MacDONALD, JEANETTE ( Jeannette Anna McDonald) (1903–1965) Actress, Singer
Known as the “Lingerie Queen of the Talkies” and as one half of “America’s Singing Sweethearts,” Jeanette MacDonald found fame onscreen both as a sophisticated comedian and a wholesome romantic lead. Born Jeanette Anna McDonald on June 18, 1903, in West Philadelphia, she was the youngest of three girls. All were starstruck at an early age. Under the tutelage of one of her sisters, Jeannette began singing at local churches and lodges at age four.
In 1919, she left high school to perform in the stage show Demi Tasse Revue in New York City. Now spelling her name Jeanette MacDonald, she began appearing regularly in Broadway choruses, slowly moving up the ranks to featured roles in musicals. Her stage work drew the attention of Paramount Studios, which asked her to do a screen test.
While casting his first talkie, German-born director Ernst Lubitsch saw MacDonald’s test and recognized a kindred soul. He offered her the lead opposite French actor Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade (1929), a comic operetta. The film led to a series of romantic farces reteaming MacDonald with Lubitsch. Remarkably in sync with her director’s style of subtle, sly wit, she consistently displayed a fresh combination of innocence and erotic readiness. MacDonald turned in one of her best performances in Lubitsch’s ambitious Merry Widow (1934), but the film was a box-office failure and spelled the end of this phase of her career. MacDonald found far greater success in a pair of concert tours she made through Europe in the early 1930s. Although popular in the United States, she was a sensation across the Atlantic. The French were especially enthusiastic fans, in part because through Berlitz courses she had learned to sing and speak in fiuent French. When she first arrived in France, she was greeted by crowds whose size were said to rival those that met aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927.
On returning to the United States, MacDonald was signed to a contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Studio head Louis B. Mayer set about cleaning up her somewhat risqué image by teaming her with Nelson Eddy in Naughty Marietta (1935). With the film’s enormous success, MacDonald and Eddy became the most popular screen duo of the depression era. Their films together were lavish productions intended as family fare, with the actors expressing their romantic feelings toward each other through song. Their most famous duet, “Indian Love Song” in Rose Marie (1936), was well-loved in their day but has since been frequently parodied for its saccharine sweetness.
By 1939, MacDonald was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. The MacDonald-Eddy musicals, however, had nearly run their course. Happily married to actor Gene Raymond (whom she had wed in 1937), MacDonald responded by setting off on a series of concerts. Always longing to be accepted as an opera singer, MacDonald experienced one of her greatest personal triumphs in 1944 when she made her debut with the Chicago Opera Company. Even in the face of the public’s rapidly changing musical tastes, she continued to tour well into the 1950s. With her devoted husband by her side, Jeanette MacDonald died on January 14, 1965, at the age of 61.
Knowles, Eleanor. The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1975.
Parish, James Robert. The Jeanette MacDonald Story. New York: Mason/Charter, 1976.
Turk, Edward Baron. Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Merry Widow (1934). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1989.
Naughty Marietta (1935). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1992.
Rose Marie (1936). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1992.