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The Chocolate Soldier

The Chocolate Soldier(1941)


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teaser The Chocolate Soldier (1941)

Although MGM's 1941 musical The Chocolate Soldier bears less resemblance to the 1908 operetta than the operetta bore to its source material, George Bernard Shaw's classic comedy Arms and the Man, it still holds a place in film fans' hearts as just about the best Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musical never to star Jeanette MacDonald.

It all started with George Bernard Shaw's 1894 Arms and the Man, the fanciful tale of a Swiss mercenary who keeps his cartridge cases filled with chocolate creams but still manages to win a general's beautiful daughter from her heroic fianc. The play was Shaw's first big hit and remains one of his most popular, but despite its carefully honed satire of war and national pride, it caught the eye of Viennese composer Oscar Strauss, who contracted to write a musical adaptation. Shaw's only stipulation was that he not use one word of the original. He even had to change the characters' names and the title. When the playwright finally saw The Chocolate Soldier, he swore he would never allow any of his plays to be musicalized again (My Fair Lady, adapted from Shaw's Pygmalion, would not be made until after his death). Nonetheless, the operetta proved so popular that it was transferred to New York, where it became a hit all over again. When the movies started to talk, MGM picked up the rights, hoping to turn it into an equally successful film.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar had created a risqu comedy of manners about an egotistical actor who masquerades as a Russian guardsman to test his actress wife's fidelity. As Testor it was a hit in Europe in 1910. Phillip Moeller wrote an English translation that became a hit on Broadway as The Guardsman in 1924, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne bringing their legendary comic timing to the roles. MGM bought the film rights to this property, too, and hired the Lunts for their only co-starring film vehicle. But the Lunts didn't like filmmaking, and film audiences didn't like the Lunts, so the 1931 MGM version went nowhere. With the arrival of stricter film censorship two years later, MGM couldn't even re-issue the picture, as it was almost impossible to re-cut it to clear up the play's central ambiguity, the question of whether or not the wife knew the Russian guardsman was really her husband before inviting him to spend the night with her.

The Chocolate Soldier wasn't having much more luck getting to the screen. After Maurice Chevalier and MacDonald teamed up for the hit The Merry Widow in 1934, the studio considered The Chocolate Soldier as a follow up, with Grace Moore, whom he had wanted in The Merry Widow, as leading lady. MGM had passed on Moore because her first films there had flopped. No sooner had they cast MacDonald, than Moore picked up a starring role as a madcap heiress in Columbia's One Night of Love (1934). The film was a hit, which led MGM to re-assess her screen potential. Unfortunately, Moore had become such a big star, that Columbia would only agree to loan her to MGM if they guaranteed her top billing. Chevalier wouldn't give that to anyone, and he disliked MacDonald too much to make the film with her. So he left MGM, not to return until he made Gigi in 1958, without top billing but with the promise that Jeanette MacDonald would not be cast.

As it turned out, MacDonald didn't need Chevalier or The Chocolate Soldier to become a star. When the studio teamed her with Nelson Eddy for Naughty Marietta (1935), they scored a substantial hit. Then scheduling conflicts pulled Moore out of Eddy's next, Rose-Marie (1936). When MacDonald stepped in for another hit, the screen's greatest singing team was born. The two would make eight films together, but as box office returns on their later films declined, MGM started looking for solo vehicles. MacDonald actually was doing well on her own, but Eddy had only limited success.

Then MGM took another stab at The Chocolate Soldier. By 1941, Shaw had decided he had no desire to see any new versions, so he informed MGM that they couldn't use the plot of Arms and the Man. He may have been doing them a favor. Finally, the studio had the chance to make a little money off of The Guardsman. They reset it in the world of musical theatre and cast rising opera star Rise Stevens -- a rarity among classical singers at the time in that she was thin, beautiful and sexy -- as Eddy's new leading lady. All they kept of the operetta was six of the songs, presented as part of the musical in which Eddy and Stevens were co-starring during the film's action. To those they added arias from Samson and Delilah and Tannhauser, a Russian song by Mussorgsky and a new piece by Bronsilau Kaper.

With the new script and new songs, The Chocolate Soldier also got a new Nelson Eddy. In most of his early films, he had been so stiff that crewmembers had dubbed him "The Singing Capon." But with screen stardom had come the chance to appear on radio, where he not only sang, but started to loosen up in comedy sketches. The Chocolate Soldier, or rather The Guardsman brought out a flair for comedy nobody had suspected. He stole the film from his sexy co-star, winning solid reviews from critics who had made fun of him in the past.

Fans of MacDonald and Eddy have long carped that she would have been much better in The Chocolate Soldier than Stevens, citing the flair for sophisticated comedy demonstrated in her early musicals at Paramount and The Merry Widow. They got their wish in the '50s, when MacDonald and husband Gene Raymond toured in a new production of The Guardsman. She even got Molnar to re-write the script so that she could sing in the role, which guaranteed a strong audience turnout. Mixed reviews, however, convinced them not to risk a Broadway run. For her part, Stevens got to do The Chocolate Soldier for real in a 1955 television production co-starring Eddie Albert in the role Eddy played on-screen.

Producer: Victor Saville
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Leonard Lee and Keith Winter
Based on the play The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Cedric Gibson
Music: Bronislau Kaper, Herbert Stothart
Cast: Nelson Eddy (Karl Lang), Rise Stevens (Maria Lanyi), Nigel Bruce (Bernard Fischer), Florence Bates (Madame 'Pugsie' Helene), Dorothy Gilmore (Magda), Nydia Westman (Liesel).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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