In early 1951, Jeanette and Gene toured in a production of the Ferenc Molnar classic, The Guardsman, previously performed on stage and film by the distinguished theatrical couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. (Songs were added for Jeanette to sing in her role as the Actress.)
Sam Wanamaker directed, and the cast included Herbert Berghoff as the Critic, Josephine Brown as Mama, Gwen Vandam as the Maid, and Maurice Shrog as the Creditor. The plan was to tour and, if reviews were good, to bring the show into New York. However, despite public praise, things did not go smoothly, and the show failed to make a profit or reach New York–due, Gene and Jeanette charged, to lack of adequate publicity and promotion.
Despite the disappointment, Gene was able, twenty-five years later, to reminisce about some of the humorous aspects of the tour. At the 1986 Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club convention, he recounted these anecdotes.
The play required Gene to make several fast changes between his dual roles of husband and dashing guardsman. One night, Gene rushed off to transform himself. To his horror, his fake guardsman nose was missing from his dressing table. On stage, Jeanette was playing “Clair de Lune,” waiting for the romantic guardsman to interrupt her. Unfortunately, she had memorized only the first few bars of the melody. When Gene failed to reappear on cue, she had to start playing those few bars again—and again—and again. Gene finally constructed a new nose from nose putty and made his entrance to relieved applause.
Afterwards Jeanette was understandably irate: “What the blazes happened to you?!”
Gene replied, well, if you hadn’t been too lazy to learn the whole song—”
On another occasion, they were in their hotel room after the show and got to wondering why Jeanette never got a laugh on the line “I’ve been deceiving you with a fireman!” It had always brought the house down when Lynn Fontanne delivered it. Gene decided to call Lunt and Fontaine who were also touring and ask them. He looked up what town the Lunts were currently playing and called
the local hotels until he located them, also unwinding after the evening’s show.
Gene explained who he was and what they wanted. Lunt said he’d try to help, but, after all, it had been thirty years since he and his wife had done the show. He consulted Fontanne off-phone, who said she couldn’t recall anything special she did on that line.
“Tell me how you’re doing the scene,” said Lunt. Gene described how he and Jeanette played the scene up to the fireman line. “But no laugh.”
“And then what do you say?” asked Lunt.
“Oh, I say—” and Gene quoted the next line.
“And what happens?”
“I get a big laugh.”
“Well, then,” demanded Lunt, “What are you complaining about!?”
Molnar’s story about an overly jealous husband who decides to test his wife’s affections by wooing her in disguise may sound familiar. Mozart used the device (for twopairs of lovers!) in his opera Cosi Fan Tutte, and MGM substituted it for the original plot of Nelson Eddy’s The Chocolate Soldier.
The Chocolate Soldier, 1941 Nelson Eddy and Risë Stevens