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Turk delves into life, career in bio of movie diva MacDonald

Professor Edward Baron Turk has a thing for a particular Hollywood diva. She hasn't made a motion picture or titillated gossip writers in years, but her appeal continues, even 33 years after her death. The professor of French and film in the foreign languages and literatures section has written a new biography of Jeanette MacDonald, the star of early film musicals, titled Hollywood Diva (University of California Press). The October 1 issue of the book trade journal Kirkus Reviews called the book "a dazzling blend of entertainment and scholarship."

In conjunction with the book, the Film Society of New York City's Lincoln Center will mount a weeklong Jeanette MacDonald film festival at their Walter Reade Theater from March 31-April 6.

Dr. Turk's previous books include Baroque Fiction-Making and Child of Paradise: Marcel Carn��� and the Golden Age of French Cinema, which won a prize from the Theatre Library Association in 1990. In 1995, the French government named Dr. Turk a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts asked Dr. Turk about his new book.

How did you get turned on to Jeanette MacDonald?

Having devoted an entire career to things French--literature and movies--I reached a stage in my life when I needed to reconnect with my American roots. As a kid, I was constantly pulled between highbrow and pop--highbrow being the Bach and Chopin I studied at Juilliard from the age of six, and the pop [being] the great American songbook of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart played by my father, a jazz and dance man.

What attracted me most to Jeanette was that she found the perfect balance between highbrow and mass culture and she was so American. Her films just spoke to me; she seemed to resolve the conflicts.

When I saw her films for the first time--and I consider myself a very sophisticated and worldly person--I was bowled over by the beauty of the music, the sentiment and the unbridled feeling that gushes from the screen. I realize that many of my fellow intellectuals have been trained to be suspicious of sentiment and that may be why her place in American film history has been distorted. I think she's proof that you can reach the highest level of film art and include deep heartfelt sentiment. She represents a neo-romanticism that's worth latching onto.

How did you go from being a Jeanette MacDonald fan to becoming a scholar?

My original training and background are in French 17th-century baroque literature, which I love and continue to teach, but I didn't want to spend a whole career at it. To enrich my life as a scholar and get excited again about doing research, I wrote a definitive critical biography of Marcel Carn���, a French film maker of the 1930s and '40s. I like to move into areas that I know very little about and there was so much for me to learn about film. That's a very risky thing for a professor to do--especially at the untenured state I was in then.

When I finished the Carn��� book, I said to myself, "What next?" A colleague was editing a book on theory of film comedy and asked me to contribute. I'd discovered MacDonald a few years earlier and was so overwhelmed by her films that I decided to do a highbrow analytic study of the soprano voice in film comedy, using MacDonald's I Married an Angel as a case study.

People tend to fall into two categories: either they adore sopranos or they abhor sopranos. I tried to explain why this was, with references to deep psychology in a very scholarly, theoretical post-Freudian piece. That article, which was actually published elsewhere, gave me some credibility when I thought I'd use MacDonald for a revisionary history of the film musical in the 1930s and '40s and restore her to her rightful position as a pioneer in the genre.

In the course of my research trips to California, I gained the confidence of Jeanette's husband of 27 years, Gene Raymond, who had previously refused to officially speak to any writers about Jeanette or their life together. When I gained access to her papers, I realized I could write a true biography with which I could reach a much greater audience than by writing a focused scholarly monograph.

What does your book offer that's new about MacDonald's career?

I feel so many of the standard encyclopedias and Hollywood bios misrepresent MacDonald and fail to credit her with being one of the most important movie stars of the 1930s. She helped revolutionize movie musicals twice: first with the early naughty-but-nice operettas she did with Maurice Chevalier and again with the MGM films with Nelson Eddy, when she really became a superstar.

Film historians and writers on the American film musical tend to focus on MGM's Arthur Freed films which started in the late 1930s and reached their peak in the 1940s. It's such an American thing to forget the history and to discount what came before. Jeanette and especially Jeanette and Nelson Eddy are acknowledged, but with a patronizing and condescending attitude. That bothered me.

In pursuing your research, did you make any discoveries?

As the first person to gain access to Jeanette's private papers, I discovered an unpublished memoir in which she talks about many thingsincluding boyfriends and lovers. Before her marriage, she was desired, but never loose.

I also learned a lot about her relationship with New York's Metropolitan Opera and found some correspondence which had never surfaced before. The bottom line was that MacDonald would have, and certainly could have sung the Gounod operas she'd been performing elsewhere, had there not been a tremendous bias against a Hollywood figure on the stage of the Metropolitan. That was the biggest disappointment of her life and she was a woman who got almost everything she wanted.

I feel the film series that Lincoln Center will be doing next spring is so redemptive for Jeanette. Since the Met is also located at Lincoln Center, in a sense she's finally realizing her dream.

What made Jeanette's films different from the others?

Her pictures were the biggest budget and in many cases, the biggest money-makers of the time. Sweethearts, Maytime, Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie all kept MGM in the black during the mid-1930s. Jeanette MacDonald movies require you to be very open and alert; the plots are often complicated and melodramatic. The music is such that it's almost like sitting in an opera house, which is a very different experience from sitting in a movie theater. To me, that's the greatness of the MacDonald movies. She brought the same experience of being thrilled by a glorious soprano and baritone to people who could never afford an opera ticket.

She was known as the "Iron Butterfly." Who coined that phrase and why?

Hoppy Hopkins, the reigning gag man on the MGM lot, gave her that name because she was so beautiful and had a lovely delicate soprano voice, yet she was a hard professional when it came to bargaining about business.

She would have been a great producer had there been women producers in her time. She understood what it took to put pressure on people to get things done correctly. She was fun-loving and made you feel good to be alive, but at the same time she was very pragmatic.

She was also very un-neurotic. One of the pleasures of writing the book was its celebration of normalcy in life. One of my challenges as a biographer was to take a normal life and make it exciting to read, because we know readers like things salacious. There's plenty for people who are interested in gossip, but what's central is to reinstate an individual who represents something wonderful about our American heritage of entertainment.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 18, 1998.

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