Based on Ferenc Molnár’s play The Guardsman, and incorporating songs from Oscar Straus’s operetta, The Chocolate Soldier. Screenplay: Leonard Lee, Keith Winter, Ernest Vajda, and Claudine West. Music Adaptation and Direction: Herbert Stothart and Bronislau Kaper. Dances: Ernst Matray. Editor: James E. Newcom. Director of Photography: Karl Freund with Ray June and Harold Rosson. Sound Recording: Douglas Shearer. Art Director: Cedric Gibbons. Musical Arrangements: Merrill Pye. Set Decorations: Edwin B. Willis. Costumes: Adrian.
The Chocolate Soldier (Der Tapfere Soldat), with music by Oscar Straus (composer of the 1903 The Waltz Dream, then the greatest musical hit until eclipsed by Lehar’s The Merry Widow in 1905) and lyrics by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson, was based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play, Arms and the Man. Shaw had sold the rights for a German operetta version of his play, certain that such an unlikely project was doomed to failure. However, he learned his lesson. When the show became an international hit, he vowed never again to sign away rights to any of his work.
The militant Germans found Shaw’s pacifist plot a little hard to take, but the popularity of the music led to runs in England and the U.S. The German book and lyrics were by Leopold Jacobson and Rudolph Bernauer. The show reached New York’s Lyric Theatre on September 13, 1909, where it ran for 296 performances with Ida Brooks Hunt and Flavio Arcaro in the leads. The following year, it was an even bigger success in London, running 500 performances. Like most plays of its time, its comparatively short Broadway run was no indication of its success, for it went on the road and has enjoyed popularity ever since.
When MGM decided to film the operetta in 1940, they had the music rights, but not the rights to George Bernard Shaw’s source play. Instead, they looked around for a cheaper property and settled on Ferenc Molnár’s delightful play Testör, for which they already owned the rights. This play was first performed in Hungary in 1911. Molnár’s play opened in New York on September 3, 1913 as Ignorance is Bliss, with William Courtleigh and Rita Jolivet. This production survived only eight performances and did not reach popularity until the Theatre Guild produced it with the legendary stage couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, in a considerably revised version. Retitled The Guardsman, it opened on October 13, 1924 at the Garrick, and ran 248 performances. The Lunts also appeared in MGM’s 1931 film version, the only film in which the exquisite Miss Fontanne starred.
Jeanette MacDonald and her husband, Gene Raymond, toured in a stage version of The Guardsman in 1951, with Herbert Berghof playing the Critic. Jeanette’s rôle became that of a singer rather than straight actress so that songs could be added.
In February 2001, a new musical version, Enter the Guardsman, was presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with music by Craig Bohmier, lyrics by Marion Adler, and book by Scott Wentworth, based on the Molnár play. It starred Michael Elich, Suzanne Irving, and Richard Farrell.
Nelson Eddy (Karl Lang / Vassily Vassilievitch Varonofsky)
Risë Stevens (Maria Lanyi) [screen debut] Nigel Bruce (Bernard Fischer, the Critic)
Florence Bates (Madame Helene, called “Pugsy”)
Dorothy Gilmore [Virginia Lowell] (Magda, a soubrette)
Nydia Westman (Liesel, the maid)
Max Barwyn (Anton, the valet)
Charles Judels (Klementov, the café proprietor)
Sig Arno (Voice coach, Emile)
Dave Willock (Delivery boy)
Leon Belasco (Waiter)
Betty Jane Graham, Vondell Darr, Ellen Hall, Grace Grant, Virginia Haroldson (Autograph seekers)
Yvette Duguay (Child who presents flower)
Maurice Cass (Flutist)
George Bookasta (Attendant)
James B. Carson (Stage manager)
Louis Adlon (Thin man)
Jack “Tiny” Lipson (Masaroff in “Seek the Spy”)
Bess Flowers (Bit, regal type)
Best Black and White Cinematography – Karl Freund
Best Sound Recording – Douglas Shearer
Best Scoring of a Musical Picture – Herbert Stothart and Bronislau Kaper
Considering that The Chocolate Soldier was a simple, small-cast, low-budget vehicle for Nelson Eddy, it is a surprising and satisfying delight. MGM did not make B musicals in the late 1930s as Universal, Republic, and, to some extent, Fox did, but they did put considerably less money into some musicals than others. While Miss MacDonald was working on the Technicolor Smilin’ Through with crowd scenes, period costumes, and elaborate sets, Nelson Eddy was working on a black-and-white musical remake of Molnár’s The Guardsman with simple stock sets and only four other principal actors.
