He was a tall, fair-haired, classically trained baritone from the opera and concert stage. She was a petite redhead who had danced her way out of the chorus to become a musical comedy star on Broadway. In the dark days of the Depression, this unlikely combination collided almost accidentally on a movie sound stage, and the sparks ignited a nation. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, separately and together, made movie history. They starred in some of the greatest musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, films that continue to enchant and inspire.
You are invited to meet Jeanette and Nelson for the first time, or to learn more about their incredible careers. You’ll find detailed credits, music lists, historical overviews, and plot for their forty films, plus biographical background. You’ll also find an invitation to fall in love all over again – in love with the music, laughter, romance, and the heightened awareness of life’s joys that is generated and personified by these two unique artists.
All the information here has been updated from my 1976 book, The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy (by Eleanor Knowles, A.S. Barnes, Cranbury, NJ). The cast credits are by film writer John Cocchi and the music lists by researcher J. Peter Bergman. Other contributors are credited in the text. So, for all of you – casual browsers, scholarly researchers, or avid fans – here are the careers of Nelson and Jeanette.
In 1935, an unlikely screen duo were united for the first time in an equally unlikely film, an old lace-Valentine of an operetta, utterly outmoded by hardboiled Depression standards. Amazingly, the tumultuous critical and public reception brought an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and launched a series of hit film musicals that would forever link their names into a single entity: Jeanette-MacDonald-and-Nelson-Eddy.
Although the tall, fair-haired, classically trained baritone and the petite redhead co-starred in just eight films – fewer than any other major screen team – the impact of these films made them cultural icons. Today, more than fifty years after their last film together, they are still instantly recognized and frequently parodied. When the Canadian Mounties considered retiring their distinctive hat, photos of Nelson in his “Rose Marie” uniform appeared in thousands of U.S. newspapers, and whenever a TV show or cartoon wants to suggest the romance of the operetta era, a lavishly gowned soprano appears, singing one of Jeanette’s hit arias.
The film careers of MacDonald and Eddy spanned the two decades of the sound film, 1929 to 1949. Separately and together, Jeanette and Nelson appeared in 40 films, many of them now regarded as classics that are constantly revived and even studied in school. Each year, new audiences are discovering the “Singing Sweethearts.” Films like San Francisco, Maytime, Naughty Marietta, Love Me Tonight, One Hour With You, The Merry Widow, Balalaika, and Rose Marie continue to enchant, while younger viewers are falling in love anew through videos and frequent TV screenings, plus new biographies and television documentaries.
Though millions felt sure that MacDonald and Eddy were “made for each other,” these performers came to films from very different backgrounds. Before his Hollywood years, Nelson sang opera and serious classical works, appearing in world and American premieres of works by composers like Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, and Ottorino Respighi. Jeanette, on the other hand, started as a teenaged hoofer in the chorus, singing and dancing her way to starring roles in Broadway musicals.
Once they were paired (almost accidentally) on screen, their off-screen careers followed surprisingly similar if separate paths.
- Both did frequent concert tours to SRO audiences. (Eddy preferred live audiences to sound stages, and his MGM contract stipulated that he would have three months off each year for concert tours. Jeanette loved film work, but also had a similar stipulation.)
- Both performers were incredibly active in radio throughout the 1930s and 40s, and each had their own radio show.
- During World War II, both toured extensively for the “war effort.”
- In the 1950’s, both appeared on early television and shot separate pilots for proposed TV sitcoms.
But there were some marked differences in their careers. While Nelson had started his career in opera, Jeanette didn’t achieve her dream of singing with a major opera company until she was well established as a screen star. Jeanette, in her post-Hollywood years, starred in regional revivals of major Broadway musicals. Nelson became a surprise hit on the nightclub circuit, performing continually during the last fourteen years of his life. In fact, he was on stage in the middle of a song when he was fatally stricken by an aneurysm.
In recent years, frequent TV showings, theatrical revivals, and commercial videos are constantly introducing new audiences to the magical mélange of beauty, adventure, songs and romance that have thrilled movie audiences for sixty years. (One third of the 200 or so fans who gather each year in Los Angeles for the Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club convention were born after Jeanette made her final film!)
On Valentine’s Day weekend, 1993, PBS stations across the country premiered a one-hour special called “Nelson and Jeanette: America’s Singing Sweethearts,” produced by Elayne Goldstein through WTTW-TV in Chicago and hosted by former MGM star Jane Powell. The Washington Post critic, Tom Shales, called it “a sweet and sparkling public TV special” and reported that “even cynics should be able to see what made the toothsome twosome so appealing…”
Both stars touched millions of hearts, inspired countless young people to follow musical careers, and introduced classical music to many who might never have heard it. As for their well-loved screen hits, an editorial in the San Diego Evening Tribune summed it up: “Songs like ‘Rose Marie’ and ‘Indian Love Call’ espoused no great causes. There was no profound social, economic, or political significance to be extracted from Maytime or Sweethearts. That was part of their appeal. They simply hinted that love and beauty and honor, however ethereal, had value and meaning . . . and that anyone could, for a moment at least, taste something of the ‘Sweet Mystery of Life.'”