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An Interview with Jeanette MacDonald Screenland, 1938 Printed in LA PETITE COMET fall, 1984.
"I'm No Prude!" says JEANETTE MACDONALD
*"You've got lots to learn!" they told her in her chorus days.
*"Singing governess!" a Hollywood power later called her face.
*How did Jeanette MacDonald prove that she's no prude, but a warmly
human girl? You'll find the answer in this exclusive interview.
"I know I'm no prude! I'm not just guessing, or hoping, I looked it
up in the dictionary. It says: `Prude: a woman who makes an affected
display of modesty or propriety." I've been accused of modesty and
propriety," said Jeanette MacDonald gravely while her eyes
danced. "But my sharpest critics never hinted at any `affected
display.' So by dictionary standards, anyway, I'm cleared."
"Of course," she continued thoughtfully, "they used the word priss
more often than prude, and my dictionary doesn't give priss.
However, I won't quarrel over terms. I'll admit the charges. I
don't smoke or drink, I don't like to be pawed, I don't like risqué
stories. If all that makes me a prude, then I'm a prude, and my
story has no value. Just the same -just the same, I'm not a prude," she brought out with a triumphant disregard of logic. When the laughs had subsided, "All right, I'll prove it," said Jeanette.
Your first thought when you see her off-screen is, what a pity to
reduce her to black and white. Her coloring is that of the
traditional fairy princess, rose and blue and gold. In the
Technicolor of SWEETHEARTS, you'll see her for the first time as she
really looks. She's come a long way since THE LOVE PARADE. In the
process she's met and faced down a problem rare in Hollywood - the
problem of fitting herself with her Scotch Presbyterian training into
the atmosphere of the movie capital - of adjusting herself without
doing violence to her own standards of taste and behavior. Which is
not to say that Hollywood's a Babylon. Only it's hardly necessary at
this stage to point out that it does take for granted certain lines
of conduct which were not taken for granted in the Philadelphia home
where Jeanette was brought up.
She suffered from no tyrannical discipline. She lived the normal
life of her community and was happy in it. The fact that she wasn't
allowed to play cards or to dance on Sunday wrought no hardship on
her. Neither were any of the other children she knew. The Sabbath
ritual didn't bore her - church in the morning, with Jeanette singing
in the choir, Sunday school in the afternoon, then a walk and an ice
cream soda at the corner drugstore; after dinner, Christian Endeavor
and church again. At twelve Jeanette was herself teaching the baby
class in Sunday school. As a matter of fact, all this wasn't ritual
to Jeanette. God and the worship of God were as real and important
to her as any of her other preoccupations. She was taught not only
the letter but the spirit of the law, not only the outward forms but
the principles of good conduct. She was taught by example as well as
by precept. She respected her parents not only because of the fifth
commandment but because they were people who won her respect. She
took obedience, modesty and fidelity as a matter of course, because
she'd never known anything else.
Though it was a godfearing, it wasn't a stodgy household. When her
father and mother discovered that Jeanette's talents might earn her a
place on the stage, they made no objection. They didn't regard the
theatre as a hydra-headed monster that would destroy their girl.
Their faith in the girl was too implicit. Jeanette as an actress
would still be the Jeanette they'd guided from babyhood.
She suffered her first shock when she met her sisters of the chorus
at the Capitol Theatre in New York. This was a period of transition
in the chorus lineup. Producers were just beginning to emphasize
youth and freshness. Many of those in the room where Jeanette
dressed for her first professional appearance were ladies of
experience. They whooped at her cotton underwear. They asked how
old she was. When she told them timidly, they whooped
again. "You've got lots to learn dearie." It was too late to remedy
that mistake. But she took three dollars and a half of her first
week's salary, and bought herself as glamorous a teddy as she could
find - all chiffon and lace. "And what lace!" she groans now. But
it was a life saver then, destined to help her live down the crime of
cotton panties. A second shock struck more deeply. She was going to
high school by day and dancing by night. She grew chummy at school
with a girl who seemed to her all that a girl should be. During
class hours they were inseparable.
