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Today MacDonald is most noted for her MGM operetta movies, mostly opposite Nelson Eddy. I'm not in a position to critique those movies musically but they've carried the reputation of High Kitsch since at least the 1960s. The Marx Brothers came back into vogue but the Eddy & MacDonald pictures remained the butt of parodies, despite the fact that they were often intentionally funny.
But Mac Donald's first MGM picture is an odd little charmer adapted from a 1931 Broadway musical that ran for almost 400 performances, an impressive achievement in a season hit hard by the Great Depression. Otto Harbach wrote the book and shared music and lyrics credit with Jerome Kern. The film version The Cat and the Fiddle appears to have altered a number of the play's particulars -- the singer in the movie is also the composer of her own tunes. Studio-created settings in Brussels and Paris encourage an association with MacDonald's previous hits with Ernst Lubitsch. For viewers that know screen star Ramon Novarro only for his role in the silent Ben-Hur, this musical will be a big surprise: the sweet-hearted Novarro seems perfectly natural singing love songs.
Story construction is not The Cat and the Fiddle's strong suit. Penniless composer Victor Florescu (Ramon Novarro) plays piano for his supper in a Brussels restaurant but must flee when he can't pay for all the wine he's imbibed. He runs into American Shirley Sheridan, who rejects his advances but takes his advice to rent a room at the Pension La Tour, right next to his Pension La Fitte. The couple also discovers that they're both ambitious composers hoping to advance at the Conservatoire. Professor Bertier (Jean Hersholt) holds private auditions for Jules Daudet (Frank Morgan), a patron of the arts. Daudet thinks Victor's work is okay but offers to have Shirley's song published immediately because he wants Shirley too. When she turns Daudet down, he tries to get Victor out of the way with an offer of a big chance in Paris. Both lovers choose each other instead and move to Paris together. Daudet publishes Shirley's song and she becomes a popular star. The still-struggling Victor must court the vain operetta singer Odette Brieux (Vivienne Segal) to get one of his works performed. Still trying to connect with Shirley, Daudet convinces Victor that he's holding Shirley back. He returns to Brussels and puts on his show The Cat and the Fiddle starring Odette and bankrolled by her husband Rudy (Joseph Cawthorn). But that arrangement threatens to fall apart when Rudy catches Odette kissing her new composer.
The Cat and the Fiddle weaves a special magic spell in its musical moments despite being a goofy, minor musical. Unlike a Lubitsch film, it doesn't contain self-referential humor. It also has no clever cinematic tricks up its sleeve, as made Love Me Tonight so impressive. The comedy depends heavily on our liking the leading players. Running away from a restaurant owner and the cops, Victor takes over for a tired marching band's leader, changing the beat and making the band run instead of walk. Stuck for a taxi ride he can't afford, he's forced to surrender his compositions to the taxi driver (Henry Armetta), who holds them for ransom. Eccentric harp player Charles (Charles Butterworth) provides comic relief, lending lends Victor the money to get his precious music back. Frank Morgan's Daudet is both the enabler of the lovers' dreams and a force determined to break them up. He's determined to have Shirley for himself, one way or another.
What really works is the chemistry between Novarro and MacDonald, a genuinely playful pair that meet cute on the street. Victor smilingly
The February 1934 release date identifies The Cat and the Fiddle as a Pre-code item. Besides Shirley's 'naughty' attitude toward hanky-panky, the lovers are clearly co-habiting in complete harmony while in Paris, without benefit of a marriage license. What seems harmless now was exactly the kind of content that conservative censors would suppress for over thirty years.
Some of the music in The Cat and the Fiddle is fairly forgettable, especially the bulk of Victor's operetta. But the movie's three main songs are marvelous, simple melodies that stick in the mind. Even better, they're sung intimately. We do wonder exactly what Shirley is doing in the Conservatoire, seeing that her musical talent runs to little pop ditties. Encouraged to entertain the party with something racy, Shirley takes to the piano to play "She Couldn't Say No," raising a naughty eyebrow as she sings its tale of temptation. More central to the romance is The Love Parade, the lyrics for which Victor and Shirley invent while sprawled across a bed. Music playback was surely already in use by 1934, but the singing for these scenes appears to be recorded live -- we can practically feel the lovers' breath as they sing nose-to-nose.
MGM certainly had the technology to film these scenes to playback, as they'd invented the technique of pre-recording music tracks back in 1929. As the scenes in question are one-take, one-angle masters, the actors' singing appears to have been recorded live. 2012's Les Miserables heavily publicized the fact that its performances were recorded on the set as well. But today's digital technology would allow stray microphones to be removed later in post-production.
The third major song is Shirley's big pop music hit "The Night Was Made for Love", which is used for several reprises. A standard operetta duet, its romantic melody is perhaps even farther removed from contemporary taste. Defending older musicals and popular music based on today's tastes is a pointless exercise -- Jerome Kern's melodies have qualities seemingly lost to modern music. Imaginative viewers curious about the past will be intrigued, especially if the romantic angle appeals.
As is often mentioned, the finale of The Cat and the Fiddle was filmed in experimental 3-Strip Technicolor. The image that survives for this disc presentation may not fully represent the look of original prints, as contrast issues affect the color design. When painted red trees appear, the screen looks like a bloodshot eye. Compared to the elaborate 3-Strip musical number seen in Eddie Cantor's Kid Millions, released the same year, this scene is barely two or three static camera setups. A wide shot of the stage proscenium is held far too long, presumably to show off the scenery.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Cat and the Fiddle looks to be an improved transfer over what I've seen on the TCM cable channel -- the image is sharp and the contrast very nicely defined. The sound is excellent. The Technicolor finale may have been sourced from a collector's print, possibly a 16mm reduction, as it is softer in addition to having more contrast than one would expect. Jeanette MacDonald fans, and aficionados of vintage musicals, will be more than satisfied.
By Glenn Erickson