This was a film of many surprises. I really had not expected the villain to be James Stewart, a Mountie-slayer who has to be tracked down by Nelson Eddy. This was JS’s third film, apparently. David Niven appears in the first reel as MacDonald’s persistent and constantly rebuffed suitor – although he seems to have tried to deny it was he, subsequently. Nelson Eddy was able to sing without moving a muscle in his face. Whether this was just a consequence of studio lip-synching or not, it is alarming to see someone appear to be singing his heart out without even his eyebrows moving.
Near the start, MacDonald sings to a private party in her hotel suite. a crowd gathers at her door to listen and, because she has permitted a window to be opened to accommodate a smoker, a crowd in the street outside gathers to listen too. Presumably this was inspired by Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. And for the final surprise, MacDonald’s breakdown happens as she sings the final scene of Tosca.
WS Van Dyke directs with the economy you expect, although there seems to be more fluidity in terms of tracking-shots than normal. There is some weird nativist spectacle in the form of a native American dance involving a massive tom-tom. Presumably most of Friml’s score was discarded. The music side of things was very bare. There were two operatic scenes with MacDonald and Allan Jones – the final scene of Tosca and excerpts from some version of Romeo and Juliette, niftily threaded together in one of those 30s montages. In a scene in deepest Canada, MacDonald is shown how to put across a red hot number (“Some of These Days”) by Gilda Gray. Musically, that is it.
For the second half of the film, the real star is the landscape photography – mostly shot on location near Lake Tahoe. We have to endure a lot of Eddy and MacDonald singing “Indian Love Call” to each other.
Eddy is introduced singing a song while riding at the head of a troupe of Mounties. In this print, the back projection and changes of angle were sadly obvious. He had a fine voice and, in dialogue, obviously possessed a sense of irony. But when he sings, all we get is voice tone. His eyebrows do not move at all, regardless of the effort he is putting in. Dramatically, it is a relief when Jimmy Stewart comes in for his few moments near the end. At last we have some real acting and some real emotions. The shots of him listening to his sister singing – sadly, “Indian Love Call” – to the Mountie leading her brother away to jail are worth the price of admission. “Buck up!”, he says to Eddy,” anyone would think you were going to prison.”