Sunday, April 10, 2011

Palate Cleanser: The Jeanette Macdonald - Deanna Durbin Smackdown

As promised. Verdi chosen because the Siren loves Verdi.

Jeanette, La Traviata, "Sempre Libera." From San Francisco (1936), directed by an uncredited W.S. Van Dyke and a movie in which the Siren quite likes the old Iron Butterfly. Apologies for the colorized clip:




Deanna, La Traviata, "Brindisi" (an odd choice for a young girl, but never mind), from One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), directed by good old Henry Koster:



The Siren is going to go for Deanna, despite all the trouble the woman has inadvertently caused her this year, but she is willing to entertain spirited defenses of Miss Macdonald as well. Also, any opinions on the old story of a long secret love affair with Nelson Eddy? (That would be Macdonald having an affair with Eddy, not Durbin, although if you know something the Siren doesn't, do tell.)

(Palate Cleanser concept courtesy of the ever zen-like Glenn Kenny, who would not begrudge it to the Siren, she feels sure.)

46 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I love both ladies but for rather different reasons. Jeanette is best when she's sexy, funny and cast opposite Maurice Cheavalier (Love Me Tonight, The Merry Widow)

Deanna spent the better part of her career being chiry and charming. But like like her best as sultry IOW HERE

The Siren said...

David, I can't decide how I feel about Durbin's version of Always in Christmas Holiday; it's *unusual* for sure. But this song is rather lovely. I also like the beckoning floozies on the staircase in back of Deanna in one shot.

I basically agree on Macdonald although she never is very sexy to me. She was pretty but she sort of comes across as an operatic dominatrix type, not one of my personal fantasies. She's funny in those two, though.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well who doesn't love a beckoning floozy?

I find Jeanette quite sexy ina light frivolous way, particuarly in The Merry Widow when she decides she wants to go out on the town and have some fun.

Laura said...

Deanna wins on tone, Jeanette on breath control and vocal strength. The only reason Jeanette wins on the latter, I think, is because Deanna is still quite young in that clip.

San Francisco was one of the first old movies I ever loved, so it holds a very special place in my heart. Even for MacDonald. Otherwise, her "operatic dominatrix type" (as you hilariously say) always rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't really like her in Love Me Tonight for that reason; her personality type strikes me as a wee bit too heavy and droopy for light comedy. Plus, who could notice her when a vixenish Myrna Loy was slinking about the place?

As for Deanna, I haven't seen much of her outside of YouTube clips. Her voice is very soft and pretty, and she always comes across as spunky and fun, but her set-ups are always a little too corny for me (well, duh, these were flicks about a teenage opera singer. What did I expect?).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Maybe this clip will change your mind, Laura Here she is in The Merry Widow, toying with Maurice by flirting with other men.

Sondermann said...

I'd normally always go for Mrs. Durbin but in this instance, I favour Jeanette MacDonald, whose rendition is competent but not especially great. Durbin sounds like a child singing an aria written for a woman. Well, she is a child singing an aria written for a woman...

That being said, I have to confess that didn't like "San Francisco" at all. For a disaster movie from that time I vastly prefer "Chicago" which doesn't sacrifice its rouge hero (Tyron Power) on the altar of religious awakening.

As to Nelson Eddy, I loved Veda Pierce's comment in Cain's novel: "Personally, I find pictures a bore, don’t you? At least Nelson Eddy pictures. Still, I suppose it’s not his fault, for it isn’t how he sings but what he sings. And I suppose he has nothing to do with how dreadfully long they are."

grandoldmovies said...

MacDonald sings her aria very prettily, but she misses on her character's essence; Violetta is a courtesan dying of consumption, and her solo should basically be a "what the hell" moment - but Jeanette seems limited to trills and white lace.

Supposedly Macdonald had an affair w/Louis Mayer; according to Shipman, Eddy & MacDonald didn't care for each other.

Durbin gets to sing heavier Verdi as an adult; she does a terrific Trovatore duet w/Jan Peerce in Something in the Wind (the same one, but much better done, that Kitty Carlisle does in Night at the Opera)

The Siren said...

Laura and Sondermann, I love *both* San Francisco and In Old Chicago, and have to say I find Alice Faye much sexier than Jeanette Macdonald. (You probably know Hugh Hefner's a big Alice Faye fan. Or maybe you didn't.) I also find Tyrone Power sexier than Clark Gable. But the earthquake in San Francisco is great.

Is it just me, or is Jeanette's climactic note in that clip perilously screechy? Could be the sound too.