It is a curious little film that finds Eddy playing a dual rôle, harking back to Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. As the jealous husband, poor Nelson is directed in a whining, nail-biting imitation of Alfred Lunt, who created the rôle both on Broadway and in the 1931 film. Since Lunt was one of the few actors who could carry on like an hysterical old maid and still be convincingly masculine, Eddy fails miserably.
However, in his dual rôle as the Russian suitor (the husband in disguise), Eddy turns the tables. With an accent and a beard to hide behind and some genuine scenery-chewing to do, Eddy fills the screen in a burst of glory. While it would have been impossible to write a string of such roles for him, especially as the vogue for non-swing musical films was waning, it is still a shame that more such parts didn’t come his way. A definitive character piece such as Frank Morgan finally got in The Wizard of Oz or Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty was certainly Eddy’s due.
Opposite Eddy, in the Lynn Fontanne rôle, is young Risë (“Rhymes with ‘Pisa,’” Time magazine noted) Stevens of the Metropolitan Opera. While she was well received in the film, she didn’t make another until Going My Way in 1944, in which she played priest Bing Crosby’s former girlfriend.
Third in the central trio is Nigel Bruce, the British character actor already synonymous with Dr. Watson in Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes series. Two wonderful character actresses, Nydia Westman and Florence Bates, complete the household (and the cast) as the vague maid and the domineering duenna-companion.
Director Roy Del Ruth had started in the first days of sound at Warner Bros. where he directed the now mostly lost Gold Diggers of Broadway and a stage-bound version of The Desert Song in 1929-30. In the mid 1930s, he directed the much brighter Broadway Melody of 1936 and On the Avenue. In between, he did melodramas and some of Cagney’s best early films. He was one of the best all-purpose directors in early Hollywood.
MGM had bought the music rights to Oscar Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier, and Louis B. Mayer visited George Bernard Shaw to secure the rights to its script, based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Shaw was still smarting at his lack of business sense thirty years earlier when he had sold the rights for peanuts. He set terms too steep for the practical Mayer. So, MGM used the Straus songs in a “musical within a musical” as they had done with Sweethearts, plus a few opera arias for good measure. The script of the 1931 film The Guardsman is used almost scene for scene and line for line. (Ferenc Molnár is one of the most adapted and least acclaimed playwrights in film history.)
We open on a stage in “Balkany.” Our leads are near the end of the evening’s performance, singing “My Hero.” The rapturous duet gives way to biting sarcasm as they wait in the wings for their final cue. In the six months since their marriage, they have rarely had a kind word for each other. Even their curtain calls are an occasion for bickering. Maria Lanyi (Risë Stevens) flirts outrageously with an officer, while her irate husband, Karl Lang (Nelson), threatens to drag the gentleman out of his box by his beard.
The battle continues into Maria’s dressing room. Maria’s middle-aged companion, Pugsy (Florence Bates), is an active participant in this enjoyable pastime. She snidely implies that Maria gave up more than an operatic career when she left all those broken-hearted officers in Vienna to marry Karl. The argument grows hotter and hotter until Pugsy tearfully dares Karl to hit her. “I never hit women bigger than myself!” he storms.
Bernard (Nigel Bruce), their best friend and severest (newspaper) critic, drops in to see them. He is promptly dragged off to Karl’s dressing room to hear the tales of Maria’s infidelity. Night after night, Karl finds her sitting in the dark, playing “Evening Star” from Tannhäuser. She is in love with romance. Soon she will be leaving him as she left all the others, and he will be merely number nine in her string of amours. “Ten,” corrects Bernard. “Nine,” insists Karl. “I cannot allow anyone to cast aspersions on my wife!” Bernard sighs. Whatever the number, he was not one of them. “Sorry, old man,” consoles Karl.
Karl himself is inconsolable. He can hear the heavy footsteps of his successor, coming closer and closer. Although he was the only one she ever married, he might as well not have bothered. Only six months and already her eyes stray about the theatre each night, lighting up at the sight of a uniform. Karl’s sad story is interrupted by a half-dozen adoring girls who crash his dressing room begging for autographs. “Rather touching, don’t you think?” he comments happily, as Maria stares daggers at him through the open doorway.
