Films of JM and NE Book Review

I have received several emails asking me whether or not I recommend the newly-published, updated edition of Eleanor Knowles’ The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I ordered it awhile ago, just received it in the mail, and took some time to read through it before responding.

The answer is yes, I recommend the book. I have always praised the first edition of her book as a very thorough “Films of…” book. The 2006 edition is like the 1976 one, but expanded with more information, movie credits and discography. If you like browsing through the movie website, reading all the technical details of casts and crews, extensive synopses of the movie plots, trivia, bloopers or all the songs in a particular film, etc., you will enjoy this encyclopedic volume. This book provides all that, in hardback, with a smartly designed cover and better photo reproduction than in the earlier version. Many of the photos will be familiar to the readers of our magazine (including a reproduction of our Anna May Wong bust sculpted by Nelson) but there are a few that may be new to you. The book is basically a reference tool. You will probably find yourself looking up a certain film to learn the name of a character actor or the title of a song, or browse through a particular movie that interests you, rather than sitting down and reading the entire book cover to cover.

As with most books, there are a few minor errors here and there. For example, Dugan states that the only “surviving” prints of Jeanette’s Fox films Oh, For a Man and Don’t Bet on Women are at the Modern Museum of Art in New York. This is false. We have prints of both films available for fans who want to see these curiosities. We also have the one remaining reel of Jeanette’s otherwise “lost” film, Annabelle’s Affairs, which folks can view on our TV Tape II. In fact, these films are on sale this month at a 20% discount, just click on the blue links above! For the most part, though, the book is very meticulous.

Having recommended the book, I will answer the next question that has been asked by several fans. In fact, I’ll quote an email here from Diane R: “Is this book a “good” one? Does it align with Sharon’s book on our stars? Or, is it an antithesis to Sharon’s book? I [Diane] have been asked about this book and really need an answer from our club. If Knowles’ book is truthful about their relationship, I’ll tell others and may even purchase it myself. However, I do not want to read anything contradictory to what Sharon has already researched. Anybody can view any of the Mac/Eddy films and see the love light in both their eyes, then watch the solo films and see the difference. So, please let me know about the Knowles book. I notice that her last name is Dugan. Is that significant?”
Eleanor Knowles (Dugan) is not a believer in any Jeanette-Nelson romance. As her book is almost solely about the films and not their private lives, she spends only about 5 pages discussing “their offscreen loves and marriages” in a 636-page book. She states that any hint of romance between Jeanette and Nelson was “a constant source of amusement to them both, for, while they were friendlier than most teams, they each had a very separate private life.” Dugan later states: “Both Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy married only once. Both were still happily united to their respective spouses when they died after twenty-seven years of marriage.” In her bibliography, she calls my book Sweethearts “an expansion of the fictional Farewell to Dreams.”

Well, if you can get past that without choking, you will still enjoy the rest of the book. After all, it’s really just about the films. Yet even in detailing them she occasionally does her readers a disservice. For example, it’s admitted that Girl of the Golden West “was planned as a Technicolor production.” But there’s no explanation as to WHY the color was dropped. Also, rather than acknowledging that the two stars weren’t together much onscreen, or seeing some connection in the fact that Girl was filmed after Jeanette returned from her honeymoon, Dugan instead writes about Nelson: “He is clearly uncomfortable in the heavier, more melodramatic sequences, and his makeup is singularly unattractive. MGM was so sure of the appeal of their property that they no longer were careful to work around his deficiencies.” No, I think that the facts show that it had very little to do with working around Nelson’s “deficiencies” and everything to do with timing, circumstances and Nelson’s frame of mind. After all, no one complained about his acting in Maytime’s “melodramatic” sequences.

A sharp reader will note in the chapter called “The Finale That Never Was,” Dugan devotes only one paragraph to a couple of 1940s Jeanette-Nelson film projects that fell through. She neglects to mention Crescent Carnival, a book that Jeanette optioned for them, Nelson’s own movie treatments for them which are readily available to see at U.S.C., or the two-picture deal that would have returned them to MGM in the late ‘40s. In the section about Follow the Boys (which Jeanette filmed at Universal), Dugan neglects to mention WHY exactly Jeanette went to that studio (answer: she joined Nelson after he finished Phantom of the Opera because they were supposed to make a film there together).

Dugan also devotes a paragraph to Jeanette’s radio work in the later ‘40s, but it’s all about “The Railroad Hour” with Gordon MacRae. The fact that she worked with Nelson several times, both on his radio show “The Electric Hour” as well as “Kraft Music Hall,” “Lux Radio Theater,” “Here’s to Vets” and others…well, that’s curiously omitted in this paragraph. As in Turk’s biography of Jeanette (which Dugan quotes from a number of times), this whole period of togetherness and effort to find a new niche for themselves is conveniently written out of history. All the above details are easily documented so it’s a shame and a loss to readers that they don’t get a full accounting of Jeanette and Nelson’s professional aspirations—as a team—during this time period. Instead, readers get a select and limited version of facts.

That said, I still recommend the book for what it is, a very thorough and informative study of their films. If you’re a Mac/Eddy fan, you probably want every book that comes out about them and this will be no exception.

Here is the link to order the book. I have one caveat for you: says it takes 4-6 weeks for delivery. Don’t order it thinking it will arrive promptly. These hardback books are printed to order but their manufacturing time is far lengthier than a softcover book. I noticed that Dugan gave her own publisher negative feedback on Amazon’s website. A word to the wise: it does take a few weeks for this book to arrive.


PS: Having given an honest review as a professional researcher, as a person I must note that any time I have praised or defended Dugan, it recoils back on me. I defended her in the UK well over a decade ago when we were both there at a Jeanette-Nelson convention and there was some displeasure from certain fans over her choice of lecture topic (the difference between US and UK video formats). I liked her when I first met her years earlier and we had a seemingly friendly written correspondence. It was her suggestion to have centerfolds in the club magazine, which I thought was an excellent idea. But in 1994, when Sweethearts was published, Dugan was involved in a campaign to place notices in my books found in bookstores, claiming the book was all fiction. She also wrote to the American Film Institute, where my book launch party was held, and where I was guest lecturer during a week-long tribute to Jeanette and Nelson. Her letter slandered me and was a vain attempt to have my appearance at the AFI cancelled. When the Irving Stone letters surfaced a few years ago, she slandered me to the owner in an attempt to stop him from working a deal with me to publish them. When she started a Nelson group/mailing list online some years back, folks asked me whether they should join it and I said why not, it’s always great for fans to be in touch with each other. Well, eventually I received some upset letters and phone calls from said people who had signed up for her list; they were now receiving slanderous phone calls about me, courtesy of Ken Richards, a friend of hers who stated he was calling on her behalf. So, if this kind of behavior offends you, you have been duly forewarned. I liken it to someone who seems nice and benign enough on the surface, then secretly stabs you in the back. If you’ve ever had people like this in your life, you’ll know what I mean. But personalities aside, you will still enjoy her book. Several fans have told me that they bought other Jeanette or Nelson biographies, read them once and then threw them in the trash. You won’t throw this one out.

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