It took only five risible seconds of dueling swordplay for Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy, Hollywood’s tethered operetta songbirds, to fall from the cultural mainstream (Squaresville division) to pure ‘camp.’ They never really recovered. Worse, it curdled the very idea of their earlier films, marking them down as an aberration in popular taste, niche marketeering for old foggies, whereas a film like MAYTIME, hardly their best work, was the top grossing pic of 1937. This Noël Coward operetta had been filmed to great effect in Britain back in 1933, enlivened with a witty, even heartbreaking flashback structure that highlighted the loss of romance in the modern jazz age. (M-G-M also managed to lop off Coward’s classic tune ‘If Love Were All,’ though ‘Zigeuner’ and ‘I’ll See You Again’ remain.) But with the whole cast swimming upstream against pudding-rich TechiniColor (Eddy looks, er, matronly), it’s hard to care about MacDonald’s engaged Brit skipping town with a Viennese music teacher. (In ‘33, Anna Neagle & the very Continental Fernand Gravey knew how to put these types over.) The director, ‘Woody’ Van Dyke, had often coaxed a teasing tone from the MacDonald/Eddy tag-team, matching their stolid, creamy voices to their frame-filling faces. But here, no one seems able to divine the casual romantic, bittersweet style Coward was aiming for*, and the film goes nowhere.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Coward himself called this ‘ a nauseating hotchpotch of vulgarity, false values, seedy dialogue, stale sentiment, vile performances and abominable direction.’ But what did you really think, Noël? More than that, after seeing it, he vowed to sell no more of his work to the movies unless he was personally involved. No empty threat since his next four projects were IN WHICH WE SERVE/’42; THIS HAPPY BREED/’44; BLITHE SPIRIT/’45 and BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45. And that 1933 BITTER SWEET? Hopefully, soon to show in a decent Stateside release as it’s currently available only on Region 2 DVD.