For further evidence of Maria’s cruety, Karl invites Bernard home with him. They enter and are greeted with applause. The applause is for Maria, who is entertaining a group of society people with “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila. First Tannhäuser in the bedroom and now Samson in the drawing room!
Bernard’s solution is simple. Karl loves Maria. He should go to her and tell her so, passionately, romantically, heroically. No woman can resist that.
Karl prepares carefully for the big moment, shaving, putting on his most handsome dressing gown. He strides expectantly into their bedroom, only to find her sobbing over Tannhäuser. The music is not meant for him, and he angrily retreats to the couch for the night.
On a subsequent evening, we see a good bit of Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier on stage, much of it incredibly dull. To recover, Karl, Maria, and Bernard retire to a little Russian café for a late dinner. Maria sarcastically remarks that the decor reminds her of a production of Scheherazade she once saw in Omsk. The owner, Klementov (Charles Judels), appears at her elbow. “What a charming place,” she coos. “May heaven forgive you,” whispers Karl.
A mysterious telegram comes for Karl, and he excuses himself to go “bail out a friend.” Maria is sure that any bailing Karl does will be with the show’s soubrette. Karl’s mysterious scheme doesn’t involve the soubrette, however. The café owner announces the surprise appearance of the famous singer, Vassily Vassilievitch Varonofsky. It is Karl in a magnificent disguise, all whiskers and uniform.
He dazzles the assemblage and especially Maria with Moussorgsky’s “Song of the Flea.” Afterward, in an accent dripping with borscht, he tells Maria that she “cannot deny to permit to introduce” himself. He has seen her in the “Soldier of Chocolates,” and, even though she is married, the “jah-lousy of the husband” will not keep him from seeing her again. Vassily exits to music and applause.
Bernard is unimpressed. This zoo-escapee is beneath contempt. Maria is not so negatively inclined. Karl bustles in, complaining about the slowness of the law. “That shouldn’t worry a fast worker like you, dear,” Maria murmurs sweetly.
Flowers begin arriving at their home, flowers that Maria swears are not accompanied by any card. Bernard and Pugsy know this is a lie. Karl throws a temper tantrum that includes screaming at the pasty-faced maid, Liesel (the delightful Nydia Westman). Lunt could carry off this type of scene humorously and sympathetically, but it is too much to ask of Eddy. Bernard tries to calm his friend. He suggests that Karl simply call the florist and ask who sent the flowers. Karl shrugs. He knows who sent the flowers. “Who?” “I did.” Karl drops into the heavy Russian accent he used at the restaurant: “You cannot deny to permit me to introduce myself.”
Pugsy and Maria are in an ecstasy of conspiracy. The note with the flowers has informed Maria that if she will stand at the window at 5 PM, the Russian will see her and join her a half-hour later. She can barely conceal her pleasure when Karl announces that he has been called away for an emergency concert. Bernard and Karl take their leave of Maria at just 5 PM. Karl apologizes elaborately for his tantrum. Maria is strolling casually around the room, touching tables, lamps, vases. She reaches the window as Karl and Bernard stand in breathless suspense. Slowly she draws back the curtain and peers out. “Don’t miss your train, darling,” she says.
Pugsy is atwitter with vicarious excitement. Maria will add this Russian to her long list of conquests. Maria confesses that she has had many admirers, but they were just that. Only because Karl was always surrounded by doting women did she let him believe that she, too, has had many amours. Pugsy is disappointed—or would be if she believed her.
Maria is nearly as excited as Pugsy over the Russian, but, unlike her stage counterpart, she reveals that she definitely knows her own husband when she sees him. Vassily is admitted and soon has the lady in his arms. His lovemaking is so high-powered that Maria desperately suggests that he slow down long enough to express himself in song. Not “The Volga Boatman,” of course. That would be too stimulating. Reluctantly, Vassily untangles himself to sing his favorite song: “Evening Star” from Tannhäuser.
Back on the sofa, Vassily-Karl is torn between the obviously obtainable success of his conquest and his reluctance to cuckold himself. It is a magnificent scene as Maria goads Vassily to the limit, only to leap up at the last moment, insulted. She orders him from the house. Triumphantly, Vassily-Karl slinks from the room. She is faithful to him. “Wait!” She calls him back—to tell him how much she loves her husband. In a frenzy of joy, Vassily prepares to leave again. Again he is called back. “My husband,” Maria whispers, “will be out this evening.”
