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A number of factors combined to bring the Jeanette MacDonald - Nelson Eddy series of films to an end in July 1942, with the release of I Married an Angel. The war was on. Popular tastes were evolving. Tastes in musicals were shifting. Each of the duo was past 40, and their contracts were coming to a close. MGM was also suffering from shrinking profit margins, and it was hard to justify making more of these big-budget musicals while there was uncertainty about their reception. As a result, Louis B. Mayer decided not to renew Jeanette MacDonald's option. Nelson Eddy bought out the remainder of his contract and jumped ship to Universal, where he starred in Phantom of the Opera (1943). MacDonald, however, chose to stay and make the one film she still owed MGM, and thus was Cairo (1942) born.
In this spy spoof, MacDonald shows a nice flair for comedy as a Hollywood star working as a nightclub singer in Europe, one who is suspected of being a Nazi spy by reporter Robert Young. It's a part tailor-made for MacDonald, and the tongue-in-cheek musical comedy culminates in a delightful, crackpot story device in which MacDonald's singing of a high C saves the day by opening a secret door in the real spies' hideout.
The picture's original songs are by (E.Y.) Yip Harburg and Arthur Schwartz, but Cairo also contains many other songs by various combinations of writers. One of the most memorable is "Buds Won't Bud," with lyrics by Harburg and music by Harold Arlen. According to Eleanor Knowles' comprehensive 1975 book The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy (which will be re-issued in 2006 in a revised and updated edition), "Buds Won't Bud" was first performed by Hannah Williams onstage in 1937, in a pre-Broadway tryout of the musical Hooray For What! (The song was ultimately cut.) MGM bought the rights to the show, but instead of adapting it outright, the studio simply used its songs for other movies. MGM planned to use "Buds Won't Bud" for Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), and even filmed Judy Garland singing it, but again the song was eliminated in the end. It finally appeared on film in Cairo, performed by Ethel Waters and Dooley Wilson (just months before he appeared in Casablanca, 1942).
Ethel Waters was the best-known black vocalist in America in 1942. Most musical numbers by blacks at this time were designed to be self-contained so that southern theater owners could cut them from their film prints, and "Buds Won't Bud" is an example. However, Waters also sings with MacDonald as part of a medley - a significant moment since this sequence could not be cut.
Cairo was too all-over-the-place for most critics, with The New York Times dismissing it as "a muddle of melodrama, music and farce." It's possible that part of the problem was timing. Not long before Cairo's release, an Allied war conference in Cairo grabbed major headlines, and two days after its release, the United States invaded North Africa. The public may have been conditioned to equate the word "Cairo" with serious war matters, not a frivolous spy spoof.
Be that as it may, Cairo offers delights for MacDonald fans, not to mention movie buffs who will enjoy some inside jokes. In one scene, MacDonald's character is seen in a movie theater lobby which contains a poster of Nelson Eddy. And in the opening sequence, a clip of the MacDonald-Eddy Maytime (1937) is used to establish MacDonald's character as a Hollywood star. As Eleanor Knowles writes, "sharp eyes will note that the film clip from Maytime is not composed entirely of the original 1937 footage. To cover the spots in the original where the camera cut away to show the court of Louis Napoleon, MGM shot new footage of [MacDonald] alone, apparently in the same dress and hairstyle, to fill in the gaps. However, her dress and hair are both obviously different."
W. S. ("Woody") Van Dyke had directed several MacDonald-Eddy films before directing MacDonald one more time in Cairo. He would helm just one further picture, the sweet Journey for Margaret (1942), before dying of a heart attack. Credited in his last six movies as "Maj. W.S. Van Dyke II," the 52-year-old was so eager to rejoin active duty in WWII that he took to sleeping in his old Marine uniform toward the end of his life, according to Knowles.
Following Cairo, MacDonald would not appear on screen again (with the exception of a cameo in Follow the Boys, 1944) until MGM's Three Daring Daughters in 1948. She was far from done with her career, however. During WWII, she performed on radio in many Lux Radio Theatre versions of movies, including two shows with Nelson Eddy (thus refuting the myth that the two never worked together again). More importantly, she worked tirelessly for the war effort, raising much money through benefit concerts around the country. These were hugely popular and earned critical raves. Cleverly, MacDonald even took to auctioning off encores after these performances. As Knowles relates in her book, at the end of one concert "a man bid ten dollars for 'One Dozen Roses.' [MacDonald] looked puzzled for a moment, then stepped off stage. She returned with a bouquet from her dressing room. 'I don't know the song, but I'll sell you the real thing for twenty dollars.' He bought them."
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Director: W.S. Van Dyke II
Screenplay: John McClain
Cinematography: Ray June, Jack Smith
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: E.Y. Harburg, Arthur Schwartz, Herbert Stothart
Cast: Jeanette MacDonald (Marcia Warren), Robert Young (Homer Smith), Ethel Waters (Cleona Jones), Reginald Owen (Philo Cobson), Grant Mitchell (Mr. O.H.P. Boggs), Lionel Atwill (Teutonic gentleman).
by Jeremy Arnold