Shelley Winters Dead at 85, Began Film Career as Singing Ingénue in Nelson Eddy Musical

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Two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters, who died yesterday at 85, had her first important film role in the 1944 Nelson Eddy musical, “Knickerbocker Holiday”. But the most memorable part of that film, according to Winters, was when superstar Eddy--angry at his former co-star and lover, Jeanette MacDonald, and in a drunken rage--attempted to rape Winters in her dressing room.

Winters related the shocking story in her autobiography, "Shelley: Also Known as Shirley". Filming began at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in the fall of 1943. "Knickerbocker Holiday" was adapted from the Broadway play that boasted one hit tune, “September Song.” Nelson’s supporting cast included Constance Dowling, Charles Coburn and Winters (who was billed as Shelley Winter).

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, who had starred in musical blockbusters at MGM, both left that studio in 1942 after a falling out with studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Nelson then signed a million dollar, two picture deal with Universal. His first film was the very successful "Phantom of the Opera" co-starring Claude Rains and Susanna Foster. The second film was to be with MacDonald, but she only filmed two musical numbers for a Universal revue called "Follow the Boys". Their joint film plan fell apart, and Eddy and MacDonald were never to team again on film. Instead Nelson ended up filming "Knickerbocker Holiday" for United Artists.

The film schedule was six days a week, and late into the evenings. In "Shelley", the actress reported that Nelson was a perfect, even-tempered gentleman, even though visibly depressed over the film, which he knew would do his career no good. She chronicled Nelson's depth of despair over his life at this time:

"One evening I was napping in my dressing room when a key turned in the lock and the dignified Nelson Eddy stumbled into my dressing room, quite drunk, still in costume and weeping. He made straight for the bathroom and didn't seem to notice me as I sat up. It occurred to me that he thought it was his dressing room since they all looked alike. I had seen him very quiet and depressed on the set lately. He knew this picture wasn't going to do him any good...

"Suddenly he came out of the bathroom wearing long red underwear, just like my father's, and muttered, 'The rushes were lousier today. I think I'd better go back to the Mounties. Hey, move over.' I was stunned. Up to that point in the filming he had been the very proper New England gentleman whom I had never even heard say 'darn'... I jumped out of bed... 'Mr. Eddy,' I yelled, 'Think of your image! What would Jeanette MacDonald say?'

'Who cares? She slides off her Cs.'

'I made for the door as he sort of lunged for me and fell on the sofa. I slammed the door behind me and ran down the hall and out of the dressing room building to the front gate.... [The next day] Nelson Eddy was his usual reserved, polite self and seemed not to remember the embarrassing dressing room incident.'

"Knickerbocker Holiday" was released early in 1944, as was Shelley Winters other debut role in "Sailor’s Holiday"." Knickerbocker" received one Oscar nomination for Best Score (Werner Heymann and Kurt Weill) but otherwise was an unremarkable film. Both Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald left Hollywood; he worked as a spy overseas for the U.S. government, she raised $100,000 for war relief via her concert tours. Shelley Winters was not to find her stride as a Hollywood actress until 1947’s Oscar-winning "A Double Life".

For more information about the filming of "Knickerbocker Holiday", go to More details about the filming can also be found in the book "Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair On-screen and Off Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" by Sharon Rich. Read the Introduction and first chapter of "Sweethearts" online at


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