Jordin Sparks vs Blake Lewis? A Look Back at American Idol 1937 -- Jeanette MacDonald vs Nelson Eddy

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While Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis face off for the 2007 title of "American Idol," it was exactly 70 years ago that 1930s American Idols released their musical blockbuster "Maytime," the highest grossing movie worldwide of 1937. As fans loudly debated whether Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy was the bigger singing star, Eddy was the undisputed loser off-screen when MacDonald turned down his marriage proposal. But life imitates art - just as in "Maytime," MacDonald learned too late that she had married the wrong man.

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She portrays an old lady and a breathtakingly beautiful young woman with unprecedented skill. And her singing surpasses everything she has done before.

While Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis face off tonight on national television for the 2007 title of "American Idol," it was exactly 70 years ago that 1930s American Idols Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy released their musical blockbuster "Maytime." Like's today's Idols, MacDonald and Eddy snared the country's top ratings; "Maytime" was the highest grossing movie worldwide of 1937. But their public face off hid the far more interesting drama going on behind the scenes.

The most famous singer of his day, Nelson Eddy staggered drunk onto the MGM set of "Maytime." He could not face filming a love duet with Jeanette MacDonald, the off-screen love of his life who had turned down at least four marriage proposals. On the first day of production, MacDonald instead announced her engagement to Gene Raymond, a second-lead actor who slightly resembled Eddy. After that shocker, Clark Gable took Eddy under his wing and they became drinking buddies. The two had become friends after working together on "Dancing Lady."

"Nelson would go to lunch and never come back," quotes author Sharon Rich in "Sweethearts," her acclaimed MacDonald-Eddy biography. "They'd eventually find Nelson off with Gable somewhere, but he couldn't hold his liquor the way Gable could. In one instance, Nelson and Gable were missing for two days before they broke into his dressing room and found the two of them passed out." Each time Nelson disappeared, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer went into a rage, swearing that he would never let Nelson marry Jeanette.

Now, to shoot the famous movie duet, "Will You Remember," Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald had to sit under a tree and act romantic. But Eddy could not sing and look at MacDonald without breaking down. Take after take was ruined. The film's director finally solved the problem by instructing Eddy to sing to the tree behind MacDonald. In the final print, Eddy does exactly that, his eyes welling up.

Jeanette MacDonald loved Nelson Eddy, but he had given her an ultimatum. He didn't want a "Hollywood" marriage nor did he want to play second fiddle to her career. MacDonald argued that she was a modern woman and could balance both family life and stardom but Eddy didn't believe her.

Despite all the drama during production, "Maytime" opened to rave reviews and MacDonald won a SAG Best Actress award. "Her greatest performance," said "The Hollywood Reporter" of MacDonald. "She portrays an old lady and a breathtakingly beautiful young woman with unprecedented skill. And her singing surpasses everything she has done before." "The American" noted that Eddy 'sings perfectly and carries off his romantic role in high triumph.' "The New York Times" concluded: "The screen can do no wrong while these two are singing. "Maytime" is the most joyous operetta of the season, a picture to treasure."

Eddy was on his yearly nationwide concert tour when "Maytime" opened. The strain of his personal problems caught up with him; he collapsed and was hospitalized with throat problems. After two weeks he was able to resume the tour. When he returned to Hollywood, he attempted to convince Jeanette to call off her wedding. Unsuccessful, he tried to kidnap her the night of June 15, 1937, to prevent her from showing up at the church the next day. His efforts were in vain. Ordered by the studio to sing at the wedding, Eddy sobbed as Louis B. Mayer smugly looked on, playing "father of the bride" and bestowing his blessing upon the Jeanette MacDonald-Gene Raymond union.

MacDonald and her new husband joined another Hollywood newlywed couple, Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, on a honeymoon cruise to Hawaii. By the time the "Lurline" reached the islands, the press was secretly buzzing with news of a huge scandal. But unlike today's celebrity news press, the media was forced to keep quiet. Nelson Eddy knew nothing of it until some days later when he received an unexpected phone call from Hawaii. It was Jeanette MacDonald, crying so hard that he couldn't understand her. Angry and bitter, he told her: 'You made your bed, now sleep in it' and hung up on her. Eddy turned to the astonished witnesses of this phone conversation and said: "I don't know what she wanted; she kept trying to tell me something about Gene."

What happened next between Gene Raymond and Buddy Rogers is revealed in the biography "Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair On-screen and Off Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" by Sharon Rich. Robert Osborne wrote that "Sweethearts" "offers considerable proof they may have been secret lovers for years," while author Jane Ellen Wayne calls it "One of the finest books about MGM and Hollywood during the Golden Era." For more information or to buy the book, visit Read the first chapter of Sweethearts online at


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