Also, Lady on a Train and Christmas Holiday are both nice examples of Durbin sans saccharine. I really like her version of "Give Me a Little Kiss" in LOAT, which is also quite sultry.

GOM, I haven't seen Something in the Wind and should. Your mentioning A Night at the Opera reminds me that old movies, and even more specifically Bugs Bunny, are what introduced me to opera in the first place. I listened to Trovatore after I first saw ANATO as a teen, and liked the music, although then and now I cannot make head or tail of the plot.

Laura said...

David, Jeanette is indeed much livelier in that clip. Though maybe she's trying a little too hard to channel Irene Dunne's delivery in the beginning. Still, quite a bit more charming than her character in Love Me Tonight.

Siren, I absolutely agree that Jeanette's final note is too squawktastic in that Traviata clip. I still say she has excellent control, but just comes across a little shrieky at times. That's why I prefer Deanna's softer tones overall.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well her character in Love Me Tonight is dperessed until she meets Maurice. But she's knows he's coming for her as the most imaginative production number in the history of the cinema makes claer.

The Siren said...

David, you really have me thawing out toward Jeanette here...she was a smart, savvy cookie too, in how she handled her career for a long time.

I think that list of Hollywood actors I didn't get would look different if I updated it now, although there's a few that are just permanent fixtures.

Come to think of it, R*b*rt C*mm*ngs wasn't on it.

Yojimboen said...

“I’ve handles Indians, African natives, South Sea Islanders, rhinos, pymies and Eskimos, and I’ve made them all act. But not Nelson Eddy.”
Woody Van Dyke on Rose Marie whence emerged Eddy’s nickname:
“The Singing Capon”.

Jeanette MacDonald was a notorious scene-stealer. John Barrymore reportedly once told her, “If you wave that loathsome chiffon rag you call a kerchief once more while I’m speaking, I shall ram it down your gurgling throat!”
Thus she became “The Iron Butterfly”.

Siren: Also, any opinions on the old story of a long secret love affair with Nelson Eddy?

You want opinions or d’you want dish?
(Opinions? Don’t wanna get turned into no newt!)
Dish, I got.

The Siren said...

Y., I would NEVER turn you into a newt. Unless you're going to argue that Citizen Kane would have been much better with Nelson Eddy...

That is very interesting dish indeed, and goes along with what I've heard...but do we buy it?

DavidEhrenstein said...

She DID handle her career quite well. She knew what she couldn't and couldn't do -- and she knew when to retire.

Yojimboen said...

Just curious, wondering why you chose Garbo Talks for the banner over other, perhaps more New York-centric Lumet movies?
Just curious.

Peter Nellhaus said...

This kind of smackdown reminds me of a scene from a favorite Hong Kong screwball comedy by Tsui Hark, The Chinese Feast. That's Anita Yuen destroying Bizet while Leslie Cheung looks on.

Yojimboen said...

In the last few days I’ve screened a bunch of Deanna D movies which I hadn’t seen since infancy –Train, Eve & Holiday - she is very very good. With other grown-up child stars, S. Temple, M. O’Brien et al, one always has that feeling they’re playing dress-up in their mothers’ clothes. Not so Ms Durban. She matured beautifully while still keeping her youthful glow.
Somebody owes Henry Koster a dinner.

The Siren said...

Y., I think Garbo Talks is very New York! But mostly it's

1. a hat-tip to a couple of dear friends and besides
2. I like Garbo Talks and
3. It fits with the blog a bit more than, say, "Attica!" Although I love a lot of Lumet films. A lot.

gmoke said...

The guy in the box who asks Deanna to sing is Frank Jenks, another of those great character faces without a known name, who plays a TAXI DRIVER in the film.

I go for Deanna on the fullness of her sound. Macdonald's is a little thin

brotherfrancis said...

For me, it's Jeanette hands down. But I'm a big fan, despite the artifice, the pretention to greatness, the sanctimony. Well, actually, these are some of the reasons I love her, in the same way I love Norma Shearer or as a mother loves her awkward daughter.
Jeanette's voice is stronger and more confident. The style is weird to us, but it is that of the 1930s. Jeanette is sure of the effect she wants to make and makes it. Deanna is girlish and breathy, has no idea what she's singing and is surrounded by the worst kind of old Hollywood cheese.
By the by, as others have said, you must see Jeanette Macdonald in her films with Maurice Chevalier, especially Love Me Tonight. Follow David's link to an amazing moment in film musical history.

Paul said...

