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In the mid-1930s, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy had teamed in three enormously popular screen operettas: Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose-Marie (1936), and Maytime (1937). MacDonald liked Eddy, and was pleased with the success of the films, but she had been a star in her own right on stage and in films for more than a decade, and she didn't want to be identified as only part of a team. So she lobbied producer Hunt Stromberg for a change, and was pleased when he persuaded MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to allow Allan Jones, a new MGM contract player, to co-star with MacDonald in The Firefly (1937).
The Firefly is based on a 1912 operetta by Rudolf Friml and Otto Harbach, but the songs are all that remain from that source, which was about an Italian waif in early 20th century U.S. who becomes an opera singer. The husband and wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, along with humorist Ogden Nash, created an entirely new story about a cabaret dancer in Napoleonic-era Spain who is also a spy trying to discover Napoleon's plans for invading Spain. According to MacDonald biographer Edward Baron Turk, "it was an unprecedented attempt to break new ground by merging two ordinarily separate Hollywood film genres: the historical war epic and the musical." In the context of the times, the film's subtext was also daring, according to Turk. Civil war was then raging in Spain, and "all three screenwriters were sympathetic to the ongoing Republican struggle against Fascism.... They conceived of The Firefly as a protest against dictatorial oppression." Maybe so, but MGM was still MGM, and the film was more about entertainment than politics. MacDonald's dancing spy falls in love with a Spanish nobleman who is actually a spy for the French, with Jones making a much more dashing spy than the stout and stolid Eddy would have been.
Although MacDonald had been a dancer on Broadway, she had not done much dancing in films. For two months before production started on The Firefly, she studied Spanish dance daily. And once the film was in production, she trained for 90 minutes each day with choreographer Albertina Rasch. MGM gave The Firefly a lavish budget, and its usual superb production values. Costume designer Adrian designed an extravagant wardrobe of Empire-style costumes, including one outfit for MacDonald which used over 150 yards of lace and thousands of spangles which took two weeks to sew on. Even the makeup was spectacular. Studio publicists announced that makeup director Jack Dawn had to get government permission to mix gold dust into MacDonald's face powder. The Firefly was shot on 30 major sets, and used some 500 extras.
MacDonald had solo above-the-title billing on The Firefly for the first time in her career, but Jones recalled that her behavior toward him was generous. On the first day they worked together, she told cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh, "Allan and I are co-stars. He is to get equal treatment. Everything you do for me, do for him. He is to get the same number of close-ups." She told Jones that changing partners had energized her performance. Jones also got another gift: a new song, which became the hit of the film and Jones' lifelong theme song. "Donkey Serenade" was adapted by musical director Herbert Stothart, Bob Wright, and Chet Forrest, from a piano piece of Friml's, "Chanson." Friml hated it, and sued MGM for copyright infringement. The suit was settled out of court. But the song, and the film, did prove to be somewhat unlucky for Jones. While filming "Donkey Serenade" on location, Jones' horse was pinned between MacDonald's carriage and a rock, and Jones suffered a foot injury.
The injury to Jones' career was even worse. The Firefly earned excellent reviews, but it was not as successful as the MacDonald-Eddy films, and Mayer blamed Jones. Although The Firefly was the 15th-highest grossing film of the year, its profit was barely one-tenth of its huge production budget. MacDonald was urging Mayer to consider Jones for her co-star in The Girl of the Golden West (1938), but Nelson Eddy, who had Mayer's ear and was feeling threatened by Jones, protested. Mayer didn't like Jones' independent ways, and sided with Eddy. And Jones found himself sitting out the rest of his MGM contract. Although he worked sporadically at other studios, Jones' film career never really recovered.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: Hunt Stromberg, Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Ogden Nash, from the musical book by Otto A. Harbach
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Rudolf Friml
Principal Cast: Jeanette MacDonald (Nina Maria Azara), Allan Jones (Don Diego Manrique de Lara), Warren William (Col. DeRougemont), Douglas Dumbrille (Marquis DeMelito), Leonard Penn (Etienne), Billy Gilbert (Innkeeper), Belle Mitchell (Lola).
BW-130m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri