The Chocolate Soldier (1941)

Toronto Film Society presented The Chocolate Soldier (1941) on Monday, August 17, 1981 in a double bill with The Guardsman as part of the Season 34 Summer Series, Programme 5.

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Producer: Victor Saville.  Director: Roy Del Ruth.  Screenplay: Leonard Lee and Keith Winter, based on the play, The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar.  Music from The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus, with English lyrics by Stanislaus Stange; additional music by Gus Kahn and Bronislav Kaper.

Cast:  Nelson Eddy (Karl Lang), Rise Stevens (Maria Lanyi), Nigel Bruce (Bernard Fischer), Florence Bates (Madame Helene), Dorothy Gilmore (Magda), Nydia Westman (Liesel), Max Barwyn (Anton), Charles Judels (Klementor).

The original The Chocolate Soldier was an operetta by Oscar Straus (1870-1954) first performed in Vienna in 1908 as Der tapfere Soldat (literally, “The Brave Soldier”).  Straus (with one –s, no relation to Johann Strauss) was one of several brilliant contemporaries of Franz Lehar who contributed to the revitalization of the Viennese operetta in the early years of the present century.  He first hit the jackpot in 1907, with A Waltz Dream, whose international popularity rivalled that of The Merry Widow (1905) and is still a staple in European operetta houses.  (Its most famous film version is the 1931 Maurice Chevalier musical, The Smiling Lieutenant).  Aware that A Waltz Dream owed much of its success to its strong libretto, Straus decided to base his next operetta on Bernard Shaw’s play, Arms and the Man.  Shaw at first refused his consent.  He didn’t want a musical version obscuring his play, the way Puccini’s opera Tosca pushed the once popular play by Sardou into oblivion.  When he finally yielded to pressure, he did so on two eccentric conditions: he stipulated that not a word of his dialogue was to be used, and furthermore, that all programs, as well as published libretti and scores, must carry the words: “Unauthorized parody of Mr. Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man“.  The second condition further to emphasize that it was “unauthorized”, was that he should not receive a single penny from the profits of the operetta.

The normally astute Mr. Shaw thus passed up on a fortune.  It is true that Der tapfere Soldat proved not to Vienna’s taste, and was dropped after sixty-two performances.  But in an English translation as The Chocolate Soldier it became a smash hit in New York (1909), London (1910), and eventually throughout the English-speaking world, and has become one of the standard operetta classics, revived from time to time ever since.  (The English title refers to the fact that–as those familiar with the play will remember–the heroine sarcastically calls the mercenary a “chocolate cream soldier” because he realistically prefers to fill his pockets with chocolates, which are edible, than with cartridges, which he says are useless in battle anyway).

In 1941, MGM had the bright idea that The Chocolate Soldier (which Maurice Chevalier had turned down several years earlier) would make a good vehicle for their popular singing star, Nelson Eddy.  But GBS proved that after thirty-odd years he could still be eccentrically stubborn.  Evidently determined not to make the same mistake twice, Shaw demanded an enormously high fee for the rights to use his play in the screen version of the operetta.  Louis B. Mayer pleaded with him to come down a bit, “We are men of good will, Mr. Shaw.  Surely we can come to an agreement”.  “Never”, Shaw is reported to have replied, “because you, Mr. Mayer, are an idealist and I am a business man”.  Perhaps he was, but unfortunately he priced himself out of the market.  MGM decided to drop the original libretto, and make use of another play, The Guardsman, whose rights they had purchased for the 1931 film with the Lunts.

Nelson Eddy (1901-1967) had leaped into popularity in 1935 when, almost an unknown, he was cast opposite Jeannette MacDonald in the highly successful film, Naughty Marietta.  But contrary to the impression many people have, MacDonald and Eddy did NOT pay opposite each other exclusively thereafter.  During the period of their celebrated partnership (1935-42), MGM frequently put them in separate films with other partners.  The Chocolate Soldier was one of these interludes.  (As an interesting footnote: ten years later Jeannette MacDonald toured in the stage version of The Guardsman).

As singing partner for Nelson Eddy, MGM brought to the screen the up-and-coming young Metropolitan Opera star, Rise Stevens.  Born in Yew York City in 1913, she had sung opera both at home and abroad before joining the Met in 1938, and by 1941 she was well-known to listeners to the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts, if not to the general movie public.  (Among her best-known roles were Mignon, Oktavian, and above all, Carmen).  The general movie public got to know her much better three years later when she played opposite Bing Crosby in the enormously popular Going My Way (1946).  Apart rom a brief appearance as herself in Carnegie Hall (1947) these were her only two screen roles.

Notes by Fraser Macdonald

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