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“Obey Your Heart” – what to watch for

The Girl of the Golden West does not usually make the number one spot on people’s lists of “my favorite Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movies.” One possible reason for this is that there is no love duet sung halfway through the film, preferably under a tree…where they and the song’s lyrics profess undying love…and then their characters are torn apart in some fashion until the film’s glorious finale where love reigns triumphant. And the theme song is sung again for good measure, seals the deal, and becomes a mega-hit song that Nelson and Jeanette sing for decades to come as one of their standards….uh, no. That’s not what happened here.

There was such a scene planned and there was a song to be sung under the tree, “Obey Your Heart.” They pre-recorded the duet (we have the recording) and part of the scene was filmed. Nelson sang the song – as a solo – to Jeanette on camera but strangely, she doesn’t answer the love call. Instead she looks very sad (see photo above) and the scene ends abruptly with the untimely interference of the brilliantly comical Buddy Ebsen.

So why wasn’t the duet filmed and why does Jeanette only sing it solo later in the film?

Background information: This movie was shot after the wedding of Jeanette MacDonald to Gene Raymond in June 1937. During the summer, Nelson Eddy was kept busy filming Rosalie – a film in which he sang well but phoned in his performance. Once that film was completed, he was not eager to work with Jeanette again but faced suspension if he didn’t. Irate movie-going audiences were demanding the Mac/Eddy screen team be reunited. Nelson went right from filming one film into the next.

Anyone thinking Nelson wasn’t still in love with Jeanette only has to view this film and see the difference in his demeanor in Girl compared to Rosalie. Nelson drank to get through Girl and it’s evident in his sometime bleary eyes and loose, limp mannerisms. They have few scenes together in a very long movie and in one of the key scenes where there’s lots of togetherness (as Jeanette tends to badly wounded Nelson) his physical arousal is plainly seen. (That situation is covered in this article.)

Yet in one scene Nelson was totally sober and focused. That was his singing “Obey Your Heart” under the tree to Jeanette. He took her hand in his, looked right into her eyes and sang from his anguished heart.

The sensual way in which he caresses her fingers throughout the song was never repeated with such intensity before or after in any of his movies with Jeanette. We see the finger-caressing in their other films and also off-screen in life…but not like this. The film is worth watching just for this scene alone. The intimacy with her fingers, fondling and sliding his own finger between hers…well, it’s a definite statement from a man whose love was rejected and who is not over that rejection.

Jeanette’s reaction is equally telling. She watches what he’s doing and throughout the song, she has a haunted, strained and resigned expression in her eyes. And his barely disguised erotic emotion is so overwhelming that she can’t continue the scene. In fact, Jeanette broke down crying repeatedly and finally the director gave up trying to film it. That was the end of the duet.

If you think about it, Jeanette’s expression and reactions to Nelson is not in keeping with her screen character. She plays a happy, cheerfully naive, virginal young woman who has never really had a romance and has never been hurt emotionally by a man. So why, as Nelson sings and urges her to obey her heart, would she look sad and beaten down? It makes no sense.

Here is a blow-by-blow description of what can be observed during Nelson’s singing of this song and Jeanette’s reaction. And by the way – yes, Nelson’s makeup is terrible. Overdone and really more appropriate for color film. But that isn’t the point here.

Below, Jeanette’s expression is immediately one of tragic sadness rather than the expected “Oh goodie, this handsome Loo-tenant Johnson is wooing me and is gonna to sing me a nice love song.”

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Look at her rueful smile as he sings: “Love may live a day or all life through.”

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Her eyes close and her head goes back as he starts caressing her fingers:

She tensely watches him stroking her fingers:

And then her head goes down, she can’t look at him as he continues.

She finally looks up at him again, her eyes glistening.

Now he really steps up the very graphic finger action, stroking on and between her fingers.

Jeanette looks close to crying and/or sick to her stomach.

Now he starts caressing her thumb…

And stroking it…

Now he takes her other hand and again she watches his hands…

There is a quick cut to a different shot, a closeup of her sad face.

And then back to the other shot, where she’s clearly losing her composure, her eyes filling as he grabs her arm with one hand and continues the thumb caressing with the other.

Her head goes down again and she looks a bit ill as he sings: “…knowing love would say obey your heart.”

Her body language is rigid and at this point, with the song ending, she should melt into him with a passionate clinch…and next she would sing back to him and they would launch into a duet…but no, instead a convenient interruption. And note that until the last possible moment, he refuses to let go of her hand and the sensual finger action continues.

This is a woman who has been married just a few months to a  man she is supposedly madly in love with …and yet she has such an extreme reaction to Nelson’s intimate behavior that she breaks down in tears and cannot film the movie’s main duet. You do the math.

All in all, a very telling piece of film and visual evidence of real emotion being played out against the backdrop of a movie set.

