This is Your Life – what to watch for

There are many folks reading the book Sweethearts and learning about the behind-the-scenes lives of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy for the very first time.

It is fascinating that for all their secrecy and attempt for privacy, many of the major events in their lives played out while filming (and are visible to see on-screen) or otherwise in the public eye. A case in point is the November 1952 reality TV show, “This is Your Life.” Jeanette and Nelson had been separated for two years when this live episode brought them back together, professionally and personally.  It is discussed at great length in the book (and the aftermath) but suffice to say that every aspect of Jeanette’s personal life – from her differing relationship to her two sisters, to a comparison of her feelings for both her husband and Nelson Eddy, so visible both in body language, reaction and spoken words. This episode captures it all.

Perhaps you have already watched if. Or some of you may have not. Either way, it is worth watching again carefully to notice the following:

1. The difference in Jeanette’s reaction when her sister Blossom enters the stage and when the oldest MacDonald sister Elsie makes her appearance. Jeanette wrinkles her nose and says, “Is she here too?” With Blossom, Jeanette smiles and nods…of course Blossom is there…but notice also that she starts to think a bit about what this all means. She’s smiling…but you can also see her thinking. Probably something along the lines of: Blossom is here…Nelson’s car is parked in the lot (this was inadvertently revealed to Jeanette as they were parking)…can it truly be? I think Jeanette figured out that Nelson would not have agreed to show up without an intervention by Blossom.

2. Jeanette’s nervousness as Ralph Edwards begins mentioning her film career and her great co-star Nelson Eddy.  If you look closely you can see her take a quick breath and her head goes down. And throughout the show when Nelson is mentioned, her head goes down immediately (though the camera usually cuts). And at other times you can see her worrying about it, looking off, lost in thought, a wry smile as she looks back at Ralph Edwards, trying to listen to what he’s saying to her. And yet another time she looks around nonchalantly. She is definitely struggling with her emotions and the anticipation.

3. Jeanette’s indifference to Ralph Edwards’ comments about the death of her mother, Anna MacDonald, who had been “her guide and inspiration.”  Yeah, right.

4. Jeanette looks down, embarrassed when the man who married her and Gene goes on about their wonderful marriage and how they’ve exemplified “the bonds of holy matrimony.”

5. The priceless bantering between Gene and Jeanette when they talk “on the phone” before she realizes he is there. She asks if Gene (supposedly in New York) will be home (after the show if she calls him). Yes, he replies, there will be no late date tonight. He’ll wait for her call and make the date afterwards. Ralph Edwards is horrified.

6. The body language between Jeanette and Gene when he comes on stage. A nice familiar hug, nothing sensual, they sit down on the couch, each one at arm’s length as they find their places – a distance between them. Gene doesn’t put his arm around her, there is no tenderness shown. Jeanette glances over at him once with a smile but they could be brother and sister for all the intimacy that is shown.

7. The difference in body language when Nelson shows up. Jeanette melts into his arms, they hug too long, she pulls back and looks at him with stars in her eyes. They hold hands…and continue to hold hands to the point of it being noticeable…so he kisses her hand and finally lets go.

8. Jeanette’s reaction to Nelson’s appearance. The show is nearly finished and once again Ralph Edwards starts up again about an old friend… Jeanette bites her lip, her breathing sharpens, she sits up straighter. At just the sound of his voice her head goes back – no other word for it – a look of ecstasy on her face – and then the tears come.

9. Gene’s reaction all throughout, some annoyance and anger but what can he do? He hands her a handkerchief and tries to be relevant when Nelson shows up.

10. The hand-holding which goes on far longer than it needed to. The intimacy between Nelson and Jeanette, the familiarity, the warmth between them, the way she looks at him…all so telling.

Below, the scene just with Nelson’s appearance…and the full show minus the commercials. I recommend you watch the full show if you can to get the sense of Jeanette’s nervous buildup to the finale.

A classic moment in live television indeed…even if the audience didn’t truly realize what they were seeing.

Above: the three sisters, Elsie, Blossom and Jeanette. Below, she is noticeably distracted and nervous, wondering if Nelson will show. Her attempts to look nonchalant fail.

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And her breathing changes sharply when she thinks he will make his entrance. Notice the distance between her and Gene on the couch. And when Nelson enters, one would think that they would hug or snuggle together, after all, Nelson is singing the song he sang at their wedding! Shouldn’t they feel nostalgic and happy about their happy wedding day? But no, that is not the reaction at all.

Her last attempt to keep her composure… her eyes already filling at the anticipation…and  at just the sound of his voice, her head goes back and then the tears come.

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And the aftermath…as Nelson sings and speaks to her… the stilted forced dialogue about the happiest day of his life was singing at her wedding, etc. And the hand-holding that went on for an embarrassing amount of time.