This year, the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) chose the Hidden Classics Blogathon as their Spring Blogathon, in order to feature forgotten films and underrated gems that may need more attention. For me, one of the first films to come to mind would be the 1935 operetta Naughty Marietta starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy!
Princess Marie de Namours de la Bonfain (Jeanette MacDonald) is beloved by the people, but she has a problem. Her uncle, the Prince de Namour de la Bonfain (Douglas Dumbrille), has arranged a marriage for her with Spaniard Don Carlos de Braganza (Walter Kingsford), whom she despises. Sadly for her, the king approves of the marriage. It looks like there’s no way out, until she learns about the casquette girls (a group of women being sent to the American colonies to marry the men there and raise families) from her scullery maid, Marietta Franini (Helen Shipman). Since her maid was only going because she was too poor to marry her sweetheart, Marie gives her some money and decides to take her place as a casquette girl. Her absence is quickly noticed by her uncle, and he sends men out to find her. She narrowly avoids being noticed right before the ship leaves. Before the ship can make it to the New World, they are attacked by pirates (who kill the crew and bring all the women with them). On land (before anything can happen), a group of mercenaries, lead by Captain Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy), pass by, and, hearing cries for help, fight off the pirates and bring the women to New Orleans. There, the women are all introduced to the governor, Gaspard d’Annard (Frank Morgan), and his wife (Elsa Lanchester) before they are taken to the convent. With some of the men vying for her hand in marriage, Marie tries to avoid it by essentially saying that she had lied when she signed her contract (and the only thing she could go with is that she was not a woman of strong morals). So, she is taken to another house in the village by Richard (before she escapes from him). He later finds her working in a marionette show, and takes her out for lunch. However, while they are eating, they hear the town talking about how her uncle had arrived and was seeking her out. Realizing that she was a fugitive, Richard tries to help her out, but they are quickly found, and she is taken to the governor’s mansion. There, her furious uncle tells her that she is still to go through with her arranged marriage to Don Carlos, and they will leave as soon as possible. In the meantime, the governor and his wife host a ball in their honor. With her uncle threatening to have Richard executed for treason if he helps her, can Marie and Richard get away together, or will she be stuck married to a man that she despises?
Naughty Marietta was based on the stage operetta of the same name by Victor Herbert and Rida Johnson. Jeanette MacDonald had recently signed with MGM after making a number of movies for Paramount, and Naughty Marietta was originally scheduled to be one of the first she did at MGM. She wasn’t initially enthusiastic about it, and so the idea was delayed. When they came back around to doing the movie after her success with The Merry Widow (1934), she wanted Allan Jones as her co-star, but he was busy working opposite the Marx Brothers in A Night At The Opera (1935). So, Nelson Eddy was cast, and the makings of another famous screen team were born.
Naughty Marietta was once a fairly popular film (after all, it did create a new, popular screen team), but, to me, it seems to have been forgotten more and more as time goes on. Some of that, I assume, has to do with its genre. I know movie musicals are nowhere near as popular with audiences as they once were (at least, it certainly doesn’t seem like new films are released anywhere near as much as during the Golden Age of Hollywood). Even worse, this film is based on an operetta, and I think they are even less popular. I admit, I myself (a self-professed fan of film musicals) was originally quite hesitant to dig into ANY of the MacDonald-Eddy films for that reason. After all, most people have enough of a hard time with the idea of people breaking out into song and dance in the movies, never mind people with such highly trained voices like this film’s two stars (no doubt a reflection of the changes in culture as time goes on).
Still, I did eventually come around to trying out the MacDonald-Eddy films. I started out with their second film, Rose-Marie (1936), after seeing (and enjoying) the later 1954 film version with Howard Keel (a star I was much more familiar with), and that was my gateway into the films of MacDonald and Eddy. Naughty Marietta ended up being the next film of theirs that I had the opportunity to see, and I enjoyed it quite a bit! The film is at its best when Jeanette and Nelson are together, whether singing a duet or developing their relationship. Their chemistry is what makes the whole thing work. Of course, the film is also helped by another couple, that of Frank Morgan (who admittedly looks different without his mustache, which he had to shave, under protest), and Elsa Lanchester as his perpetually annoyed (and suspicious) wife. The way they act together says SO MUCH about their character’s relationship, and provides quite a bit of humor in the process. Of course, the music itself is wonderful, with “Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life” being the biggest standout. If you can push yourself to try an operetta, I would think this movie is indeed a hidden classic, and one that deserves to be seen (and enjoyed)!
This movie is available on DVD either individually or as part of the four film Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy Collection: Volume 1 from Warner Archive Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 44 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
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