Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sweethearts (1938)

Sweethearts, released by MGM in 1938, is one of the eight Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals. This is the first of their musicals that I’ve seen, and I’m hooked.

Like so many 1930s musicals this is a backstage musical. Husband and wife team Ernest Lane and Gwen Marlowe have been appearing together for six years in the smash hit broadway musical Sweethearts. Their marriage is a happy one and it’s a happy production. There are no clouds on the horizon. At least there are no clouds on the horizon for Gwen and Ernest. There is a very big cloud on the horizon for the show’s producer, Felix Lehman (Frank Morgan). That cloud is Hollywood. A major studio is trying to lure Gwen and Ernest to Hollywood. This would be a disaster for Lehman. It would also be a disaster for everyone at the theatre, and for composer Oscar Engel (Herman Bing) and for playwright Leo Kronk (Mischa Auer). Something must be done to keep Gwen and Ernest in New York and to keep the show running.

Leo Kronk has a plan to do just that. The Hollywood studio is only interested in the two stars as a package deal. If Gwen can be convinced that Ernest is having an affair with his secretary Kay Jordan (Florence Rice) the Hollywood deal will be off. The plan succeeds but of course since this is a lighthearted musical romance we’re pretty confident that everything will work out in the end for Gwen and Ernest.

That’s all there is to the plot. That’s all the plot the film needs. The plot is just an excuse for  some great musical numbers and for some light romantic comedy. The screenplay (co-written by Dorothy Parker) provides plenty of wit and amusement and the fine cast makes the most of it.

The production in which the two stars are supposed to be appearing is actually Victor Herbert’s 1913 operetta Sweethearts.

While the movie’s plot has little to do with Herbert’s operetta it does include a great deal of Herbert’s glorious music. Eddy and MacDonald were both very fine classically trained singers and both had careers in recording and in opera in tandem with their film careers. The singing is very much in the operetta style which may not appeal to everyone. It’s certainly very different musically from most Hollywood musicals. Personally I thought the songs were terrific.

I’m not sure that anyone would rate Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy among the acting greats but they’re more than adequate for this sort of vehicle. They’re both likeable and charming and they handle the comedy with complete assurance. Frank Morgan and Herman Bing are funny, and Mischa Auer is very funny as the egotistical, scheming but not overly talented Leo Kronk.

This was a very early three-strip Technicolor and must have looked stunning at the time. It still looks great although the colour on the TCM print is perhaps just a little faded. MGM spent plenty of money on this movie and it’s generally very well spent. Director W. S. Van Dyke was no auteur but he was efficient and very competent. Some of the musical numbers are given the big production treatment (and very effectively) but this is a musical that puts more emphasis on the vocal performances than on the staging. There’s none of the cinematic bravado that one associates with the Busby Berkeley style but this movie doesn’t need that kind of treatment.

It’s one of the oddities of Hollywood that a Hollywood musical like this relies on the idea that Broadway is the home of true artistry while Hollywood is crass and vulgar and commercial and we’re supposed to hope that Ernest and Gwen keep out of the clutches of those wicked Hollywood moguls!

I saw this one on TCM and their print is in reasonable shape but this film would certainly benefit from a thorough high-definition restoration. Sadly there probably isn’t enough of an audience for this style of musical to make such a desirable outcome likely. The Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals have been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series but not having seen the DVDs I can’t say how much better they look than the TCM print.

Sweethearts is all froth and bubbles but delightfully so. A well-crafted film with wonderful performances, excellent music, plenty of humour and romance and sparkling dialogue plus lush Technicolor cinematography. Pure lightweight entertainment but utterly captivating. Highly recommended.

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