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 bookSweethearts, 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.
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.
Thanks Maria and Katie for help with the photos for this article.
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 we observe every aspect of Jeanette’s personal life – from her differing relationship with 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 it. 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. (She was accidentally told that when arriving at the studio, that her car was to be parked next to Nelson’s! The excuse given was that he was shooting a TV pilot so it had nothing to do with her.)
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.
12. Note that Nelson tosses his sheet music aside, across the floor as he reaches Jeanette on the couch. That way he can hold her hands.
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.
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.
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.
In the photo above, a candid taken of Nelson Eddy about to kiss Jeanette MacDonald on her 35th birthday, June 18, 1938, shows a noticeable baby bump that was normally hidden among the folds of her costumes used in their current film project, Sweethearts.
In the book Sweethearts I describe an unfortunate incident that took place. The date of this incident is unknown. But because Jeanette wears the same gown as worn on Nelson’s birthday, June 29, shown below, it is likely that it was shot about 10 days or so after the photo above on Jeanette’s birthday. Note that in this photo, Jeanette is busting out of her dress in the bosom area; the bra size for this dress is now too small.
By comparison, here is Jeanette when not pregnant, quite flat-chested.
Here is the “Pretty as a Picture” dance sequence, also in the same dress, in which Jeanette’s pregnancy is noticeable.
In the scene when the accident occurred, Jeanette – wearing a long flowing pink dress – is exasperated and runs up a flight of stairs to tell her husband, played by Nelson Eddy, that they should leave New York and go to Hollywood. In this scene, the rush up the stairs was filmed in one shot. Then there is a cut…and the next shot is Jeanette rushing into the upstairs room and telling this to Nelson – and her hairstyle is slightly different so it’s obviously shot at a different time.
What occurs on film is that Jeanette runs most of the way upstairs, trips, falls hard on her stomach and slides down several stairs. If you watch carefully she turns slightly to the side both to catch herself and also to protect her abdomen.
Then what happens is: the actors playing her family call out for her to be careful, she picks herself up, turns to the camera with a face redder than the Technicolor makeup, says angrily, “Why? Am I going to fall again?” And rushes up the rest of the stairs.
In case one thinks this was in the script – no indeed, it was not. This was one of those bloopers that director Woody Van Dyke left in the film because…well, he wasn’t going to re-shoot this. Below is the original MGM studio script showing that none of the above was intentional. You will note that the script suggests that Jeanette’s dog Brunhilda was supposed to run up the stairs with her but that was scrapped obviously. It would obviously have been too dangerous and there was the chance that she would trip, either over the dog or her dress.
This fall, though serious for someone in her condition, did not result in the immediate loss of her baby.
Here’s another shot apparently taken on July 16 and she is still pregnant, even though heavily girdled. If you click on this photo you will see the larger view.
Some new information has come to light since the publication of Sweethearts to indicate that Jeanette’s hospitalization occurred a few days earlier than we had previously thought. Because the public announcement came on Monday, July 25th that Jeanette was in the hospital – it only hit the newspapers on Tuesday the 26th. The assumption was that she was hospitalized on the 25th for her “ear infection.” But now we have learned now that she was in the hospital prior to the weekend so her collapse on the set would have occurred somewhere between the 19th and 21st. Which day it was is unknown, but since this data became known, we have done a careful look through literally many hundreds of photos for the pertinent dates. Studying the set shots, news clippings and script revisions, we find the latest date that Jeanette was involved in photo shoots, candids or any dated material on the set was Saturday, July 16.
Another curious fact is that on the 22nd, Hedda Hopper published that on the previous Sunday (the 17th), Jeanette and Gene hosted a party in their home where the guest list included Nelson, Ida Koverman, Helen Ferguson (Jeanette’s PR person) and Hedda herself. This looks to be a very convenient guest list and an attempt to make everything look normal and newsy on the Jeanette-Gene front. (Another blurb stated that Jeanette and Gene hosted this party for “friends from the east.”) Since Hedda was very much aware of Jeanette’s pregnancy and the aftermath – and since she landed the photographic scoop of photographing Jeanette in bed and discussing in a roundabout way the fact that she had been pregnant – it is a likely assumption that damage control was in place as early as the 22nd. And that Hedda helped out with it (in exchange for her scoop) by showing how lovey-dovey Jeanette and Gene were. In fact, another blurb also published on the 22nd indicated that Nelson had sung at a police show earlier in the week. These attempts at normal news would affirm that we are looking at somewhere between the 19th and 21st, due to the scramble for “normal news” published on the 22nd.
A blurb on the 27th noted that Gene Raymond had taken a room in the hospital to be near Jeanette while she was hospitalized for supposedly minor issues. Variety reported that she was released from the hospital on Wednesday, the 27th.
On July 30, The Hollywood Reporter published the blurb quoted in the book, “What two people who everyone thinks are very far apart are still very close?”
I will be posting a complete timeline of all the newspaper coverage and everything we know about the events during this time period.
Another new piece of information is that along with the finale and montage sequence, the radio segment (in which Jeanette wears the charm bracelet given by Nelson for her birthday), was also filmed in August when Jeanette returned to the camera. “Summer Serenade” was her first scene – and so this is also a correction in that the muff she held in front of her stomach, originally we thought it was to hide the pregnancy but since it was so soon after, perhaps it was now to hide the fact that she wasn’t back in shape.
The scenes filmed in August-September included the radio show sequence, Nelson re-doing “On Parade” (it was filmed once with him in uniform and once in a suit), the montage and the finale.
We know that Jeanette was hospitalized again in mid September and that on the 20th it was noted she was in the hospital for her “inner ear infection.” But once again, we’re not sure the exact date she entered the hospital. What we have now clarified is the date of her “road trip” with Nelson to “the Redwoods,” since it was stated as “a week” the dates would have been from Monday, September 26 through Saturday, October 1st. They stayed at the Benbow Inn in Garberville (200 miles north of San Francisco). Since Nelson was singing on Chase & Sanborn on Sundays, their vacation would have had to begin on Monday and end on Saturday.
Seeing Jeanette’s charm bracelet up close on film and documentation of other events during the filming of Sweethearts will be covered in future articles.
Thanks to Bernadette Schwartz, Maria Escano, Katie Gardner and a couple others who asked not to be named for helping both with the research on this and the photos and screenshots.