It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This week’s musical:
“Bitter Sweet” (1940)– Musical #272
W.S. Van Dyke
Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, George Sanders, Ian Hunter, Felix Bressart, Lynne Carver, Curt Bois, Diana Lewis, Fay Holden, Sig Ruman, Herman Bing, Hans Conried, Edward Ashley
Set in the 19th Century, Sarah Millick (MacDonald), falls in love with her music teacher Carl Linden (Eddy). The two elope and move to his home of Vienna, where they struggle to get by and Carl tries to sell his operetta.
-The play and score were written by Noel Coward
-Remake of a 1933 film of the same title “Bitter Sweet”, starring Anna Neagle and Fernand Gravey
-Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s seventh (and second to last) film
-When Jeanette MacDonald sings “Love In Any Language” with French accent, she was partially dubbed by Harriet Lee
-“I’ll See You Again” performed by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy
-“What Is Love” performed by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy
I enjoy almost all of the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals. But “Bitter Sweet” is my least favorite of their eight films together. I even like it less than their last pairing, “I Married An Angel” (1942), which some consider their worst film.
It begins in vibrant Technicolor, showing off Jeanette’s lovely red hair and Adrian’s gowns in glorious color. You have high hopes but they fall from there.
It’s hard to pin point why this one falls flat for me. It’s the same story line we see again and again: the rich girl marries a poor composer. They struggle financially as he tries to sell his operetta and the wife ends up singing in a casino where lecherous men try to woo her.
Even though “Bitter Sweet” was written by Noel Coward, there is just nothing special about it. It’s sort of a lazy, lackluster film (despite the beautiful Technicolor). New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther describes it best in his Nov. 22, 1940 review:
“But Miss MacDonald and Mr. Eddy play it all with such an embarrassing lack of ease—she with self-conscious high-spirit and he with painful pomposity; Mr, Van Dyke’s direction betrays such a lack of imagination or zest, and the feeble attempts at comedy fall so resoundingly flat that the show, for the average customer, is likely to prove big but bad.”
As for the music for the singing duo, the songs aren’t memorable. The worst part of the film is when Jeanette MacDonald sings like a French girl. She is asked to show off her talent to her new husband’s friends at a party and then puts on this awful French accent and dances around and sings. It’s so bad, I would feel embarrassed for her if I had been at that party.
I say all this as a fan of MacDonald and Eddy. I love “Rose Marie,” “Maytime” and even “Girl of the Golden West,” but “Bitter Sweet” left me feeling sour.
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Bittersweet is a lovely film to look at but I’ve always believed that Robert Z Leonard directed Jeanette a lot better that Woody Van Dyke.
The basic plot line of Bittersweet had already been used in Maytime in 1937 but I think that the main problem is that Jeanette and Nelson were fast approaching 40 and were far too old for the characters they were portraying in this film.
Also, one of Noel Coward’s most beautiful, touching, songs, the haunting, ‘If Love Were All’ was cut from the film, although I have heard Jeanette’s version from the outtakes of the film and the original lyrics had been changed.
I think that you should have added Nelson’s magnificent version of Tokay to your musical highlights of the film. Just fantastic!
You may be interested to know that there is a 1949 radio version of Bittersweet with Jeanette and Gordon MacRae on YouTube. It has a little more zip than the film version and Jeanette is in better voice.