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Maurice Chevalier in Gigi

The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars

Eddie Cantor and friends in Thank Your Lucky Stars
Eddie Cantor and friends in Thank Your Lucky Stars

With the new movie musical, Les Miserables (which Jane was not crazy about and Connie Wang was only slightly more kind) generating all kinds of buzz about sweeping the Oscars, my thoughts turn to musicals on screen.

Where have the movie musicals gone? Adaptations for film, like  Chicago (2002) and the new Les Miserables will do, but really, when is the last time you saw a movie musical exclusively made for film? I  can’t remember.

The web site American Music Preservation lists ten essential Hollywood musicals, and the latest one on their list is 1776, which was made in 1972. Yikes! I recently re-watched 1776, and if you haven’t seen it, I’m happy to report it holds up very well. I particularly love this number.

The star-packed Les Miserables does, however, share one trait with the Golden Age of Musicals (1930’s and 1940’s).  In those days, the studios, particularly MGM, used every big name they had on contract in musicals.

Jimmy Stewart sang and danced. Jimmy Cagney went back to his roots as a hoofer in between playing tough guys. Romantic hero Tyrone Power played in musicals. And Jane Withers went from child star to musical star to TV actress.

I am relatively sure you don’t need a reminder to check out the classic films of the two dancing geniuses of the musical to come along in the 1930’s and 40’s — Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. These two changed the focus of musicals from spectacle focusing on girls, girls, girls, to stories featuring a couple who danced their way through romance. But I’m skipping them because you already know all that.  I am more interested in reintroducing people you may have overlooked.

The thirst for movie musicals started in the 1920’s and increased in the 1930’s with the pairing of the wildly popular Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. So treacly sweet that even today’s overweight population would not be able to swallow the sugary plots, this pair blended light opera with popular music and a sort of pristine romance at odds with the behavior of followers of real-life hell raisers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and his fast-living wife Zelda.

A more roguish character charmed everyone when Maurice Chevalier traveled from France and started making movies in America.

Maurice Chevalier
Maurice Chevalier

Chevalier made a few movies with Jeanette MacDonald, starting in 1929, and I need to look those up, because I’m sure I’d like him better than the stiff Nelson Eddy.

I’ll never forget seeing Chevalier on stage late in his career. The impish twinkle in his eye and crooked smile were alluring even in his late seventies. If you haven’t seen him on screen, take a look at Gigi with Leslie Caron (1957).

And then there was Eddie Cantor,  famous for Making Whoopee! He had a black-face act he couldn’t get away with today. His comedic persona and songs grew directly out of the minstrel shows with white people wearing burnt cork complexions and singing and cracking jokes. (Although it seems unbelievable today, I remember my father performing in a fund-raising minstrel show put on for the PTA of my grade school in the 1950s.)

But there was much more to Cantor than just the black-face songs with which he is identified. In fact, he typifies the background of many entertainers in the era and comedians in early television, in that his routines came out of vaudeville. In his career, he bounced from stage to screen to television and his wacky humor cheered people through the Great Depression. The video below shows his famous pop-eyed eye rolls ( a stereo-type left over from the minstrels) and jerky dancing.

Part of the fun of looking at classic movies is trying to put ourselves in the frame of mind that the audience was in when it first came out. For instance, the phrase “making whoopee” would have been pretty sexy in its day — back before we became blasé about hearing profanities and more-than-suggestive language in our Tarantino-ized movie dialogues.

Amazing how many big stars of 70 or so years ago have slipped from our consciousness. There are a lot more big names of the Golden Age of Musicals who are worth a second look, so this discussion is definitely to be continued …

[Note: corrections made in this article because of commentary by Paul E. Brogan. Thanks for setting me straight.]

 

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting, informative and entertaining story. However, a couple of minor clarifications need to be made. The Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films were not in the 1920’s. Their first film together, in fact (“Naughty Marietta”) came out in 1935. They continued making films until 1942. As for the MacDonald-Chevalier pairing, they made only 1 film in the 1920’s and that was their first, 1929’s “The Love Parade”. They re-teamed 3 more times (twice in 1932 and once in 1934). One of those 1932 films, “Love Me Tonight” is considered by many to be one of the top ten movie musicals of all time.
    Paul E. Brogan

    • @Pebrogan Thanks for the note, Paul. I don’t think I’ve seen Love Me Tonight, so will seek it out. And I’ve really only seen a few Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films, so need to brush up on those, as well. (Yes, I’m stuck in the Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby/Gene Kelly circle!).

  2. […] Les Miserables Harks Back to the Golden Age of Musicals Romantic hero Tyrone Power played in musicals. And Jane Withers went from kid star to musical star to TV actress. I am relatively sure you don't need a reminder to check out the classic films of the 2 dancing geniuses of the musical to come along … Read more on Reel Life With Jane […]

  3. To Paul Brogan. Your’e right, and I apologize for sloppy writing.  She actually was paired with Maurice Chevalier BEFORE Nelson Eddy, as you point out. I’m going to go back and make corrections in the article.

  4. I’ve got news for you hundrede of people still love Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald .Years after their deaths their fan clubs are still going. I would prefer their sweetness to a lot of the garbage we see on the movies these days.

  5. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald made beautiful music together. Nelson Eddy had a magnificent, classically trained baritone voice that filled opera houses, concert halls, and movie theaters. He also had numerous popular radio shows and was the highest paid singer in the world for years before Frank Sinatra topped him in the early 40’s. It’s a terrible disservice to true talent to cavalierly  toss this talented man aside as “stiff”. Yes, the movie plots of some of these operetta’s were old even in the 1930’s, however, audiences saw then and now that special magic that these two could weave, together or alone (check out Eddy’s film Chocolate Solider for Eddy at his movie best, sans Jeanette). Eddy considered himself a musician, not an actor, he was never entirely comfortable in that role, however, he was a fine comedian and acquitted himself well in those roles.

  6. If you haven’t seen many Jeanette MacDonald an Nelson Eddy films then it’s not fair to say you’d prefer Maurice over Nelson. Once you’ve seen “Naughty Marietta” or “New Moon” you’ll find your heart being stolen by Nelson. I’ve seen the Jeanette and Maurice films and I just shake my head….they don’t look good together and their voices in song do not match at all. On the other hand, listening to a Jeanette and Nelson duo is heaven on earth!

  7. If the Macdonald-Eddy productions don’t engage modern audiences, it’s not surprising. For one thing, Nelson Eddy never seemed to be focusing on anything in particular in a scene, not even Jeanette when he was singing directly into her lovely face. This must have been because he was in fact well along toward total blindness. (He was also slathered in more and worse make-up than she.) He had a fine voice but was not as good an actor (comic or otherwise) as Astaire, Chevalier, or even Kelly. Jeanette’s reputation has suffered unfairly because of the poor translation of her singing voice from the older movies. This needs to be corrected through latter-day sound technology (Dolby?). At times she seems to be shrieking an octave above her natural range. She certainly was a better singer than she sounds in latter day recordings. And one can’t fault her beauty and comic acting skills. As for the requisite improbable, frothy plots, well, they’re muscials. You either like ’em or you don’t. I don’t, mostly, but have to admit the Macdonald-Eddy productions were studio confections of a very high quality. But don’t try to convince anyone under fifty of that.

  8. I can’t believe any one can compare Nelson Eddy with Maurice Chevalier … Nelson Eddy could sing, act and was devastatingly handsome. Each to their own, but I know which man I prefer, and it is not Maurice Chevalier.

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