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By Susan M. Kelly

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January 1940 issue of Cinelandia featuring Jeanette MacDonald on the coverEarly 1930's Jeanette MacDonald Salem Tobacco CardTiny in stature, with a lovely, ethereal voice, Jeanette MacDonald entranced audiences with her beauty and talent, but she directed her own career with a purpose, earning herself the name “Iron Butterfly”.

Born Jeanette Anna MacDonald in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 18, 1903, she was the youngest of Daniel and Anne MacDonald’s three girls.  From an early age, Jeanette displayed a fondness for dancing and especially singing.  She could often be found imitating her mother’s opera records and she was soon performing in church shows and school functions.

In 1919, at the tender age of 16, Jeanette followed her older sister Blossom (later to become a character actress at MGM as Marie Blake) to New York where she got her first chorus job in “The Demi-Tasse Review”.  The following year, she began getting small roles in Broadway shows, including “Night Boat” and “Irene”.  Over the next decade she would build a significant stage career until finally, in 1929, she garnered the interest of renowned director Ernst Lubitsch, who spotted her screen test and hired her to star in his latest feature, “The Love Parade”, set to be his first sound film.

Jeanette made the leap to Hollywood, where she signed with Paramount Studios, and never looked back.  The film was a success and audiences immediately fell in love with the beautiful girl with the operatic voice.  Jeanette found herself inundated with work, making no less than six movies within the next two years, including “The Vagabond King”, “Let’s Go Native” and “Monte Carlo”.

In the hopes of producing her own films, Jeanette left Paramount for United Artists.  She filmed “The Lottery Bride” with music by Rudolph Friml, but the picture failed miserably at the box office.  Jeanette quickly switched over to Fox, where she signed a three picture deal.  All three films, “Oh, for a Man!” (1930), “Don’t Bet on a Woman” (1931) and “Annabelle’s Affairs” (1931) were successful but Jeanette decided to take a break from filming and went on a concert tour in Europe.  She returned to Paramount the following year, where she was teamed with Maurice Chevalier, her costar in “The Love Parade”, for two more films.  “One Hour With You” (1932), co-directed by Lubitsch, was a success but it was “Love Me Tonight”, with a score by the immortal Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, which had the greater impact.  It is still considered by many to be the ultimate film musical.

Following on the success of “Love Me Tonight”, Jeanette signed with MGM and teamed once again with Chevalier in “The Merry Widow” (1934).   The following year, she would be cast in the film version of Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” opposite a newcomer to Hollywood, baritone Nelson Eddy.  The two had instant chemistry, both onscreen and off, and would become one of Hollywood’s most beloved pairs, dubbed “America’s Singing Sweethearts”.  “Naughty Marietta” would also provide Jeanette with some of her biggest musical hits, including the incomparable “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”.

Jeanette continued her strenuous schedule over the next several years, mixing films such as “Rosemarie” (1936) and “Maytime” (1937), with radio performances and European concert tours.  In 1936 she was cast as the lead in “San Francisco” and promptly insisted that Clark Gable be cast as her leading man.   Though Gable was unhappy at the prospect of being a prop for MacDonald’s singing numbers, he ultimately gave in and the film was a smashing success, earning several Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gable.  In 1937, Jeanette MacDonald finally achieved top billing on her own as the star of “The Firefly”.  The film 1936 MGM - Watkins 4x5 Promotional Photo of Jeanette MacDonald with Clark Gable in San Francisco1934 Ardath Famous Film Stars Jeanette MacDonald Tobacco Cardhad limited success but was nowhere near the box office draw that her films with Eddy had been.

MacDonald and Eddy had split after she met and married actor Gene Raymond in June of 1937, but the outcry from their fans grew so loud that they were eventually re-teamed for 1938’s “The Girl of the Golden West”.  The two stars actually appeared on screen together only briefly and didn’t sing the film’s main song together, and as a result the film faltered.  Their next project, however, would be MGM’s first Technicolor feature, “Sweethearts” (1938), another screen adaptation of a Victor Herbert operetta.  It was a success and the team would make several more films together into the 40’s, including “The New Moon” (1940) and “Bittersweet” (1940).  Their final film was “I Married an Angel” (1942).   After production finished, Eddy opted out of his MGM contract and after finishing “Cairo” (1942), MacDonald followed suit.

With the onset of World War II, Jeanette devoted herself to war work.  She founded the Women’s Voluntary Services and was active with Army Emergency Relief.  She offered countless concerts to raise money for war relief and was awarded a medal by President Franklin Roosevelt for her efforts.

In 1943, Jeanette made her operatic debut in Montreal, Canada in "Romeo and Juliet" and remained a popular live performer throughout the decade.  She returned to MGM in 1948 where she made her last two films, “Three Daring Daughters” (1948), and “The Sun Comes Up” (1949), which teamed her with another of America’s favorite leading ladies, Lassie.

She made a few radio and TV appearances in the 50’s, but mostly scaled back her work due to a weakening heart.  In 1963 she underwent an arterial transplant and was schedule for more surgery in January of 1964, when she succumbed to a heart attack.

Though her heart weakened, the spirit of the “Iron Butterfly” never flagged and she left behind a unique legacy through her music.  Her beautiful voice continues to inspire and entertain devoted fans to this day.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Watch for her profiles in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Jeanette MacDonald Pages:

A Centennial Tribute to Jeanette MacDonald -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site.
Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy: A  Tribute -- Tribute site to the famous screen pair.
Jeanette MacDonald Fan Club -- A bit overwhelming, loaded with Jeanette MacDonald information, you'll spend some time bouncing around on this one!