New Orleans is perhaps most frequently associated with Mardi Gras. Although this originally Catholic holiday is celebrated around the world, the famous customs and revelry of Carnival time in “The Big Easy” make it Louisiana’s event of the year.
“New Moon,” the 1940 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical based on Sigmund Romberg’s operetta of the same name, is no exception. Starring “America’s Singing Sweethearts” Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, this film is a costume drama set in French colonial Louisiana. Although none of the scenes happen in France, the story takes place during the French Revolution.
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were one of the most popular screen couples in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Between 1935 and 1942, they made eight musicals together, of which “New Moon” was their sixth. It wasn’t their first foray into Southern history, as their first collaboration, “Naughty Marietta,” was also set in colonial Louisiana. It was their third movie with music by Sigmund Romberg, whose classical yet sentimental music suited their operatic singing styles.
A Historic Romance
The story begins when Marianne de Beaumanoir (MacDonald), a lovely young noblewoman, and her aunt, Valerie de Rossac (Mary Boland), take a ship from Paris to Louisiana. Marianne is an heiress who owns a large estate in the colony, but she hasn’t visited it since she was a little girl.
During an evening of singing and dancing onboard the ship, the guests are interrupted by the clamor of bondsmen imprisoned in the ship’s hold. They demand food, water, and fresh air and are led by Charles (Eddy), a former valet of the promiscuous Duke de Villiers, who was deported for singing revolutionary songs. However, his fellow bondsmen quickly discover that he is actually the duke himself, a secret revolutionary who purposely got arrested under a false name to avoid execution.
The next day, Marianne meets Charles in the captain’s cabin, where she is charmed by his cordiality. However, in New Orleans, her romantic notions about him are crushed when she realizes that he is a bondsman whom her majordomo purchased to work in her household. She pretends that his cheeky behavior, such as speaking freely with her and singing while working, annoys her, but she secretly finds him delightful.
On the night of Mardi Gras, Marianne throws a lavish party, introducing herself to New Orleans society. When she learns that Charles planned the festivities, she is angry at his presumptiveness until she realizes that he based everything on a ball her late mother gave years ago; she asks his forgiveness. That night, they meet out in the garden, where they end up singing a beautiful love song they both know, finishing with a passionate kiss.
After the party, the governor of Louisiana (Grant Mitchell) arrives with Vicomte Ribaud (George Zucco) on a house-to-house search for the disguised Duke de Villiers. Marianne pretends to be displeased with Charles and sends him away to save his life, but he has other plans. He and the other revolutionary bondsmen plan to capture the New Moon, the ship on which Ribaud arrived, and escape the authorities.
Charles and Marianne meet again when the New Moon overtakes the ship on which she and her aunt are sailing to France. Also on board this ship is Father Michel (H. B. Warner), a wise priest who is escorting a group of brides to the colonies. They all end up shipwrecked on an island.
Although Charles participated in the French Revolution, he clearly was inspired by the American Revolution and dreams of living in a democracy.
A Masked Mardi Gras Theme
When Marianne and her aunt arrive in New Orleans, the governor tells them that they are just in time for the celebration of Mardi Gras. Marianne asks her aunt if they can host (the aforementioned) party for the occasion. However, if it weren’t for the conversation with the governor, we would never guess that it’s a Mardi Gras party. There are no masks, costumes, or other telltale indications that it’s a Carnival celebration, yet Marianne’s party is full of worldly pleasures. There is rich food, wine, luxurious clothing, dancing, gossip, and general merriment.
However, this is a sharp turning point in the story. That very night, Charles and the other bondsmen escape the veritable slavery of being indentured servants, but to do so, they must also leave the civilization of Louisiana to depart into uncharted seas. In this new chapter of the story, Marianne and Valerie trade their lavish lifestyle for one of simplicity, hard work, and sacrifice, although their Lenten deprivation is not voluntary.
“New Moon” has many outstanding qualities including its music and high production values. The score includes many recognizable pieces, including “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and “Stouthearted Men.” It also includes one of their most passionate, moving duets, the beautiful “Wanting You,” which they sing beneath the Spanish moss on a sycamore tree. All these songs are rendered with classical, distinctly old-fashioned beauty by operatic baritone Nelson Eddy and classically inspired soprano Jeanette MacDonald.
The period costumes in this movie are gorgeous. They beautifully and elaborately evoke French styles of the late 18th century.
Traditional Roles and Romance
Beyond its admirable production elements are deeper qualities which distinguish “New Moon” from the entertainment of today: femininity, masculinity, and pure romance. As Marianne de Beaumanoir, Jeanette MacDonald exudes refined femininity. Later in the movie, the noblewoman must learn to work like a peasant, performing homey tasks like cooking and milking goats. Although she undertakes them reluctantly, Marianne becomes more feminine and fulfilled than ever before by mastering the feminine arts of a housewife.
In perfect contrast to Jeanette’s dainty femininity is Nelson Eddy’s vital masculinity. He’s not overly “macho,” aggressive, or cocky—qualities which are now frequently associated with intense manliness. Yet you’ll never see the small ponytail and stockings of 18th-century male attire look more manly than when worn by Nelson Eddy.
Charles is a man who is unafraid to fight for what he believes to be right. In Louisiana, he inspires the other men to join him in the fight for freedom with the rousing marching song, “Stouthearted Men.” When he is in a position of authority, he uses wisdom, discernment, and logic to govern a peaceful colony, rather than mindless violence.
These traditional qualities blend beautifully for pure romance between the lead couple. I use the word “pure” in two senses. Firstly, it is pure as in “undiluted” because it is intense and central to the plot. Secondly, it is pure as in “unsullied” because it is based on respect, admiration, and deep love for each other as human beings. Their love is expressed beautifully in the song “Wanting You.” They want each other as husband and wife in a traditional marriage.
Because of its dramatic story, beautiful music, poignant symbolism, and traditional values, I highly recommend this movie for Mardi Gras, Lent, or any other time of the year.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Mary Boland
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 1940
Rated: 5 stars out of 5