Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Girl of the Golden West (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the third film I’d recorded off Turner Classic Movies from their recent birthday tribute to Buddy Ebsen, along with the Broadway Melodies of 1936 and 1938: The Girl of the Golden West, fourth of the eight films Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made together and the immediate follow-up to their joint masterpiece, Maytime (1937). The Girl of the Golden West began as a play by famous writer-producer David Belasco, premiered in 1905 with Blanche Bates as Minnie Robbins, the title character and unlikely proprietor of “The Polka” saloon in the Cloudy Mountain mining camp during the California Gold Rush; and Robert Hilliard as Ramerrez, a half-Anglo, half-Mexican bandit who disguises himself as Lieutenant Richard Johnson of the U.S. Army to woo Minnie on a trip she’s taken to Monterey to deposit the miners’ gold, which they regularly leave with Minnie for safekeeping. In bandit drag he comes to Cloudy to rob the Polka of the gold the miners have accumulated there — only when he realizes Minnie runs the place he decides not to steal from her, aborts the robbery but nonetheless gets ambushed and captured by the local sheriff, Jack Rance, who also is in love with Minnie. Minnie wins a poker game for Johnson’s life by cheating on the last hand, then reluctantly agrees to marry Rance if he’ll let Johnson go. Only, of course, at the end Minnie and Johnson pair up and leave the California gold country for a life of togetherness and honest work. In 1910 Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini turned Belasco’s play into an opera called La Fanciulla del West — Puccini had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to write them a new piece and he thought it would be a good idea to use an American story, and he’d already had success adapting Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly (also a vehicle on stage for Blanche Bates) — which premiered with Arturo Toscanini conducting and an all-star cast including Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson/Ramerrez and Pasquale Amato as Rance. The Girl of the Golden West had already been filmed three times — as a silent in 1915 and 1923 and an early talkie from First National in 1930 with Ann Harding and James Rennie (Michael Rennie’s father and the first actor to play Jay Gatsby, in Owen Davis’s stage adaptation from 1926) in the leads — before MGM grabbed the rights and used it as the basis for the fourth MacDonald/Eddy movie. (There hasn’t been a direct film adaptation of Belasco’s play since; all subsequent listings for The Girl of the Golden West on are performance films or telecasts of Puccini’s opera.)

In the MacDonald/Eddy chapter in his book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, James Robert Parish called it an “unfortunately cumbersome vehicle” and called the score, mostly by Sigmund Romberg, “rather unmemorable.” He expressed the wish that the two leads had been singing Puccini’s music instead, but that didn’t happen not only because Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, would have demanded the proverbial king’s ransom for the rights (it’s Ricordi’s extortionate financial demands that led Victor Records not to record any of the music from Fanciulla with the original leads, even though they had them all under contract, so we have no “creator recordings” from this opera) but also because Puccini was writing experimentally and didn’t supply the big hit arias for Fanciulla that had studded his previous scores: Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The 1938 Girl of the Golden West is the sort of frustrating movie that has some good stuff in it but really doesn’t come off as a whole, though it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong with it; the film begins with a long sequence set on the pioneer trails which is supposed to establish how Mary Robbins (played as a girl by Jeanne Ellis and an adult by Jeanette MacDonald — and yes, screenwriters Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw changed her name to the all-purpose Virgin-inspired one symbolizing female innocence!) and Ramerez (played by a tow-headed boy, uncredited on, who grows up to be Nelson Eddy) got to the Wild West in the first place; Ramerez was captured by a bandit leader (Noah Beery, looking and sounding so much like his more famous brother Wallace Beery that at one point I thought it was Wallace Beery in a cameo) who raised him as his own son and who inherited the band of robbers after Beery’s character was killed in a shootout with the federales. Mary was the daughter of pioneers who headed West in a covered wagon with her uncle (Charley Grapewin, in a way anticipating his best-known role as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, where he also played someone who was raising a young girl after her parents died) and ends up in the Cloudy Mountain camp, but not before she and Ramerez-to-be encountered each other at a campfire and shared a song that, you guessed it, will enable them to recognize each other later on.

Mary inherits the Polka Saloon from her uncle and keeps running it, becoming a sort of mascot for the miners, who entrust her with their gold. She meets Ramerez (the writers dropped one of the middle “r”’s from his name but otherwise kept Belasco’s unusual spelling instead of the more familiar “Ramirez”) when he holds up her stagecoach on the way to Monterey, taking the gold but sparing the suitcase containing her fancy clothes. She’s scheduled to appear and sing at a gala mariachi ball at the governor’s mansion, but along the way Ramerez kidnaps Lt. Dick Johnson (Walter Bonn), steals his uniform and assumes his identity as a way to get close to Mary and take her out on a moonlight carriage ride that’s the closest this film gets to one of those typical romantic outdoor love duets that were a large part of the appeal of the MacDonald/Eddy films. She finally does make it to the governor’s ball, uncertain as to how to greet the governor (Monty Woolley) and awkward when she tries to curtsey — she ends up in the lap of another guest — but the big “Mariachi” number at the ball is by far the best piece of music in the film, and gets a great, stunning production number with choreography by Albertina Rasch (one of a number of people in the early-talkie days who were doing overhead shots of chorus lines a year before Busby Berkeley made his first film). One problem with The Girl of the Golden West is the movie is almost half over before MacDonald and Eddy meet — their characters had previously encountered each other as children but we don’t get to see them together as adults — and another problem is that the Big Song that’s supposed to symbolize their attraction, “Who Are We to Say?,” simply isn’t good enough to carry that much emotional weight. (That was also true of “Will You Remember?” in Maytime — the only song from Romberg’s original operetta that was retained in that film — but the rest of the music MacDonald and Eddy sing in Maytime is so good that doesn’t really matter.)

Another problem is the ghastly accents both MacDonald and Eddy have to affect in this film — Mexican in his case (all the Mexicans in the film, real or fake, speak in the tones of the Frito Bandito) and Southern in hers; through much of the movie she sounds like she’s auditioning for Scarlett O’Hara instead of playing a Western-bred girl in a musical of Belasco’s play. Oddly, Walter Pidgeon, cast as Jack Rance and billed third, plays his part with more dramatic credibility than either of the leads even though he’s clearly miscast as a villain and it’s a bit disappointing that he, who actually had a voice (he’d starred in operettas on stage before he went to Hollywood and his first film, Melody of Love, made at Universal in 1929, was a musical), didn’t get to sing — though Buddy Ebsen, cast in a comic-relief role as one of the miners, did. It also doesn’t help that Dawn and DeGaw simply didn’t do as good a job adapting the story as Puccini’s librettists, Civinini and Zangarini, did; indeed, the portion told in the opera doesn’t start until the movie is halfway over, and what comes before that is mostly tiresome backstory enlivened here and there by glorious song (well, glorious voices singing mostly mediocre songs). It also doesn’t help that Romberg wrote “Soldiers of Fortune,” a “Stout-Hearted Men” knockoff for Nelson Eddy to sing at the head of his bandit band, but the writers and director Robert Z. Leonard (who’d risen above his usual hack status for Maytime but here sank back to it again) don’t use it that way. What’s good about The Girl of the Golden West is the spectacular red-filtered photography by Oliver T. Marsh, the spectacular voices and winning personalities of the leads (and Charles felt Eddy’s acting was at least a bit better in this film than usual), the sumptuous MGM production (a little too sumptuous in the outdoor scenes in Cloudy — one gets the impression this is more of a resort than a mining camp) and the overall insouciance, even though this is hardly the film it could have been and through much of it I found myself wishing they’d done a non-musical version with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart instead.