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The Iron Butterfly

<i> Emily Wortis Leider is the author of "Becoming Mae West" and is working on a biography of Rudolph Valentino</i>

In the blighted year of 1929, Broadway musical star Jeanette MacDonald, “That Girl with the Red-gold Hair and the Sea-green Eyes,” made a screen test for Fox Film Corp. Her co-star for the test was Archie Leach, a member of the company performing “Boom-Boom,” the Shubert production in which MacDonald was appearing. The studio flunked both players, explaining, “We feel neither of these people has a screen personality.” So much for Fox’s prescience. Archie Leach, transmogrified into Cary Grant, would soon make his mark at Paramount, and Jeanette MacDonald, the movie musical’s first superstar, would become, by the late 1930s, the darling of MGM and the top-grossing film actress in the world.

As so many future stars did, MacDonald early on tasted struggle and economic hardship. Unlike most, she grew up in an emotionally supportive two-parent family, the youngest of three daughters born to Daniel, a charming, chronically unemployed Philadelphia salesman of Scottish descent, and Anna, a bedrock-solid former factory forewoman. Jeanette was singing professionally by 4 and helped put bread on the table during her teen years. Endowed with beauty, grace and a silvery soprano voice, she studied dance with Albertina Rasch and singing with Ferdinand Torriani and his associate, Grace Adele Newell. Bright, ambitious and hard-working, she insisted on being treated with respect. When a boor of an agent insulted her, she punched him in the jaw, knocking him out.

MacDonald’s biographer, Edward Baron Turk, a professor of French and film studies at MIT, tells this story and others showcasing MacDonald’s grit and high spirits with affection and considerable narrative flair. MacDonald’s occasional displays of haughtiness (pushing others aside to gain an audience with Louis B. Mayer) or temperament (hurling a wig she disliked to the floor) emerge as mere offshoots of an otherwise admirable gutsiness that enabled her to command story control, sole star billing and, at the height of her career at MGM, a salary of $10,000 a week. She wore the moniker “The Iron Butterfly” as a badge of honor, and Turk salutes her as “the embodiment of cultured WASP-dom in mid-twentieth century America,” an advertisement for “the Protestant ethic that facilitated America’s material growth: ambition, hard-work, civic-mindedness, self-discipline.” No wonder Ike and Mamie sent flowers to her funeral.

Turk writes with fluency and panache, sometimes interrupting the flow of his prose with distracting, over-long notes at the bottom of the page. He shares with his subject an affinity for things French and a love for the melodies and magic-kingdom plots of operetta, a taste he realizes has become “increasingly peripheral” to our dominant culture. Countering critics who label MacDonald’s renditions of Victor Herbert or Franz Lehar as sentimental, he argues that her vocal blendings combined with Nelson Eddy’s baritone to project a deep, universal romantic yearning. Not for him the disdain of Marlene Dietrich, who carped at MacDonald’s “awful rosebuds on everything, the trills through ever so slightly parted lips.”

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Turk brings to his task a sense of mission: to fill “a gap in the story of the performing arts in America [that] needed to be plugged.” MacDonald’s success in delivering high culture to mass audiences has gone uncelebrated until now, and she has never before been the subject of a full-scale biography despite her status as a cultural icon. Maybe, he suggests, her “splendid health and normalcy” scared away potential biographers: Where’s the drama in the life of a star who loved her mother, married happily and only once and who never bought a thing she couldn’t afford? Turk finds plenty of it, especially in the period when MacDonald was breaking free of her extended involvement with her lover-manager Bob Ritchie to commit herself to future husband Gene Raymond. He may oversell MacDonald’s “normalcy.” Most people don’t have the fierce drive to succeed MacDonald had, and few would call her penny-pinching “healthy.”

Turk’s research sets a new standard for excellence. To pinpoint MacDonald’s much-disputed birth date (June 18, 1903), for instance, he traced it to the register of baptisms of the Philadelphia Olivet Presbyterian Church. A footnote tips us off that he spent eight weeks trying to verify MacDonald’s claim that her father once worked as a municipal servant; he didn’t. He even gives us the exact number of times MacDonald slept with Bob Ritchie, if Ritchie’s score-keeping can be believed. Among the show business veterans who spoke with Turk are former co-stars Claude Jarman Jr., Lew Ayres and Ginger Rogers and Faye Wray, who were bridesmaids at her lavish 1937 wedding to Raymond. Raymond himself, who died last May, gave his full cooperation. The pages of “Hollywood Diva” brim with MacDonald’s own words in letters and recollections, because Turk had unrestricted access to MacDonald’s unpublished autobiography and to the archive maintained by the still-active Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club. In a letter to Ritchie during the shooting of “San Francisco,” she complained about Clark Gable, for whom she had lobbied hard to get as a co-star: “Gable is a mess! It seems he’s terribly jealous of me and acts very sulky if I get more attention on the set than he.” And, “When you hear my songs in German, you will declare I am a native Swede!” she wrote her voice teacher, Lotte Lehmann.

A photo of the fan club included in the book shows a group of mainly middle-aged and older women, joined by only a few men. But it’s MacDonald’s male audience that engages Turk’s attention. In speculating about the reasons contemporary male critics have favored MacDonald’s early motion pictures with Maurice Chevalier over her later collaborations with Eddy, he suggests that men favor the Chevalier films because those project male superiority; Chevalier’s rasp overpowers MacDonald’s delicate soprano. In the Eddy films, on the other hand, MacDonald dominates, and this threatens men who may experience the soprano voice “as a fierce acoustic assault.” But what about the response of women? Turk makes much, elsewhere in the book, of MacDonald’s record of portraying strong women seeking deep emotional fulfillment, but here he doesn’t even inquire.

Turk’s portrayal of MacDonald as a democratizing force only partially persuades. True, she demonstrated that “an appreciation of elite art did not require elite birth” and delivered opera and operetta to millions, both in her films and on the concert stage, but the deliveries sometimes fell on deaf ears. The Midwest rejected “The Merry Widow” as too European, and rural exhibitors found “The Firefly” “a little high-class for the hillbillies.” By the 1940s, the swing craze, rooted in American vernacular tradition and down-to-earth Judy Garland musicals would displace MacDonald’s popularity.

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Jeanette MacDonald conveyed prima donna grandeur more than egalitarian accessibility, taffeta and tulle more than broadcloth. Regular gals don’t perform “Un bel di” from “Madama Butterfly” in spangled Adrian-designed kimonos while descending steep 40-foot arched bridges. The first time director Ernst Lubitsch saw her, in a screen test, he exclaimed, “I have found the queen!” He cast her as Queen Louise of Sylvania in “The Love Parade,” only the first of many times she portrayed royalty. Her Depression-era blockbusters were specifically designed to uplift, and the very notion of uplift presupposes a hierarchy featuring an unsavory bottom rung. She sang to the multitudes, but she did so from a marble pedestal.

My disagreements with Turk should be taken as a life sign. He has written a provocative, entertaining and authoritative book.


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