“We fight for our living and love at our leisure.”
A French princess (Jeanette MacDonald) fleeing a forced marriage goes undercover with a ship of single women bound for marriages in the colony of New Orleans. Their ship is ransacked by pirates, but they’re saved by a troop of mercenaries led by Captain Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy), who MacDonald quickly falls for. MacDonald tells the Governor of New Orleans (Frank Morgan) — whose jealous wife (Elsa Lanchester) doesn’t approve of his roving eye — that she has a compromised past in order to escape marriage to a colonist. But will her true identity eventually be revealed?
The first cinematic pairing of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy — known as “America’s Singing Sweethearts” — was this adaptation of Victor Herbert’s operetta (featuring several beloved songs, including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”), which tells the story of a strong young woman who refuses to be defined either by her standing or the norms of her era. Indeed, “Naughty Marietta” — unlike MacDonald’s title character in Rose-Marie (1936) — is a true role model: not only do her villagers adore their “singing princess”, but she’s an overall decent woman who cares for those beneath her in status — i.e., the maid (Helen Shipman) whose place she takes on the ship (so poor Shipman can marry her fiance), and a sweet young woman (Cecelia Parker) she meets on her travels; and she is perfectly happy to fall in love with a mercenary (Eddy) rather than maintaining her status among nobility. She’s also quick-on-her-feet and ingenious — as when she hides from police on the ship by stuffing her mouth with food, and selects a random drunk in the crowds as her “brother” seeing her off; and the scene in which she convinces Morgan she’s been deceptive on her application. She handily staves off unwanted attention from numerous men after fabricating an identity as a “loose woman”, and takes great risks for love near the end of the film.
Themes of female strength pervade the film in other ways as well. While the women heading to the colonies are openly viewed as chattel (some are actually pinched and measured for physical strength), they band together collectively, and one gives her life to protect the others from the vicious pirates. Meanwhile, Eddy’s character (unlike the dull Mountie he portrays in Rose-Marie) is charismatic and appealing, and many supporting actors give fine, memorable performances: Lanchester is hilariously bitchy as Morgan’s jealous wife, and Morgan uses his spluttering diction to humorous effect. It makes sense that the screenplay is creative and clever, given that it was written by noted husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jeanette MacDonald as “Marietta”
- Fine supporting performances
- Engaging period sets
- A unique storyline
Yes, as the first and perhaps the best pairing of MacDonald and Eddy together, and for its Oscar nomination as Best Picture.