Rose Marie (1954) is a delightful surprise. It stands on the shoulders of its 1936 predecessor, whose stars Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald became icons in their roles, and soars beyond that famous cliché, ironically, by joyously and most unselfconsciously wrapping itself in the old-time conventions of operetta and melodrama. New technology, however—CinemaScope and Technicolor—gave this version a twist and a punch in a most convenient and happy marriage of the old and the new.
Ann Blyth was 24 going on 25 when she played the title role in this musical, and one is impressed by her ability to appear so young, so naturally and effortlessly a teenager when in her teen years she often played characters who were older, or least more poised and sophisticated. Very light, natural-looking makeup, and her loose woodsman’s buckskins covering her shape help to create this illusion, but two things she does herself complete the picture—her animated expressions which, with the innocence of youth, do not mask her emotions, but let us see every flickering thought passing through her mind, and also the way she moves. With an animal-like ease and strength, she lives the outdoor life like someone completely at home in the woods, not stomping about in her buckskin with exaggerated mannishness like Doris Day in Calamity Jane, but hiking, climbing on rocks, and running with the grace of an athlete.
The picture of her seeming physical change was overshadowed in the press of the day, which took greater notice, with greater surprise, at her singing voice. This was her first big singing role after her one song in The Great Caruso, which we covered here.
A review in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times:
The surprise in Rose Marie is Ann Blyth’s singing voice, which is gloriously pitched, full, and strong.
The “new Ann Blyth” of the headline “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” (in pretty much every film she did she was always “new”), emphatically declares herself with her first song, the exhilarating “Free to Be Free". Just like the character Rose Marie, who wants to live life in the wild without being forced into a “ladylike” life of restricted freedom in town, Ann Blyth is declaring her freedom in a way that says, “Look at me. I can really sing. This is my movie.” Her range is quite demonstrably large in this song, even drifting down into the mezzo area, and her control is stunning, bang-on notes with no vibrato or trilling. It’s a magnificent delivery and a great song to come charging out of the gate in this movie, as if to make the audience take notice—this is Rose Marie, the old chestnut you thought you knew, but didn’t.
The old chestnut, as it happens, was never produced the same way twice. We think we know it as the template of all parodies involving a man in a Mountie’s uniform, from Dudley Do-Right to Monty Python’s male chorus in “The Lumberjack Song.” It started as the second-longest running play of the 1920s, just behind The Student Prince, (we discussed that 1954 film last week here
As far as the popular parodies go, I confess, Dudley Do-Right was my first crush. I know, he wasn’t very bright, but he exemplified honor, attention to duty, and all things respectably Canadian. And he had that red coat. Chick magnet.
He didn’t sing operetta, though. Not like Mighty Mouse, who was a magnificent tenor.
I’m sorry, where was I going with this?
Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.
The Broadway play, an operetta that took its melodrama seriously, featured a boatload of songs, only a few of which survived in film versions. The story was of Rose Marie, who loved Jim, a miner, who was accused of murdering an Indian named Black Eagle, whose girlfriend, Wanda, is the real killer. Rose Marie is brokered off in marriage by her brother for money to marry city slicker Etienne Darcy. Behind all this menagerie, is the stalwart Mountie, Sgt. Malone, who is on the trail of the murderer. At one point, in a suspenseful moment to help Jim escape, Rose Marie signals him by singing the “Indian Love Call.” Note: the love story is not between her and Sgt. Malone; it’s between her and Jim the Miner. The Mountie sees that justice prevails, and Rose Marie is free to marry Jim and go off into the wilderness.
Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass., author's collection.
The play wowed them at the Imperial Theatre from September 1924 through June 1926, and then brought back quickly by popular demand at the Century Theatre in a revival in 1927. Hollywood, now poised to pounce on any Broadway hit, took over the property and promptly made the first of three movie versions of Rose-Marie in 1928.
A silent movie, obviously, it was released in February, six months before Ann Blyth was born, and starred an actress whom she would come to know years later—Joan Crawford.
Publicity photo, Joan Crawford with co-star House Peters.
Joan is quoted as having said, “I felt very uneasy as a French Canadian.” An odd remark, considering she did not have to speak with an accent in this silent film, and considering her real name was Lucille Le Sueur. The film is considered lost, but we can imagine the melodrama probably went over well as a favorite genre in the heyday of silents.
