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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers weren't the only famous Hollywood musical team of the 1930s. There was also Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy appearing in a series of operettas. Two of them are now available on DVD from Warner Archives. Classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz says the two couples achieved their success in quite opposite ways. Here's his revue.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing)(unintelligible)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Around the same time that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were swinging their way into America's hearts with a snappy new American approach to movie, musical comedy, another musical movie couple, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, made a huge success bringing to the screen and enlivening a dying European tradition of sentimental musical romance we call operetta. Astaire and Rogers danced to tunes by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and that most American song-writer, Irving Berlin, who was actually born in Russia. Most of these were original scores written for them.

MacDonald and Eddy used already familiar, even old-fashioned material by such European composers as Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, Victor Herbert, and even Noel Coward.

Astaire and Rogers came to movies from vaudeville and Broadway, where they had to Americanize their names (imagine a dance team called Austerlitz and McMath). MacDonald (her real name) also appeared on Broadway, while Eddy (his real name) came from the concert stage. Their singing is more formal and operatic.

But operetta hasn't survived as well as musical comedy. The first commercial DVDs of Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operettas have only just been released. One is their very first film, Naughty Marietta, from 1935, based on a 1910 Victor Herbert operetta. As in several of their films, the plot concerns a European MacDonald coming to the United States. Here she's a princess escaping in disguise to New Orleans from a loveless betrothal and falls in love with Eddy, a backwoods mercenary captain. Herbert's original score is pared down, but the songs are memorable: especially the famous "Italian Street Song," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," "I'm Falling in Love with Someone," and the iconic, surprisingly moving "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life," their public declaration of love at the moment they're forced to part.

(Soundbite of song, "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life")

Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing) Ah! Sweet mystery of life at last I've found thee. Ah! I know at last the secret of it all; All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning. The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall. For 'tis love, and love alone, the world is seeking, and 'tis love, and love alone, that can repay. 'Tis the answer, 'tis the end and all of living for it is love alone that rules for aye.

SCHWARTZ: The other Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy release, "Sweethearts," comes from three years later, and was not only their own first full-length Technicolor musical, but MGM's as well. It's also by Victor Herbert, and it's dazzling to look at, with an amusing new script by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, in which married Broadway stars are celebrating the sixth anniversary of their revival of Herbert's 1913 "Sweethearts." The opening credits list, quote, "immortal melodies by Victor Herbert," though I wouldn't call it one of his very top scores.

The new DVDs also include 1940s radio versions of both "Naughty Marietta" and "Sweethearts" and fascinating takes from the recording sessions for these films.

(Soundbite of music and singing)

Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing)(unintelligible)

SCHWARTZ: They certainly make an appealing team. MacDonald has tremendous vivacity and backbone - she was once nicknamed the iron butterfly - and though Eddy is a little stiff, he's actually not as stiff on screen as he is in my memory. Although they were married to others, a rumor persisted that they were really lovers, and another that they hated each other. On screen, they're quite convincing and endearing in both their fights and their musical lovemaking. They made six other films together, including "Maytime" - with a wrenching performance by John Barrymore, and "Rose Marie," in which young James Stewart plays a bad guy and Eddy and MacDonald sing their most famous and most parodied duet, "The Indian Love Call." I hope we don't have to wait too much longer for them all to be released.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed two new Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy DVDs available from Warner Archives.

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