Naughty Marietta – and how a film can settle an argument

At the beginning of this year, my lovely Nan passed away. She was just three months short of her 100th birthday when she died. Although she was still very sharp mentally, physically she was very frail and when she caught COVID-19, it was inevitable that she would be unable to fight it.

I hadn’t seen her in person for over a year at that point. As a family we had agreed to keep her as safe as we could during the pandemic. She lived the other side of the country from me, so visits had always been a bit limited, but contact became by letter and video messages via my auntie’s mobile (her hearing wasn’t great, so phone calls were tricky). But we had always been close, and I looked forward to the next time I could walk through her door, give her a hug, and feel at home in her company. Losing her was heart-breaking, and the grief felt overwhelming at times. 

A few months later I received a package, delivered by my dad. My auntie had been putting aside mementoes for all the grandchildren (and great-grandchildren). I received one of her necklaces, a beautiful reminder of her, a brooch for my young daughter, and a DVD. When I took the film out of the packaging, both me and my dad chuckled. It was a copy of the 1930s film Naughty Marietta.

I always loved visiting my Nan and hearing her stories. She was a wonderful storyteller, and her memory was amazing. Sitting with her and listening to tales of her childhood in Liverpool was always a joy. I particularly enjoyed hearing about her and my grandad and their childhood romance. He died in the mid-1990s when I was 15, so she had been on her own for many years, but she had loved him from the moment she met him when she was 10 and he was 13, and no man would ever compare. They had always been close, devoted to each other, and the look of love and joy in her eyes whenever she talked about him spoke volumes. It was never with sadness, they had made the absolute most of their time together, there was nothing left unspoken, no regrets, just love.

One of my favourite stories was about their time in Liverpool during the Second World War. She was in her late teens and still living at home when war broke out, and soon joined the war effort by working in a factory. Eventually she would travel to Manchester to work on the Lancaster Bomber. My grandad joined the RAF as an engineer and was stationed overseas. For most of the war he was in the Middle East. Before he went, Nan wanted them to get married, but he didn’t want to leave her a war widow. He was barely able to come home on leave, but they wrote to each other constantly. She missed him terribly.

One afternoon in the spring of 1941, my Nan came home from her shift at the factory to hear voices coming from the front parlour. She recognised one of them immediately. Her heart racing, she looked through the slightly open door to see my grandad standing by the fireplace, looking so handsome in his uniform. He had a few days leave and wanted to surprise her. She told me that she would never forget the way he looked at her that day, and how she felt seeing him standing there after so long away.

That evening they decided to go to the cinema. They just wanted to be alone together for a while. They talked again about marriage, but grandad was resolute. Nan just wanted to be his wife, to show how much they loved each other. He didn’t want to get married because he loved her so much, and didn’t like the idea of her being a war bride, left all alone if he died in service. Nan felt sad that they hadn’t seen each other for so long, yet they were bickering about something so important.

They settled down and watched the film, feeling comfort from the familiar surroundings of the cinema, and enjoying the light-hearted film they’d chosen at random. Their bickering was forgotten. At least they were together now, and they needed to make the most of their fleeting time together. Everything would be ok. They kissed and made up.

As they left the cinema, they heard air raid sirens, and started to run urgently for home and shelter. My Nan told me that as they ran hand in hand through the dark streets of Liverpool that night, she didn’t feel panic, she felt exhilarated, safe even. No matter what happened, they were together in that moment. They reached a bomb shelter and spent the night there, emerging the next morning to devastation across the city. It had been the first night of the Liverpool Blitz that would go on for days, decimating the city they both loved.

Grandad’s brief time at home came to an abrupt end, and he returned to his posting abroad. She didn’t see him again for many months, but the next time he came home, he proposed. They were married before the end of the war. And he did return home to her.

The last time she told me the story, just before Christmas a couple of years ago, I asked what film they had seen together that evening in Liverpool. Immediately she said it was Naughty Marietta (1935), the delightfully fun American musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. MacDonald stars as a princess fleeing an arranged marriage. Setting sail from France for New Orleans, her ship is threatened by pirates, but she is rescued by mercenary Nelson Eddy and they eventually fall in love.

Nan had loved the film, particularly MacDonald, but hadn’t seen it since. When I went into the kitchen to make another pot of tea, I ordered her a copy on DVD. When it arrived a few days later, she was delighted. It was a reminder of that dramatic night which changed everything. The next time I spoke to her, I asked if grandad had also enjoyed the film at the time, ‘No, he thought it was daft. He wished the air raid sirens had gone off sooner so he could escape.’

I miss my Nan, and I miss her stories. But having her copy of a film that meant so much provides a connection to her, to the past, and to our shared family story. It brings it into the present. I can watch it and think of her and grandad, of their enduring love for each other, of what could have been and what was. I can share the joy that my Nan felt watching it on screen that night, the power of cinema bonding us together. I will treasure it, just like I treasured her.

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