I love Deanna Durbin and find her to be an entrancing, luminous performer. That being said, Jeanette would come out first for me. She sparkles on the screen and when given a good script or an opportunity to utilize her comic talents, more than rises to the occasion. When playing opposite someone other than Nelson Eddy (Allan Jones in "The Firefly" for instance), she is sexy. I enjoy the MacDonald-Eddy films but prefer her with other leading men. As for that last note, I understand it was not Jeanette's singing but the difficulty that the sound engineers had in properly recording such a high note at that particular time in the development of musical films. Jeanette certainly hit similar notes in latter films and they record beautifully. As for any personal feelings between Miss MacDonald and Eddy, I had the good fortune to spend several days reviewing Howard Strickling's file from his days as MGM's "protector" to the stars. I saw and copied enough to know with certainty that there was nothing going on between the two singers in any way, shape or form.

Nora said...
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Nora said...
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Nora said...

MacDonald with Chevalier is great. But the films belong to Maurice.

I like both Durbin and MacDonald, so I would have to see a remake of "San Francisco" with Deanna Durbin before I could decide between the two sopranos:). And it doesn't bother me that Gable gets religion at the end. I always assumed it was because of the code.

Although I love all of the MacDonald-Eddy films, Nelson Eddy came across as much warmer in his nightclub act.

As to how they felt about one another, Eddy broke down in tears when being interviewed about Jeanette shortly after her death. But how deep the feelings, who truly knows?

And finally, a "Bitter Sweet" fantasy: a trio with Sanders, MacDonald and Eddy just before Sanders kills Eddy. Or a simple duet with the evil baron about to ravage the lovely soprano would do.

X. Trapnel said...

I have a fantasy in which George Sanders strolls into any solemn, sanctimonious movie scene with self-regarding actors (any 50s Methodist will do), surveys the doings, smiles condescendingly, and moves on to seek a world more attractive.

Yojimboen said...

Finished watching "Mildred Pierce" on HBO last night. I think it may have turned me into a Joan Crawford fan.

Jeff Gee said...

I’m voting for Jeanette. I thought she was funny and pretty hot in Love Me Tonight and The Love Parade. (I’ve never seen a Deanna Durbin movie, but the one everybody was talking about a few threads ago with ‘train’ in the title is on my Netflix queue now).

Also, I’m surprised to find myself thinking that this particular example of colorization, bizarre flesh tones and all, reminds me of old hand-tinted picture postcards and I’m not nearly as appalled by it as I should be. Having said that, I assume there is now a colorized version of Lady from Shanghai playing at the 12-Plex in Hell, just up the block from where my new digs will be located.

Yojimboen said...

When Ted Turner acquired the rights to Wizard of OZ he had to wrestled to the ground to prevent him colorizing the opening sequence.

Yojimboen said...

Okay, that wasn’t serious, what is serious, was the news that there were considerations about issuing a colorized version of Kane. It came to nothing, fortunately.

(Fortunately for Ted Turner that is. He’d look very strange with gills, green skin and a tail.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Pistols at dawn, Yojim! No one disses my alternate husband and gets a pass!

Paul said...

Wonderful comments and an indicator that there are many who genuinely appreciate the talents and skills of both lovely ladies. An afterthought about Miss MacDonald and Mr. Eddy and the reference to his breaking down upon learning of Miss MacDonald's death. When Rock Hudson passed away Doris Day was devastated and in paying tribute to him on her cable show in October, 1985, was barely able to stop the tears from flowing and her voice from breaking. I think anyone who has a long friendship, whether it be in the "biz" or anywhere else, feels such a loss. At Miss MacDonald's funeral service Jane Powell was inconsolable and had to be helped in order to stand up. Talking about Miss MacDonald in 1992, MGM's celebrated hairstlist Sydney Guilaroff who dressed her hair for the service, could barely speak about her without sobbing. I have little doubt that Miss MacDonald and Mr. Eddy had a deep friendship but, once again, what I discovered in the Strickling files and from interviews with more than a dozen individuals refutes anything more than an abiding friendship.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well you can hardly work so long and so hard with someone you dislike.

Rachel said...

William Frawley and Vivian Vance might refute that statement.

DavidEhrenstein said...

True.

Maybe they're "the exception that proves the rule."

Yojimboen said...

Not dissing him, David. Go back through my comments, count the number of times I’ve cited Far From Heaven as my best film of the decade – I consider your bud Todd among the few filmmakers working who come close to the description ‘genius’.

I was just disappointed. Not by the production or costume designs, which are superb. It’s the mise en scene and the pace. This is not a project which merits nearly six hours of screen time. A good rule of thumb is if the movie lasts longer than it takes to read the book, something’s wrong.

Too much padding masquerading as leisurely character introspection. But as we’ve discussed before, and will again endlessly, it comes down to personal taste: I do not care for Ms Winslet; never have, never will.