There is only one thing for Vassily to do. Karl returns to catch Maria dressing for her assignation. He has missed his train. Besides, he hates to leave her. He doesn’t have to leave her, Maria assures him. She will come with him to the station to see that he catches the next train.
Darkness brings moonlight and the Russian serenading in the garden: “While My Lady Sleeps.” Vassily escorts the lady, not to heaven as the lyric proposes, but to a romantic little Russian restaurant overlooking the Danube. As they waltz, she strokes his beard and croons the tune the orchestra is playing, “Ti-ra-la-la.” The waltz over, the orchestra bursts into a fiery Russian gopak. The dance that follows should be a highlight of the film, but is dulled considerably by over-arty cutting.
A little girl presents Maria with a flower that Vassily has selected for her. Maria is touched and responds with a soft, romantic version of “My Hero.” Again Maria leads Vassily on, then rebuffs him at the last minute. She rushes off in tears. She never wants to see him again! Bernard hails Karl from behind a trellis, where he has been watching the performance. “Karl, follow her! She expects it!”
A cab brings Vassily to Maria’s door at the same time as the lady, who has not been fleeing too quickly. Again, she confirms that Vassily can be nothing to her. It is over. She shuts the door behind her, and Karl hugs himself with glee. He has won. The window of the upstairs bedroom opens and a slender white hand reaches out. Something shiny drops at his feet. It is the door key.
When Karl “returns” the next day, he finds Maria and Pugsy humming with self-satisfaction. His trip was ghastly, he tells them. How he must have suffered, Maria sympathizes. Yes, he mutters darkly, she’ll never know how he suffered.
All during the performance that night, Maria giggles. In the midst of some of the dowdiest choreography ever perpetrated, she finds a secret source of amusement. Karl storms into his dressing room and locks the door. The frantic Bernard fears that he will do away with himself, but Karl quickly reappears—as Vassily. He leaps on stage for the “accusation scene” of the operetta in full Vassily regalia. Maria does not flutter an eyelash. Gently stroking his beard, she croons “My Hero” as she did that moonlit night by the Danube.
Backstage, Karl furiously rips the disguise from his face as Maria laughs. He refuses to believe that she knew all along. Why, she counters, did he think he could play a difficult part well enough to fool her but she couldn’t do the same? Besides, does he know what really gave him away? His kiss.
Poor Karl’s face drains. All his fears about his deficiencies are true. Maria moves toward him and places her hands on his face. “No man on earth can kiss like you.” Back on stage, they embrace for the “reconciliation scene” and, of course, a final chorus of “My Hero.”
The Chocolate Soldier was a nice, lightweight film for an ongoing star, but Eddy’s pull at the box office was leveling off. Wartime prosperity would give box-office control to younger audiences and their passion for “hepcats” who were “on the beam.” A young crooner named Frank Sinatra began attracting some attention, and the big bands were about to take over the movie musical.
It wasn’t entirely that operetta was old-fashioned. It had been that in 1935 when Naughty Marietta exploded on the scene. It was just that in attempting to cash in on a sure-fire box-office gimmick, the quality of the “product” was slowly diminishing. It is rare that a work in any form gains mass recognition without someone somewhere putting a little love into it. With the exceptions of Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Anchors Aweigh (1945), three inspired exceptions, there would not be another musical redolent with love until An American in Paris in 1951.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, definitely not an Eddy fan, called the film “tidy and musical. Mr. Eddy is an utter revelation in the character and costume of a mad Cossack.” He then went on to suggest snidely that Eddy continue playing Russians. Time magazine made its usual reference to Eddy’s dimples and felt it necessary to compare Eddy’s appearance to that of a “midwest swimming coach.” William Boehnel of the New York World-Telegram gave high praise to Miss Stevens and admitted, “It must be said that [Eddy] plays the Cossack with considerable gusto,” the closest Eddy ever got to a compliment from Mr. Boehnel.
Archer Winsten of the New York Post gave the film a good rating on the Post Movie Meter and said, “Nelson Eddy still has it. His voice rings out strong and clear and virile. Opposite him, Risë Stevens, the pride of Queens [a borough of New York City] and a genuine member of the Metropolitan Opera, is equally clear and strong. Not only has she taken the spot ordinarily reserved for Jeanette MacDonald, but also she looks like Jeanette from several angles. A man sitting directly behind this department actually thought she was. But she is bigger, younger, less dental, sings as well or better, and is not so cute.”
