Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Film Review: The Firefly (1937)

Jeanette MacDonald sparkles as a Spanish singer hired to
seduce French officers and learn their secrets during the
Napoleonic Wars
When you think of great movie duos of the '30s, of course the first two combos that pop to mind are Fred and Ginger--so famous you don't even need to give last names--then perhaps you think of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but not as many people today remember the huge popularity of  operetta stars Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. They had a string of hit movies and songs going almost as long as Fred and Ginger, though, and remained popular until the post-modernism of the '60s and '70s dubbed them corny and outdated. That's actually a fair assessment of them since their movies were never heavy on plot but rather simple melodramas and romantic comedies designed to be vehicles for superb singing. And if you don't like operatic vocals, you're not going to like these films.

It's easy to see why Jeanette MacDonald became popular because she has a gorgeous soprano, glamorous looks, and an engaging personality. Nelson Eddy, on the other hand is a complete brick, despite his classic tenor, and renders their films almost unwatchable, especially in his early work. So of course my favorite Jeanette MacDonald operetta is one in which she co-stars with someone else.

Perhaps in 1937 someone realized that Nelson Eddy was a brick and tried to team Jeanette up with someone who could actually act. Fortunately they had another operatic tenor in Allan Jones, who made two movies with the Marx Brothers as well as a screen adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's immortal Show Boat.

Unfortunately audiences had become so accustomed to the stench of Nelson Eddy that they revolted when they got a whiff of a new man appearing with Jeanette MacDonald, and thus this film remains largely forgotten (so forgotten, in fact that I can't even find a copy of it on Amazon for a link). I ran into it for the first time on TCM's birthday tribute to Jeanette one year, and it instantly became a favorite for my family because it featured two memorable songs--"The Donkey Serenade" and "Gianina Mia," to be precise--and the plot was unusual and thus engaging.

Set in the Napoleonic Wars, The Firefly tells the story of a Spanish singer who seduces French officers in order to learn military secrets. Fortunately she manages to keep her heart disentangled until she meets the alarmingly persistent Don Diego (Allan Jones) who follows her on a key mission to France. Just when she's ready to give her heart to Diego, however, she finds out that he's really a French spy assigned to blow her cover, and she must retreat to Spain immediately. But even a spy with a blown cover can still have her uses, and Jeanette will find a way to stick it to the Frenchies.

Despite my affection for this movie, it's hardly a perfect film. Many of the battles, scenes, and montages seem extremely dated and clunky. In addition they show Jeanette singing at night clubs, which did not come into existence until the 20th century and thus are a gross anachronism. On the same note, the sets and costumes aren't terribly authentic either, but are kind of charmingly a product of their time, and since I love both Art Deco and Regency fashions, I don't mind terribly.

I give this film a 6.5 of 10: no great shakes, but enjoyable nonetheless.

No comments:

Post a Comment