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The Cat and the Fiddle

The Cat and the Fiddle(1934)

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teaser The Cat and the Fiddle (1934)

When he accepted the lead role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's quasi-musical, quasi-Technicolor romance The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), star Ramon Novarro had not had a hit film in two years - not since Mata Hari (1931), in which he had been paired with the incomparable Greta Garbo in a (lightly) fact-based saga of wartime intrigue and romantic tragedy. A hit on Broadway, where it ran for the better part of a year at both The Globe and George M. Cohan Theaters, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's The Cat and the Fiddle was something altogether different - a bantamweight love story set against the backdrop of Europe's operatic demimonde, centering on boy and girl composers whose idylle is complicated by different career trajectories. Studio executives partnered Novarro with new acquisition Jeanette MacDonald, whom an infatuated Louis B. Mayer had imported from Paramount. Additionally, husband and wife screenwriters Samuel and Bella Spewack were retained to adapt the play for the big screen; the pair would later write the book for Cole Porter's Tony award-winning Kiss Me, Kate, a Broadway hit in 1948.

All but forgotten today, Ramon Novarro had been one of MGM's biggest stars, a designation he enjoyed from 1925 to 1931. Born Jos Ramn Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico, in 1899, Novarro moved with his affluent family to Los Angeles on the heels of the Mexican Revolution. A second cousin to actress Dolores Del Rio, Novarro (who took his professional name from the region of Spain, Navarra, that was his ancestral seat - with the variation in spelling made on the advice of a numerologist) got work in Hollywood in uncredited bits in such films as Cecil B. DeMille's The Little American (1917) and Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). A friendship with Ingram and the filmmaker's actress wife, Alice Terry, boosted Novarro's industry status, paving the way for prominent roles in Ingram's The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), and The Arab (1924). A younger, more compliant alternative to the temperamental Rudolph Valentino, Novarro beat out Valentino for the title role in Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

Novarro's sideline as a touring tenor made his films especially viable on the Continent and his popularity in foreign markets allowed him to eclipse his other MGM rivals John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, and William Haines. With the transition in Hollywood from silent to talking pictures, Novarro gained added value as the star of such musicals as In Gay Madrid (1930) and Call of the Flesh (1930). Wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929, he was obliged to continue making films in the States at a time when he preferred singing engagements in Europe. Despite suffering its worst year since the onset of the Depression, MGM allotted The Cat and the Fiddle a budget of $843,000 - with $135,000 set aside for the film's three-strip Technicolor climax. (The process had yet to find favor with American moviegoers but would enjoy an uptake in legitimacy the following year with the success of Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp [1935], the first feature shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor.) MGM even went the distance to defend The Cat and the Fiddle against censors who objected to Novarro's and MacDonald's lovers living in the film out of wedlock; recommended changes to the script went unheeded by studio overseer Eddie Mannix.

The Cat and the Fiddle opened on February 16, 1934, to good notices but disappointing numbers; MGM recorded a loss of $140,000. Though the studio opted not to renew Novarro's contract the following year, it applied the model of the failed "musical drama" to subsequent productions and made a bona fide star of Jeanette MacDonald by pairing her with tenor Nelson Eddy, beginning with the Canada-set Rose-Marie (1936). While Eddy and MacDonald sang their way to international stardom and true love off the big screen as well as on, Novarro's star status declined as precipitously as it had risen. His bank account restored by real estate investments (his Hollywood home was the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's son, Lloyd Wright), Novarro continued to act, contributing supporting roles to John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949) and George Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights (1960) and guest appearances to such television series as Thriller, Rawhide, Bonanza, and Dr. Kildare. Murdered in 1968 by thugs seeking to abscond with his fortune, Novarro had survived by three years his Cat and the Fiddle costar, Jeanette MacDonald, who succumbed to heart disease in January 1965.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro by Andr Soares (University Press of Mississippi, 2010)
<Ramon Novarro: The Life and Times of the First Latino Hollywood Superstar by Frank Javier Garcia Berumen (Vantage Press, 2001)
Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968; with a filmography by Allan R. Ellenberger (McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2009)
Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald by Edward Baron Turk (University of California Press, 2000)

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