"My mother wants you to come and have dinner with us," her friend
said one day. "I'd love to, but Sunday's the only night I can come."
"Because I work at the Capitol Theatre." Said Jeanette a little
reluctantly. After all, her friend didn't have to work.
"Really? Are you an usher?"
"Oh, no." This time there was pride in her voice. "I'm on the
stage. I'm a dancer."
The other plied her with a million excited questions. She was too
thrilled for words. But when Jeanette ran up to her next day, the
erstwhile bosom friend looked straight through her and walked away.
She never spoke to Jeanette again. "Her mother must have said, `On
the stage! Have nothing to do with her. She can't be a nice
girl'!" The Jeanette of today can afford to laugh. But to a
sensitive child of fourteen the experience was near-tragedy. Apart
from the anguish of being ostracized, it was brought home to her for
the first time that there were people who considered her profession
something to be ashamed of. Not that she was ashamed, she told
herself fiercely. "I'll show them - I'll show them you can be on the
stage and a nice girl, too." The effect was to sharpen her natural
sense of fastidiousness. Where formerly she might have winced at a
vulgarism and forgotten it, now she became abnormally conscious of
such things. Where formerly her rejection of bad taste was
instinctive, it now became deliberate as well. Her friend's mother
had put a chip on her shoulder.
The college boys used to come courting in their raccoon coats, and
Jeanette went to her first dance with one of them. He told her a
story that he thought was pretty funny. She didn't. He found
himself faced by a blazing-eyed young fury of sixteen. "Just because
I'm on the stage doesn't give you any liberties with me, and don't
forget it!" His apologies were abject, and they became fast
friends. Which they wouldn't have done, I might add in parenthesis,
had Jeanette really been a prude. She would never have forgiven him.
The girl went to Hollywood. Her voice was a sensation from the
start. Lubitsch grabbed her and used her in one ambitious production
after another. By outward signs, she was doing all right. But
something jangled within when Lubitsch - who, she knew was her friend
and meant well by her - greeted her as she walked onto the set
with, "Hello, real estate woman."
"Why?" she demanded.
He grinned. "You walk like one. You come click-clicking in, all
brisk and efficient - like a real estate woman, who has no
"Must I have one?"
"You'd be a better actress."
"Oh, flapdoodle! You're not going to give me that old line
about `you have to be awakened, you have to live - `?"
"No. Just, you have to play sophisticated roles, and you're not
"All right. If you're as great a director as they say, make me seem
She left her friend Lubitsch holding the bag. But every once in a
while the thought of the real estate woman would return to haunt her
with a vague unease. One night she was dancing with a power in the
movie world. "Know what you remind me of?" he asked.
She sighed. "By the ominous note in your voice, I should say,
"I always think of you as the singing governess."
"Am I supposed to be insulted or what?"
"Well, it's not a compliment."
"All right, I don't like you either, and no bones broken. Now, may I
ask in all humility, why the singing governess?"
"Mind you, I like you on the screen. I think you're talented and
have a beautiful voice. But - I don't know - there's something that
suggests the little woman at home taking care of the children. And
since you've no children of your own, it would have to be other
women's children. Hence the governess!"
"Would dogs do?" inquired Jeanette. "I've got lots of dogs. I could
stay home and take care of them."
"Never mind the cracks. I mean it. I can't make you out. You lack
a certain sophistication, yet I know you're old enough to be
There was "sophistication" come back to haunt her. Jeanette sat down
with herself. Just what was sophistication anyway? She remembered a
man who'd said to her once: "You don't drink, you don't smoke, you
don't use bad language. Have you no vices?"
She fixed him with a bland eye. "Oh, yes. I commit a murder
occasionally or rob a bank. Just no minor vices."
