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Saturday 1 August 2009

The Firefly (1937)

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Star: Jeanette MacDonald

Not a huge fan of musicals, I was always going to want to avoid the songs in this one. It's a Jeanette MacDonald movie, with Allan Jones as her co-star, and while I can appreciate the talent of both that doesn't mean I really want to spend my time listening to them sing, even when it's such a iconic song as The Donkey Serenade. Luckily this one has a great supporting cast to drag me in: not least Warren William in a large and substantial part even though this is three years after the precode era ended, but also people like Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Daniell and George Zucco.

As we begin, the king is coming to Madrid and everyone's rushing to get ready to see him. He's King Ferdinand VII of Spain and he's only taken over recently from his parents. This is the time of the Napoleonic wars so of course Napoleon isn't happy, but everyone else seems to be: the people of Madrid are so happy that they revel in the streets. It's a week long party, with carefully choreographed dancing of course given that this is an MGM musical. The real dancing is going on inside, as la Mosca de Fuego struts her stuff.

For those of us that don't speak Spanish, that makes Jeanette MacDonald the Firefly of the title, a popular bar dancer named Nina Maria Azara who somehow gets away with singing light opera in the bar, about as utterly out of place as comfortably be imagined. She's naturally the object of much male attention, both wanted and unwanted, which is a really good thing given that she's a spy. She seduces young French officers, such as the the overattentive Etienne DuBois, who then become so jealous that you know we're going to have duels before long.

To save the Marquis de Melito, who she really wants to see, she tries to shift Etienne's suspicion over to someone else, anyone else, so she picks someone who just happens to be in the bar at the time. That turns out to be Don Diego, played by Allan Jones, who doesn't want to leave her alone either but at least does so with panache. He even follows her through the Californian hills to Bayonne, because that's where Napoleon is going to try to murder King Ferdinand and she has to work her wiles on the local French officers.

Enter Warren William as Colonel de Rouchemont, newly appointed as one of Napoleon's aides and an obvious target for the Firefly's talents. Unfortunately there's not enough of him in this film and he looks totally wrong with the way they did his hair. There's too little Henry Daniell too, though there ought to have been opportunity once King Ferdinand is arrested and Joseph Bonaparte proclaimed king. These Frenchmen shoot kids and burn villages. They sink so low I was expecting them to start pulling the gold teeth out of the Jewish population and throwing everything else into the ovens. At least this is better than the end of the war, which is cheesy beyond all recognition.

Yes, this turns from fluffy musical into a serious drama, or at least it tries to apparently on a whim. It doesn't get very far down that road. This war film is an interlude, an excuse for some things to blow up while a camera pans over a map and the Brits arrive in the form of the Duke of Wellington and take back Spain. And so five years pass in five minutes before we return to the Firefly dancing for the French soldiers, this time as a gypsy camp follower but with the same repertoire. She's noticed once more by de Rouchemont, now a general but thankfully still back in our film so she can once again make a difference and we get to see more Warren William.

This is absolutely a Jeanette MacDonald film. She shines here as the title character, though of course she hardly even approaches anything remotely realistic. She looks good, she sounds good and she even acts pretty well too, even though that was never the highest of her talents. She gets better as time goes by too, more delectable as a gypsy whore than as a more sophisticated Spanish lady. She doesn't steal the whole show though because when Warren William is forceful it's impossible to ignore him. He didn't get much to do as a colonel but he gets plenty to do after he becomes a general.

In the scenes with William, Allan Jones is about as dominant as a piece of wallpaper, but in the romantic scenes with MacDonald he shows his stuff. He was an underrated talent, so often overshadowed because of the films he was in. Who ever remembers anything about a Marx Brothers movie except for the brothers themselves? He had the voice, of course, but he had a presence as well when he needed to. There's a solid chemistry between him and Jeanette MacDonald that makes even the songs endurable, that is when they're not done with her inside a carriage and him on a horse outside it with a dust machine fluffing up a sad attempt at believability. Unfortunately the film runs about the same: endurable.

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