Thursday, May 31, 2012

BITTER SWEET (1940)

This is a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta.  You may not need to read any further as you probably know right now if you'll love it or hate it. I'll admit going in that I am not an operetta fan, nor am I a fan of Eddy, who always seemed way too stiff and uncomfortable on screen to have been a big star. I have a bit more tolerance for MacDonald depending on the role.This film, based on an early musical by Noel Coward, begins in 1891 London as MacDonald, about to be married off to a stuffy diplomat—he thinks her singing is too boisterous—runs off with her piano teacher (Eddy). They head off to Vienna where they get married, hang out with Eddy's slightly disreputable but likeable friends (Felix Bressart and Curt Bois), and meet up with an military man (George Sanders) and his British buddy (Ian Hunter). Sanders gets her a job at a nightclub, but there's a catch: being the star of the show also means becoming Sanders' mistress. Once she figures out the score, she decides to quit, but when she learns that a famous impresario will be in the audience that night, she returns to sing some songs from an operetta that Eddy has written but is having a hard time getting produced. Sadly, the evening ends badly:  Sanders acts like an ass to MacDonald, Eddy acts like an ass to Sanders, a duel ensues, and Eddy is killed. MacDonald rises to the occasion, gets the operetta produced, and has her moment of triumph singing its lead role. 

Somehow I can't imagine that Coward's original was quite so serious; there is some fun to be had here and there, mostly thanks to Bressart and Bois, and to Diana Lewis who plays a young lady with a speech impediment who marries MacDonald's ex-fianc√©, but the run-of-the-mill soap opera plot is predictable and plodding. Eddy tries but doesn’t really seem much more exciting than the stuffy diplomat.  Sanders, in a Prussian crew cut, is good as the villain, and the always welcome Sig Ruman adds some needed levity.  The film bursts at the seams with bright colors and fun costumes, and since someone is always asking MacDonald and Eddy to sing, there is constant music (and usually dancing as well).  MacDonald makes this worth seeing if you're already a fan or are on the fence about operettas, but otherwise it's probably not your cup of tea.  [TCM]

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