Surely, to be sophisticated, you didn't have to do things you'd
rather not. And was it so important that she should be
sophisticated? She didn't want to jeopardize her career. Maybe she
lacked glamour, sex appeal. Voice or no voice, you couldn't do much
on the screen without that nameless something that clicked with
"Certain things offend me," she said. "Bawdy stories that have no
point, familiarities from casual acquaintances. I don't pretend to
dislike them in order to set myself up as a holier-than-thou. I just
don't like them. And why should I make believe I do, for the sake of
having someone I don't care a whoop about call me a good sport?
That's cowardice. "As for smoking and drinking, I don't enjoy
either, and I think they're bad for me and my voice. I've been known
to take a glass of sherry. But sherry makes my nose itch, and you
can't be talking to someone at dinner, and rubbing away at your nose
the whole time.
"I've always remembered a line in a show I once played. The mother
of a girl who'd been drinking said: `Don't forget this - youth and
health are about the only things that can't be preserved in
alcohol.' I've got myself to look after. It wouldn't matter much to
any of my so-called critics, if I got to looking haggard or my voice
broke. It would matter a great deal to me. Therefore, it seems to
me, not prudery, but good sense, to let cigarettes and liquor alone.
If I'd really been a prude - a model of decorum and bound to let the
world know it - I wouldn't have gone to parties at all. I'd have
stayed at home with my knitting or spent my evenings at women's
clubs, safe from the danger of meeting men who might affront my
precious dignity. But I did go out, I had fun, I made lots of
By that time, of course, she'd got over being sensitive about her
profession. She had acquired sufficient perspective to gauge that
childhood incident at its true worth. But she was still the daughter
of her parents. There were still certain things she couldn't bring
herself to do. So she put on an act. She began to dress glamorously
and she became so adept in the art of snappy comebacks that she
developed a reputation for a caustic tongue. "You've got to grow
some kind of armor when you're always on the defensive," she
explained. "I thought the most effective weapon was something with a
sting in it. You could always turn it into a laugh and take the
curse off. I only used the method on men, so what difference did it
make? They could take care of themselves." The wicked gleam in her
eye faded, and for a moment she turned wholly serious. "Girls never
baited me. They always gave me the feeling they were on my side.
I'm a woman-booster. I think they're far more generous than they're
given credit for being."
Just the same, she wasn't enjoying the experiment much. She found it
increasingly irksome, as any honest person finds an artificial role.
Then NAUGHTY MARIETTA wrote finis to any doubts about her career.
Never had she given so brilliant, so merry, so wholly engaging
performance. As ROSE MARIE sent her stock shooting still higher, she
became herself again. What if they called her a prude? Their
opinion of Jeanette, the girl, had never mattered. Her career was
safe. All Hollywood knew that any producer would have given his
eyeteeth to get the prude's name on a contract.
Jeanette's engagement to Gene Raymond was announced during the
filming of MAYTIME and their romance culminated in their marriage the
following year. The sentimentalists, forgetting their raves about
NAUGHTY MARIETTA and the rest, cried: "That's when she changed.
Didn't you notice? Her voice was so much warmer in MAYTIME, her
acting had so much fire and depth."
To which Jeanette laughs: "Pooh! It's not so much a matter of love
as of work and training and growth. I'd thought I was in love before
(with Bob Ritchie and before that with a college boy in New York -
both of whom she remained friends with all her life.) And while I
know now that was only a shadow of the substance, the emotional
experience I went through was real. I'd like very much to give my
husband the credit but I don't see how my voice and acting could have
Gene settles the question by slipping his arm through his wife's and
taking a bow. "Weren't we wonderful in MAYTIME?" he asks gravely.
"Marriage has made one change in the situation," Jeanette
admits. "It's stopped all the speculation. People don't seem so
critical, once you're married. As for me, I can go home to Gene.
Gene understands me. He doesn't care whether I'm sophisticated or
not. He doesn't think I'm a freak for not liking highballs. HE
KNOWS I'M NO PRUDE!"