The second go-round for Rose Marie came in 1936, the famous matchup with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald. Because these two stars already walked into the story with their own strong talents and screen personalities, and because MGM wanted to build up the team, the original story was scrapped. Rose Marie 1936 bears little resemblance to the operetta, though a few songs remain, including the now famous “Indian Love Call,” which cemented the duo’s iconic place in film because it was sung in this movie an amazing four times. Just in case we weren’t paying attention.
In this film, there is no Jim the Miner. Rose Marie is an opera singer, going by her stage name, Marie de Flor. We see Jeannette performing scenes from Roméo et Juliette and Tosca just to show she can do it.
Her brother, John, is in trouble, on the lam in the Canadian wilderness, from murdering a cop. He is strikingly played by a young James Stewart, who conveys the young man’s restlessness and pitiable scamp’s charm, and his ultimate hopeless future with great sympathy.
Jeannette leaves the glittering opera house of Montreal, heads for the big woods, and hires a guide to take her to her brother. She does not even attempt a French accent; she leaves that to her maid, played by the wonderful Una O’Connor.
Instead of a turn-of-the-century melodrama, we get a modern 1930s romantic comedy, admirable for the magnetism of its stars and its fast-paced plot. Nelson Eddy is the Mountie, here called Sgt. Bruce, hunting her brother, and the race is on as to who will get to him first, Jeannette or Nelson. From the moment they meet, Nelson is after her, too, and we know they will end up a romantic couple.
Jeannette, playing a spoiled diva, has a great comedic scene when she tries to emulate a saloon torch singer, competing with her, unsuccessfully, to earn coins thrown at her from an inattentive audience.
Nelson sings the title song “Rose Marie” to her in a canoe, while she slowly unbends her opinion that she hates all men. The climax occurs when she finds her brother, but so does Nelson, and takes him in.
The film is well done, with plenty of natural scenery (not filmed in Canada), but uses its share of rear-screen projection as well—particularly noticeable when Nelson Eddy rides in front of a troop of Mounties singing in his heroic baritone, “The Mounties.” But it’s just him.
This movie, because it cemented the Eddy-MacDonald team and because of those four separate unrepentant blasts of “Indian Love Call,” rose above the quaint operetta on which it was based and took on a life of its own.
The Rose Marie of 1954, playfully, and with equal dash, revisits the old operetta with unabashed admiration and humor. It is more leisurely-paced, and with its magnificent scenery (including location shooting in Alberta), glorious singing, CinemaScope and Technicolor, invites us to enjoy the marvels of technology on this very old-fashioned story.
Ann Blyth is Rose Marie Lemaitre, all alone in the world after the death of her trapper father. Miss Blyth apparently had no qualms about playing a French Canadian, as her delightful accent is spot-on. She has no qualms, either, about being alone in the world, for when the Mountie first encounters her, she is placidly fishing from a canoe, contentedly doing for herself, and wants no outside help.
The Mountie, Sgt. Malone, is Howard Keel, resplendent in that red coat enough to make me almost desert Dudley Do-Right. He sings "The Mounties" while riding ahead of his troop of men, not rear screen projection. He has the job of taking her out of the wilderness, (which as he tells in song is no place for girl) and bring her into protective custody.
She is unwilling, even frightened to go with him, like an animal panicked at the sight of a cage. She gets away, and he tracks her down, finding her cuddled up like a bear cub in sleep, but when he disturbs her, she attacks him with a knife. At the first opportunity, she bites him.
Someday I'm going to have to tell you my coonskin cap story. When I feel I know you better.
We may note that she runs like an athlete, not like Jeannette MacDonald, who runs through the woods like a sissy.
Sgt. Howard Keel catches her again. Have a look at this image of him holding her, one-armed, from his horse, dangling her like a rag doll. An indignant, frustrated rag doll. Do you see any bit of the slick sociopath Veda Pierce here? Any bit of haughty, conniving fashion plate Regina Hubbard, the graceful elegance of the Countess Marina? The poised, demure high school graduate Gail Macaulay?
Few of Ann Blyth’s contemporaries were as versatile. I love her little groan, equal parts despair and discomfort, when he hoists her into the saddle after she capitulates.
Howard Keel at first was not happy with the Mountie’s role in this film, finding him too weak and ineffectual…perhaps like Dudley Do-Right…but his requested changes to the script were made and he signed on, noting in his autobiography, Only Make Believe, that it was a fun shoot.
I didn’t sing with Ann Blyth, but she was a delightful cutie and sang beautifully.