Mr. Haynes’s movie sings beautiful arias to me every frame where Kate Winslet is absent – then she comes back on screen and it grinds to a halt.

But I’ll still be first on line to see TH’s next film.

Mes compliments.

Trish said...

I'm a huge fan of "Far from Heaven" (those colour combinations, that scarf), but I'm bitterly disappointed in "Mildred Pierce". It looks wonderful, except for the dowdiness of Winslet's costumes and hair styles that seem to enhance the low-key unpleasantness of her character.

I like Joan Crawford's Mildred.

I don't like Kate Winslet's Mildred. And when one doesn't like the main character, it's tough going when the running time is five plus hours.

The other thing is that I agree with Yojimboen. Winslet is an actress I've never liked. She's tolerable because she's a pro. But she's as distant here as she was in "Revolutionary Road". Yikes!

Last night I clocked out just after scene stealer Evan Rachel Wood performed "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows". I'll finish it tonight, but only for Wood and Guy Pearce.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well Jacques Rivette doesn't like Kate Winslet either.

But he's been wrong before too.

The Curtiz Mildred and the Todd Mildred are two entirely different cinematic animals. One is faithful to James M. Cain -- the other to Lucille LeSeur.

Meanwhile, a propos "smackdowns" here's one I should have mentioned earlier in this thread.

Yojimboen said...

When was Rivette wrong?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Rivette is ost defnitely wrong about Paul Verhoeven. Can;t for the life of me figure out what he sees in that psycho-sexual hack. He even likes Starship Troopers fercryinoutloud!

Mark said...

Deanna gets my vote. She and Jeanette are both wonderful singers, and charming, talented actresses, but, as this selection proves, they were like opposite sides of the same operatic "coin."

As "Queen of the Film Operetta," Jeanette's vocalism, like that of other adult film operatic contemporaries like Irene Dunne, Grace Moore and Lily Pons, was characterized by heavy stylization and formality.

Jeanette managed her very light, fragile lyric soprano with great care and intelligence as here, approaching her climactic notes carefully (and, despite her best efforts, not always completely on pitch.) This was as true of her first song in her film debut, 1929'S THE LOVE PARADE, as it was of her last notes in her film swan song, 1949's THE SUN COMES UP.

As the world's favorite "Little Miss Fixit Who Burszts Into Song," Deanna's vocalism was characterized by the artless ease and spontaneity with which she deployed her rich, fuller lyric soprano voice. While she's a bit tentative in this piece (understandable since it's only her second film), at 15 she still is more vocally at ease and spontanenous than Jeanette and her adult operatic contemporaries.

As attested to by the majority of contemporary reviews of her films, the key to Deanna's art was its' artlessness, not a quality one usually associates with operatic singing. And, because she was so good at it, unlike Jeanette, despite her mature operatic talents, Deanna didn't have to play a princess, noblewoman or an aspiring singer to explain her remarkable vocal talent.

They were both wonderful, but, obviously, quite different. Still, for pure vocal chops, and the ease and spontaneity of her vocal production, I've gotta go with Ms. Durbin.

Jandy said...

Didn't Jeanette actually do Brindisi in Maytime? I can't find that clip on YouTube, but that would be an interesting comparison, using the same song. It's been too long since I've seen Maytime to make a judgement based on memory, but I do recall liking Jeanette's songs better in Maytime than in San Francisco (I'm sorry, even though the song San Francisco kind of got associated with her, it was ALL WRONG for her voice).

Baildon Moor said...

I have always preferred Jeanette. Great clips in the Comments, by the way. Isn't the actor who sings "Isn't It Romantic" in the taxi and train also the first man Jeanette flirts with in Maxime's?

Yojimboen said...

I take it back, David, Rivette is clearly a duffus!

X. Trapnel said...

I am also a doofus; I liked Black Book.

The Siren said...

I've been MIA in this thread but it's delighting me. The Macdonald partisans truly are starting to convince me I need to thaw out towards her. I'm always really tickled to find people who have a big devotion to an old star who isn't one of the usual big dorm-room-poster icons. And whether or not she did have an affair with Eddy, their friendship is touching and much nicer to hear about than screen teams that hated one another or squabbled. Also, I do think it's the sound and not her high note that is squawking in that last.

All that said, I still think I prefer Deanna, just for the pure delight in her voice and demeanor. But this smackdown turned out to be a very polite, mutually respectful affair!

VP81955 said...

I basically agree on Macdonald although she never is very sexy to me.

Have you ever seen Jeanette in step-ins?