Eddy and Risë Stevens recorded a 78 RPM album of songs from the film:
“The Chocolate Soldier” (Eddy and Stevens)
“Evening Star” (Eddy)
“Forgive” (Eddy and Stevens)
“My Hero” (Eddy and Stevens)
“Song of the Flea” (Eddy)
“Sympathy” (Eddy and Stevens)
“While My Lady Sleeps” (Eddy)
All music is by Oscar Straus with American lyrics by Stanislaus Stange unless otherwise indicated. Because the “standard” Stange translation was used, source titles will be given in English, not German. (This was one place where MGM really missed a bet by not updating the lyrics. Stange’s convoluted poesy included gems like “naught can efface you.”) In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.
Overture: fragments of “My Hero,” “Seek the Spy,” “The Chocolate Soldier Man,” “Ti-ra-la-la”
(Dorothy Gilmore, Jimmy Alexander, Robert Bradford, Thomas Clarke, Paul Keast, Bob
Priester, Harry Stanton, and Jack (Tiny) Lipson; dubbing for dancers: Roy Loomis, Lee Murray, Buddy Ray, Alan Speer, Foy Van Dolsen, and Cas Twid), INTO:
“My Hero” (Stevens, Eddy)
“Thank the Lord the War Is Over” (Eddy, Stevens, with Lorraine Bridges, Robert Bradford,
chorus) – original opening of Act III, stage version
“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” [“My heart opens to your voice”] (Stevens) – from the opera Samson et Dalila, with music by Charles Camille Saint-Saëns and libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire
“Evening Star” fragment [“O, Du Mein Holder Abendstern”] (Stevens) – from the opera Tannhäuser, music by Richard Wagner, English lyrics by Gus Kahn
Section of Act I of The Chocolate Soldier, including “Sympathy” (Stevens, Eddy) and “Seek the
Spy” (bass, male chorus) with flamenco, middle-eastern, and conga variations -lyrics by Stange and Kahn
“Song of the Flea” [“Mephistopheles’ Song of The Flea”] (Eddy) – music by Modeste Moussorgsky, Russian lyrics by Strugovshchikov from Goethe. English lyrics by Gus Kahn.
“Evening Star” reprise (Eddy)
“Thank the Lord the War is Over” reprise fragment (Stevens and Florence Bates)
“While My Lady Sleeps” (Eddy) – music by Bronislau Kaper, lyrics by Gus Kahn
“Ti-ra-la-la” (Stevens) based on Aurelia’s melodic line in finale of Act I of the stage version, English lyricist uncertain, probably Gus Kahn
Dance sequence (gypsy orchestra, dancers: Deena Newell, Joyce Coles, Paul Godkin, Lee
Brent, Jack Vlaskin, William Sabbot, Leo Galitzine, Gabriel Soloduhin, Zara Lee) –
based on Russian folk melodies arranged by Herbert Stothart
Flower presentation (Yvette Duguay, chorus, Stevens, Eddy) – based on “The Letter Song,” Act
III, new lyrics probably by Gus Kahn, INTO:
“My Hero” reprise (Stevens)
“The Chocolate Soldier” reprise (Eddy and Stevens)
Accusation scene (Eddy) – not in stage version, probably arranged by Stothart with lyrics by Gus
“My Hero” reprise (Stevens)
“Forgive, Forgive, Forgive” (Eddy) – part of finale of Act II, INTO:
“My Hero” reprise (Stevens and Eddy)
Finale: “Seek the Spy” reprise (orchestral)
An interesting footnote to this film is that the 1931 film of The Guardsman on which it was based was directed by the first husband of the new Mrs. Eddy, Sidney Franklin. He also directed the silent version of Smilin’ Through, starring Norma Talmadge, remade as a musical with Jeanette MacDonald. And in a further example of la plus ça change, in 1951 Jeanette MacDonald toured with her husband, Gene Raymond, in The Guardsman.
The 11-minute 1942 promotional short We Must Have Music includes a sequence in which composer-conductor Herbert Stothart conducts a recording session for The Chocolate Soldier, followed by a clip from the film of Risë Stevens singing “My Hero.” Other scenes show Bronislau Kaper, Judy Garland, and Busby Berkeley.
When Nelson rips off his disguise backstage at the end of the movie, he is wearing Hussar’s boots and pants, yet when he returns to the stage moments later to confront Risë Stevens, he is wearing street shoes. (Stephanie Loyd)