They did not sing “Indian Love Call” together because in the original story, that song was for Rose Marie and Jim the Miner. Here, he’s Jim the Trapper Who Wants to Also Pan for Gold, played by Fernando Lamas. One of the film’s particular pleasures is giving us not one, but two baritones, who are rivals for the hand of Rose Marie, adding a bit more tension to the plot.
Mr. Lamas, in deference to his impossible-to-disguise Argentine accent, is also supposed to be French Canadian. Only to a Hollywood producer would this be logical. He sounds about as French as the Mountie, but if you can overlook the Spanish accent coming out of his mouth, Fernando presents as a brooding, handsome mystery, who fascinates Rose Marie from the moment she meets him. It will be a coming of age story as she struggles with her feelings for the two men.
You might stumble on some spoilers as we go.
Bert Lahr is the comedy relief as the bumbling corporal. When she is first brought into custody at the fort, Ann pleas with Bert, “You let go me, yes?”
“If I let go you, they let go me, and on a clear day I can see my pension.” She bites him.
Ray Collins, one of my favorite stuffed shirts, here plays the inspector in charge. By the time he visits, Ann has become docile, changed from her buckskin to a cut-down and tailored Mountie’s uniform as the post mascot. Inspector Collins inspects the troops, berates the men for not shaving properly, and is pleased with the little Mountie who has no five o’clock shadow. After a beat, the penny drops and he realizes it’s because she has a hormonal advantage.
“She’s a woman!” he blasts Howard Keel, who suddenly realizes that fact as well, now that it’s been pointed out to him. He thinks of her as just a kid. Collins wants to send her away, to his cousin, Marjorie Main, in town. If the wilderness is no place for a woman, neither is the police constabulary. Poor Rose Marie, just when she begins to adapt, she’s got no right to be here either.
There are several laugh-out-loud moments in the film, as everyone, not just Bert Lahr, gets to play for laughs. One of the particular charms of Ann Blyth’s character is her quality of being quite innocently unselfconscious. Mountie Howard tells her she is interesting to men, and she agrees, "You're right. I am interesting." He tells her she is beautiful, she beams at the coincidence, "I think so too." She greets the inspector with enthusiasm, telling him about the horse Howard Keel taught her to ride.
“A fine horse, Monsieur. Old, but still alive. Like you, Monsieur.” She deals with the ups and downs of life with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
But she does not want to go to town and leave the post, so she runs away. Howard catches up, and instead of handcuffing her, explains that she will enjoy growing up and being attractive to men in the song “Rose Marie.” By the song’s end, she is intrigued and wants to give it a try, and he is astonished to realize his own attraction for her.
Interesting how this scene is filmed. First, it is an outdoor shot. Rose Marie is furious that the inspector, “the man with the face” wants to send her away. Her rant is hysterical.
“…the man with the face. Oh, Mike, I hate this man most happily.”
“Well, what do you aim to do about it?”
“Sure. It’s easy. I show him how I shoot the hat at fifty paces, but I do not shoot the hat, I shoot the face. Voilà.”
She leans against the trunk of a tree. When she pushes herself off of it, she steps into what is a studio soundstage wilderness, but it is so imperceptible you don’t notice it unless you obsess over frames like me. Howard sings his song, Ann steps back to the tree, leans her bottom against it, and we are back outside again.
This was the first musical ever to be filmed in CinemaScope, and it’s amazing how fluid the scenes are and how the shots vary. In later musicals, including The Student Prince, Kismet, really most of the late 1950s musicals that were filmed in CinemaScope, the shots seem almost static. In some cases, you see the characters wrenched into a kind of kick-line to fill up the horizontal space, and often the glaring far left and far right are empty.
Rose Marie has a vibrancy to its set-ups that makes use not only of the grandeur of the scenery just made for widescreen, but is used most effectively in indoor shots as well. Over the shoulder shots, composition that makes use of the widescreen qualities, but does not scream CinemaScope gimmick.
In town, Ann is taken under the wing of Marjorie Main, a blustering saloon keeper who’s sweet on Bert Lahr. She’s got a motherly streak, and she teaches Ann to be a lady. Ann recalled for Classic Images in 1995:
I think a lot of people don’t remember that Marjorie was really a marvelous dramatic actress. She did some marvelous stage work, and, of course, a few roles like that in pictures as well…As funny as she could be, she could break your heart as well.
In these shots of Ann’s bedroom above the saloon the director makes use of the mirrors on either side and the window to open the space up for CinemaScope. You can see Jim riding up through the open window.
In this series of shots, Jim sings of his love to her from the half-door of a trapper’s bunkhouse behind the stable. The camera pulls back, reveals the top of a pine tree, and then embraces the second-story balcony where Rose Marie sings in response.