 

 

Nelson Eddy, a lively “corpse” in The Girl of the Golden West

Nelson Eddy was not a “singing capon” despite the sneers and jeers of his critics. In fact, he he was very human and it was never more visibly apparent than in the 1938 film, The Girl of the Golden West.

This was his 4th film with Jeanette MacDonald but the first one after her marriage to Gene Raymond. She had married in June 1937 and after the summer ended, it was time for her to get back to work and appease their fans still angry over her wedding. That it was going to be difficult for them to work together was a given. Nelson was still pining over her and despite his many affairs (“about a dozen” per his own statement), he was miserable.  He drank to ease his pain and to get through the filming without breaking down in tears on set as he had done during Maytime.

In the book Sweethearts, his emotional anguish at having to work with her and be around her is described in detail, based on his own writings.  Jeanette avoided him when they weren’t filming. There are very few photos of them sitting together on the set, as was normal. Still bitter with rejection, Nelson tried to pry from her whether she was happy and had “learned to love” Gene. Jeanette was not forthcoming with answers. In his diary, Nelson wrote entries like: “My baby’s arms were softly tender in our love scene today. I feel very badly tonight.”  Another time he drove her home from the studio and reported:  “I can’t trust myself to be alone with her. It was all I could do not to jump her.”

In this film, Nelson’s character is shot and badly wounded. Jeanette’s character plays a crooked hand of cards in an effort to save his life, by offering herself as compensation to the sheriff (played by Walter Pidgeon).  The scene in question had Jeanette pushing Nelson up an attic staircase to hide, her helping him down again and his collapsing on the floor, with her anxiously and tenderly ministering to him.

The result of her nearness and hands-on attention in this sequence is plain to see, here in the shot captured by the still photographer:

…and an actual screenshot as the scene progresses. (Thanks, Katie.)

Yes, Nelson was indeed a lively near-corpse and it’s astonishing that this sequence was left in the film as-is.

Not to ruin the plot for those of you who haven’t seen the film…but of course Nelson survives, he and Jeanette are reunited at the very end and head off in a covered wagon singing happily of their love.

Which is what sort of happened in real life by the time The Girl of the Golden West finished filming.

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?” In contrast, 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 focus and 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. Nelson’s inability to be phony or to say his scripted dialogue. He never claimed to be a good actor, he also had little pretense and so there is no conviction in his delivery of the blatant lie he’s supposed to say (about how the greatest joy of their association was singing at her wedding). He lamely starts the sentence and then just awkwardly trails off! Leaving Jeanette to bail them out and smoothly handle it which of course she does.

11. 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.

***

Remember that Nelson’s physical reaction to Jeanette is real-life, not scripted. This is not a movie scene. They are not on a studio set. Yet Nelson takes her hand and caresses her fingers. He kisses her hand. He doesn’t let go of her hand until way past necessary. And he seems totally unconscious of the fact that he’s making love to her hand in public.

So for those of you who wondered whether it was just acting in their movie love scenes – you have your answer. He did this in real life. He didn’t consider himself a good actor and he was never this passionate onscreen with any other movie co-star. On screen he reacted to Jeanette because he adored her. Despite the fact that they were separated at the time of this TV show and he was no doubt bitter still at being “dumped” by her (his words), he could not help himself. He responded to her as he always did.

And as for Jeanette, you see her genuine feelings as well. Not just her nervous fear as the show progresses, or her look of ecstasy and tears over his appearance, but the look of adoration she gives him, just standing and looking at him. Try watching her face in that scene just once just instead of Nelson. She is like a star-struck fan. She looks like she feels she’s the luckiest girl alive that he is there singing to her or paying attention to her. All her social veneer falls away and you see the real heart of this woman. And sadly, there was no even vaguely similar reaction when her husband of record showed up earlier in the show. That she shut herself off emotionally when Nelson wasn’t around seems painfully evident. She just got on with her life as a mature Hollywood star all through those years and the show but when Nelson made his entrance, there was a glimpse of the shy adoring girl that Nelson wrote of, that he fell in love with, that he sought to bring forward in their relationship over the years. She could show that vulnerability onscreen, but he sought to cultivate it in real life and from his letters you can see that it was a real turn-on for him.

Below is 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.

Alica Mayer (LB’s grandniece) debuts Hollywood radio show, 9/13

I’ve recently become friends with the grandniece of MGM studio head Louie B. Mayer. She is a very nice person, kind and friendly. She is also not unaware of the tremendous problems that Mayer created in the lives of Nelson and Jeanette. And obviously I wanted to be upfront and clear the air about that right at the beginning. And I can say that she is a most gracious person.

Tomorrow at 6 pm PACIFIC time you can hear the debut of her online radio show from anywhere in the world. The theme of her show is of course classic Hollywood and the MGM films and history. The link is here:

http://www.latalkradio.com/Mayer.php

Please check it out now as there are several ways to access the show including iTunes.

Alicia’s website for the show is here:

http://www.aliciamayershow.com/

We wish her luck with the new venture and will keep you posted.

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