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Except for a brief appearance as herself in the all-star war-effort entertainment Follow the Boys (1944), Jeanette MacDonald had been off the screen for five years when she returned for a top-billed role in Three Daring Daughters (1948), a showcase for MGM's new teen star Jane Powell. Although she found the working conditions - and the substantial salary - a welcome sign that she was as important as ever to the studio, MacDonald's next picture,The Sun Comes Up (1949), proved to be her last. In it, she had to share the screen not with an up-and-coming younger actress but with a very popular animal star. Many considered it a disappointing end to an illustrious career.
MacDonald plays an opera singer embittered over her son's tragic death who learns to connect with other people again thanks to a relationship with a young boy who befriends her dead son's pet dog. The dog was played by Lassie, the ultra-smart collie who had debuted opposite no less than Elizabeth Taylor in Lassie Come Home (1943). (There had been an animal actor named Lassie in the silent era as well.) The boy was played by Claude Jarman, Jr., the child star of another heartwarming animal story, The Yearling (1946). Jarman's casting was appropriate enough, since both the earlier picture and this one were based on stories by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
The Sun Comes Up was filmed on location 375 miles from Hollywood in the Santa Cruz mountains. MacDonald had to be under constant medication because of her severe allergy to dogs. (Her allergies had also forced the studio to use thousands of artificial flowers in her earlier film Smilin' Through, 1941.)
The Sun Comes Up was helmed by long-time studio director Richard Thorpe, who never made any truly great films but whose technical proficiency and dependability put him in charge of productions starring many of the studios biggest names, including Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford, and Robert Montgomery. Thorpe also has the distinction of being the original director of The Wizard of Oz (1939). After a few weeks, however, his approach was deemed unsuitable and all his footage scrapped and re-shot. After completing this picture, Thorpe was re-teamed with his canine star in Challenge to Lassie (1949), after which the pooch followed Miss MacDonald into big-screen retirement.
Although her retreat from a film career can be blamed largely on an increasingly debilitating heart ailment (which eventually took her life at the age of 61 in 1965), MacDonald continued to make concert and TV appearances after this. Her last radio appearance was a broadcast version of this same story on Screen Guild Theater in March 1950.
The Sun Comes Up is also significant for being the first film scored by noted composer Andre Previn. He was barely 20 when he was given his big break by producer Robert Sisk after working a few years as arranger and music director. Although he found the story "pure insanity" and thought MacDonald's voice was "a bit peculiar," he found the star to be a hard-worker and "the soul of kindness." Placing his own compositions beside those of Dvorak, Puccini and other classical composers (whose songs were sung by MacDonald in the picture), Previn's work was well-noted by Sisk and Thorpe, who used him on the Lassie sequel mentioned above. From these humble beginnings, Previn went on to create noteworthy scores, adaptations and songs for such films as Gigi (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), Elmer Gantry (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967).
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Robert Sisk
Screenplay: Margaret Fitts, William Ludwig, based on a story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Cinematography: Ray June
Editing: Irvine Warburton
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Lassie, Jeanette MacDonald (Helen Lorfield Winter), Lloyd Nolan (Thomas Chandler), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Jerry), Lewis Stone (Arthur Norton), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Golightly).
by Rob Nixon