Before this, they have sung the famous “Indian Love Call” with a frank loveliness that seems to dare the audience, and snarky reviewers, to compare them with Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald. Ann holds the last note for around nine or ten seconds, but that’s not her record. She could hold the end of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from Kismet for a full nineteen.
“I can still do it,” she told interviewer Brian Kellow for Opera News in 2002.
Here is the “Indian Love Call.”
Love with devil-may-care Jim does not run smooth, however. He is, by his own admission, “not the marrying kind.” This is what he tells Wanda, the Indian maid whose jealousy will drive her to attempt to murder Jim/Fernando, fail, and then kill the Indian chief when he beats her for chasing after Jim. Jim gets stuck with the rap, and, just as in the play, Rose Marie, tearing up, sings the “Indian Love Call” in reprise to signal to him that she does not love him, to make him leave and not wait for her so Howard Keel will not catch him.
In the middle of all this is a typically garish Busby Berkeley-choreographed number that is mesmerizing for its bizarre sexuality and plot pointlessness. Wanda, played by Joan Taylor, who appears to be the only woman in the Indian village, takes part in some sort of fertility dance with a zillion braves. Wanda sees Ann and Fernando watching, perceives they love each other, and you can’t help but be heartbroken for Wanda.
The 1936 Rose Marie includes the play’s original “Totem Tom-Tom” number in a much more natural style and setting, looking for all like a real tribal celebration, and it is more dramatic and moving for being so. I’m not sure why the Busby Berkeley number, except that there is no big musical dance scene in this movie, apart from the charity dance at the saloon. Maybe producer and director Mervyn LeRoy, whose work in this movie is otherwise very effective, fell back on the Big MGM Musical template and decided this weirdness was needed. It is colorful, certainly, and eye catching, if a little stupefying.
The Mountie does catch his man, and Fernando is going to be hung, but Howard, stunned at Ann’s confession that she loves Fernando (Howard had earlier proposed to her), decides to sift through the evidence one more time and saves the day. When Fernando is released, Ann, in gratitude, tells Howard she will marry him and do whatever he wants. Howard wants her to put her buckskin clothes back on, and take a ride with him out of town. When they are out in the woods, despite his earlier position that girls do not belong in the wild, he tells her that she was meant to be free and to live in the wilderness. He sends her off with Fernando. It is just the noble thing you’d expect a Mountie to do.
We could also marvel that not only is he telling her she is no less feminine for wearing buckskin and living a rugged life, but there is no suggestion that she and Fernando are going to rouse a justice of the peace in the middle of the night to marry them. They’re just going off together in the wilderness in a bittersweet ending. We cannot help but wonder how they will fare. Will Jim be faithful to Rose Marie? Will the Mountie ever find another girl to love him? This is what happens when you stop thinking about the stars, when the stars are skillful enough to allow you to do that.
The principal players generally received good reviews, though most reviewers dismissed the story as an antique.
There would be few opportunities ever again to present operetta on screen, and even popular musicals were on the wane. Ann Blyth was newly married when Rose Marie
was being filmed. We can imagine it was a period of both personal and professional happiness. Her wedding was, like many celebrity weddings, called The Wedding of the Year when it occurred in 1953, which we mentioned in this previous post
, but except for that occasion, she managed to live so quietly that few took notice.
Hedda Hopper noted of Rose Marie in June 1954:
Ann just goes her own sweet way, making little fuss and fewer headlines. Then, when you least expect it, she comes through with a Sunday punch and you find yourself blinking and asking, “Was that Ann Blyth?”
Come back next Thursday, when we have a chance to say, “Was that Ann Blyth?” again, and again, in three decades of musical theatre performances from the 1960s to the 1980s. Until then, here’s the trailer for Rose Marie:
Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam, p. 20.
Hartford Courant Magazine, June 6, 1954, article by Hedda Hopper, p. 10.
Keel, Howard, with Joyce Spizer. Only Make Believe – My Life in Show Business (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2005) pp. 156-157.
Opera News, August 2002, article by Brian Kellow.
St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, March 22, 1954, “New Ann Blyth Emerges in Classical Rose Marie,” review by L.B., p. 34.
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable: EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.
TRIVIA QUESTION: I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth. It seems to be a rare one. Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film. Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange. Maybe not the windows part. But you know what I mean.
Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre. Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances. Release the hounds. And let me know, please.
A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century
is now out in eBook
, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review. Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com
with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference). Thanks.