escaped and killed a Mountie in the process, she determines to head up to the wilds of the Canadian north (the whole movie is set in Canada and the opera house where she performs is in Québec) to get money to him and help him flee the country. The film is about half an hour into its running time before we finally met Nelson Eddy — as Sgt. Bruce, a Mountie who is assigned the task of replacing his slain colleague and running down John Flower so he can be recaptured. (Once again MGM’s casting department was turning Eddy’s notorious stiffness into an asset by casting him as a military or law-enforcement officer, so his stiffness could be read as discipline and military bearing.)

Marie dons old clothes and ties her hair back so she won’t be recognized, and she loses her money when her half-Indian guide Boniface (George Regas) steals it, but Sgt. Bruce is on the scene, tracks him down and helps her recover the money — though she refuses to press charges against Boniface because he’s the only clue she has to her brother’s whereabouts. Bruce also rescues her when she tries to ride her horse through a lake and falls off, and the two end up in a rowboat where he sings to her the first in a succession of romantic duets that were probably key to this film’s blockbuster appeal in 1936. Rose Marie is a frustrating movie because there were plenty of interesting plot potentials that went ignored — like the long scene at the beginning in which Marie meets the Premier of Québec, which seemed to be setting up a scene at the end in which she’d appeal to him to pardon her brother (indeed, I was expecting the plot payoff to be that John Flower had not killed the Mountie — Boniface had — and therefore could be let off relatively easily) — and it’s also one of those damnable 1930’s movies in which the heroine is shown as a woman of fierce independence and spunk until she meets the leading man, whereupon the writers turn her into a pile of jelly, helpless without him (a piece of sexism especially annoying on a film in which two of the three screenwriters were women!). What’s more, the script has Sgt. Bruce arrest John Flower quickly and unceremoniously (as if he weren’t an important character, just a contrivance to get the mismatched leads together) and pair Marie and Sgt. Bruce at the end even though they’re from totally different worlds (at one point, noticing what a great voice he has, she offers to sponsor him in a career in opera but he turns her down) and there’s no clue how they’re going to manage their relationship — will they live half of each year in the Canadian wilderness and half in the big cities so she can sing, or will she have to give up her career completely the way Irene Dunne did for Australian outlaw Richard Dix in Stingaree (1934), a film which if it had had a singing male lead would have been a beta version of a MacDonald-Eddy movie.

Rose Marie also suffers from the usual problem with the MacDonald-Eddy films: she was a great actress and a fantastic singer, while he was a fantastic singer who could barely act at all. Her movie is a lot more interesting than his, and when the two get together they sing some nice operetta pieces — including the famous “Indian Love Call” — but their chemistry seems “off.” They don’t seem as comfortable with each other as they had in Naughty Marietta or would in their third film together, Maytime (a masterpiece miles ahead of the rest of the MacDonald-Eddy series for power, emotion and depth, and which dared an unhappy ending and made it work), and I suspect it’s because that for all the efforts of the writers and director Woody Van Dyke to make it seem like they’re meant for each other, they’re still playing antagonistic characters (she’s trying to help her brother escape, and he’s trying to catch him) and MacDonald is too good an actress to let the audience forget that. Rose Marie has a lot going for it, including sumptuous black-and-white cinematography by William Daniels (even though all that luscious scenery — Lake Tahoe was “playing” Canada — practically demands color), the MGM studio orchestra, well staged operatic excerpts from Roméo et Juliette at the beginning (and I’m sure it wasn’t coincidence that this film opens with a Romeo and Juliet opera and was made the same year MGM was filming a major-budget prestige version of Shakespeare’s play!) and Tosca at the end (co-starring Allan Jones, who has no other part in the film, as MacDonald’s tenor — he was probably kicking himself for having turned down the male lead in Naughty Marietta and kicked himself even more when his big solo number, the Tosca aria “È lucevan le stele,” was taken out of the final cut, reportedly at Eddy’s insistence) and the killer voices of the legendary leads — but it’s still a mediocre movie that had every right to be a great one. Not that it mattered in 1936; Rose Marie was a bigger hit than Naughty Marietta and cemented MacDonald and Eddy as one of the great screen teamings, and “Indian Love Call” became the biggest joint hit record the duo ever had. (It also got parodied two years later in a marvelously vicious swing deconstruction by Artie Shaw and his novelty singer, Tony Pastor; and in the 1960’s by the TV series Get Smart! Maxwell Smart infiltrates KAOS and the password to get in their headquarters is “When I’m calling you,” to which the answer is “Oo-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo.”)