Fans of Eleanor Powell will wonder how she detoured into this Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy overblown costume piece — and in the role of Jeanette MacDonald no less! Whereas delicate Jeanette would have floated through this pageant with an air of fluttering dignity, pants-wearing Ellie delivers too much punch for a princess. She barks most of her lines and unfortunately comes off as a bitch. A more delicate actress would have softened the barrage of “womanly” insults laid on Nelson Eddy and we would know this meant she was smitten. But with the confidant and athletic Powell delivering the insults you really start to wonder if wooden Eddy is a masochist or just extremely submissive. It’s an electric energy that cost Powell her spotlight, and didn’t fit with MGM’s idea of what a feminine leading lady should be.
Those who are fascinated by Ellie’s unusual (at least on film) gender-play will be thrilled to see her “go all the way” and dress as a man to sneak into a military academy where she leads the cadets in a marching drill in front of a phallic war memorial. While Powell is hardly mannish (and here with Jeanette’s wardrobe and make-up budget she never looked prettier) the production plays with her “masculinity” and dresses her in all extremes of buttoned-downed marching band jackets and crisp uniforms, interspersed with overly feminine gowns with frou-frou puffy sleeves and Jeanette’s corkscrew curls. It’s an inconsistent and mostly unsuccessful gender dichotomy — especially when compared to her smart wardrobe play and winning charisma in the Broadway Melody films.
Her tap numbers are too few and too short — a Pieroette “ballet” on giant drums is an weird jumble of inconsistent imagery, and a brief scene with Ray Bolger makes you wish they’d shared a competitive dance of lightning legwork rather than the time-wasting dialog in the script. Other supporting players are also underused: as the Queen, Edna May Oliver appears briefly in a tiered nightgown that exaggerates her Olive Oil frame, and Frank Morgan does his best to keep the banter rolling as a befuddled monarch with a ventriloquist dummy, but there isn’t enough comedy here to entertain. A sudden accidental revolution in the tiny Balkan monarchy has potential, but is dropped just as quickly. Even the production numbers are too short, following the pattern of the other MacDonald/Eddy films where actual choreography and musical style are ignored for lots and lots of extras (1500 in one scene by some accounts) arranged in expensive costumes and plenty of operetta bombast from Eddy.
Some moments shine, including a stunning solo by Ilona Massey as a nouveau Queen of the Night: she descends a marble staircase followed by an admiring fawn. Nine original songs by Cole Porter include “I’ve a Strange New Rhythm in My Heart”, “Spring Love is in the Air”, “In the Still of the Night”, and “To Love or Not To Love”. An abrupt wedding finale is a lovely tiered cake of gowned women, candelabras, and cellophane drapes, but leaves you wondering what the hell happened.
Other than seeing Eleanor Powell in one of her few starring roles this is a forgettable film that shows no one to advantage, except possibly MGM’s costume department. I can see how this was originally a vehicle for Marion Davies because the sets are jaw-droppingly huge.